The Wheelman Retro Review: Vin Diesel’s Barcelona Playground

The Wheelman Review

Title: The Wheelman
Players: 1
Platforms: PC (Reviewed), PS3, Xbox 360
Developer: Tigon Studios
Publisher: Midway Games/Ubisoft
Release Date: March 24, 2009

Since developers continue to make woke pieces of crap in [current year] and publishers continue to fund woke pieces of crap, I’m continuing to dive into my back catalog of games and review titles that I actually found interesting, unique, overlooked, or just plain fun to play in my down time. One such game is the short-lived Tgon Studios’ exotic action-racer, The Wheelman, which starred Vin Diesel and his steel-grated voice.

The silver-screen action hero was riding high on his Fast & Furious success and attempted to translate that into the world of video games, taking on the role of Milo Burik, a stoic undercover agent who poses as the eponymous wheelman.

Pros:
+Vin Diesel
+Air-Jacking
+Bullet-time driving
+Chase sequences
+Side-Activities
+60fps gameplay

Neutral:
Story
Map size
Graphics
Vehicle physics
Barcelona was an original location that was portrayed like a cardboard cutout

Cons:
-Soundtrack was lame
-Third-person shooting
-Lack of weapon variety
-Lack of vehicle variety
-Lack of vehicle storage
-Lack of vehicle customization

Wokeness: While there is a “strong” female character, she’s quite frequently a damsel in distress who gets saved by Vinny ‘D’ more often than not.

The Wheelman - Vin Diesel

The story isn’t much to write home about but it is set in the refreshingly underused location of Barcelona, Spain. Milo’s cover is that he’s an expert driver for the criminal underground hailing from the hot streets of Miami; he lands himself some driving gigs in Spain while waiting for things to cool down in his hometown (which would have made for a superb location had the game sold well enough to warrant a sequel).

Milo attempts to weasel his way into the good graces of three churlish criminal factions operating out of the various territories of Barcelona, including scumlord Haitians, violent Romanians, and Machiavellian Spaniards. None of the main criminals are sympathetic in any way, but they’re used to weave a story structured around Milo’s very first client in the game — which also works as the tutorial — a femme fatale who moonlights as a saucy salsa dancer at a smokey club.

Her actions wrought suspense throughout the narrative both as a foil for Milo and also a potential love interest that doesn’t really develop much or go anywhere. However, she’s tied to a Macguffin that helps arches its way into a big finale spanning a chase sequence that nearly covers the entire map of the game.

The Wheelman - Outside

Size Does Matter

Speaking of the map… it’s not quite as big as I thought it would be.

It’s larger than the map in Scarface: The World is Yours, but smaller than the GTA: San Andreas map. It’s around the same size as maybe Stilwater from Saints Row 2, or possibly a little bigger than the map from The Godfather.

Barcelona is basically broken down into three main sections that unlock as you progress throughout game. You start in the upper northwest corner and essentially work your way down and around the map. As you complete story missions you also unlock side-activities within that region. Once you complete those activities along with the other story missions, then you unlock another section of the map, and so on and so forth until the entire map is accessible.

There are a handful of different side-activities to participate in, and many of them are far more engaging than I thought they would be. Each side activity also opens up additional upgrades, so they’re not just pointless filler there to pad the time.

It took me around 22 hours to complete every single activity the game had to offer, and the only other two open-world games where I completed every single side-mission and mini-game was GTA: San Andreas and The Godfather. So, I can at least attest to them being attention-grabbing and fun enough to play through to the end. In some ways I was even hoping for more.

The Wheelman

Side-Missions To The Rescue

There are escape missions, where you have to get from one destination to a safe house while armed gangsters or police hunt you down and attempt to blow you and your vehicle up.

There’s a rampage mode where your objective is to destroy as much property and cause as much damage as possible within a set amount of time. Completing these missions will raise your vehicle’s damage bonuses.

There’s also a set of target side-missions where you have to use a vehicle to ram bullet-proof targets off the road. Successfully completing these missions will raise your vehicle’s defenses.

And then there are the typical races, which are actually kind of fun because you can use guns to kill your opponents or disable their vehicles. Winning races will increase the performance of a vehicle.

Simply put, each of the side-activities offer useful bonuses so they aren’t just there to be an added nuisance.

The upgrades work well and become essential mechanics for the latter-game story missions, which increase in difficulty quite a bit.

