Ever since it was announced as both a movie and video game, Hollywood's influence on Wheelman has been clear. The game certainly panders to action game fans, finally answering the question, "What would it be like to spin a motorcycle onto its front wheel and shoot a truck in slow motion?" While the driving is fun and exciting, the on-foot sections are terrible, mired by poor control and weak enemy AI. These weaknesses prevent Wheelman from reaching its potential, and the uneven 6-8 hour campaign leaves you wanting more good content once the game wraps up.
You play Vin Diesel as Milo Burik, an American driver who arrives in Barcelona to go undercover and infiltrate the city's three biggest gangs. The game works hard to make you feel like you're an amazing driver, empowering you with a number of special abilities that not only help you survive, but look cool as well. You can perform "vehicle melees" using the right analogue stick, swerving into enemies or ramming them from behind. You can also steal civilian cars by "air-jacking" them, jumping from car to car like some sort of urban Tarzan. Then there are the aimed shot and cyclone moves, where you can shoot at enemies in slow-motion from an over-the-shoulder perspective.
These special moves are the most enjoyable part of Wheelman, as they really capture the essence of the Hollywood movies that inspired the game. While they can become repetitive over time, the focus meter ensures that you have to be driving well in order to pull them off, and the steady supply of enemies and police means that you're always under pressure. The control system makes it easy to slide around corners and perform donuts, and the game definitely succeeds in making you feel like a Hollywood action hero.
You can either play Wheelman as a free-roaming game in which you find missions yourself, or you can use the map to jump to the relevant locations. The missions often revolve around escorting, capturing or stealing cars, but there are some particularly memorable assignments, such as driving through a newspaper editor’s office, and smashing up rival advertising billboards. Things get repetitive as you progress, and the game can be beaten in around six hours, but there are optional side missions that extend the longevity and give you an opportunity to increase your focus meter, vehicle health, attack power, and performance. Fugitive missions are particularly good; planting you deep in enemy territory and then challenging you to make it to a safe point alive.
There are only a few missions involving on-foot gameplay, which is a good thing, given how badly the game plays in this area. There's no cover system, so you have to protect yourself by ducking behind objects, and it's a real pain to target enemies and free-aim. Even more implausible is the lack of a jump button, meaning you have to walk around obstacles. The enemy AI is also painfully stupid, positioning itself next to explosive barrels, which are inexplicably scattered in locations that include a church graveyard.
The storyline for Wheelman is cinematically styled, but it's predictable and stuffed with risible dialogue. The gangs are staffed with the sort of thugs you've seen a million times before, and while they often speak in Spanish or Russian, they lack any sort of believable motives or intriguing relationships. Diesel's character is pretty arrogant, although that could be described as his style, and when the whole thing wraps with the tease of an inevitable sequel, you're not really sure who's working for who or why.
Wheelman captures the style of Barcelona for its setting, but it's devoid of the same sense of life. Take La Rambla for example--a vibrant mix of market vendors, tourists and street performers in real life, but an abandoned collection of park benches, coffee tables and generic shacks in the game. That said, Wheelman keeps the pace moving by making nearly everything destructible, even if you're on a bike. On the downside, Vin Diesel's 'good guy' status means that he can't kill any of the civilians in the game, as they jump to avoid getting runover and are completely invulnerable to bullets.
Thankfully, the music fits perfectly, with a Spanish-influenced soundtrack for the game's many loading screens, and an orchestral score that adds to the urgency of the chases. The music is locked when you're on a mission, but you can flick between seven radio stations if you're just cruising around. They're split into genres like classical, urban, and American, and though they lack licensed tracks, the music quality is serviceable. The sound effects are also good. You can hear fan belts screeching from clapped-out vehicles, and the voice acting is much better than the script deserves. On the other hand, the graphics vary from unremarkable to just plain bad, particularly when it comes to the characters. It's hard to believe that Vin Diesel was happy to be represented like this; he has dead eyes, strange lip movements, and rough shadows across his face during many cutscenes.
Wheelman introduces some neat ideas to the open-world driving genre, and when you're moving at high speed, it's a lot of fun. The slow-motion gunplay and air-jacking work particularly well, and really make you feel as though you're blessed with superhuman driving abilities. Nevertheless, there are also some big problems, particularly the on-foot combat and complete lack of multiplayer. If you're a fan of Vin Diesel or movie-based car chases then you'll get some enjoyment out of Wheelman, but only if you can vehicle melee your way around some significant flaws and omissions.