A large part of the fun in driving games is the sense of speed. Car and simulation enthusiasts definitely enjoy taking a turn just the right way, but, as far as arcadish fun is concerned, the slowing down part is never really a high point. Now Wheelman might be disguising itself as an open-world, set-piece game based on a cheesy, over-the-top summer blockbuster that never happened (or, rather, hasn’t happened yet), but, at its heart, it’s just a good ol’ arcade game.
The driving itself borrows heavily from Burnout. Destroying other cars triggers a dramatic replay that’s pretty much the takedown effect, while going really fast and smashing into other vehicles fills up a special meter. None of this is quite as extravagant as Burnout, but it works. The focus meter grants the use of the ubiquitous boost and a few other special moves.
The first is the focus shot. Executing one of these slows down time and moves the camera inside the car. At this point, Milo Burik, Vin Diesel’s character, whips out a gun and any possible targets are overlaid with a circular bullseye. This bullet time section allows the player to concentrate on shooting instead of driving, which is useful for picking off pursuers and breaking through roadbloacks (which, conveniently, are often composed of a gas tanker or two).
The second special move is the cyclone. It also slows down time for shooting-gallery purposes, but it results in the player’s character turning the car 180 degrees, putting it in reverse (so it’s still moving in the same direction as it was before the move was executed), firing off a couple of shots, then finally turning it around and putting it back into gear.
Oh, and Milo Burik is also a superhuman who can leap out of the car he’s driving and hijack other vehicles on-the-go.
Is it starting to sound arcadish yet?
Well, possibly Wheelman’s most arcadish aspect is the car melee attack. Now weaponless combat is common in driving games. Rocketing forward at hundreds of miles per hour while trying to steer your opponents into obstacles — and avoiding the same fate — can be great fun. It also doesn’t require any extra input and uses existing game elements, so it’s a very organic mechanic.
In Wheelman, however, this tactic is explicitly appended by player input.
Flicking the right analog stick either left or right propels the player’s car in the corresponding direction. At first, this might seem entirely extraneous. After all, why introduce extra input for tried and tested gameplay (it certainly wouldn’t have been my first instinct)?
Well, the brilliance of “car melee attack” is that it’s not quite the same old mechanic. In driving games, it’s necessary to turn your whole car in order to manually home in on other vehicles, i.e., the car’s front wheels turn, and the rest of it follows. Wheelman’s melee move, though, is more of an instant strafe. In execution, it allows the player to smash against adjacent cars without changing the angle of direction. It’s not at all realistic, but it results in some pretty aggressive driving where the player doesn’t have to worry about going off-course.
An interesting side effect of this mechanic is that it also alters the non-combat aspect of driving. The ability to instantly strafe adds an extra layer to the navigation of the game world, particularly when driving against oncoming traffic.
The melee car attack is definitely a unique concept, and it enhances Wheelman a lot more than some of its other flashy mechanics.