Like most people, I enjoy watching movies in my spare time. Comedies, science fiction, dramas, and thrillers – I’m down with watching all of them. But the genre I love the most are action movies, especially the summer blockbuster. See, I’m an adrenaline junkie. The larger the stakes, the greater the rush. I’m talking giant explosions, massively destructive car chases and huge shootouts. But while movie stars get the lines, the girls and the glory, the real heroes are the men and women performing the stunts that entertain and amaze us all. However, Infogrames and Reflections present a title that gives newfound respect to these daredevils with their release of Stuntman.
As the title so obviously states, you step into the shoes, or should I say flame-retardant boots of a professional thrill-seeker on the set of a movie. However, unlike other titles, you don’t start out performing massive, death-defying stunts. Considering the danger and difficulty of the tricks involved, real stuntmen practice and study for years before working on larger, more perilous maneuvers. Stuntman is no different, and in Career Mode, it casts the player in the role of an apprentice stuntman on location of his first shoot. You also don’t start off on a major motion picture; instead, you begin on a B-movie title and attempt to work your way up through the ranks in Hollywood.
To do so, you will be given a set route to maneuver through. Every level that you drive corresponds to an action scene in the movie that you’re shooting. Before each initial take, a fellow stuntman gives a rundown on the major stunt you’ll have to do, as well as provides you with a glimpse of the surrounding areas you’ll be traveling through. This will be a good heads up as you slide behind the wheel of your car and prepare to fulfill the instructions of your director. During the course of the action, you’ll come across “scoring zones”, areas that the director wants you to perform specific tricks in. These are the ones that you’ve seen in every movie, such as the 180-degree turn, the chase and overtake of rival cars, or squeezing cars through narrow, paint-scraping gaps.
There are at least twelve different kinds of tricks you’ll potentially be asked to undertake, all of whom require skill, timing, and a little bit of luck. So don’t be surprised if you wind up repeating a sequence a few times before you get it right. In fact, you can consider all the mistakes “practice runs” before you finally succeed. Completing a sequence not only earns you points, but it also pads your paycheck that you receive at the end of the day. On top of that, you can receive bonuses for completing tricks accurately or finishing a shot faster than expected. Gaining extra money is important because you unlock additional toys and items with each successful sequence, and at the end of the movie, the amount of money you’ve earned helps you get a promotion to the next film. On top of that, you get to see the fruits of your labor showcased in a wide screen, Hollywood-style trailer that intersperses CG movies of actors from the film you were working on with scenes of your stunts.
Of course, the larger the movie, the more skill and practice will be required to pull off each stunt. Not only will you find them to be sequenced much closer together, but the margin for error becomes smaller and smaller. Fortunately, there are two other modes outside of Career Mode that allow you to hone your driving prowess: Stunt Arena with Construction Kit and Driving Tests. The Stunt arena is a large, open area where you can practice multiple stunts without the pressures of a director or a timer. At first, you’ll find yourself limited in the amount of ramps, obstacles, and smashable objects that are available. But as you complete more scenes in Career Mode, you’ll unlock more cars and items to be used in your training. All of these items can be placed and manipulated into massive stunt tracks and specialized arenas that can be saved or replayed. If this seems like a ton of work, you can jump into one of the Driving Tests. There are three types of test, all of which push you to the limits of your driving ability. Precision tests gauge your ability to complete a clearly outlined course in the time limit allowed. These tests include driving in forward and reverse, making sudden, accurate 180s, and razor sharp turns. Speed tests measure just how quickly you can complete a course in the time allotted, primarily the number of laps around a circuit. Stunt tests are exactly that: an exercise in completing a certain stunt, whether it’s taking out the top car on a pile or accelerating off a large ramp across a big gap.
Graphically, Stuntman is almost identical to Driver. This isn’t that surprising, considering that the makers of that title also created Stuntman. It’s also not a bad thing, considering that the Driver series has been critically lauded for its control and gameplay. However, considering that those games were PlayStation games, you’d hope there was a greater graphical improvement above what seems like a higher poly count face-lift. That being said, the stages within each level are populated with tons of action. You’ll find loads of people carrying on with their lives or work, driving around, or generally populating the areas that you’ll tear through like a bat out of hell. Additionally, the textures and backgrounds within each level are enough to satisfy even the pickiest player. Hell, technically you won’t even be paying attention to the backgrounds, because you’ll be too busy dealing with the gameplay to notice.
