Version tested: Xbox 360
Vin Diesel is the new Sonic! Well, he's got two games out in the space of a month. The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena should be interesting. The first one, Escape From Butcher Bay, was a surprisingly low-key, atmospheric first-person action game where Vin did almost as much good with his mouth as he did with his fists and shadows. But first there's Wheelman, which is much closer to what you'd expect from a trip to see beefy old gravel-mouth at the cinema (or on DVD when you're pissed, which seems more likely). It's all about fast cars, firearms and confrontation. But mostly fast cars.
Vin Diesel nominally plays Milo Burik, some sort of undercover policeman from Miami who's in Barcelona to sort out the Catalonian underworld or something, but really he plays Vin Diesel, muscle-bound baldie with a leather tongue and a love of cars, and he drives them around on all sorts of pretexts smashing up the city, drifting, boosting off ramps and doing ridiculous flying carjacks on the motorway, occasionally spinning his car 360 degrees in slow motion to shoot out petrol tanks with pinpoint accuracy. Forget whatever else is happening: look at Vin! In a car!
For a while, as you're getting used to "Air Jacks" and "Cyclone" attacks, you actually get a bit excited about this, because Midway Studios Newcastle appears to be onto something: rather than following GTA out of the car and onto the streets to go a bit Michael Mann, the focus is on solving all the world's problems from the driver's seat. Has Midway, amazingly, somehow repeated the Riddick trick, and inadvertently channelled one of the bald hero's passions into a smart take on an old standard?
If you need to take somebody out, you don't bash into them until they get out and then chase them onto a rooftop and stick 'em with their own knife; you pull alongside them and use the right analogue stick to sideswipe them until their car's in critical condition, and then you do it again so they cartwheel through the air and explode. Sometimes they have guns, but that's okay, because so does Vin Diesel, so you hold down the left bumper to shoot out the tyres automatically, or you use Cyclone or Aimed Shot to target them in slow motion and take them out in one shot.
You don't even have to get out of your car to get another one. Instead you can line up behind something you like the look of and hold a button until an icon goes green, at which point Vin Diesel climbs smoothly out of the driver-side window, leaps impossibly through the air and lands on the other car, swinging neatly through the passenger window to boot the driver onto the street and take over the wheel. He can do it for bikes too. And scooters. Vin Diesel isn't afraid of riding scooters.
The city of Barcelona is hardly living and breathing, and hardly the entire city of Barcelona either - it's a simplified playground designed for Vin Diesel, with broad thoroughfares connected by a few alleyways, and just enough traffic to add obstacles to pursuit missions but not enough to slow you down. You glide effortlessly over kerbs, use stairways and roundabouts as ramps, mow down trees and lamp-posts and street cafés as if they're not there, and the police barely ever turn up unless a mission tells them to, and even then, they're easily outwitted.
Everything is in service to the one core goal: let Vin Diesel drive around in a car being a maniac, because that worked in The Fast and the Furious. As if to hammer the point home, the threadbare story mode quickly takes a back seat to the dozens of side missions available on your GPS map, which are all about driving fast and smashing things up. Vin Diesel doesn't like to wait around, so you can hop straight to them at the click of a button, and soon you're playing Crazy Taxi, taking part in street races, assassinating other drivers car-to-car, stealing vehicles to order and sometimes just smashing up the city until you've caused a set amount of damage. Doing all these missions unlocks garages, weapon caches and upgrades for the Focus meter that powers your Cyclones and boosts, and it's all unapologetically videogamey. You certainly can't imagine Vin Diesel apologising.
That said, he's obviously a gamer, or he wouldn't have his own games company, and he wouldn't go on TV and get excited when Jonathan Ross mentions his wife's spectral tiger, so while he might not do any apologising, he might agree that Wheelman also has a darker side, or at least a more boring side. Those side missions, for example. There are certainly loads of them, and there are hidden cat statues to smash up, and there are loads of unique stunt jumps to find, but after you've done one of everything there really isn't any variation or evolution of the core ideas. You just do the same thing in a different bit of the city with a slightly different time limit.
The car combat isn't very interesting either. Cyclone and Aimed Shot are novel and the exploding enemy cars and bikes sometimes catapult their drivers hilariously across the street, but jostling with enemies using sideswipe is repetitive and lacks conviction. This isn't helped by very blatantly elastic AI. It's most obvious when you're pursuing someone and you fall behind, and realise that their icon on the mini-map has virtually come to a halt, waiting for you to pick up the pace, but it's more aggravating when you're trying to escape, and no matter how successful you are smashing up your enemies, they have no difficulty reeling you back in. This happens in the street races too, where it graduates from 'niggle' to outright sin.
At least there's nothing much wrong with the car handling, which falls somewhere between Crazy Taxi and Burnout Paradise, but there is a lot to be said against the bits where you get out of the car, and after a while - perhaps as the developer becomes conscious of the repetition - you're forced to do more of it. The cover system is rudimentary (stand next to a block, and duck), and the lock-on combat is far too simple - and your bland, identikit enemies far too tactically naive - for this side of the game to have any sort of positive effect. It doesn't help that the mission design is weakest here either - one of the first examples involves working your way through a maze of knackered tube carriages, retrieving a hostage, and then working your way back out through the same maze, with enemies spawning at predictable intervals along the way.
Visually, too, the game is very bland, unable to boast the amazing, atmospheric lighting of GTAIV nor offer any decent alternative. Vin Diesel looks like Vin Diesel, but most of the characters are last-generation next to their counterparts in other Unreal Engine 3 games, with chunky faces and poor lip-synching, and the sun-drenched Barcelona is a characterless sprawl of boring buildings and identical roads. Without the map, you would get lost, because everything looks the same, and of course you would get lost either way, because you keep skipping to the missions using the GPS map-screen icons. And the less said about the soundtrack the better. I cannot remember a single piece of music, except the thing you hear on the load screen, because you spend a lot of time on the load screen.
After a dozen hours in Wheelman's company, you will have seen most of everything, but you've more or less seen everything in a fraction of that, and the promise of an openworld game that concentrates on what you can do with a car is long forgotten. There are some highs, but they all come early, in the thrill of your first Air Jack or Cyclone, or the first hilarious ragdoll enemy death or the sight of Vin Diesel on a scooter. After that, nothing really changes. It's all smoothly presented, accessible, and easy enough to play for a few hours, but it has very little to offer beyond not making you especially angry. Perhaps Vin Diesel is the new Sonic after all.
5 / 10