Having a vehicle that can take a lot of damage isn’t just required, it’s a necessity for some missions. If your vehicle is no longer capable of taking said punishment, you can utilize the main selling point of the game apart from starring Vin Diesel: air-jacking.

Air-jacking allows players to hang off the side of the vehicle and leap to a car in front of them once the reticule turns green. It’s very similar to the rolling-carjack feature from United Front Games’ Sleeping Dogs, or a more automated version of the car-surfing and hijacking feature from Avalanche Studios’ Just Cause series.

Air-jacking isn’t anything too special, but once your vehicle starts taking major damage, you’ll find yourself frequently hopping into new vehicles to avoid being killed.

You can fight back, however, as depicted in the video below from Nightz2k.

Vehicle Melee

The game features a vehicular melee feature attached to the right thumbstick. Flicking the stick upward while behind an enemy vehicle will ram them from behind, while flicking the stick left or right will force your car to perform a shunt in the designated direction. If there are no cars to the left or right, your vehicle will perform an instant side-strafing lane-change. It looks pretty ridiculous, but become an essential tactic that’s required for use during certain chase sequences.

Alternatively you can use Milo’s acquired weapons to attack enemy vehicles with the left bumper. It’s a neat mechanic where you can actually target different parts of a car’s anatomy to disable it. Instead of simply firing at the car itself, you can shoot out the tires to slow it down, or kill specific passengers by locking on and targeting them.

As you perform stunts, shunts, bumps, and exhibit dynamic driving skills, you’ll fill up a special meter that can then be used to perform special car feats that would make James Bond blush.

There’s a turbo feature to speed up your car, along with an ability to slow down time and fire your weapon with explosive results. It’s useful for dispensing of roadblocks, or blowing up a car in front of you by firing at its gas tank. Alternatively you can tap the down button on the digital pad, which will cause Milo to perform a slow-motion 180 and red reticules will pop up enabling him to instantly blow up his pursuers by firing at the engines or the drivers.

If you perform these special moves correctly you’ll be treated to a dynamic sequence where the AI vehicles flip over and crash in a spectacular fashion.

The Wheelman - Explosive Crash Concept Art

If I did have one gripe about the feature it would be that you should have been able to shoot out the front tires and cause the cars to flip over without instantly blowing them up.

It’s a minor peeve but it’s something I thought should have been in a game that’s all about car chases and action sequences.

Speaking of which, the vehicle physics weren’t quite up to scratch to what I would have preferred from a game like this. The car handling wasn’t terrible, but it was definitely on the sim-cade side of things.

You could easily perform powerslides and drifts by tapping the handbrake. Very little skill was required to perform such a feat. The handling was also mostly the same for all the vehicles, save for the utility van, the semi-trucks and the motorcycles. The vans and trucks handled the most realistic out of all the vehicles, but the motorcycles were a huge letdown. Compared to Just Cause, Saints Row and Driver: Parallel Lines, the motorcycles in The Wheelman felt stiff due to a lack of a rolling-lean, so turning felt awkward and there was a lack of weight to the handling of the bikes.

The Wheelman - Flying SUV

Limited Vehicle Selection

Also, to be a game all about driving there was a criminal lack of vehicles in the game.

Apart from not having boats, planes, or any flying machines available, the car selection was sparse. There were a few sedans, two types of motorcycles, two luxury cars, a couple of sports cars, and an SUV.

They tried to give the impression of variety with various paint jobs for some of the cars, but it was obvious that either they had a really tiny development budget for vehicles, or maybe they spent it all acquiring the license to use Pontiac in the game.

Either way, the vehicle selection was thin and you didn’t even get the option of collecting and storing cars, much less the ability to actually customize any vehicle.

It felt so weird that a game called The Wheelman just didn’t have much going on when it came to actually celebrating the expanse of motorized machinery and the different ways in which they could be modified for the road.

The Wheelman - Street Corner

Lack Of Weapon Variety

But vehicle scarcity wasn’t the only thing where the game found itself anemic… the weapon selection was thin, too. There were several different types of machine guns, a shotgun, and a handgun, but not much more than that.

It was kind of shocking to me how limited the weapon cache was given that games like 24: The Game loaded you up with a wide variety of different types of guns throughout the game.

Sprinkled across The Wheelman’s story missions are various segments where players will be required to dismount from their vehicle and go through shooting-gallery style segments where you have to pick off enemies and reach a designated target or checkpoint. The third-person shooting mechanics here are bare bones.

