Reviewed: July 1, 2002
Reviewed by: Mark Smith
I must admit that I have been eagerly awaiting Stuntman since I first heard of its upcoming release late last year. The more I kept hearing, the more I wanted to get my hands on this potential groundbreaking game. After all, it was being developed by Reflections Interactive, the people who made Destruction Derby; one of the biggest selling titles for the original PlayStation. Reflections followed up this mega hit in 1996 with Destruction Derby 2, which sold nearly as many copies and took their unique brand of realistic car physics to the next level.
Then Driver and Driver 2 released a few years later proving that you could combine a driving game with a killer story and create an entirely unique gameplay experience. The Driver series is still heralded as one of the best driving games available for the original PlayStation.
Now we have a new powerful new system and Reflections is back to show us what they’ve been cooking in their studio for the past couple years. Stuntman borrows on several of the gameplay fundamentals we have seen in their previous offerings and combines them to create a driving game like no other.
I still can’t figure out if Stuntman is meant to be some kind of insider’s look into the world of a stuntman or just a reckless driving game with a series of “trick lines”, much like Tony Hawk Pro Skater or Aggressive Inline. The presentation gives the impression that you are taking part in some kind of documentary. You conduct pre-stunt interviews with a cameraman and explain how certain stunt devices function.
Unfortunately, I happen to have a good deal of knowledge of the filmmaking process with heavy emphasis on stuntmen and the “gags” they risk their lives for to create the amazing action sequences we all take for granted. Anyone with even partial knowledge of the stunt process will quickly realize how fast the authenticity of this game falls apart – assuming it was ever intended.
The first thing I noticed is the length of the gags in this game. In real life, any one of the Stuntman gags would be broken up into many smaller stunts. You aren't going to risk a multi-million dollar gag on the timing of a half-dozen stunts leading up to that big explosion. In real life, the environment is often manipulated around the stuntman, but in this game you are required to be in the exact spot at the exact time or you lose.
Of course realism isn’t the driving force behind Stuntman. If this game were realistic then movies would cost billions instead of millions; at least with me behind the wheel wrecking 127 cars to complete one series of gags for one movie. And while I can forgive just about every concession made to emphasize fun over realism, I cannot forgive the lack of a proper “briefing” before each stunt.
When a real stunt is being prepared for a real movie every single aspect is planned and discussed with the director, stunt coordinator, and the stuntmen. You take a thorough informative walk through the set and discuss every action that is going to take place. In this game you are given a micro-movie that shows two or three highlights of what you will soon learn is an enormous string of gags. You are then placed behind the wheel and verbally instructed to perform all sorts of “surprise moves”. This ultimately tests your reflexes rather than your ability as a stunt driver.
And then there are just some things where you are guaranteed to fail. One level has a corkscrew jump and the opening movie makes a point of telling you that you “need to hit the ramp at just the right speed as predicted by the NASA computer”, but nobody ever tells you what that speed is. This means that unless you lead a charmed life you are probably going to hit the ramp too slow or too fast and rotate too much or not enough then land on your roof. And since this is the final stunt of a lengthy run of gags, you get to repeat the entire sequence to try this jump at a new speed.
Stuntman is designed around the premise of you being an upcoming young stuntman. You begin working on low-budget movies doing simple gags like car chases. Between movies you work in a stunt show that earns you extra cash and stunt toys (more about those in a minute).
You get a small movie at the beginning of each of the six movies you will be working on describing what the movie is about. Then you get another movie before each of the stunts that gives you some of the back-story from the movie and outlining the stunt in very vague detail.
You then get behind the wheel of one of several cars and start driving around performing moves and stunts at the command of the director who is in constant radio contact with you. An icon of your next stunt appears in the corner so you have some idea of what’s ahead. As you complete or fail each of these smaller gags a meter fills up in the other corner. This shows the director’s satisfaction with the overall stunt. If you meet his minimal standards you collect your check and some new toys and move on. If not, you try again, and again, and again, and again.
All of this leads to a very frustrating gaming experience where you start a level, do a few gags, crash or run out of time, then start over. Each time you hope to get a little further until you eventually figure out the entire sequence. Then you’ll usually find you have missed something along the way and will be tempted to replay it all over to better your score and your fee.
Some of these sequences are quite long and it could take you dozens of retries to even get to the later gags, then as you fail, retry, and learn these you still have to do the gags leading up to this point and risk failing at any of these. Here is an example from “A Whoopin and a Hollerin”.
