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.