Say what you like about Vin Diesel's movie career, the man has avoided blotting his copybook when it comes to videogames. It helps that his game production company, Tigon, has only released one title so far - the critically acclaimed Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay.
The next couple of months will see a new Riddick game hit the shelves, a remake-cum-sequel which has wowed just about everyone who's seen it. So it's looking like two-for-two for Diesel, and I'll be damned if his lesser-known project doesn't turn it into a hat-trick.
The Wheelman is being developed by Midway's Newcastle studio. Put simply, it's an action driving game where you do a little on-foot shooting and a lot of car hijacking (so far, so GTA). Once in the cars, you race around like a lunatic completing various missions and challenges, with all sorts of physics-defying boosts and special moves at your disposal (hello, Burnout Paradise). The action takes place in Barcelona, with Vin himself playing a CIA agent charged with infiltrating various nasty criminal gangs (that'll be The Bourne Identity, then).
Although I didn't get past the third paragraph without mentioning GTA, it's worth pointing out that The Wheelman's resemblance to Rockstar's series - or to its legions of imitators - is superficial at best. It's an open-world game, certainly, and you carry out various missions for crime bosses in a combination of on-foot and in-vehicle sections. Beyond that The Wheelman doesn't just mimic GTA, nor is it simply a selection box of things you liked in popular games and films. In fact, it looks set to offer a genuinely new experience.
There are two key ideas at the core of the game. The car is a weapon, and the car is disposable. The result of this design philosophy is that in The Wheelman, you don't just find a good car for a mission, drive a little, get out and fight, drive a little more and repeat. Every driving sequence is a high speed battle during which you hop from vehicle to vehicle, trashing each one in succession.
To make that happen, the game's creators have fostered a healthy disrespect for the laws of physics. Vin Diesel's gravel-voiced hero happily leaps between speeding cars, spins around 360 degrees to fire off volleys of shots and can slam the entire weight of a truck sideways into an unfortunate mobster's bike - pausing briefly to urinate on a picture of Isaac Newton.
This is a world where inertia, friction and wind resistance are more casual suggestions than rules. It's probably what the world looks like if you're John Woo, so it's not surprising to learn the Midway Newcastle boys had some input from the team who worked with Woo on Stranglehold.
Helpfully, all this glorious silliness is stripped down to a small set of fairly straightforward moves. The right stick throws the weight of your vehicle in the direction you press - allowing you to essentially "shunt" sideways, forwards or backwards. When driving heavier vehicles like big trucks, this is a lethal move which takes out your foes faster than a fat man rolling over a baby kitten. In lighter, more nimble vehicles, such as motorbikes, it's not very useful as an attack - but can be employed as a dodge, allowing you to shove your bike a few feet right or left to avoid hitting a wall or oncoming car. If this sort of thing makes you want to cross your arms, purse your lips and point out that's not how tyres work, The Wheelman might not be the game for you.
The shunt goes hand-in-hand with a set of moves that are linked to your Burnout-style boost gauge. This charges up as you do stupid, reckless things at extremely high speeds. Unsurprisingly, you can just use the bar to boost - but it's also good for carrying out special attacks. Aimed Shot slows down time, allowing you to aim out your windows and take out enemies with overpowered single shots. Cyclone is the same thing but more ludicrous; Vin spins the car through 360 degrees in slow motion, allowing you to spray the enemies pursuing you with lead.
The coup de grace is the Airjack. No longer do you have to tiresomely get out of your car in order to steal another one - The Wheelman lets you nick any vehicle you like while it's still moving. This is achieved by by driving up behind it, jumping through the window, kicking the driver out with both feet and taking the wheel. I can't say for certain it'll never get old, but I was still grinning like an idiot every time it happened after almost two hours of play.
The on-foot sections, by comparison, look a bit placid. It's not that they're badly designed - there's a choice of lock-on or free-targeting third-person shooting, a decent selection of weapons and a well-implemented destructible cover system. But it's all a bit generic; Barcelona's city fathers have even managed to foolishly scatter tons of explosive barrels all over the bloody place. The developers describe the on-foot bits as being there to "pace" the game, so at least they're more likely to be occasional interruptions than a major part of the experience.
So how long will that experience last? The team reckons that the main storyline will take you 15 hours to finish, with another 10 hours on top of that if you want to do all the side missions. There are seven types of these in total, ranging from contract killings through to street races - incredibly violent street races, what with all of your offensive moves and even your airjacking ability still available. There are 15 side missions of each type to complete.
In technical terms, The Wheelman holds together beautifully. Even the pre-release code I saw, supposedly several weeks off gold master, is significantly slicker and more bug-free than a lot of finished games released in recent months. While driving around the gorgeously-realised streets of Barcelona, even at top speed, I saw absolutely no signs of slow-down, pop-up or other such hyphenated nastiness.
So I unkindly suggested that perhaps I was only being shown the bits that work best. In response, Midway Newcastle boss Craig Duncan took me on a whirlwind high-speed tour of Barcelona's most visually impressive bits - declaring that he'd happily take the "Pepsi taste challenge" on the game never stuttering as you drive through the city. It's quite a boast, but after two hours with the game I'd suggest it's a bet he'd win handily. (For what it's worth, I was playing the Xbox 360 version, but Duncan is adamant the PC and PS3 versions are of the same standard.)
On the downside, The Wheelman is strictly a single-player experience. This, apparently, is down to the huge number of moves in the game which involve slowing down time - something which would have to be stripped out to make multiplayer work. The team felt like they'd just be making a "tacked on" multiplayer mode, and since there's no point doing something if you can't do it properly, it was dropped from the plan. There's full support for DLC, though, and a combination of free and paid-for add-on content is planned.
With a demo set to appear shortly, you'll soon have your own chance to try out The Wheelman's moves. In the meantime, we suggest keeping an eye on this exuberantly silly marriage of free-roaming racing and sandboxed crime.