a review of Stuntman: Ignition
a videogame developed by paradigm entertainment
and published by THQ
for the microsoft xbox 360, the sony playstation 2 computer entertainment system and the sony playstation 3 computer entertainment system
text by tim rogers
Yes. Yesss. YESSSSSSS. Stunmant: Ignition is the underrated hero of 2007, a videogame so big, so generous, so complicated, so simple, so gorgeous, and so ridiculous that those who truly “get” it have every right to disown their blood relations if said blood relations would rather play Guitar Hero.
Essentially, Stuntman: Ignition is a videogame about being a stuntman, though not the type of stuntman who jumps off buildings. You’re the type of stuntman who drives a car. I suppose they could have called the game “Stunt Driver“, though seeing as the series was originally created by the makers of the game series Driver, that might have looked kind of tacky. Especially in this day and age, where marketing geniuses would have us believe that if you put two games side-by-side and both of them feature the same word in the title, the consumer would, without a doubt, buy the one with more words in the title. (They must have also done this same test with one-colon titles versus two-colon titles.)
The original Driver game had a couple of tutorial missions, during which you proved to your employers that you knew how to handle a car. Though most of these moves were useful, you didn’t really have to use all of them in the course of the game. The idea for Stuntman was instantly born in hundreds of thousands of gamers’ heads when they played those training missions in Driver, and then solidified the first time they saw themselves do something awesome in mid-mission. Why not make a game that forces us to do these stunts, over and over, a game that forces us to drive awesomely? The same idea had no doubt been born in the heads of the game designers of Driver as well, though seeing as those people changed the original concept of Driver so that your main character was an undercover cop instead of an actual criminal so as to avoid controversy, and then went on to make the psychotically violent Driv3r, which still remains the worst title anything’s ever had, I wouldn’t give them too much credit.
The Driver series spun out of control after the first installment; the producers got hopped-up on me-too-ism, and began to aspire to something of a Grand Theft Auto clone with slightly heavier cars. The original Stuntman game was a splinter project, a gleefully sadistic exploration into how heavy, exactly, they could make those cars. They made them pretty heavy. The challenges were also laid out in kind of sinisterly boring stages. Furthermore, the difficulty was punishing, and one mistake in the very beginning would most likely ruin your chances of getting any further into the mission.
I’m just basing all of these comments on reviews on the internet which I looked up in the last five minutes; I never played the original Stuntman more than a half an hour because it really just didn’t do anything for me.
The reason the original Stuntman didn’t do anything for me is because it was too unbelievable. I mean, just everything about it was unbelievable. You had to race through these crazy stunt sequences for . . . what, exactly? You were a movie stunt driver, only the stages were so sparsely populated that you probably wouldn’t even watch this movie if you found a VHS tape of it in your mailbox on the day of its theatrical release. The idea of playing a game in which you played the part of a stunt double for an actor in a movie felt too sneeringly abstract, like just off-camera, the whole time, was a guy who had actually found proof of the nonexistence of God in a box of Corn Pops. Add to this the leering disbelief cultivated by the game’s nonchalant insistence that movie stunt-driving sequences are shot in three minutes, in real time, and not by literally a hundred takes of three-second bursts, and you end up with what we call an impossible videogame to call the best videogame of all time.
The new Stuntman, with a subtitle they call Ignition, in addition to being a much better game than its predecessor, is also a phenomenal game. It plays great — heavy cars and all — and looks so great, with so much happening all around you as you drive through burning houses and under falling lava boulders and ramp out of parking garages, that you can forgive it for insisting that movie stunt sequences are shot in real-time. Imagine that: a videogame paying homage to movies, and you can respect it all the more precisely because it’s a videogame.
It helps that the makers of this game, Paradigm Entertainment, were once called Paradigm Simulations, and dealt extensively with trying to transform real things into realistically controllable representations on television screens. Their first and most famous attempt at making a videogame was also a sequel to something made by an established developer — it was Pilotwings 64, released alongside Super Mario 64 and the Nintendo 64 console. Way back then, way back in Pilotwings 64 was Stuntman Ignition in its most embryonic form. Back then, the simulation bits and the videogamey bits clung to one another as though in a freezing breeze. It was ultimately too simmy, because when worse comes to worst, realism tends to always convince people, somehow; now here’s Stuntman Ignition, wherein realism and videogames walk hand-in-hand through a county fair on a summer night, and videogames have finally succeeded in ramming a large scepter of cotton-candy down realism’s throat. The result is fantastic, spectacular, commendable. The very least you can say about Stuntman Ignition is that, in this world where people who understand quality do exist, whether Stuntman Ignition sold well or not doesn’t matter, because the people who scripted the events in this game will never — never — find themselves out of work, and should never expect to earn less than $70K a year. If, truly, games are to move forward and heck Hollywood in the back of the head with a basketball pump, these master Rube-Goldberg device craftsmen are the people who will, at last, make it all convincing.
I bet you’re wondering by now, what makes this game so good? Here’s where I finally tell you: everything! (That’s where my “template for review of great game” ends.) Just as in Stuntman (described somewhere up there), you’re a stunt driver in movies. There are six “movies” in the game — a James Bond-like spy movie, a police comedy, a volcano disaster flick, a British gangster film, a military B-movie, a 70s cop thriller, and a superhero blockbuster. (See all the synonyms for “movie” up there? We call that journalism school.) Each “movie” has six “scenes” for you to play out. The director and stunt coordinator describe the scenes for you using such pointed words as “In this scene, you’ll be driving a motorcycle while on fire”. And then, essentially, that’s what you do: you drive that motorcycle while it’s on fire.
