Given Midway's heavily publicised financial problems and Wheelman's late shift to publisher Ubisoft, you'd be forgiven for thinking this is a game to avoid. We certainly had our reservations, assuming it would be a mildly entertaining action romp that sat somewhere between Driv3r and GTA 4 - we didn't expect it to sit so close to GTA 4 in the enjoyment stakes. You'd be hard pushed to find anyone naming this as game of the year come December, but Midway Newcastle has succeeded in making a damn fun game with some of the best driving mechanics we've ever seen.
By far the biggest initial draw Wheelman's going to have is its star, action hero and all round hard man Vin Diesel. He plays Milo, an undercover agent sent to Barcelona to work as a wheelman for hire in an attempt to get info on various crime organisations working in the city. You'll take jobs from anyone, so it's an ideal ruse to get close to the people that matter, assuming you're good enough at your job. While Wheelman tries to tell a decent story it struggles to be more than a platform for Milo's existence and really only serves to bookend the missions and to give some kind of structure to proceedings. GTA 4 this is not, but then it's not really trying to be.
Core to everything that's good in Wheelman is, perhaps predictably, the driving. Midway Newcastle has ditched any notion of realism in favour of a full-on arcade-style handling model. Milo is able to powerslide any car, pull off insane handbrake turns and generally nip about at speed without needing to worry too much about real-world physics getting in the way. It's not quite Crazy Taxi, but there's certainly a similar feel and general belief that you can do just about anything while on two or four wheels.
Because Wheelman isn't your normal open-world action game, with most of your time spent in a car or on a bike, combat had to be possible while driving. At its most basic you can auto target enemy vehicles and fire at them with a gun (the steadier you drive the easier targeting is, and it helps to get Milo firing out of his near window), but the really good stuff comes from vehicle melee and a number of special moves activated once you've filled your Focus Gauge by driving like a nutcase.
First of all you need to get into a car or on a bike. The normal way is to walk up to some unsuspecting guy in the street and jack him, and that's possible here, but a bit dull. Milo prefers to do things while on the move (a wheelman can't waste time), so he likes to open his car door and leap onto a vehicle ahead. By driving your vehicle in close proximity to the rear of another car and holding down the leap button, Milo gets into position (crash or take a sharp corner and he'll get back in the car, so careful driving is key) and a coloured arrow appears above your target vehicle. As soon as it turns green you let go and he leaps onto the rooftop of the new vehicle, slides through the window, kicks out the driver and continues on his merry way. Very cool indeed.
No matter what vehicle you're in (hatchback, sports car, truck, motorbike, etc) a simple flick of the right analogue stick to the left, right or straight ahead will cause it to violently jolt in that direction, slamming whatever gets in its way. Think of the takedowns in Burnout, only with more aggression. The vehicle you're in obviously plays a big part in what you can do, so you're not going to be doing too many slams while riding a bike, but get behind the wheel of an articulated truck and there'll be plenty of exploding enemy vehicles before too long.
This is just one part of the many combat options in Wheelman. By using up the energy in your focus gauge Milo can slow down time and take aim, while still driving. Pressing up on the d-pad will initiate an Aimed Shot, allowing him to target whatever's ahead or viewable from the side windows, whereas pressing down will result in a Cyclone shot, causing the vehicle to spin 180 degrees and giving you a shot at what's coming from the rear. Weak points on enemy vehicles are highlighted, giving you the chance to blow them up in typical Hollywood movie fashion. You'll never tire of pulling off the moves - our favourite is to do a 180 degree spin while heading off a jump, resulting in a slow motion shootout while driving backwards in mid-air.