Vin Diesel-powered excitement: Wheelman video game review

April has been the month of Vin Diesel in America. Why would have thought such a thing would ever come to pass in our lifetimes, but here it is. Many have apparently gone out an seen Fast And Furious, and aggressively mediocre, overly-digitized, woodenly-acted action movie that somehow made $120 million in just two weeks. I'm personally responsible for $5 of that, I'm sorry to say, but I couldn't help myself. Vin Diesel's gravely monotone had hypnotized me after hours of playing that other Vin Diesel release of April, Wheelman.

Wheelman is sort of Grand Theft Auto Lite. You're in a big city (Barcelona in this case), and you can pretty much steal any car you see, drive around in it, and run things over while shooting people. There's a story going on, and it's pretty inscrutable, derivative and uninteresting. You're Milo, a wheelman who's looking for work driving for various Barcelona criminal types, all part of your bigger effort to infiltrate them and, well, you know, do something. I don't know what. The story's a mess, and everyone has thick accents that make them hard to understand. Of course even with subtitles it's not easy to figure out what's going on. It also clearly doesn't matter.

Bad dudes give you missions to do bad things. You get guns, and sometimes you run around shooting people and most of the time you drive around hitting and occasionally shooting people. There's nothing ground breaking in these areas of the game. But where Wheelman does ramp up the fun is with the car combat system. First of all, when driving you actually have what they call “melee attacks.” Push the right analog stick left, right, or straight ahead and your car does a physics-defying jerk in that direction, which lets you slam enemy cars into buildings and is a very gratifying mechanic. As you build up combos from doing crazy stuff like clamming into cars and driving fast, you can either boost your speed or go into a slow-mo mode where the car spins around and you can shoot at enemy's behind you. Hit the right spot and the car explodes. It's ridiculous and totally fun.

And when your car gets damaged beyond drivability? Well, just come up behind another car and air-jack it. Air-Jacking has Milo lean out of his own car, leap forward in one smooth motion and pull the driver out of another car as he takes the wheel. It's insane of course, but also a lot of fun. I spent several minutes just leap-frogging around Barcelona from one car to the next. Wheelman offers a nice variety of missions, although some are very annoying in their execution (like chasing a subway through tunnels and trying to shoot out the links between the cars with an unresponsive, seemingly random targeting mechanic). But I was seldom bored, whether it was stealing a semi and running a fleet of cars off the road or intimidating a snitch by driving crazy until he got so scared he talked.

The game just looks OK. The city is Barcelona, but it feels sort of flat and generic most of the time. There are only a limited number of car models, and the human characters seemed uneven to me. At times the mechanics got pretty janky, like in the aforementioned subway sequence. The game just doesn't feel very polished on the whole. But I had a good time playing it, and now wish I could air-jack cars in real life. I can't go into details, but trust me, I totally can't do that in real life.

On balance, I'd recommend Wheelman as a good time, certainly more of a good time than Fast and Furious. But we didn't even talk about the third Vin Diesel game that game out this month, Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena. That just might be your best bet of them all...

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