Wheelman: My Cigarettes with Simon
TomChick - News - 04/20/08 - Link

"Could I impose on you for one of those?" I ask.

Simon Woodruff is a typically pale doughy English guy, lurking in a corner out on the pool patio. He puts his cigarette in his mouth so he can pull a Marlboro Light from the pack and hand it to me. I dont normally smoke, but, well, this is Las Vegas and Im drinking an awful martini out of a clear plastic cup like you'd find underfoot at a keg party. The dude at the bar jammed a wedge of lime lime! onto the rim, probably just to spite me for specifying "gin martini". These days, you never know what someone's going to put in the glass when you order a martini. Sign of the times. So now here I am with a bad martini with bits of citrus pulp along the rim of the cup, and a Marlboro Light to go with it.

Really, Im just looking for an excuse to talk to Woodroffe. And you can't beat sharing a cigarette when it comes to relating to someone. Frankly, that's what I miss most about smoking: the connection to other smokers.

Earlier in the evening, Woodroffe had presented Wheelman at Midway's press event here in Vegas. It's an arcade driving game due out this fall, created by the Newcastle studio formerly known as Pitbull Syndicate. The game is slathered with Vin Deisel's name, likeness, and voice. Woodroffe is its creative director, and he'd cited as its inspiration the great movie car chases: Ronin, Bourne Identity, Bullitt, and Vanishing Point, hed said. Any self-respecting car chase aficionado should have walked out of the room in protest. I looked around at the few hundred assembled people. Everyone was still seated. Philistines.

"So you missed one," I said after Woodroffe lit my cigarette. "Earlier tonight, during the presentation. When you mentioned the car chases. You missed the most important one."

"Yeah?" he says pleasantly. "Which one?"

"I can see why you might not consider it a car chase, since two cars aren't technically chasing each other. There's only one car and an elevated train. The French Connection." There. I'd just given him the what-for.

"We have a chase with a train," he says, nodding. There's a Metro in Barcelona, where Wheelman takes place, and Woodroffe explained that it even goes above ground.

Woodroffe politely listens while I smoke his cigarette and reel off the three C's of any good car chase: character, context, and choreography. In a movie car chase, you need all three, in that order of importance. I can hold forth at length about this. Don't think I won't. I totally will. Woodroffe listens and then gamely explains how Wheelman fits all three criteria.

The choreography are all the moments where the camera takes over to establish a set up for some sort of action set piece, or the controls that let you use the analog stick to jink the car from side to side to smash into adjacent vehicles, or the way the AI of a destroyed car will check the immediate environment for the most dramatic way to crash, or the fancy vehicle supermoves like spinning the car around to shoot in slo-mo at pursuing bad guys (i.e. a bullet-time rear turret). The context is the storyline, and the way the chases are set up like missions that tell the story. The Barcelona setting is part of the context, with its narrow streets, European flavor, and pedestrians. The character is the chatter during the driving and even some on-foot action sequences with the obligatory gunplay. And, of course, there's Vin Deisel, whose presence is a big selling point to me not because hes cool, but because hes not.

Woodroffe knows his stuff. I really just want to talk about car chases in movies, but he manages to bring it around to his game. This is, after all, a press event. But based on the hands-on demo and the presentation, I'm not entirely convinced of Wheelman's viability as a standalone game; it seems more like the driving sequences you'd find crammed into some other game.

Woodruffe lets me bend his ear long enough for us to share a second cigarette, and we even talk a bit about his previous job with the studio that made the Dark Corners of the Earth game, a surprisingly faithful adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's Shadow over Innsmouth.

My friend Thierry Nguyen, an editor at Gametap, later tells me he thinks there's a difference between low-brow car chases and high-brow car chases, which is probably about the smartest thing anyone has said to me after listening to me hold forth with my silly high-falutin' take on car chases, martini in one hand, borrowed cigarette in the other. And Wheelman ain't no BioShock. I'm guessing it'll work well enough as a straightforward actioney cash-in along the lines of Stranglehold, built for canned delivery of well-known movie moments.

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