Starsky & Hutch Impressions

We check out the European PS2 version of Empire Interactive's '70s-cop-show-inspired action game.

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Although Gotham Games won't be releasing Starsky & Hutch in North America until September, European gamers are already reliving the exploits of the titular '70s undercover cops, courtesy of Empire Interactive. We'd previously only been able to get hands-on with an unfinished version of the game at E3, so now that we've had a chance to take to the streets of Bay City with the full European version of the game, we thought we'd give you some idea of what you have to look forward to.

Criminal vehicles come in a variety of shapes and sizes.
Criminal vehicles come in a variety of shapes and sizes.

The game's primary mode of play is its story mode, which is divided up into three TV-style seasons, each consisting of six episodes. In this mode, each episode challenges you with both a primary objective and a secondary objective, as well as with keeping the show's viewers entertained with great driving, accurate shooting, and the occasional stunt. Should the viewer rating in the upper right-hand corner of the screen drop to zero, the TV show gets canceled and it's game over. The primary objective of each episode is invariably to pursue and stop a bad guy, while secondary objectives include destroying a certain number of cardboard boxes, jumping a certain number of car transporters, and keeping your shooting accuracy above a certain percentage, to name but a few. Other objectives present in every episode include collecting two 'Huggy tokens' to spend on bonus content and locating a hidden set of car keys to unlock bonus vehicles.

Starsky & Hutch is a slightly unusual game in that it's most definitely designed to be played cooperatively by two players--one of you driving the TV show's trademark red-and-white 1974 Ford Torino, and the other leaning out the window and shooting at the criminals you're pursuing, as well as any power-up tokens that you come across. The power-ups in the game have to be shot or driven through to be activated and offer everything from more-powerful guns and an improved top speed for the car to a siren that clears traffic, viewer rating bonuses, and the ability to drive the car on two wheels for a period of time. Gold stars that trigger special events can also be activated in certain locations, and the explosions that often follow them not only impress viewers, but can also hinder your target's progress.

Some power-ups need shooting, while others have to be driven through.
Some power-ups need shooting, while others have to be driven through.

The driving aspect of Starsky & Hutch is enjoyable not only because the car's handling has a great arcade feel and the fleeing criminals' behavior is often unpredictable, but also because Bay City is simply a fun place to drive. The city feels almost as expansive as those in the Grand Theft Auto games, and although you really get to explore the area only in the game's free drive mode, when engaged in a pursuit, you'll pass through a number of varied locales, including residential areas, business districts, docks, storm drains, parks, railway tunnels, and even a roller disco.

If you're playing solely as the shooter with a friend at the wheel, Starsky & Hutch is no less enjoyable and does an extremely good job of presenting you with targets, even if your driver is doing a poor job of pursuing the primary objective. In addition to using the game's various power-ups, you'll be able to control the flow of traffic by shooting out traffic lights, improve viewer ratings by making barrels explode, or just make signs in front of stores spin around for the hell of it. Perhaps the only frustrating thing about playing as the shooter is that on certain missions you're required to take out a vehicle without shooting one of its occupants, which, once the chase is under way and you're taking potshots at the target from some distance, is a lot easier than it sounds. It's also quite difficult to shoot the enemy gunmen who populate certain areas and hurt your viewer ratings quite significantly every time they score a hit on your vehicle.

Going for Gold

It's highly unlikely that your vehicle will ever get damaged to the extent that it blows up, but since the viewer ratings effectively act as a timer in the game, even hitting a lamppost at speed can hurt your chances of succeeding. At the end of each episode, you'll be awarded either a doughnut or a bronze, silver, or gold police badge, depending on your final viewer rating. It quite difficult to attain gold badges on many of the levels even when playing the game cooperatively, and this is perhaps why the game has been made noticeably easier for solo players. If you're playing on your own, then you're required to drive in exactly the same way you would in the two-player game, but you have the added responsibility of hitting the right trigger button to shoot at targets as they appear. Red circles automatically appear on the screen and lock on to targets that are directly in front of you, making smaller targets such as traffic lights, level crossing switches, or enemies in the distance much easier to hit than they would be for a second player armed with a light gun.

Performing stunts can increase your viewer rating dramatically.
Performing stunts can increase your viewer rating dramatically.

Starsky & Hutch also boasts a great presentation and some really neat touches that make the game feel like it was a labor of love for the development team. In the two-player game, for example, you can get a good feel for how well your partner is doing by listening to the conversations that Starsky and Hutch have in the car as you play. The comic-strip-style cutscenes in between levels could almost have been storyboards for the original show, and the theme music sounds as funky now as it did back in the '70s. Even the way the cops in the regular black-and-white squad cars drive like idiots so as not to upstage the stars of the show just seems right.

Special events in Starsky & Hutch often involve explosions.
Special events in Starsky & Hutch often involve explosions.

Right now we're about halfway through Starsky & Hutch's story mode, and we're pleased to report that, while we could almost certainly have neared the end of the game by now, the draw of some neat bonus content and one or two additional gameplay modes, along with the fact that the criminals rarely take exactly the same route through the city twice, has seen us eagerly playing through the same episodes over and over again in search of gold badge scores and those ever-elusive car keys. Starsky & Hutch might not be one of the longest games available, but as far as replay value goes, we certainly don't have any complaints so far. Expect more on Starsky & Hutch ahead of its North American release in September.

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