Wheelman is a straightforward looking Grand Theft Auto clone, made by a dying publisher and featuring the voice and likeness of Vin “I End Lives” Diesel. A recipe for failure if there ever was one, save for the fact that Diesel’s track record with the game industry has been stellar. After the two Chronicles of Riddick games, Wheelman becomes the third release blessed by his Tigon Studios label, and like the others, is better than you might expect.
The key thing to remember about Wheelman is that it isn’t aping the Grand Theft Auto series as a whole. Specifically, it bases itself on GTA 3. All the extra cruft that Rockstar would later add to their series is nowhere to be found here. You have driving, on foot action, and a couple of secrets to find. This is a good start, as GTA 3 struck a fine balance between wild arcade action and depth. What makes it worth playing in 2009 is that the game takes this foundation and removes most of the bullshit. There is very little reason to ever explore the city on foot, and gunfights are seldom (though still more frequent than I would like). Most importantly, you can instantly jump to any mission on the map without having to travel there, and restarting a failed attempt is just as easy.
Simply put, Wheelman is all about its driving segments, and it doesn’t want anything to get in the way. While this may look like a step backward, Rockstar was far too fond of making sacrifices for the sake of realism, and I am glad to see that Wheelman recognizes that the only reason anyone wants to play this kind of game is to cause mayhem.
For instance, cars actually have melee attacks, which translate as the driver trying to ram his enemy from the side or from behind. This allows you to knock cars into walls or oncoming traffic. Do it enough and you can cause them to explode in a blaze of PG-13 glory. Like many games of this ilk, you can also fire your gun from behind the wheel, but even this is enhanced by a slow motion move in which you do a quick 180 turn and fire at your enemies while driving backwards. The execution is absurd, but its usefulness is immense.
But perhaps nothing is quite as ridiculous as the ability to “airjack” a car. If you tail a vehicle from behind for long enough, Diesel’s character can then leap out of his own car and grab on to his target, knocking the driver out of their seat and taking control. Silly as it may be, airjacking is incredibly useful, as it allows you to ditch a banged up ride and continue a mission that would have ended as a failure in another game. This is especially good considering how long most of Wheelman’s missions are. Not content to merely control like a Hollywood chase scene, most excursions will not end until you have made several laps around a city district and called untold amounts of damage.
Ultimately, however, length is the antithesis of this kind of experience, and Wheelman does not always know when to quit. At first, you might revel in the drawn out police chases, and admire the tenacity of the gangs you go up against. But just when you feel you have seen everything and earned your stripes, the game throws you into a gauntlet of boring missions which recycle objectives and send endless fleets of vehicles at you. This in turn screws up the story. It starts off innocently enough, with Diesel’s character playing the mole in a variety of gangs as he tries to find a top secret item for a government agency. Like GTA, this involves going on missions to gain each gang’s trust, though unlike GTA this process is not drawn out. One, maybe two missions for each, and you have them in your pocket. It gives the plot the feeling of a two hour action flick, at least until the final stretch, at which point it feels like it is delaying the explosive finale to squeeze a six hour game into ten. The momentum is lost and what once felt fun becomes a chore.
The quantity of side missions available only serve to amplify this feeling. Side missions are entirely optional quests, each with their own C-S ranking. Getting an A or S rank unlocks more, as well as giving you some sort of handy stat upgrade. Because the requirements for each ranking are given before each side mission, they can become addicting, since you can easily determine which are worth your time. But doing too many can dilute the experience, so it is up to the player to show some self control.
Lastly, I have to commend Wheelman for being as comfortable as it is in its boots. It takes a lot of the smaller concepts from GTA 3 and tries to make them its own. As you may expect, there are a variety of radio stations to tune into, but rather than fill them with fake commercials and comical DJs, they feature a mix of classical, Latino and pop music that plays softly in the background. It enhances the mood rather than trying to fight for your attention. The side missions are also based on classic GTA objectives (taxi driving, stealing exotic cars), but they all focus on your ability to drive fast and find good routes (which is, of course, the point of the game). There are a lot of features that a GTA clone has to have in order to compete, but Wheelman understands that rather than implementing them exactly as Rockstar does, a developer can take these ideas and make them their own.
The last thing the industry needs is more people who think they belong in Hollywood, but as long as those people are coming, they might want to understand what it is they are trying to mimic. People enjoy a good action film because it offers mindless action and entertainment with no pretense that it is anything more. Meanwhile, bad action films try to be grand and dramatic, and shoot for a scope that is far more epic than they have any right to be. There is a reason why people like Crank a lot more than Transformers 2, and it is the same reason why Wheelman works (at least for three quarters of its length) where failures like True Crime and the original Saint’s Row do not. There is room for this kind of experience in the world of gaming. The real problem is that our industry takes the film equivalent of junk food and tries to present it to us as steak.