18 May 2009

Wheelman Review

Whaddya think? 

It does seem to have finally occured to me that up until late I’ve had a huge amount of luck selecting video games. From Far Cry 2 to Halo 3 to Call of Duty 4 to Halo Wars, for the last few years I’ve managed to only play games that I can at least get a good few hours of genuine entertainment out of. Wheelman, it would seem, is the trend bucker, because – whilst it does have some merit – this is without doubt the worst game I’ve played for a long time, both in terms of technical achievement and in fun to be had. It’s not the worst game ever – not by a long shot – but considering the pedigree of the studio developing it, they really should’ve done better.

First impressions of Wheelman are reasonably upbeat – arcade-like control of the driving is a refreshing change from the realistic driving of GTA IV and Crackdown, doing a really good job of making you feel like a really awesome driver as you rocket down the streets of virtual Madrid with the local fuzz in hot pursuit. The driving controls also incorporate a ‘vehicle melee’ system assigned to the right analogue stick. Whilst you do lose a lot of control over the camera – the only two camera commands are look behind and toggling between three different views of your vehicle – you gain the ability to viciously slam your car into opposing vehicles. The system is incorporated brilliant in terms of controls and with the little details, like time slowing down briefly as you slam into a vehicle, giving you a chance to align the steering into a more favourable position for bouncing off your enemy.

There’s also the limited ability to fire weapons, but this is heavily automated thanks to the lack of any camera control. The standard attack is your character Milo – aka Vin Diesel author-inserting himself into a game – shooting his pistol from the window. This takes a while to lock on and score a kill/hit/blown tyre, but feels realistic given the speeds that you’re likely to be travelling at. The relatively uselessness of this is mitigated somewhat by the ability to perform an Aimed Shot or Cyclone super-move, whereby time slows down and your view goes into the car to see Milo with his pistol drawn. You can then proceed to blast at enemies for as long as your Focus Gauge stays full. These moves feel awesome to pull off but also play a vital role in many of the missions, which is handy.

There’s also a neat mechanic known as Air-Jacking, which is essentially Vin Diesel pretending he’s Superman. Pressing and holding the B button brings up a red marker on the nearest civilian or enemy car. Waiting until the marker is green, then releasing the button, Milo exits the first vehicle, hops onto the second and takes control of it. It’s a ridiculous, but genuinely entertaining mechanic that can see you leap-frogging down a highway with nary a backward glance.

Unfortunately, the driving about, wrecking stuff and partaking in police chases is really the only fun to be had, as it screws almost everything else up.

Artistically, it lacks almost any merit. The story is half-baked and confusing even if you’re paying attention, and the acting ranging from hilariously over-the-top to embarrassingly phoney. Given that Vin Diesel is a decent actor and probably has the resources to secure a half-decent cast for his own video game, this is perhaps the most genuinely disappointing aspect of the game. Then there’s the fact of their dubious claim that they’re using the Unreal 3 engine. Never before has it looked so painfully ordinary, with flat scenery and – Diesel’s model aside – lifeless character models and uninteresting virtual cars.

On the technical aspects, it’s difficult to know where to begin. The physics engine is absolutely lousy, with collision detection being a huge problem. Sometimes you’ll hit something and just plough right through them as if they weren’t there, other times you’ll get clipped by a slow-moving vehicle and fly off at some bizarre angle and smack straight into a building, ending your hopes of outrunning anyone. On the odd occassion, you’ll find your car stuck in the world’s geometry, and on a couple of occasions I was forced inside the level, only to fall down to infinity.

The AI is awful as well, with them pulling the old trick of cars always managing to go as fast as you regardless of whether you’re travelling at two miles-an-hour or two-hundred. There are also frequently missions where you have to airjack cars, and this is where the AI genuinely cheats, waiting until your marker turns green before suddenly and bizarrely veering off on a physically impossible vector, destroying your chances of getting the car and most likely seeing you cascading into a wall.

The on-foot controls also feel half-arsed, almost as an add-on because the publishers were pushing for it to be ‘more like GTA’. Most weapons feel underpowered and ludicrously inaccurate, and there’s no decent cover system – only a barely-effective ducking mechanic which you’ll spend a lot of time being frustrated with. The enemies also can’t decide whether they can take twenty bullets or two, as well as alternating between pinpoint accuracy and suffering a sever case of the Stormtrooper effect.

There’s also a complete lack of detail and immersion to the thing – why is it that when I press Y, the nearest car simply stops and the person even gets out of their vehicle to help me steal it. Yes, GTA’s system of standing in front of a car to get it to stop before jacking it is a little tedious, but at least it’s realistic. Why too is it that you are allowed to kill hundreds and hundreds of policemen in their cruisers by slamming them into walls with your own car, but as soon as you shoot one of them, you get a ‘Mission Failed’ because ‘killing innocents is not what this is about'’? There’s more, but to go into any more detail would allow me to ramble for a good few pages. We’ll just tag it with the ‘Technically Inept’ medal, and move on to the conclusion:

At the end of the day, Wheelman is fine as a rental, but this is no way a game that you should spend your hard-earned money on. It has a distinct lack of polish, and any game developer who can’t spend the time and energy to get their game as good as possible genuinely don’t deserve your money. Even if you’re a fan of Vin Diesel and his various film and video game outings, it’ll be difficult for you to find anything worth keeping here. Hire, get the achievements, return.

Ross’ Rating: 55%

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