Crispy Gamer

Wheelman (PS3)

This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 3 and tested on the Xbox 360. No notable performance or video differences were noted.

There's a part of me that forever wants to also take home the medium's crummiest, B-grade productions and give them cozy homes inside my overheated Xbox 360. I want to be Henry Higgins to these destined-for-the-remainder-binned Eliza Doolittles (or, at the very least, Richard Gere to Julia Roberts). With all of the guilty pleasure receptors in my brain practically salivating, I loaded up Wheelman with the highest hopes of having my lowest expectations met.

Wheelman
Look out: Wheelie coming through.

Vin Diesel stars as Milo Burik, which is likely the only name the developers could think up that sounded more odd than "Vin Diesel." Milo Burik is a glorified cab driver who specializes in criminal activity; or, in the game's parlance, he's a "wheelman." With his inexpressive face, biceps the size of navel oranges and faux tough-guy patter, Vin Diesel has somehow built a viable movie career out of playing characters in movies who appear to have escaped from videogames.

It's only fitting that Vin Diesel plays a videogame character in an actual videogame this time around. (He also stars in next month's The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena.) Burik/Diesel occupies the clichéd stranger-in-a-strange-town role typically found in Grand Theft Auto games and their clones. As Milo Burik learns the streets of a virtual Barcelona, so do I.

In any open-world game, the city itself is the most important character in the game. I wish I could say that this Barcelona is a wonder to behold. It's not. Barcelona happens to be one of the few places I've yet to visit in all my videogame travels. Yet I found myself missing the far more playful and inventive urban fictions of Grand Theft Auto IV's Liberty City and Saints Row 2's Stillwater. By comparison, Wheelman's cityscape feels small and underwhelming.

Wheelman
Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. You're dead. And I'm bored.

Part of the blame should be placed on the game's always-breathless mission structure. As soon as I've completed a mission, zing, zip, whoosh, I'm already off to the next. The developers never encourage you to take a breath between missions -- to either head to a nearby safehouse a l? GTA IV for a save and a change of clothes, or to simply go on a meandering Sunday drive through the city streets. It's always mission-mission-mission-mission.

Me, I like to consider who I am and what I'm doing in a game. (Or maybe even what I'm about to do.) In the name of creating narrative momentum, Wheelman works very hard to make a lot of things happen on-screen. Explosions explode; people scramble; action happens at high speeds. Unfortunately, because I never get the chance to actually know the city or myself, I never felt like I was more than a witness to this action.

The game's on-foot segments as dull as they are in every other game in the open-world genre. Why can't anyone solve this riddle? Can someone at least try something different other than right trigger, target/left trigger, shoot? The game's vehicles, no matter how big or small they are, all drive pretty much the same way: like big, old sandboxes with tiny wheels on them. And the game spits out clichéd, forgettable characters at an almost alarming rate. Some of the writing is good; most of it comes off like a Quentin Tarantino protégé coming down from a Snapple buzz.

Wheelman
CRRASSHHHHH. Did I just run over your fun? Ha ha ha ha ha.

To be fair, there are several moments when Wheelman becomes more than the sum of its parts. During driving segments, the right analog stick can be used to ram enemy vehicles off the road. Push the stick left, and your car will very forcefully veer left; push it forward, and you'll ram your front bumper into your enemy's trunk. Anyone who knows the pleasure of a Burnout Takedown will very much appreciate this.

And then there are the game's serendipitous over-the-top moments. Other vehicles can be Air-Jacked at any time. Pull up behind any other vehicle on the road, look for the red icon above the car to turn bright green, hit the B button, and you'll leap in not-totally-believable slow-motion from your "old" car to your "new" car. Also, the game features a couple of ridiculous "Crank"-like super moves that allow you to pull 180-degree spins mid-car chase and, in slow-motion, shoot at the enemy vehicles that are tailing you.

Sound fun? Oh, it is. Make no mistake: There are some really great ideas here. (Side note: I'd be personally disappointed if the next Grand Theft Auto didn't feature the analog-stick ram control.) The problem is that these ideas never really cohere into an interesting gaming experience.

Wheelman
"I want my two dollars!"

For example, a mission during the game's opening act challenged me to knock a pair of intimidating black sedans en route to a target location off the road. My idea was to Air-Jack one of the cars, use it to take out the other (via those nifty right analog-stick ram moves), then to crash the one I was driving into everything around me until it smoked, caught fire, and exploded (with me/Milo diving to safety just in time). But instead of allowing me to improvise through the mission the way I wanted to, stringing together my newly learned skill set of great moves, the developers made the decision to not allow those target cars to be Air-Jacked. My plan, which I had been excited about, would not work. Instead of encouraging self-expression -- the keystone of any great open-world game -- Wheelman almost always forces you to play by its own set of arbitrary rules.

The two key ingredients for any self-respecting guilty pleasure are: a forgiving difficulty level (the game should basically be flashing the word "WINNER!!!!!!!!!!!!" every eight seconds and sending rainbows arcing across the screen a l? Peggle) and Achievement points (or Trophies) should be awarded early and often. But Wheelman doesn't offer either of these things. What you're left with is a hollow, miserly experience that makes you work far too hard for far too little.

This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.

Comments

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