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Wheelman

Heavy borrowing from two great videogames plus a big Hollywood star don't quite rev the engine of "Wheelman," Midway's awkward attempt to meld "Grand Theft Auto's" open world with "Burnout's" action racing into a vehicle for Vin Diesel.

Borrowing heavily from two great vidgames and putting a star in the driver’s seat aren’t enough to rev the engines of “Wheelman.” Midway’s awkward attempt to meld “Grand Theft Auto’s” open world with “Burnout’s” action racing into a vehicle for Vin Diesel is full of exciting moments – and has a few genuinely innovative features – but never finds a compelling identity of its own and will quickly speed off gamers’ radars.

Set up more than three years ago as a simultaneous game/movie project at Paramount and Midway, “Wheelman” has suffered numerous development delays, seen its film companion fall aside, and was ultimately bought by Ubisoft after Midway declared bankruptcy this winter.

Time hasn’t been kind to the game. What might have seemed like competent copying a couple of years ago pales next to 2008’s “Burnout: Paradise” and “Grand Theft Auto IV.” “Wheelman” offers a few spectacular racing mechanics, but otherwise fails to meet the mark of those top-shelf inspirations.

Diesel plays Milo Burik, an undercover agent investigating gangs in Barcelona. The plot is a convoluted, underdeveloped mess that seems to have been abandoned mid-production by the developers, as cutscenes often stop abruptly and are concluded in voiceovers. It’s just as well, since the story is ultimately tacked onto the gameplay.

Those who enjoy “Wheelman” will be attracted by its ultraviolent street races, which make “Fast and Furious” look like “Herbie the Love Bug.” With a simple set of controls, players can ram nearby cars, slow down time to shoot enemies in front of or behind them, or even leap out a window and “airjack” a nearby vehicle. Though not nearly as well executed as the “Burnout” games, “Wheelman’s” auto action is great fun, particularly when the developers shake things up by putting the player in a tractor trailer or racing in a pedestrian walkway that’s barely one car wide.

If “Wheelman” had focused entirely on over-the-top driving and abandoned the badass cop story, it would have been a much more compelling product. The result of attempting both is extreme tonal conflict. It’s difficult to take anything Milo says or does seriously when he’s been jumping from roof to roof in cars speeding more than 100 miles per hour.

Most players will ignore the nondriving elements, which is just as well, since the streets of Barcelona are disturbingly empty and the occasional on-foot action is terrible. A better option is to focus on the game’s dozens of short, fast-paced side missions in which gamers earn rewards by racing enemies or “airjacking” as many cars as possible in several minutes. It’s here, when it abandons pretensions of being anything but an arcade racer, that “Wheelman” is at its best – but also where the lack of online multiplayer is most glaring, and where many small but annoying flaws are magnified.

Onscreen directions are particularly poor, for instance. Instead of marking turns clearly, “Wheelman” uses a small compass in the corner of the screen to point players in the right general direction. In addition, important instructions are often given in Spanish during driving sequences and translated into subtitles, forcing English-speaking players to choose between watching the road or reading the dialogue.

Voiceovers are generally weak, with Diesel delivering a particularly flat performance despite his producing credit and name above the title (an incredibly rare occurrence in the videogame world). Production values are otherwise solid, though the overwhelmingly bright, primary colors that dominate “Wheelman’s” palette give it a slightly creepy Crayola feel.

Wheelman

Reviewed on Xbox 360. Rated T. $50 - $60.

Production: A Midway and Ubisoft presentation of a game developed by Midway Newcsastle and produced by Tigon Studios for the PC, Playstation 3, and Xbox 360.

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