70s funk, microphone hairstyles, flapping flares, high speed chases, shooting, wise cracking pimps... is it any wonder Empire picked up the Starsky & Hutch license? But hang on. We just used the L word. Not a good sign.
Drawing inspiration from the some of the finest driving games of the past, Brit developer Mind's Eye has concocted a mission based driving/shooting game that has you in control of the big-haired duo tearing up the streets of Bay City in the famous Red Tomato shooting up a succession of bad guys. Think Driver meets Chase HQ with a Crazy Taxi fetish.
It wouldn't work without the big hair
Throughout the game you're reminded this is a TV show, and that you're playing this for the viewers, and it's up to Starsky to perform driving heroics while Hutch keeps the streets clean of filth with whatever firearms he can lay his hands on. Fortunately for simplicities sake a lone player can take on both big haired dudes like some kind of curious 70s puppet master. Alternatively, if you have a mate and a spare G-Con 2 handy, you can plug it in and enjoy some co-operative driving/shooting antics.
The main meat of the game is the Story mode, which is comprised of three 'seasons', which are further broken down into various episodes, and a plethora of extras and unlockables such as the Free Roam mode.
In each of the 18 episodes you're expected to keep the audience entertained, and players must keep a close eye on the VR or Viewer Rating, which constantly ticks down if you don't do something exciting or you ineptly crash into members of the public. Earn a high VR, however, and you'll gradually be able to unlock a host of extras, ensuring a degree of replayability.
Get ready for RSI
To bump it up you have to constantly shoot the baddies (at an RSI rate of consistency), perform unfeasible jumps off handily placed ramps and trigger special one-off events, as well as collect the many VR boosting icons that litter the environment.
The other scattered icons mainly act as temporary power ups, giving you double damage, speed boost, extra grip, siren, enemy gun jam, etc, while special weapons help you deplete the ridiculously well defended enemy.
To begin with, driving around at high speed shooting is quite a laugh, as is pulling off stupendous stunts over passing trains and the like, but dispatching your foe is a tediously repetitive task that often seems to take about a hundred shots every time, largely thanks to the lack of firepower by default.
The escort missions are also a major chore, thanks to the ease with which you can shoot your ally, and the fact that you only get three friendly fire 'lives' before it blows up. Given that the baddies stick to your ally like glue, it's almost impossible not to catch him with a stray bullet out of 200, and very often you'll come unstuck thanks to this frustrating system.
It's a shame that Mind's Eye elected to penalise the player in this way, because in all other respects Starsky & Hutch does a far better job at keeping you entertained than, say, the ridiculously harsh Stuntman - the only other driving game we can think of that has you performing for the camera. While Stuntman punished the player for being a fraction off the pace, S&H does give you far more leeway - even to the extent of being able to catch up with your target when you've had a major prang.
Handling wise, S&H feels not dissimilar to Driver, with a lovely sponginess that enables the player to really fling the lovingly recreated Ford Torino with its go faster stripes around to your heart's content. We dare say it's totally unrealistic, but what the hell, it suits the purposes of the game - to create a fast and furious driving shoot 'em up.
What doesn't work especially well is the curious co-op multiplayer mode. Although it's an interesting dynamic, the problem is the shooter is constantly relying on the skills of the driver to target anything effectively. It's a bit of a pantomime horse of a gaming dynamic, and after a few frustrating attempts you end up realising that you'll do better at the game on your own. Basically it's funny for about five minutes before the novelty wears off.
Visually, it's your typical Renderware-based PS2 game, so don't expect anything too lavish, but it's tidy enough with a bright and breezy cartoon palette, reasonably well drawn buildings, and a decent amount of variety to enable you to recognise the distinct areas of Bay City after a while. The linear nature of the missions, however, mean you never need to remember your way around like you need to in other city-based games like GTA or Midnight Club II. All told, though, it's polished and serves its purpose and rarely suffers from framerate issues or pop up, which makes a change.
Perhaps the most impressive and endearing aspect of S&H is the pre and post mission cut scenes, which are displayed with an admirable amount of 70s period kitsch in the form of cute and colourful static cartoons, voiced over in typically exaggerated fashion. As you'd perhaps expect, they're hardly complicated affairs, largely consisting of Huggy Bear giving you his latest tip off, or some punk emerging sheepishly out of his wrecked car. Nevertheless, the fact that the game never takes itself seriously is one of its most endearing elements. Played straight, the game would have fallen flat on its face. After all, you couldn't watch an episode of S&H these days without bursting into giggles could you?
Similarly endearing is the music, and it's a whugga chigga wah wah fest of funky licks, topped off impressively by the presence of the stupendously excellent theme tune. Shame they didn't license the James Taylor Quarter version, but you can't have everything. Meanwhile, the in-mission chatter between the dynamic duo is pleasantly varied in the main, although can begin to grate if you're playing the same mission for the 14th time.
The word on the street is...
Although persistence is rewarded with a host of unlockable cars, weapons, interviews and the like, it's doubtful whether you'll have the desire to get drawn into the experience as obsessively as the developer requires you to. Make no mistake, this is no GTA, nor does it attempt to be, but like that other fun but shallow driving game, Crazy Taxi, it's one that you'll get fun out of for a while, get stuck, and probably never bother to return to. At full price you'd struggle to justify parting with the cash, so it's got 'one to rent' written all over it, and ultimately there are about 10 driving games you'd be better off buying instead.