Stuntman also has one of the best in-game physics engines presented on the PS2, allowing for spectacular tricks and even more fantastic crashes. For example, you merely need to cartwheel your car once and watch as panels and doors fly off in the ensuing “landing” to realize that you’re in for a really big ride. This is further augmented by the camera angles and replays that are shown to you at the end of every completed stage and the final trailer at the end of every level. Even more than the ramps, cars or destructible items for the Stunt Arena, the replays feel like a greater reward when you look at them. Full of dynamic angles and specific shots, not only do the cameras manage to capture the feel and flavor of a movie, but it also frames your action perfectly. You’ll find yourself amazed when you’re shown what you’ve pulled off a few minutes earlier.
Aurally, the sound for Stuntman fits every stage perfectly. From the country twang featured in the background music of the “Dukes of Hazzard”-infused film to the fast-paced orchestral sound of the “John Woo”-like movie, the sounds presented serve to truly draw you into the action. The sound bytes from the trailers are no different, with the few voice-over actors they used for each final movie representing their respective genre well. The only voice that does sound repetitive is the director, which implies that as you move up in Hollywood, the director seems to ride your coattails into fame and glory. Equally annoying is his voice, which, after the 15th or 20th time you hear it makes you want to smash your volume control.
Which is rather unfortunate, since you need the sound to navigate through each level, especially the first few times that you go through a level. Because you don’t have a map or full on walkthrough of the course you’re driving on, you’re fully reliant on the instructions and icons that pop up onscreen to navigate your way through each stunt. This has two side effects, both of which detract from the game. The timing that you’ll need, especially on later levels, becomes that of Jedi-like status to flawlessly execute every trick as soon as the director says it. As tricks start getting strung together, the reliance on the director’s voice becomes greater and greater, up to the point where you stop concentrating on what you’re doing with the car and more on what’s being immediately told to you. This leads to the other detraction, which is that this continual reliance (and subsequent replaying of levels from unintentional disobedience) leads to levels not being explored, but followed through by rote. I understand that there has to be a certain linearity of plot or level within the game itself. What you can quickly find the game breaking down into is an speedy game of concentration, where you’ve made enough mistakes and traveled the course enough to know where every pitfall was, lending you the ability to fly through each level with a nearly flawless performance.
That’s not to leave out the fact that this game is tough. Very tough. I wouldn’t have continually brought up the timing or skill required for this game if I didn’t think that there wasn’t some level of proficiency needed to play. However, there are quite a few moments where even the best stuntman would throw up his hands in frustration. That’s because the control of your cars is so infuriatingly bad, you’ll find yourself sliding and fighting for control of your car multiple times. Handling notwithstanding, getting the response out of your brakes or acceleration that you want can sometimes be hit or miss. There were many moments when I would attempt a trick the exact same way, with the same speed, same angle of approach and same pressure (as far as I could detect) on my game controller, and my chances of pulling off high-risk stunts wasn’t based off skill, but what seemed like the roll of the dice.
Similarly, hitting the action button in its allotted zone never felt solid, forcing a slamming of the button to make sure that I’d fulfilled that task where I was supposed to. Needless to say, controllers beware of this button mashing, because the anger that can well up inside of you can make their safety truly endangered. (I have pieces of a dual shock to prove it). This can screw you in tons of ways, especially when you’re close to a stunt area and the director calls off the shot because they feel like you didn’t do the trick the way they wanted you to. But adding insult to the control injury that you’ll face constantly are the insanely long load times that you’ll suffer through the 15th, 20th, 25th time, etc. as you try to make your way through the levels. I can understand that the game is continually saving a replay of your game as you play a level so you can be offered dynamic camera angles, but I wouldn’t think that it would need to load every potential angle for the whole level nor should it keep any of that data if your shot is prematurely ended.
Personally, I think I gained a greater respect for the training and the Patience that stuntmen and women have in the preparation, practice and follow thru of their craft. This was also augmented by the special feature interviews of the legendary Vic Armstrong and Tommy “Trubble” McTague, which give additional insight into why and how these fearless individuals do what they do. But aside from the vocational admiration, Stuntman imparts a great sense of the drama and danger involved in carrying off the jaw-dropping stunts that amaze us in the theaters. A unique twist on the racing/driving genre, Stuntman gives players a new side of the driving game they’ve never experienced. In addition, the movie trailers that feature actual gameplay provide added incentives to perform every stunt with perfection. Unfortunately, the control scheme and the dependency on rote memorization, not to mention the immense difficulty level diminishes the quality of the game. It’s definitely worth a rental, but racing fans, action junkies and those with amazing amounts of patience will probably love this more than most gamers.