The last time Vin Diesel got involved in videogame production, it all turned out rather nicely. Arguably 2004's game of the year, The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay demonstrated in breathtaking fashion how to make good use of a movie licence. Billed by Midway as "the true driving force" behind The Wheelman, the bald beefcake and his Tigon Studio cohorts are hoping to have a similarly dizzying effect on The Wheelman, Midway Newcastle's "ultimate car-chase experience" due for release on 360, PS3 and PC this autumn.
Produced in tandem with the MTV Films/Paramount movie of the same name, it's all about going on the run from the US mafia, driving like a loony around Barcelona, and shooting lots of people in the name of protecting a woman from your inevitably dark past. Presumably, you're a bit fond of this lovely lady, so it's "your job to set the factions against each other to cover a daring heist", and come out with deathly cool one-liners in that famously deadpan drawl that only Vin Diesel and people with throat cancer can.
Playable for the first time at Midway's Gamers Day event in Las Vegas, we got a hands-on with the first and seventh mission in the game, supervised by the game's creative director Simon Woodroffe (previously responsible for super creepy survival-horror stealth nightmare Call of Cthulhu, fact fans). As the Midway reps are keen to remind us, the focus here is very much on "over-the-top, intense vehicle combat" - kind of a logical progression of what Reflections were trying to achieve with Driv3r and Stuntman before it all went horribly wrong. With the crazed destruction of the long-forgotten Wreckless, the in-car combat of Starsky & Hutch, and a sprinkling of third person on-foot shooting, The Wheelman definitely feels like it has been produced on an endless diet of Vodka Red Bulls.
Right from the word go, it's about driving like an unlicensed Soho minicab driver on a Saturday night, smashing into everything, barreling around corners, jumping off ramps through buildings, taking out your pursuers, playing Bhangra music at high volume and generally trying to get from A to B with scant regard for your passenger's safety. Heavily inspired by the best car-chase movies (Ronin, Bourne Identity, Bullitt, Vanishing Point, et al), you'll be following barked instructions, and trying to get to the green blob on the mini-map without being killed. Doing so will build your reputation, although Woodroffe said the openworld nature of the game would leave it very much up to players whether to plump for the missions, or simply mess about with the 'Burnout Paradise-style' extreme stunt challenges dotted around the game's Barcelona-inspired setting.
During the two missions we played, the formula's an instantly familiar one for anyone who's been gorging on openworld action-driving games for the past seven years. The driving has that accessible GTA-style handling, with hugely forgiving steering and a satisfying use of handbrake turns. From what we could glean, you'll generally drive to the marker, get out, shoot a bunch of perps, rescue so-and-so, escort them to a drop-off point while fending off a relentlessly aggressive chasing pack of Uzi-toting maniacs. If your ride gets shot to bits, you can simply get out and carjack any vehicle you see nearby and carry on, just as you might expect.
One of the areas where Vin Diesel has had a key influence is on the direction and game mechanics of these manic chase sequences. "He's a really passionate gamer," explains Woodroffe. "You can see that in every way he's been involved in this project. I never really expected that from an A-list Hollywood star."
Via various production meeting, Diesel advised on The Wheelman's 'Super Moves'. Essentially, 'cool driving' helps build up your Focus Meter, and, when topped up, gives you access to time-limited moves that give you the upper hand when the heat is on. Accessible via up on the d-pad, The Cyclone slows time down while allowing you to swing the car around 180 degrees for ten seconds or so. At this point, you've got a brief window in which to loose off a deadly volley of targeted pot shots at specific parts of your pursuers. To help you out, you can cycle between red targeting reticules and take out individual tyres, as well as the occupants of the vehicle itself.
When it's all over, the car swings back around and it's time to focus on the small matter of driving like a loon. To add a further layer to the mechanics, how well you can aim during these sequences depends on how well you're driving, so if you're doing cool handbrake turns and generally not crashing into walls every five seconds, you'll be able to hit the target when it counts.
Another key element of the driving combat is the use of the right stick to ram opponents off the road. Rather than simply steering to ram, you can effectively focus on driving in a straight line but have a rather more forceful barge effect when you apply the right stick. In addition, when opponents sidle up, using the left bumper (or L1 on the PS3) allows you to shoot at where the automatic reticule dictates - such as at their tyres or at the individuals busily shooting the shit out of your ride.
As you might expect, The Wheelman is a game with an awful lot of destruction going on. Practically every piece of scenery can be smashed to bits in spectacular fashion, while the vehicle damage modelling has been lavished with a similarly pleasing degree of care. While it's fair to comment that the frame-rate's not quite there yet, at this early stage, with months of polish to come, the final game ought to boast impressively chaotic scenes. Evidently the scripted levels lead you via the most damage-happy routes possible, but the freedom to take your own route is also apparent.
The serious concern right now is how the on-foot elements will be bedded into the missions. In the demo missions shown off, the scripted AI is clearly nowhere near finished, and the rather loose aiming mechanics and absence of cover utilisation left everyone in no doubt that there's still a lot of work to do in shoring up this part of the game. To give Midway some slack, the publisher admits that the difficulty was set at a low level during Gamers Day, so we'll have to see how this part of the game develops over the coming months.