The game that ensues is like Burnout 3 meets Parappa the Rapper. You’re going to slam people and crash through buildings, though you’re going to do it according to a strict schedule. Never before have big green flashing arrows indicating which direction to turn made so much sense in a driving game: in other driving games, you’re pretending to be racing a real race; in Stuntman: Ignition, you’re a person (possibly a jerkoff) with a videogame controller, pretending to be a person who’s pretending to be an actor who’s pretending to escape from an exploding city. That is, officially, enough layers of abstraction to initiate the brain’s “heck it, let’s just have fun” reflex.
When a “race” is over, you’re going to see a replay, and magically, all of the green arrows and gadgets will have disappeared. It’s just you, the car, the pumping (cheesy) music score, hundreds of carefully scripted events, and lots of graphics. If it looks cool though not cool enough, you might want to play it again. Unlike other perfectionism-inducing games (like Guitar Hero), you’re allowed some improvisation; the only way you can get actually penalized is to miss one of the landmark tricks that the director has decided ahead of time. What you do is you play these little three-minute segments over and over again, learning all the points you have to hit; then you race them over and over again all over again trying to perfect the hit points and scope out all of the “air pockets” for improvisation.
Stuntman: Ignition proceeds to actually reward you for your adventurous spirit, both by giving you more points (YESSSSSS) and by, well, making your replay look a lot cooler. You don’t even need points, though: when you’re playing this game well, you know. That thrusts it right up there with Metal Gear Solid 3, in my book.
According to Metacritic, this game is somewhat below-average because most reviewers find it “difficult” and “repetitive”. These are words that game reviewers probably shouldn’t be allowed to use. Some reviewers say that the game is only entertaining to people who obsessively pursue perfection, which I guess might be right, though I wouldn’t call myself obsessive about perfection, and I still love this game. I love the repetition of it. Shouldn’t a good game make you want to play it over and over and over again? (Ignore what I said in my Portal review!) It’s actually kind of a shame that websites like IGN groaned at this game; THQ’s PR should have got the word out that the game was made by the makers of Pilotwings 64 — all morbidly obese people on the internet seem to jump at the opportunity to glow all over anything touched by anything by anyone who’s ever been “first-party” with Nintendo. (Denis Dyack, et cetera.)
Okay, what I really mean is that this game is better than Guitar Hero. I’m not even going to say anything about how Guitar Hero isn’t as good as playing a real guitar, because I realize that’s an uppity thing to say. Instead, I’m going to say that Stuntman: Ignition is better, because it represents a greater realm of possibilities attainable by reaching for perfection. Guitar Hero, as what it is, does not simulate a musical performance so much as it puts numbers on it. If you make a mistake in Guitar Hero, you start over. Start over with what, though? You start over pretending to play a song. And when it’s over, what do you get? A number, a tiny bit of rhythm training, and a friend calling you an asshole. With Stuntman: Ignition, your quest for perfection is represented by a replay of your performance. A “replay” of your “performance” with Guitar Hero would just consist of a song that you’ve heard before. In other words, it’s about context. The context of Stuntman is that you’re driving a car for a movie; the context of Guitar Hero is that you’re playing a guitar in a concert. Contextually, playing a guitar is a harder fantasy for someone who’s only pretending to play a guitar by holding a plastic fake guitar; however, driving a pretend car is an easy fantasy for someone who’s pretending to drive a car using an abstract videogame controller. If that doesn’t make perfect sense, put it this way: in Guitar Hero, the “guitar” on the screen is just a big flowing abstract bar; in Stuntman, the car on the screen looks like a car. That sort of thing goes a long way!
On a more molecular level, this game is excellent because of what it does for the art of performance playing. Never before has the performance of a videogame actually looked so . . . real. For years, the art of “superplaying” or “speedrunning” a game has inspired many young people who could be applying that energy into studying to be a doctor to make videos of themselves breaking videogames brutally and carefully. Any speed run of Super Metroid available on YouTube is about as entertaining to watch as a film in which a kid in toothpaste-stained purple sweatpants and “Eraserhead” hair cartwheels into a room, does a pee-pee dance in front of a man delivering a Shakespearean monologue, withdraws a .45 from his waistband, shoots the man in the throat before he can finish speaking, and cartwheels into the next room, where a different man attempting the same monologue waits. Any super play of a hardcore 2D shooting game like Mushihimesama will look like complete utter clusterhecking nonsense to anyone who doesn’t actually like these games. So the guy never lets go of the fire button, and knows exactly where the holes are in this boss’s same-every-time pattern, and is very skilled at staying as close to the bottom of the screen and moving as little as possible while mathematical chaos breaks out around him. So what? In short, super plays and speed runs are ways of playing videogames well, which seems to kind of (maybe) be something that game designers don’t entirely think about when designing games.
It’s actually kind of a glaring problem: why does no one think, “Will our game look more or less like a glue-sniffing ostrich on hot sand when someone plays it as well as they can?” With Stuntman: Ignition, the only way to play is to superplay; the only way to superplay is to play brilliantly. When you’ve done good, you know. When you do awesome and then lose right at the very end — that’s what we call bowing down before the boss. The game is packed with a crude, pure justice. Get a couple of friends over, and pass the controller.
As with all videogames involving automobiles, this one is perhaps better on the Xbox 360, because you can use custom soundtracks so that you’re always driving to Nirvana’s “Breed”. Then again, Motorstorm for the PS3 actually has the song “Breed” in it, though it’s mostly surrounded by blaring filth, so who knows.
Oh well, here’s hoping that in an attempt to appeal to dull critics they don’t make Stuntman 3 a game in which you use the Guitar Hero controller to simulate mouse clicks as your on-screen hand-avatar scripts exploding traffic events in the Unreal Engine for a game about making a pretend race track for a pretend car being driven in real-time by a guy pretending to be an actor who’s pretending to be someone else.