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.
Jack of all tirades
As you go along, the game really starts to test you by unlocking Odd Jobs, which are basically one-off scenes where you can't afford any 'strikes' whatsoever. Taking the one-more go approach to extremes, it's the mode that will either make or break your love for the game. If it clicks with you, the chances are you'll feel ready to go back and mine the unlocked scenes for more Movie Star points, but if it winds you up, then perhaps your love was never meant to be.
In technical terms, at least, the game scores relatively highly. The visuals, while not necessarily the most opulent you've ever clapped eyes on, are certainly an excellent progression the style that Reflections was gunning for with both Stuntman and Driver 3 (a game noteworthy in the graphical department if nothing else) .The vehicle models all score highly in look and feel, whether you're bombing around in a chunky muscle car, bashing into cars in souped-up truck of sliding precariously on a nimble motorbike. You certainly can't fault it for variety or execution, and with a decent damage modelling system to boot, the scene's always alive with absolute carnage. During the hilarious Quentin Tarantino parody movie ("Overdrive"), Paradigm really cuts loose with some true directorial mayhem, providing you with the kind of hugely satisfying box-smashing alleyway-driving chase sequences that were so beloved of Reflections in its pomp. No doubt Martin Edmondson and his former Reflections cohorts will be looking on at this with a certain amount of envy, but also great satisfaction that such a great set of ideas gave another developer a solid set of foundations.
Certainly, no-one can accuse Paradigm of missing the point or cheapening the game's original appeal. The game's structure, presentation, style and tone is a spot-on riff on the original, complete with insightful intro sequences that are as entertaining as they are useful. If you didn't know better, you'd also think that Burnout developer Criterion had a hand in its development, such are the nods to that series in terms of its irreverent vibe and relentless pursuit of mindless fantasy driving enjoyment - US-style. Simple things like explaining some of the key stunts to be mindful of in each scene help set-up the action perfectly, with each demented director parodied to perfection and providing their own 'helpful' advice and comments. After the faux street 'cool' of so many games down the years, and the po-faced seriousness of others, Stuntman Ignition hits the mark on many levels that matter - chiefly raw playability, and, importantly, replayability.
But offline stunt mayhem is only part of the story, with the game also featuring eight player online/system linked multiplayer modes. First up, Backlot Battle is a simple lap-based contest for the most points while attempting to perform all the Director Stunts. If you miss too many of the stunts you risk having your score reset to zero, but can ram opponents to try and steal theirs. Naughty. Interestingly, the other main multiplayer mode is actually more focused on racing - something that the main single player offering almost goes out of its way to avoid. Dubbed 'Backlot Racing', it offers three classes (Light, Muscle and Sport), and a host of other options to tinker with that change the experience one way or another. For example, you can choose whether to include Nitros, whether Director Stunts are available (to gain more boosts), and whether String Stealer is on or off. It's perhaps a testament to how classy the driving model is in the game that you can actually have a lot of fun just having a straight vanilla race with no novelty options switched on.
Finally, there's also the option to create and share your own Stunt City Arena, selecting from the full list of props and vehicles. We're not particularly creative like that, admittedly, but if your creation is deemed eligible for posting (i.e. Aren't rubbish), other players will be able to download your works of art. Neat.
So where does Stuntman Ignition fall down then? If you're patient enough to learn each scene properly, there aren't that many things to really get steamed up about. Sometimes you might feel justifiably annoyed that the game didn't 'read' your stunt properly: For example, sometimes you'll appear to 'gap' cars perfectly and not get credit for them, while other simple stunts like overtaking, drifting and scraping cars can be curiously imprecise in their interpretation of your actions. While the odd slip-up isn't too much of an issue when you're just running through each scene for the first time, by the time you're trying to 'string' them for 5-star online leaderboard glory, such mishaps can be a real drag.
If you were perhaps expecting a nine, then you only need to look at this issue to work out why it doesn't quite hit those heady heights. In addition, you could argue the game doesn't offer enough variety and is too repetitive - personally I found all 36 scenes and the odd jobs a lot of fun, but you can't please everyone. One thing that's indisputable, though, is the annoyance that the occasional juddering slowdown provides. Although it's rare enough to be forgiveable, we really shouldn't be seeing that from top-line games on a 360 at this stage. Tut.
Some of you might also grumble about how little innovation there is in this sequel. In most senses, yes, this is a straightforward re-run of the last one. In its favour, though, it boasts vastly superior visuals, instant restarts, an achievement system, and, of course, an online components like a leaderboard, uploadable replays and multiplayer modes. In terms of the game's basic mechanics, themes and level design, there's hardly anything on show here that we didn't see first time around. But the straightforward answer to that is this: no-one else has done a game like Stuntman Ignition in the intervening years, and, frankly, when you've got a long list of game elements that are as downright fun as these, what's the point in tinkering with an excellent formula for the sake of it? After five years in the wilderness, the return of Stuntman is something to be celebrated - it might be frustrating at times, but it'll leave a massive smile on your face when it all comes together.
8 / 10