The shooting is functional at best, tedious at worst.

The main issue is that there’s just nothing to it. You use an auto lock-on feature to target enemies and then just shoot in their direction until they drop. You can duck behind objects to avoid taking damage, but there is no roll, no dodge, and no use of suppression fire or tactics.

The AI has some really generic scripting, where they just stand and shoot from one place until you fell them. The entire third-person portion of the game could best be summed up as a slightly more motivated version of a carnival shooting gallery.

Simply put, the weakest part of the game was definitely the shooting mechanics.

The Wheelman - Yacht Explosion

Fun Gameplay Loops

Despite some of my criticisms coming across as harsh, I do have to say that the core of the actual gameplay loops are really fun, though.

Even though the motorcycles didn’t have the best physics or handling, there were a few parts that were beyond intense and highly entertaining.

For instance there was a segment where you had to chase villains throughout underground tunnels after they hijacked a runaway subway. The chase sequence involves shooting at enemies on the subway while riding through the tunnels at high speeds. In order to complete the segment you have to get in front of the subway and perform a slow-motion 180 to shoot the driver. If you can pull it off successfully you’ll be patting yourself on the back all night long with a wide smile spread across your face.

Some of the multi-stage chases are also quite fun, where you’re shooting at enemies, destroying their cars, air-jacking other vehicles once your own vehicle is wrecked, and constantly trying to stay one step ahead of the game over screen. They definitely managed to capture some pulse-pounding, heart-thumping elements within the core design that made The Wheelman an exhilarating thrill ride at times.

The fact that vehicles could be totaled all the way down to practically nothing but the chassis also helped convey just how destructive the chase sequences could become. It felt like the developers at Tigon were trying to capture some of the essence of Walter Hill’s The Driver.

But it felt like the game wasn’t quite living up to its full potential.

The Wheelman - Milo

Cardboard Cutout Of Barcelona

While the visuals were decent for its era, and Barcelona offered gamers an exquisite looking map that wasn’t just a retread of New York, L.A., or San Francisco for the umpteenth time, the map wasn’t quite as fleshed out as it could have been. There were some neat jumps and ramps designed to employ cinematic moments worth a snapshot or two, but the map ultimately felt sterile, and it never seemed like I was in a living, breathing city.

There weren’t any places to go inside, and a lot of the buildings and street designs felt like the art was copy-and-pasted over and over again. However, the designers did attempt to recreate Barcelona as if it were one giant sound stage expertly designed for Hollywood-inspired chases.

Alleyways, cut-throughs, and shortcuts were meticulously placed to ensure that the flow of the chase was rarely disrupted. Winding turns were usually stretched out to avoid momentum-breaking tight corners and 90-degree breakpoints. And there was always some ample opportunity to take to the air even when it seemed somewhat out of place.

In some ways you could tell that the designers sacrificed the life and personality of Barcelona in order to create a systemic flow for the streets and alleyways to always feel chase-friendly.

For some people that may work, but for me it felt somewhat contrived. Although, to be fair, I did make use of all of the little nick-knacks that they designed to help ease the flow of navigation when the pedal hit the floor and the pistons started pumping.

The Wheelman - Alley Concept

Lame Soundtrack

However, a more adequate criticism would be the very lacking and uninspired soundtrack.

Every time a big chase would kick off you would have to hope that the game’s original soundtrack would kick in, because otherwise you would be left with some lame Spanish rap, EDM, or American hip-hop. The soundtrack deflated any sense of urgency you might have, and seemed to do the complete opposite of games like Kane & Lynch or Drive: Parallel Lines, where the music made you feel the intensity of what was happening on-screen and really vibe with the flow of the gameplay.

All that being said, I am quite disappointed that we didn’t get a sequel to The Wheelman because I liked the base game for what it was, and I’m sure the studio could have done much bigger and better things had Midway Games not gone kaput.

There was also the matter of The Wheelman launching during a time where a lot of other big-name games and hot titles were out at the time or coming soon to the market, from Gears of War 2, to Saints Row 2, to Uncharted 2, to GTA IV – it was easy to see how a game like The Wheelman, which didn’t quite measure up to the aforementioned blockbusters, got lost in the shuffle.

However, if you’re a fan of Vin Diesel or you’ve been itching for a game like Just Cause that was more grounded and vehicular based with cinematic chase scenes and dynamic crashes, you might want to give The Wheelman a try.

Verdict:

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!
~