This is the second movie in your ongoing career as a stuntman. It is a blatant rip-off of The Dukes of Hazzard complete with a pair of “innocent brothers” on the run in an orange car complete with a number on the roof. I was almost hoping for the signature horn from the General Lee, but I guess that may have called down the wrath of the TNT syndication lawyers. To further test the limits of their plagiarism, the main gag you perform in the opening stunt is a direct rip-off (or is it homage) to the fantastic finale in Burt Reynold’s Hooper.
For those of you who haven’t seen the movie, or those who have forgotten it; the final sequence has Burt and his partner screaming around a town as it is blowing up. They race under a pair of towering smokestacks as they fall into the road, just narrowly missing our heroes, and then the stunt ends with a breathtaking rocket jump across a blown-up bridge.
In “A Whoopin and a Hollerin” you start off on a dirt road. Once up to speed you fishtail through a section of fence and ramp off a cliff arcing over a house and hopefully through the chimney. When you hit the road you make a sharp right and follow the road to the railroad crossing. Driving between the waiting cars you drive up the conveniently located ramp arcing over the train just as the boxcars turn to flatbeds. Hang another right and drive through a burning building then right again as you race back toward the train.
You now have a 2-3 second window to race up the ramp and go through the open doors of a boxcar and out the other side. If you are ahead or behind schedule in the overall stunt then you will smash into the boxcar rather than go through it. Now you follow the verbal prompts driving all around town as explosions rock the streets. You must get really close to some cars without touching them, crash through a fence into a backyard, and use a ramp to jump over an in-ground pool before smashing through another fence.
Drive through a gas station as it explodes then hang a sharp right and race down a long stretch as those smokestacks start to fall. Again, if you are just two or three seconds behind schedule you are going to hit a pile of bricks already lying in the road or the entire stack is going to crush your car. Either way, it’s game over. Once you make it past this giant obstacle you are just a few hairpin turns away from a ramp that sends you through a billboard and over a creek. One final turn and you can hit the Nitro button and sail over the broken bridge making sure to stop in the designated landing area.
Now, I was able to explain that level in three paragraphs, and when you finally complete it the entire level only takes two minutes tops. Now imagine a game that is designed to make you repeat this level over and over. It took me 127 attempts and just over 90 minutes to get past this level – and no, I don’t suck at this game. It’s just that hard. Sure, this is an extreme example. I was able to blaze through some stunts getting a 100% score on my first try, but those are the exception; not the rule.
Let’s look at some trouble spots in the previously described level. Stunts involving stationary objects aren't too bad, but when you have to interact with moving objects – like a train – then timing becomes critically insane. You are penalized if you are behind schedule (you hit a boxcar) and penalized if you are doing too well (you hit the engine). You are also on a strict timer that resets at several checkpoints, but you will almost always be seeing a 3-5 second countdown as you approach each of these – hardly a friendly margin for error. You also have car damage, and if you wreck your car beyond a certain point the director will call “CUT!”
There are a hundred things that can go wrong and only one way to do it right. Discovering this perfect combination of speed and control will test every ounce of patience and skill you possess. But as frustrating and repetitive as this game is, I found myself strangely compelled to keep on playing.
Perhaps it is the fact that you seldom have more than 60-90 seconds invested in any given mission before you find yourself starting over. Perhaps it is how the overall stunt unfolds differently each time you play it. Out of those 127 retries, I never “died” in the same place or in the same way twice. When asked by some fellow gamers what I thought about Stuntman I said, “I hate this game so much I can’t stop playing it.”
The career mode is the core of Stuntman and consists of several movies. Each movie has you executing several series of stunts and when the director finally yells those famous words, “Cut and print”, you are treated to a movie trailer that consists of pre-rendered CGI scenes cut together with actual footage from your previous stunts. It’s really quite amazing and almost makes it worth all the frustration it took you to get there.
There is also a brilliant replay mode that lets you watch entire levels from a multitude of camera angles. You can save these to your memory card and relive your favorite moments for time eternal. The only thing missing is an actual replay editor that would let you edit the replays and cut them together or lock down camera angles for certain scenes before saving. Perhaps in the sequel?
There are plenty of mini-games to keep you busy after you have retired the career mode. Precision, speed, and stunt tests will hone your all of you driving abilities. These games are unlocked as you complete movies or the entire career mode.
A full-featured stunt construction set is also available. If you have ever designed a stunt park in the Tony Hawk or Ricky Carmichael games then you know what to expect. The interesting twist is that the objects and cars you use in the construction set must all be unlocked by playing the career mode and performing well.
