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Wheelman Review: Exciting as a Sunday Drive

“Wheelman” is a bit of an anomaly. From its onset the game makes no lies about what it’s trying to be - a balls-to-the-wall, explosive, action romp starring the one and only Vin Diesel, and, for the most part it succeeds. But everything you’ll play here has done better before, by another little game known as “Grand Theft Auto,” and, with competition like that, it’s hard to recommend adding “Wheelman” to your own personal collection.

For starters, the story of “Wheelman” is absolute trash, and by trash I mean that I still have no idea what the hell was going on. Trying to summarize this game will be a difficult task, but I’ll give it my best shot. You are an undercover agent, played by Vin Diesel, that goes by the name of Milo. You, for no explained reason, are sent to Barcelona, which is where the game picks up…literally. You are blindly thrown into your first mission with hardly any intel, and the story only gets cloudier and more convoluted from there. You’ll spend your time in Barcelona constantly meeting new people from three different factions and doing jobs for them for no real reason as to what you’re trying to accomplish. There were too many times where I would do a mission for one person and inexplicably be working for their enemy the next. I know it’s a Vin Diesel game, and I realize its main draw is non-stop action, but with a story this disjointed, it really detracts from the experience.

The voice acting and graphics also do little to add to the story. I’ve never thought much of Vin Diesel’s acting (with the exception of Boiler Room and Pitch Black - both great films), but I certainly don’t have anything against him. However, his monotone, drab demeanor is just too much to take here. Not once did Milo show any sort of emotion and I felt like if someone where to tell him his parents died he’d respond with a simple “bummer.”

Once you’ve come to terms with the lack of plot, you’ll start to focus on how the game plays, and, luckily for Mr. Diesel, there is some fun to be had. For about 80% of the game you will be behind the wheel of cars, trucks, bikes, scooters, etc. During these missions you’ll be tasked with destroying other vehicles, tailing enemies, or trying to scare nervous passengers. The missions can become repetitive, but as long as you’re not on foot, you’ll enjoy your time spent in Barcelona. “Wheelman” allows you to pummel other cars with a flick of the right stick. Flick the stick in either direction and you’ll turn sharply into any enemies that dare to get too close. After multiple hits their vehicles will explode in a slow-motion hellfire, thus giving the game that Hollywood feel that it was obviously going for. You’ll also later gain the ability to slow the action down around you and go into a bullet-time like action sequence where one well-placed shot can destroy almost any vehicle. You’re also given the ability to “airjack” cars, a maneuver that has Milo jumping from the window of one car into the driver’s side of another and taking control of the vehicle without ever touching ground. After learning the game’s nuances high speed chases can become pretty exciting, and pulling off some of the more difficult moves can yield some great visual rewards.

Then there are the missions where the game requires you to hoof it, and this is where the game becomes a boring, repetitive mess. The firing system is playable, but shooting baddies on foot is just so boring. Almost all these missions see you going into a bland-looking warehouse, easily taking out huge waves of enemies, and repeating until there’s just no more bad guys to shoot. Auto-targeting is done with L2 and you shoot with R2 so very little aiming is required. “Wheelman” uses the “Halo” health recovery system, but it seems that the second Milo retreats from fire he heals with Wolverine-like ability. All of this combines to make the on-foot missions feel like more on an afterthought, and the game could have likely been better off without them.

“Wheelman” also tries to capture that open world feeling that “GTA” has been doing so well for years, but fails miserably. Barcelona is a fairly large city, but the game gives you little reason to explore it since you can use a map to warp from mission to mission for most of the game. The city is also rather bland; part of the reason that “GTA”’s are always so successful is because the environments feel like living, breathing characters. There was so much life to Vice City, so much culture in San Andreas, and a very real world feel to “GTA 4″’s Liberty City. ” Wheelman”’s Barcelona is a forgettable mess where every block looks the same and no real landmarks exist. In a game that tries to persuade the player to explore, this becomes an unforgivable flaw.

One saving grace for the game is the amount of content it provides. Aside from the nine to ten hours the main storyline demands, there are plenty of side missions and time trials to keep you busy. Completing many of these will even help you out with the main mission part of the game, rewarding the player with different cars, weapons etc.

Think of “Wheelman” as “GTA” light. By no means is it a bad game, it’s just a very, very average one, and it’s hard for an average game to compete in the open world genre that “GTA” has dominated for the last ten years. However, if you like Vin Diesel, and you go into the experience looking for nothing more then a fun action game that can deliver occasional, memorable thrills, you might walk away satisfied.

Rating: ★★½☆☆

Wheelman was released for Playstation 3, Xbox 360, and PC on March 24th 2009 by Ubisoft. This review was based on the PS3 version of the game.

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