Stuntman: Ignition Preview

Last year, THQ acquired the rights to Atari's Stuntman franchise, as well as former Atari studio Paradigm Entertainment. The first game in the series was developed by Reflections Interactive and released in 2002 for PlayStation 2, but Paradigm, the developer behind Pilotwing 64, was slated to head up the second. That arrangement continued once THQ acquired the studio and game, and this week the publisher officially announced Stuntman: Ignition for PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360. During THQ's Gamer's Day event in San Francisco last night, I was able to check out the game's Xbox 360 version firsthand.

Like its predecessor, Stuntman: Ignition casts the player as a Hollywood stunt driver hired to pull off extended elaborate extended driving sequences. It's a surprisingly solid concept, mainly because long chase scenes are filmed in one unrealistic take rather than in countless brief shots; after viewing an overview of the many powerslides and jumps you will be expected to perform in the upcoming mission (or skipping it), you'll start driving, accompanied by the voice of the film's director barking out instructions ("Hard left! Through the crates!"). Essentially, it ends up like an arcade game. Its closest analogue is not any traditional driving game but arcade games such as Hitmaker's Crazy Taxi, though with more structured missions in place of an open city.

Stuntman: Ignition's physics system and car handling are well tuned to the game's premise, managing to be appropriately loose like other arcade driving games--which is necessary for the many extremely sharp turns required--while still lending the player's car a good sense of weight so it is not constantly flying all over the road. Despite its appropriateness, it is noticeably different from most driving games, and takes some time to internalize--which must be done, as a high degree of driving precision is required to pull off all the stunts in a mission and satisfy the director.

Stunt objectives are marked by translucent 3D icons on screen, indicating both what type of stunt must be performed and where it must be accomplished. Most individual stunts--which include tasks such as sliding around a corner, making a jump over traffic, swerving close to a particular vehicle, or pulling a 180 in a tight area--are not difficult to complete individually, but managing to nail them all in rapid succession and with accuracy can be a challenge. Successfully shooting a scene all the way through requires a thorough knowledge of the progression of stunts, meaning you are likely to restart a level numerous times before completing it. This is in part what lends the game its arcade quality, as well as evoking the feel of a Tony Hawk's Pro Skater trick line.

Unlike in the previous Stuntman game, Ignition allows the player to miss some stunt cues and still complete the shoot; once five stunts have been missed, the shoot ends and starts over. This proved necessary during my time with the more difficult of the two stages on display. Hopefully, Paradigm has tuned the difficulty curve well over the course of the game, as certain stunt objectives can be unforgiving.

Like in a Tony Hawk-style game, you can chain together your own combos in addition to achieving the linear level goals. Bonus points and multipliers are granted for pulling off unscripted stunt-like actions. Many of these are similar to the bonuses found in Criterion's Burnout games: consistently driving recklessly and swerving dangerously close to other vehicles while managing not to crash will quickly inflate your score.

Stuntman: Ignition is structured into half a dozen mock action films, each of which contains several scenes that must be shot. Two were showcased: the volcanic holocaust of Aftershock, and the 70s cop flick Overdrive. In particular, Overdrive, with its faux San Francisco setting and slightly sepia-toned color palette, effectively captured the spirit of its car chase-laden Hollywood ancestors.

Playing through the progression of films is what comprises Ignition's single-player campaign. Over the course of that progression, some two dozen vehicles--including numerous types of cars and trucks as well as more eclectic modes of transportation such as hovercraft--are used to shoot a variety of stunt scenes. This variety notwithstanding, it does seem as though there is the potential for Stuntman's gameplay to grow repetitive over the course of the campaign. Still, the overall concept is well executed, and unrealistic shooting proceedure ends up coming off rather like an actual action movie and not the shooting of an action movie, which is probably fortunate.

Perhaps ameliorating that potential concern is an online mode allowing players to craft and share their own Stuntman: Ignition. Furthermore, an online multiplayer mode of some kind will be included. Unfortunately, neither of these components were presented at THQ's event.

Based on my brief hands on time, Stuntman: Ignition comes off as a unique and arcade-flavored take on the driving genre. It seems like it could suffer from a potential lack of variance in its gameplay mechanics, so hopefully Paradigm is figuring out ways to keep things fresh.

THQ expects to ship Paradigm Entertainment's Stuntman: Ignition for PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360 this summer.