2008 seems to have been a little unfair on Midway. The publisher have been battling internal structural issues, technical debacles and rising debt for months, and just when it looked as if everything was falling into place, Viacom boss Sumner Redstone sells his interests in the company for a pittance plunging the game maker once again into the maelstrom. Turmoil aside, we recently got a hands-on glimpse at Wheelman, the new open-world driving game the firm will be hoping can lead a resurgence in 2009.
Developed between Vin Diesel-backed outfit Tigon and Midway Newcastle, the new racer-come-shooter is basically a paired-down version of Vin-in-Grand Theft Auto. Playing as Vin/hero Milo, players will be infiltrating organised crime in Catalan city Barcelona, running and driving through a fairly accurate open-world take on the Spanish metropolis, complete with cathedrals, palm trees, blue skies and boulevards.
Upon jumping into the game, the role of GTA as inspiration-major is immediately evident from the HUD, which offers a mini-map view, complete with waypoints and message notifications. A la Rockstar's seminal hit, you'll be taking on missions through a fairly linear plot, complimented by the ability to go wherever you want between narrative-led segments, which includes a number of entertaining side diversions.
While you can run around on foot, the game encourages you and eventually forces you into the car - from where the majority of the missions play out - Milo tasked with various chase/escape/deliver/race-style tasks, using a broad range of vehicles including bikes, cars, trucks and more. It is during the essential missions that proceedings start to feel less like GTA, and more like Criterion's Burnout, Wheelman's focus on over-the-top, high-speed car chases, through traffic-laden streets far more tuned to a racing-style experience than an open-world shooter.
While some of the missions do begin on foot, Wheelman feels far more comfortable in-car, where you'll find yourself using traffic to take out other cars, and involving yourself in melee-style fracases with your rival drivers. The focus here is on Hollywoodesque freneticism, car chars involving dozens of vehicles, all bouncing around the road in a fashion that wouldn't be out of place in a Vin Diesel movie. Shooting isn't left behind either, as having built up sufficient 'kudos' through driving players can flick to slow-motion segments, swinging the car to take highly accurate pot-shots at on-road rivals; both in front of and behind your own vehicle. You can also bang-away less-accurately while driving normally, and once again this side of things seems to do a good job of enhancing the game's cinematic pretensions.
Taking a leaf out of Crackdown's book, worn-out vehicles can be dispensed with mid-race by leaping salmon-like onto NPC vehicles in the vicinity, adding another manic dimension to already insane chases through the city streets. Apparently, Barcelona was chosen because, although it is one of Europe's most iconic cities, it hasn't been represented in a major game previously, Midway going to town on the detail of this open-world, complete with loads of incidental details: traffic, pedestrians, right down to Catalan and Spanish dialogue.
Midway Newcastle have apparently involved some fairly cunning systems 'under the hood' of the game, that will ensure accesibility while at the same time aiding players in pulling off some truly ludicrous moves. Coming to a complete halt is remarkably difficult, the game subtly guiding the car, and keeping the action flowing, rewarding downright implausible jumps, turns and twists. In one particularly fun segment I found myself leaping through an office building, complete with spraying glass and diving pen-pushers. Even though this was clearly meant to happen it didn't feel like I was cajoled into taking such a route, and this makes the sheer over-the-top splendour of such indulgences all the more enjoyable.
Mission variety is promised, and this remains to be seen, but Midway are keen to point out that a GTA clone this is not, Wheelman positioning you as a hero, a mercenary, but a hero none the less. There's also a noticeable absence of gore, and generally speaking the innocent pedestrians won't find themselves under your wheels, hapless bystanders launching themselves out of your way as you hurtle along the pavement, racing against the clock or struggling to keep up with a target.
During another mission we take in a bull ring, and Midway's choice of setting has even raised the shackles of Barcelona's major, a testament to the accuracy of the representation. Another time we found ourselves marauding through a mall, culminating in a chase with a subway train through subterranean tunnels; shooting to decouple carriages as we honed in on our prey. This is Burnout meets GTA meets XXX, with a smattering of epic, tongue-in-cheek absurdity thrown in for good measure.
Cars are a focus, then, and on playing the game it is apparent fairly early why only two manufacturers would allow their vehicles to be licensed, namely because vehicles in the game will and do get utterly destroyed, requiring you to switch transport rapidly in order to escape exploding wreckages and continue the mission. The physics are, of course, more than a little forgiving, although the cars do have some momentum, and different vehicles certainly feel very different from one another, as I discovered while trying to steal an articulated truck during one particular challenge.
With a 60-70 square-kilometre world promised, Midway have gone all out to ensure even the backstreets offer interest to the player, with numerous side diversions on offer. No dates or darts, however. While there are various modes on offer, and several parts to the main singleplayer experience, Wheelman's developers have opted - perhaps wisely - against going head-to-head with Burnout via the inclusion of a multiplayer mode. Apparently, the mode was tested but such is the importance of the slow-motion shoot-outs that in the end it was decided that this simply wouldn't work with multiple 'real' players.
Apparently, Diesel himself has taken a very close interest in the game, the Hollywood action man keen to follow on from the success of Chronicles of Riddick. As such, he frequently offers his thoughts on the game (beyond "make my arms bigger", although this has been mentioned, the team joke). Apparently, Diesel carries a mobile gaming paradise with him wherever he films, and can frequently be heard hollering "you've been killed by Vin Diesel!" on Xbox Live. Wheelman's Milo is certainly Diesel, then, and there's likely to be a film based on the game at some point in 2009. DLC is also a possibility, depending upon the reception that greets the game at release.
So, what are we left with? Well, as a Vin Diesel inspired driving/shooting romp, Midway seem to have struck a good balance, especially when it comes to the welcome introduction of the open-world aspect, which is looking surprisingly good given the technical challenge of such a feature. The Hollywood driving angle is a good one, ripe for exploration, and while there are undoubtedly question marks over the plot, and the inclusion of on-foot portions, we're willing to give Vin and co the benefit of the doubt until February comes around. Well, I'm not going to argue with the big man, are you?