The lights are on
When Wheelman was announced back in 2006, the project was full of promise. It had big star Vin Diesel attached along with his boutique development house Tigon Studios (which also worked on the great The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay). It was tied to a film of the same name and the stories would weave together. Over the years to its 2009 release, however, publisher Midway's financial problems kept getting worse, and the film counterpart never got off the ground (much like Midway's failed attempt to tie a movie to 2006 game Spy Hunter: Nowhere to Run). Out of all the turmoil, primary developer Midway Studios - Newcastle somehow managed to turn in a fun popcorn flick of a driving game with ridiculous, yet exciting Hollywood-style action around every turn.
Players control Milo Burik, Vin Diesel’s undercover agent in Barcelona who has a free pass to cause as much destruction and chaos as he wants as long as he brings the gangs down. As the gravelly-voiced badass, Milo is constantly one-upping notorious criminals with sassy one-liners. They even appreciate his brazen attempts to walk up and talk to them after he’s stolen one of their fancy cars or roughed up an underling. A small-time crook/femme fatale named Lumi only seems to exist for Milo to stoically reject her advances.
Okay, so the story’s not great. But the driving is completely awesome. Milo’s signature move involves jumping from the car or bike he’s currently driving to the one in front of him. See a fancy sports car up ahead? In a matter of physically impossible moments it’s now yours. What if a bunch of bad guys are on your tail? Milo can pull a 180, drive backwards, and in slow motion fire off a few super bullets that will make cars explode instantly. This move takes a while to build up so you can’t spam it, but the standard car combat is quite satisfying on its own. While driving you can flick the right stick to slam into cars on the sides or in the front. If you jam a vehicle into a wall the camera will showcase the flying, flaming wreckage complete with the ragdolled driver body flailing through the air. Thrilling set pieces roll out one after another with everything from train chases to semi-truck faceoffs.
Before you get too excited, Milo does get out of the car for some third-person shooting and that’s not so great. It’s certainly no Uncharted or Gears of War, but it’s never too long before Milo’s back behind the wheel. Some couldn’t get over these on-foot shooting segments, but I was willing to put up with them for all the other fun to be had.
About a month before Wheelman’s release, Midway filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Fortunately, Ubisoft stepped in to help Midway publish the game shortly thereafter. It released to mixed reviews in March, 2009 and the team at Midway Newcastle scrambled to get its next project ready to present to the world in June. Necessary Force looked like it could have been a cool take on the action driving genre (with a new focus on improved out-of-car gameplay), but no deals materialized. In July, Warner Bros. bought Midway and a few days later Midway Newcastle was shut down. The former employees scattered to various other projects and companies never to complete Necessary Force. Every once in awhile I think back and wonder what this noir-tinged spiritual successor to Wheelman would have been like. Who knows, maybe in today’s Kickstarter-fueled gaming world enough members of the core team could have stuck together and made a new driving action game. Maybe I’m alone in my crazy dream. At least I’ll always have Barcelona.