At first glance, The Wheelman seems to be attempting to travel down the murky old route of copying Grand Theft Auto IV. And doing it quite badly. You’ve got a big open world to explore, missions for different factions to complete, and a multitude of secondary objectives to complete as and when you see fit. All very GTA.
Instead, it becomes apparent incredibly swiftly that those initial impressions are quite foolish indeed. Right from the opening action packed sequence that introduces you to Milo Burik, this is all wickedly over-the-top and much more in comparison with the likes of Burnout Paradise and Midtown Madness.
As Milo, played by the video game fanatic Vin Diesel, you’re a wheelman. Essentially a top skilled driver, acting undercover in order to infiltrate a number of gangs making their names in the huge city of Barcelona.
Once you’re in a vehicle, it’s quite obvious that realism wasn’t at the forefront of the developers minds. Driving is far from the quite complex method witnessed in GTA IV, instead acting much more arcade like as you swerve and handbrake around corners with relative ease.
Inevitably as you take on missions, objectives will task you with preventing other vehicles from hitting their required destination. In order to help, you’re given a truckload of special abilities in order to hold them back.
Firstly, you can melee attack with your vehicle. A nudge on the right analogue stick will send your motor careering left or right, smashing into your opponents and eventually bashing them into submission in much the same manner as Burnout Paradise. And as over-the-top as it sounds, it certainly fits The Wheelman’s style and provides you with frantically fun crashes.
As you smash other vehicles through the general clutter of the Barcelona streets and generally be a nuisance, your focus meter will increase. When it nudges high enough, you can either unleash a brief boost of speed sending your car careering forward, or utilise your aimed shot and cyclone moves, which allow you to blast your enemies in slow motion and obliterate their rides.
But despite all these abilities, your car will from time to time come close to expiring. Thanks to the air jacking system, all you need to do is line up behind another vehicle on the road, hold the B button, and release it once the arrow atop your target goes green to leap from automobile to automobile. The first time you see it, it looks ridiculous. But you do come to appreciate what it adds to stop breaking the action up. In other titles you’d be forced to stop, clamber out of one vehicle, before entering another. Here, the action only needs the briefest of pauses.
Everything is tied together by your handy PDA which displays all the current story-based objectives, and side missions that you can choose from. You can utilise this in one of two ways. As either a handy map to drive to the next mission, or simply click on the one you wish to take part in and immediately jump to it. Yet another way in which the action is kept ramped right up. Side missions offer handy boosts to your vehicle's life and even the length of your boost if you manage to finish a number of them.
As enjoyable as all the above sounds, there are drawbacks. The on-foot action is downright terrible, with no cover system proving a real minus point. These boil down to holding the lock on button and firing when you can get a shot off. Thankfully these missions are few and far between, as they do offer some of the poorest gameplay available in the dozen or so hours of story.
Secondly, Barcelona is a disappointment. It simply lacks the feel of being a real city, with a true lack of life milling around and even appearing quite cartoony, particularly when compared to the gritty examples currently on the market. And though the game moves at a fair old lick, graphically it’s definitely a long step behind the best.
There’s no doubt that The Wheelman packs its fair share of flaws. Mission objectives are repetitive, the sections on foot are lacking in any form of depth, and the city of Barcelona feels almost lifeless in comparison to, say, Liberty City.
But that doesn’t prevent this from being quite the gem. It seems to be held together by that unnervingly fantastic level of fun that most games unfortunately lack. And for that alone, The Wheelman stands as one you should at least try.