Apr 4, 2012

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Wheels of Destruction Review

Wheels of Destruction Review

Multiplayer shooters are a dime a dozen these days, but the same can’t be said for titles in the car combat sub-genre. Twisted Metal, the franchise that first popularized this mayhem, recently returned from hiatus with a full-fledged reboot, and PSN exclusive Wheels of Destruction seems to borrow from its ancestor’s design principles. Unfortunately, the results are far less successful. There’s definitely a bit of multiplayer fun to be had with this digital release, and developer Gelid Games twists what we know about vehicles to offer a novel experience with unfamiliar appeal. However, the sheen soon wears away to reveal a game devoid of atmosphere that’s paper-thin on content and lacking in gameplay balance. For a good time with dedicated PSN weekend warriors, Wheels of Destruction fits the bill. For anyone seeking multiplayer deathmatch with any kind of longevity, look elsewhere.

On the surface, Wheels of Destruction comes across as a mash-up of Unreal Tournament 3 and the aforementioned Twisted Metal, minus creepy clowns and murder exploitation. The former lends some of its visual appeal to the game. Industrial greys and browns make vivid holographic pickups stand out in sci-fi settings absolutely brimming with verticality. Unfortunately, the visual similarity stops there. Where Unreal Tournament 3 took us to exotic battlegrounds of cyberpunk fantasy and tropical warfare, Wheels of Destruction doesn’t dare to deviate from the vaguely industrial. The futuristic and seemingly war-torn maps, set in locales like Paris and Seattle, fail to capture any sense of their real-life counterparts. This would be fine if the game presented any context for these changes, but other than one-or-two-sentence descriptions given on the map selection screen, you’re left completely in the dark.

This lack of exposition digs at the root of my biggest concern with Wheels of Destruction. The whole thing feels rather vapid and lifeless, much like the shell of a game that could matter if it were only given more reason for being. Twisted Metal has clown-fueled insanity and Calypso’s crazed tournament. Mario Kart has the nostalgic conflicts of dearly beloved characters. Even Call of Duty and Battlefield offer the basic premise of terrorists vs. counter-terrorists within an assumed global conflict. This context, however slim, at least elevates the competitive shooting to something of a meaningful experience. What does Wheels of Destruction offer? I gleaned more about the game’s background and post-apocalyptic setting from the single-paragraph description on the PlayStation Store than anything in-game. Without a reason to fight, what reason do I have to care?

This feeling of lifelessness extends to the presentation and lackluster content as well. From a technical standpoint, the visuals impress and use Unreal Engine 3 to effectively rank among the better-looking digital games on the platform. In contrast, barely noticeable music fails to contribute excitement in any meaningful way. Menus are slick, but the gritty blood-tinged art style seems to contrast with the maps themselves. At least the game does a great job of getting you into the action fast. A single button press from the main menu will put you in a Ranked match of any game mode almost immediately, but you’ll see and do all that Wheels has to offer among its five maps and three modes in a few hours. An offline mode exists but is far from the game’s intended experience, and offers only simulated multiplayer matches with fairly competent bots. As a strictly multiplayer game, Wheels of Destruction lives or dies on its longevity, and that depends on how the player receives its gameplay.

In that regard, Wheels is far from a lost cause. Five vehicle classes offer players a mix of durability and speed on the battlefield, and excelling at the game comes in part through paying close attention to your opponent’s strengths and countering those with an advantageous vehicle and weapon. In old-school shooter fashion, neither health nor shields regenerate, and are instead supplemented with pickups on the map. Many of these are strewn along well-traveled lines, but other (more powerful) goodies can be found in hard-to-reach places. Weighing the option of taking more time to collect pickups but returning to battle a more capable opponent scratches the gameplay itch long left to fester by the preset load-outs and regenerating health of modern shooters. A variety of weapons are also available for those willing to seek them out, but the majority fail to notably innovate. Homing rockets, sniper fire, and flamethrowers are familiar inclusions and feel powerful but generic. That said, alt-fire functions for each weapon can make for interesting shoot-outs.

Unfortunately, even these weapons feel irrelevant compared to the power and versatility of the shotgun you start with. With a tap of L1, your main gun’s alt-fire releases a concentrated surge of shells that is enough to insta-kill any recently spawned Assassin, Scout, or Soldier at short-to-medium range. This often makes for the kind of cheap kills that gamers condemn in other multiplayer shooters, and they feel out-of-place in a car combat game. Much of the fun in this genre comes from the chase and how your skill in drifting and navigating tight spots complements your shooting. There’s plenty of good times to be had in Wheels with such thrills, but the ease with which you can camp and succeed feels inappropriate.

Thankfully, weapon balance is the kind of thing that can be progressively updated with feedback from the player community. The developer may also want to look at control refinements. The point-to-steer mechanic places all aiming and driving on the left analog stick, while R2 accelerates. This makes careening across wide-open lanes a breeze, but the lock-on mechanic feels a bit too easy for a competitive shooter. Your reticule, placed within a visual frame corresponding to the equipped weapon, will lock-on to any opponent who falls within a certain range of the center. What that range is, I cannot say. It feels different for each weapon, yet the difference is never quantified or explained. Furthermore, vertical targeting is inconsistent and turns potential (and seemingly obvious) sniper perches into useless spots of dead map space. Point-to-steer also has trouble keeping up with movement through tight corners and hallways, especially after coming to a stop and needing to reverse. Still, my complaints don’t give Wheels quite enough credit. The game is actually quite responsive and generally pleasant to control, but room has certainly been left for improvement.

My review may seem overwhelmingly negative, but there’s no denying that Wheels of Destruction offers at least some multiplayer thrills that build upon the competitive formula of games like Unreal Tournament and Quake while infusing a vehicular twist. Unfortunately, that’s all you get here. The formula is solid, but Wheels of Destruction cannot stand out as an obvious $10 purchase without any sort of innovation. If you can find friends to play with, five maps and three modes will only keep you busy and entertained for a weekend or two. Beyond that, the lifeless atmosphere and imperfect controls will almost certainly diminish your long-term enjoyment. If you’ve got a band of brothers looking for some car-combat action, Twisted Metal will serve you better. For anyone not already interested in the genre, Wheels of Destruction will do little to attract you.

Wheels of Destruction
Platform: PlayStation 3 (PSN)
Genre: Car Combat
Release Date: 04/03/12
Developer: Gelid Games
Publisher: Gelid Games
ESRB Rating: E (Everyone)
MSRP: $9.99