It’s easy to point and laugh. If you’re the type of gamer with a Grand Theft Auto IV duvet you’ll have no doubt got together with your like-minded peers in GAME and had a good old snigger at Vin Diesel’s mugshot on the cover of The Wheelman – sure, it’s a game with a smaller budget, less hype and a troubled development, but as it happens the joke’s on you: The Wheelman is a great game beneath the tough muscle-man exterior, and one that actually improves the more you play it, not strictly something you could pin on Nico Bellic’s Big Apple adventure.
It doesn’t kick off all that well – at the very beginning you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d started Midway’s Spy Hunter, not The Wheelman, as you hurtle down a forced highway route learning how to perform your vehicle’s initially quite bizarre melee moves and leaping from car to car, but once the map opens up, and the whole of Barcelona is ripe for the taking, everything starts to click into place.
The Wheelman, Milo Burik, is in Barcelona in search of information. His history is deliberately left vague so the player can concentrate on the constantly progressing story whilst the game fills in the blanks when required. Don’t expect the exposition normally associated with GTA titles, this is more Saints Row-esque than anything else – that isn’t a negative, it’s just a different approach to story telling and whilst Milo is modelled accurately enough to be Vin Diesel the other characters aren’t nearly as rounded or memorable and there’s only really the one plot thread of note throughout the game.
The vehicular combat, too, isn’t routed in reality – the right stick is the main weapon and is used to battle nearby cars with a hefty side or forward swipe, with some Burnout style bullet time if you destroy a pursuing enemy, but you’ll also gain access to focus-powered speed boosts and the game’s neat car-jacking ability, in which Milo can leap from his own car to any other to avoid going down in a metallic ball of flames. Further progress in the game unlocks other special moves, such as Aim Shot and Cyclone, which we’ll leave you to discover for yourself.
Whilst the story plays out throughout the course of The Wheelman a number of side missions begin to unlock, which range from escort missions to (literally) grand theft auto, and are a nice diversion from the main campaign – each has its own rank too, which encourages repeated play, and there are lots of hidden secrets to find too. Tasks, jobs and storyline progression are accessed via an on-screen GPS which keeps track of everything you’ve done and still need to do. It’s a nice idea (and certainly not an original one) but we thought the visuals were a little confusing: it’s not always clear where you need to go next and even the side missions could do with a better highlighting once completed.
The Wheelman isn’t perhaps the prettiest game on the PlayStation 3, but it’s certainly not ugly: Barcelona looks fine, there’s plenty of variety and lots to explore but everything has a slightly flat feel to it. The vehicles, when licensed, look great, but the generic designs suffer from a lack of identity and are repeated far too often for our liking. Milo’s Diesel is wonderful, though, his mannerisms and movement have been captured perfectly and of course Vin’s deadpan acting shines through in a role like this. Cut scenes aren’t spectacular but in the grand scheme of the game they’re more than adequate. The Wheelman is up there with most open world sandbox games in terms of aesthetics, for sure.
The few problems aren’t unsurmountable, either. Yes, there’s some odd physics, the on-foot shooting isn’t perfect and there’s the occasional glitch but The Wheelman seems content with emitting a sense of fun and adventure rather than completeness and perfection. If you go into this game expecting the second coming you’ll be disappointed, but with an open mind there’s a huge amount to enjoy here – Barcelona is a welcome break from the mean streets of America and the willingness of the game to let you explore at your own pace coupled with the fresh approach to vehicular battling and a killer main protagonist will find favour with gamers eager to wrap themselves in the role of Milo and find out how the story plays out.