The opening FMV movie features classic b/w footage of old movie stunts dating clear back to the origins of motion pictures. It then swiftly moves into modern day stunts complete with a rocking soundtrack and plenty of pyrotechnics.
The rendered movies in the game are all exceptionally well done. The characters and objects, while obviously CG, are all quite realistic with shadows, reflections and realistic camera angles fitting of a documentary.
Thing go bad when you start playing the game. The graphics are certainly not competitive with current games being released on the PS2. The models are made up of only an average amount of polygons and the colors and textures are almost always washed out and not very detailed.
The damage model is very impressive, obviously borrowing from Destruction Derby, and cars will crunch and break apart with great flair. But damage is not always predictable. If an object is not "meant" to be smashed it has the integrity of a concrete wall. You can hit a rotten fence post and it will stop your car like a steel beam. This means that even a grazing blow against a wall, tree, or dumpster can destroy your car and end the stunt.
There are plenty of “things” in each level such as traffic, people, buildings, and mission-specific items. This gives each level a very lifelike feel, as something is always in motion aside from your car. Considering that each level would be a controlled movie set in real-life, the sheer complexity of these environments is very impressive. Adding to the complexity is the fact that every object, no matter how small, casts very realistic and dynamic shadows.
Unfortunately, all this complexity comes at a heavy price. Stuntman features some of the worst frame rate problems I have seen of any of the recently released PS2 titles. At best, you might milk 25-30fps from this title during normal driving conditions, but as soon as you smash through a building, crash through a fence, drive through a stack of boxes, or perform any sharp steering maneuvers that cause large sections of the background to scroll this game crawls almost to the point of being unplayable.
These problems are only made worse when you find yourself driving down dirt roads chasing a car that is kicking up a cloud of dust. This added level of transparent complexity chokes the gameplay, and when you are forced to make a hairpin turn using the handbrake you can actually count the 1…2…3…4…5 frames it takes to finish the turn.
Since many of the stunts require very precise actions like passing between cars without hitting them or lining up precisely with a ramp, any jerkiness in the frame rate is just added difficulty and frustration to an already extremely difficult game. If you are a hardcore driver then you can choose a “behind-the-wheel” view, which narrows the field of vision and almost doubles the frame rate. This viewing mode is very hard to drive from; perhaps harder than just learning to deal with the poor frame rate.
The replays are fantastic, but they too suffer from poor frame rates ONLY when the camera is in motion. If you are viewing the action from a stationary camera the game looks amazing – almost like a real movie. It’s too bad the entire game couldn’t look as good as these static camera shots.
The interesting thing about the soundtrack is just how forgettable it really is. I hate country music, so you would think that after 127 attempts at the first level of “A Whoopin and a Hollerin’” I would be ripping my ears off, but oddly enough, the country twang never even bothered me. I just tuned it out as I concentrated on my engine RPM’s and instructions from the director.
The voices are all exceptionally well done. The main character (you) has a sufficiently macho and intelligent voice. He sounds confident that he knows what he is doing and smart enough to communicate this to the documentary crew. The actors portrayed in the movie trailers are all excellent and suited to each individual film.
The only voice that began to wear thin near the end of the game was the director. Apparently, no matter what movie you work on in whatever country, you are always working for the same guy. It would have been a real coup if Reflections could have gotten some famous directors to call out the commands, but it is probably beneath Spielberg to sit in a recording studio and shout out “Hard left”, “Hit the boxes”, and would you recognize their voices anyway? Maybe John Woo.
Stuntman is a 2-hour game that will take you 200 hours to complete. Okay; that’s an exaggeration but you get the idea. There just isn’t a lot here, yet it will keep you playing over and over. I still can’t put my finger on the almost-supernatural hold this game has over me. My fingers ache and my controller is cracked from repeated bashings into the floor, but I keep playing and playing – even the levels that I have already finished.
And if you are able to break free from the evil Stuntman spell you might just fall into the mini-game trap or even worse, get lost in the stunt construction set. You will be doing movie stunts over and over again just to create a better replay than your last, then you will be boring your friends with your replays much like your parents do with those vacation slides from the Bahamas.
Reflections gets kudos for a totally original gameplay experience, and I can only hope that they can tweak the engine before they release any future sequels. And this game is so suited for a sequel. You have the premise in place – just add new movie sets, locations, and stunts.
I can give you a dozen reasons not to get this game including; average graphics, horrible frame rates, and repetitive gameplay, and I can only give you one reason to get it – it is FUN! This is one of those very rare games where the fun factor is just so high that you can force yourself to overlook even the substantial flaws.