What exactly is a "concept game?" A concept game is one that, rather than simply being a game that requires players to learn how to operate controls so that they can complete objectives and eventually reach the 'ending', tries to create an overall game "experience," where every element works together to further the illusion. Some games that fall into this genre are the recent Rez, with its bizarre world where light and sound become one, or The Getaway, in which the developers attempted to remove everything characteristic of videogames in order to create the first fully playable movie.
What does this have to do with Starsky & Hutch? Well, despite its flaws, Starsky & Hutch is significant in that it represents the first-ever concept video game that allows gamers to play a TV show.
Now, there have been any number of games based on television shows, but Starsky & Hutch is cast from a different mold than such fare as the recent Buffy games. Rather than attempt to put players inside the show, they're asked to perform a hybrid director/stunt driver role. The most interesting thing about the game is that players are asked not just to complete missions, but to make sure they're interesting to watch as well.
Points are meted out for any performance that looks impressive, from skidding into an intersection to jumping over a row of busses to shooting villainous vehicles. Rather than a time limit, each individual episode (the game goes so far as to call the levels "episodes," eighteen of which are broken up into three seasons) will end abruptly if it runs out of viewers.
This is a very interesting concept, but it makes for some counterintuitive gameplay for experienced gamers. My first experience with the new gameplay model occurred in a level where I found myself protecting a car with a witness in it from other attacking vehicles. I eliminated the attacking car very quickly, but the episode didn't end there. I had to spend the next five minutes tailing the no-longer-in-danger sedan to the safehouse, watching my precious viewer ratings points dwindle all the while. At first I was infuriated—what kind of a video game penalizes the player for being good at it? It was only once I'd begun to embrace the whole concept of the game that I understood just how mistaken I was. How interesting would I find it, as a television viewer, to watch an episode of any cop show where the villain was subdued in the first half? Wouldn't people tune out in droves once the shooting and screeching died down?
Where the game truly shines, though, is in the inclusion of "Stunt Tokens." Optional items that can be shot or driven over to activate a slow motion sequence. Most frequently this is just a way to make jumps look more spectacular, but sometimes the tokens will activate an obstacle, such as a tanker truck that wipes out blocking an intersection, or a group of black muscle cars that try their hardest to run Starsky and Hutch off the road. This felt like a legitimately innovative feature, as it allows the player to, on the fly, increase the game's level of difficulty in an attempt to make the whole experience look more spectacular.
After playing for a little while, I found myself embracing the idea of drawing out the action until the last possible moment to keep the viewers on the edge of their seats. I understood just how the classic car-chase shows must have been produced, going out of my way to hit ramps because that's what the viewers at home are waiting for. What had seemed like a poor design choice eventually grew on me, until I was thoroughly enjoying myself with this bastard child of Crazy Taxi and Chase H.Q.
Sadly, the game isn't all smiles and chocolate. While the conceptual elements work very well on the whole, the developers' desire to add difficulty to the game makes some of the gameplay counterintuitive, even to someone who has completely embraced the TV show frame of mind. For example, every time the Striped Tomato (Starsky & Hutch's custom-painted Ford Torino) strikes a building or immobile wall, the player's Viewer Ratings go down. This seems to go against the overall concept—don't viewers find it more thrilling when the heroes take a bit of damage? I can understand removing points for being shot, but the game takes away points even when the Tomato drives up any particularly sharp ramps.
The mystique isn't helped any by format of the game's plot, either. All of the incredibly sparse story sequences are displayed as static photos with narration handled by Huggy Bear. As anyone who's seen La Jetee could tell you, this is just about the least involving way to tell a story imaginable, and in a game that's supposedly trying to recreate a television show, it's just inexcusable. It's obvious why this happened—the game's developers thought their graphics engine wouldn't allow for good-looking in-game cutscenes. In a concept game, though, this kind of sudden switching from one graphical style to another serves only to break the spell that the game should be trying to maintain.
Even less excusable is the game's lack of variety. While chasing down cars and blowing them up is entertaining, there is almost no other content to the game. Out of eighteen missions, three are protection missions, one is a checkpoint race, and the rest exclusively concern catching criminal cars. Matters aren't helped by the fact that, save for an 18-wheeler in the final level, all the cars are captured the exact same way, by staying on their tails, shooting and ramming until they explode. If the actual driving and shooting mechanics weren't so entertaining, the game would be a total write-off. All of the game's publicity goes to great lengths to mention just how expansive the city is—while it is huge, it would be nice to see it used for something other than a gussied-up game of tag.
Then there are the technical limitations—I don't want to get into a laundry list situation here, and I'm normally not that much of a stickler for graphics, but in this day and age, it's inexcusable to be able to see a white square floating around all the tires of the cars in the game. Then there are the just plain strange mistakes—like the level that supposedly concerns Starsky & Hutch providing protection for a senator's parade. Other than assassins, the streets are all but bare—it's as if someone just forgot to program in the crowds watching the road. Finally, there are the just plain bizarre things that games made in the UK about the US always seem to feature. I know making games is a costly and time-consuming endeavor, but it seems that if someone is going to make a game about America in the 70s, they should at least take the time to find out that Americans don't use the word "pillion," nor do American senators have anything to do with sending people to prison.
Starsky & Hutch doesn't want to do much more than recreate the feel of a 70's car chase show. While that doesn't seem like a very lofty goal, it's important to remember that very recently the Dukes of Hazzard game completely failed their attempt at the same. While the game suffers from minor technical flaws and repetitive gameplay, it does something legitimately new with its TV show concept. While many of the details and play mechanics could have been handled better, the kind of innovation on display here should be acknowledged and appreciated, in the hopes that someone will do something better with them next time around.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.