If you pick up the controller in the middle of Midway's upcoming Vin Diesel-starring action game, Wheelman, without familiarizing yourself with the game's features and controls, you might think the game is too difficult for its own good. But if you spend some time with the game's tutorial missions, and get a healthy dose of practice and experimentation, you'll come to appreciate the depth of the controls, as well as the sheer amount of vehicular mayhem you can create in this open-world driving game from the developers at Midway Newcastle. This week, Midway dropped by our office to show off the latest build of the game and to show off the different moves available to the titular hero (and the cars he drives).
You play as Milo Burik in the game, an undercover agent who is sent to Barcelona and eventually finds himself involved in a power struggle between three powerful gangs that run the city. As Burik, you'll need to earn the trust of each of the gangs as you infiltrate their ranks, taking jobs as they come and eventually working your way to the bosses that run the criminal activities.
We got a chance to see a few missions in the game--the first was a tutorial mission, where you have to steal three cars for a friend in a certain amount of time. The catch? The three cars are being driven at the time. The mission essentially acts as a tutorial for one of several special moves Milo has available to him--the air jack. To pull it off, you simply drive up behind the car of your choice, then hold down the B button (on the Xbox 360 controller). A red target icon will appear over the car when you're approaching it, and when it turns green, you let go of the B button and Milo will leap out of his current vehicle and into the new ride.
With three cars to steal in this particular mission, it isn't long before you get used to the air-jacking feature. The developers intend for the player to consider vehicles as dispoable in the game; you'll constantly switch between rides as you make your way around the city. Cars do take damage in Wheelman--often in spectacular fashion--so making it easy to switch from car to car, even while in motion, reinforces the idea of always keeping a fresh set of wheels under you. After completing the car-jacking mission, we had to escape the police who chased us down. The police pressure doesn't seem to be as intense as that found in a game like Need for Speed: Most Wanted--all we really needed to do was get out of the line of sight for a few seconds--but it's probably fair to assume that the police get more persistent as you progress in the game.
Other moves available to you include the ability to slow down time and even spin the car around while in "focus mode" to take on enemies who might be behind you. During these brief slow-motion interludes, you'll be able to shoot enemies--an aiming reticle will appear and turn red when you pass over "critical" parts (such as an enemy's head or a car's gas tank or tire). Bigger enemy vehicles, or those with considerable armor, might require several shots in critical areas to take out completely. You build up the focus required to go into these slo-mo moments by pulling off cool stunts in the car--drifting around turns, bashing into enemies, or performing air-jacks. You can also use banked focus (indicated by a meter in the lower right portion of the screen) to give your car a periodic turbo boost.
All of the cars in Wheelman have their own feel--from the relatively agile compact cars to the quicker, heavier muscle cars--and, as such, you'll want to pick the right car for the job. The game will feature traditional cars and motorcycles, but at the most extreme end of car handling are the monstrous big-rig trucks (which seem curiously ubiquitous in Barcelona). One of the later missions we saw (but didn't play ourselves) featured Milo taking over an 18-wheeler he had to drive across the city, while hordes of bad guys attempted to take him down. The truck's weak spot was its gas tank, which the enemies shot at mercilessly. And while the big rig was relatively slow and clumsy in terms of handling, it made up for its weaknesses in sheer power and resilience. Blasting our way through park gates and streetlights (and even trees), we really got a feel for the unstoppable might of the truck.
Nowhere was that strength more apparent than when using the vehicular melee feature--which happened to be our favorite special move in the game. With just a flick of the analog stick, you can jerk your car left, right, forward, or backward, dealing a heavy blow to enemy cars (or, indeed, any object around you). In a car, vehicular melee moves are great, and in a big rig, they're awesome--dealing out huge amounts of damage to enemies who are unlucky enough to be caught in their path. In addition to using vehicle melee as a weapon, we found the move pretty useful in pulling off quick shifts left or right to avoid oncoming traffic or other objects.
While Wheelman does have some on-foot, it looks like most of the action is going to be in a vehicle, which seems like the right idea to us. In addition to the main story modes, the game has a lot of different side missions you can play. Taxi, for example, is a basic time trial mode, challenging you to get from one part of the city to another in a certain amount of time. Beating Taxi challenges will open up teleport spots throughout Barcelona, which you can use to zap from one area of the map to the next (instead of having to drive there).
Contracts and Fugitive are a pair of modes that are essentially two sides of the same coin. In Contracts, the idea is to chase down and destroy a target car before it gets to a safe house; in the case of Fugitive, it's you who is on the run as you try to escape a number of enemies trying to take you down in short order. Rampage is a mode where you enter a specific Barcelona neighborhood and try to create as much mayhem as possible. Made to Order is a series of increasingly difficult carjacking missions, and Hot Potato challenges you to pick up and drop off packages all over the city in timed missions.
With an impressive fictionalized version of Barcelona to explore, dynamic music that is individually scored for each mission in the game, and, most importantly, hard-hitting and speedy car combat action, Wheelman looks to be a fun twist on the traditional open-world game. After Vin Diesel's success in the phenomenal The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay back in 2004, will Wheelman enhance the actor's reputation in video games? We'll find out when the game is released in February.