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Something has gone wrong. Wires have been crossed, ideas have been lost in translation, and game design has been swallowed up in miscommunication. Whatever the truth, something has gone horribly wrong. Somewhere along the line, someone, and it may not even have been games legend and Wheelspin creator Archer Maclean, thought this was a good game. No, not even good – playable. Someone thought Wheelspin was playable enough to justify being published. That someone was Bethesda, the company behind Fallout 3.
Wheelspin is a sci-fi arcade racer for the Wii. In it, you drive around loopy tracks at fast speeds in futuristic cars, hitting boosts when you can and unlocking new tracks on a pyramid grid. It is awful. Why?
There are many reasons, but chief among them is the car handling. Wheelspin’s various vehicles handle abominably. Twitchy Wii Remote handling will send you careering off of the track and into the nothingness that surrounds it, while the many holes in the track designs are sometimes nigh-on impossible to avoid due to your vehicle’s unwillingness to turn properly.
Practice, in this case, does not make perfect. You do get better as you play, partly due to learning track designs and understanding what movements will cause your car to spiral out of control, but it’s unlikely that you’ll reach a point at which the handling suddenly becomes enjoyable. It’s so frustrating, so annoying, so tear your hair out maddening, that it makes you want to knock yourself out with the Wii Remote, just to put yourself out of your misery.
I can only imagine it was a deliberate design decision. I can only imagine Archer Maclean meant for the game to play this way, as if repeatedly wiping out would somehow be fun for players. This must have been the miscommunication: Wheelpsin seems to sincerely suggest that you not only accept death all of the bloody time, but enjoy it. Maybe some will. Maybe some quite fancy the idea of playing a punishing futuristic arcade racer on Wii. But they’re masochists who have no idea what a good racing game is.
Wheelspin promised eight-player split screen racing, and it does indeed deliver on that front, but some poor control decisions let the entire experience down. When the Wii Remote is used, it is turned on its side. Fine, you think. I’ll use the d-pad to steer and the A button to accelerate. Oh no. Not in Wheelspin. In Wheelspin, you have to use the motion controls to steer. Twisting the Remote left and right turns, and the 2 button accelerates. There is no option to change this control set up.
To achieve eight-player split screen, another player is able to race using only the Nunchuck, but driving with the Nunchuck is even worse than with the Remote. To accelerate you point it down, to brake you point it up, and to steer you twist left and right. It’s almost impossible to turn, though, which you think would be a godsend given how easy it is to bite the dust. It is not.
Why can I not use the d-pad or the Nunchuck analogue stick for steering? It seems a ridiculous decision, one that severely hampers the game’s playability. At least you can use the GameCube controller or the Classic Controller, and their respective analogue sticks or d-pads, although surely only a tiny fraction of the Wii’s userbase own such a controller. I found the d-pad controls to be too sluggish to be of any real use, but the analogue stick method proved to be far preferable to motion control. It’s still a ridiculously twitchy experience, but with a proper controller in your hands you can at least make a decent stab at taking the best racing line.
The graphics are astonishingly bad. The game barely looks as good as F-Zero X on the N64. The cars look like little toys, and the tracks look like Scalextric. They wind and loop and veer, and yet it feels as if there’s absolutely nothing going on. The occasional boost pad adds colour, but, beyond that, there’s nothing here that couldn’t have been done on a home console from the Nineties. It’s a dog’s dinner of a game: old, aged, run down, embarrassing.
In the run up to the game’s release, Maclean trumpeted the 60 frames per second gameplay. In solo mode, the game does indeed run smoothly. But in multiplayer the game noticeably slows down – another disappointment.
And the music – oh the music. The techno soundtrack is so mind numbingly repetitive that it makes you pine for the days of 8-bit beeps and boops. If you were to bang your head against a wall 60 times a minute, it would make a more pleasing noise than the one Wheelspin invades your ears with.
Wheelspin’s only redeeming feature is the multiplayer battle mode. In it, various power ups grant you rockets and shields and the like, which you use to cause as much damage to opposing players as possible within a set time limit. The only reason it’s remotely playable is because the square tracks are wrapped in walls that prevent you from flying off into oblivion, so you at least get a decent amount of uninterrupted driving.
Overall, though, Wheelspin is scarily close to being a complete failure. There’s so little here of worth that someone must have known the project would end in disaster. It’s a game that comes across as an impressive university project rather than a retail released Wii game, failing to impress in all the areas that really matter. It’s not the worst game ever made, but it’s still hard to believe it made it into the white box sat on my desk.