Version tested: Xbox 360
Sometimes the things you end up liking most are those that completely blindside you. Having precisely zero expectations of Stuntman Ignition, to find out that it's not only good, but absolutely bloody fantastic is even more of a shock than discovering that the new Medal of Honor isn't the load of old toss everyone expected it to be. It's a whole year's worth of shocks crammed into two days. What next? FIFA to crush Pro Evo?
But then again, should we really be so surprised? After all, when Reflections came up with the PS2 original way back in 2002 (a game we didn't review, oddly), it was a unique, stylish and technically well-executed concept - albeit one that polarised opinion more than any driving game in that era. On the one hand it was seat-of-your pants stuff; like a manic stunt-driving twist on Rally driving, crossed with the frenzied carnage and addiction of the Burnout Crash Junctions. On the other, it was infuriatingly exacting, and blighted by hateful re-load pauses every single time you messed up - which would be on dozens of occasions, so it's no wonder people got a bit upset by it and gave up on it.
Five years down the line, the game's now in the hands of an entirely different developer, and with the benefit of a vastly more powerful console to work with Paradigm has had the chance to right some of the wrongs of the original, and to deliver on its huge potential. Allaying most of our fears from the word go, the US studio hasn't tinkered with what made Stuntman such an arresting game in the first place, but merely made it more exciting, less frustrating and polished it from top to bottom.
Drawing inspiration from blockbuster disaster movies, military action, spy thrillers, street crime, redneck car chases and even superhero flicks, each has six short scenes that you have to take part in, in sequence. Just as it was in the original, you'll be pulling off all manner of death-defying scripted events, each indicated by a handy yellow visual indicator in the zone where you need to pull off the action. As you drive along a Rally-style commentator will bark instructions at you shortly before you reach the appropriate marker, and, for example, call out "drift turn left", "hit the boxes", "scrape the vehicle", "reverse 180", and so on.
On the normal difficulty level you're allowed to mess up five times before a re-shoot is called, and if you reach the end of scene you'll then be given a Movie Star rating up to a maximum of five, and will unlock the next scene. Just like Burnout Revenge's progression system, you'll have to accumulate a certain number of stars before you can unlock the next movie, which generally means you have to keep going back to scenes to try and improve your Movie Star rating.
Unlike so many other driving games, this gives Stuntman Ignition the kind of insatiable one-more-go appeal as you try and nail the scene better than ever. For some, the need to play, replay, and play again might be the thing that turns you off the game completely, but for me, the old school addictive replayability was the very thing that hooked me. Each scene is so bite-sized in nature that, to be fair, failure is part of the deal. If you get frustrated by a game that you're guaranteed to screw up constantly, then move along. If you're the type of gamer that gains satisfaction from perfecting crazy mini Hollywood action sequences, then this is one of the most satisfying - and most fun - driving games ever made.
3, 2, 1... you're back in the room
The most obvious - and most crucial - improvement to the original is the ability to instantly restart any scene by entering the pause menu and hitting restart. No "are you sure" prompt to hold you up, just a 3-2-1 countdown and you're back in, trying for the umpteenth time to get it right. When there's so much restarting going on, it can't be overstated how important this feature is to the game, so props to Paradigm for realising that. Another tweak that definitely improves the general playability greatly is keeping each scene short and sweet. Most clock in around the 90 second mark, ensuring each and every one is just the right length to encourage persistent retries. If, for example, some of them were stretched out to three or minutes, the sheer number of things to remember would be overwhelming and a recipe for massive frustration if you bodged up at the death.
Once you get comfortable with what the game wants from you, you'll start to appreciate some of the game's subtlety and start walking the tightrope that is 'stringing'. What this means, in essence, is literally stringing together noteworthy, point-scoring moments one after the other. In practise, this means you'll have to watch out for every smashable object and suss out a 'racing line', if you will. The more you mine each scene for points, the better you'll become at nailing drifts just so, driving that little bit faster and taking more and more risks. When things really come together it really does feel like a logical extension of the Burnout Crash Junction mode, where pulling off a succession of sweet manoeuvres and daring stunts causes the maximum on-screen chaos.