Good cop, bad cop.
Whatever happened to cool TV cops? We used to have guys like this and this, irreverent smartasses with big guns, great aim, fast cars and interesting hair. They weren't very realistic, but they were really entertaining, that's for damn sure.
I guess all that hair spray eroded the ozone layer in Copland, because those hip pigs are long since extinct. Now we have guys like this and this; fat, humorless shlubs with proper firearms, shaky hands, Toyota Corollas and male pattern baldness. Makes you miss Barney Miller. Sorta.
But when it comes to the perfect marriage of style and substance, you'd be hard pressed to find 'em any groovier than Starsky & Hutch. Though their series was as much about lovable pimp squealer Huggybear as it was about actual cop stuff, it's one of the few shows that almost stands the test of time, thanks in no small part to its fresh theme and a certain striped Ford Torino.
Seems like game magic, right? Maybe if this was 1977 and I still had my Fairchild Channel F, but since it ain't and I don't, I'm a little confused as to why we're suddenly getting Starsky & Hutch for the PS2. It's not based on the upcoming movie with Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson, so that doesn't explain it. Besides, it's not my job to answer such mind-benders. It's my job to tell you why the iconoclastic officers should have held firm to their polyester past and stayed away from your home console, because despite some interesting concepts, their game is neither pimp nor player.
The main Story mode is set up like three seasons of the show; each mission is called an episode, totaling 18. Via slightly lazy but appreciatively campy still-frame intro sequences, the missions tell an almost incomprehensible tale of Starsky & Hutch performing heroic acts behind the wheel of the Torino.
In a nod to games like Stuntman, Starsky & Hutch is as much about style as execution. You cruise through the city trying to stop bad guys while maintaining your "VR' (Viewer Rating) points, which steadily decrease. It's game over if the points dip to zero or you screw up your primary goal. If only the Nielsen Ratings worked the same way.
You get bonus points for driving with style and shooting at bad guys or VR power-ups, and lose points for hitting pedestrians and innocent drivers or getting shot. Scattered through each level are other power-ups like better traction, turbos and damage modifiers, which you have to shoot to activate. The best way to get high VR, however, is to nail the conspicuously placed ramps and triggering Events: the game goes into slow-motion and some big crazy car crash ensues, hopefully with you rumbling through unscathed.
When it all works together, the gameplay can be pretty wily and fun. You'll slam through some boxes, powerslide around a turn, shoot a turbo power-up and hit a ramp to launch through the air while still trying to shoot the getaway car. There are genuine moments of frantic driving here, and at times the game captures the essence of a 70's cop show.
Unfortunately, it wears thin pretty quickly because you keep doing the same thing. The level design is okay thanks to the large, believable Bay City environment, but the trial and error is impossible to avoid. Get used to replaying missions. Occasionally you'll have to protect another car or try a checkpoint race, but either way you'll still be tailing bad guys while trying to keep up your VR points.
This gets really annoying. It's hard to keep your VR points up without a bad guy to shoot at because the whole 'driving with style' thing doesn't work too well. If you fall behind due to a minor wipeout, you better hope there are some useful powerups or jumps handy. Otherwise, kiss your tailpipe goodbye.
There are two other modes - Free Roam and three TV Specials (which are just fancier missions) - but they both involve the same driving and gunning as Story mode. You can also unlock some Huggybear extras by finding Huggybear tokens.
Regardless of the mode, the control is pretty tight. The simultaneous driving and shooting while playing solo can be tricky, but it allows you to manipulate the environment by shooting stoplights to influence traffic or exploding barrels to do some collateral damage to ne'er-do-wells, which is a nice touch.
Starsky & Hutch supports both steering wheel and lightgun peripherals; hook them both up and the game becomes cooperative; one player will drive while the other will take aim at the TV. You can also use the regular controller for either action, but good luck moving the aiming cursor if you're the gunman. At any rate, it's good seeing a developer take a risk and hopefully we'll see this kind of thing in other games.
Other games, for instance, might feature better graphics. Starsky & Hutch runs at about 30 fps at its best, but often chugs along like a PSX game. The textures are bad, Starsky & Hutch's mouths don't open to match the voice work and clipping errors abound. Glitches are also common; I beat one mission because the enemy car was stuck in limbo on a guardrail. On another occasion, the game got stuck loading in a music loop that took almost two full minutes to resolve. Argh.
The theme song is great the first five times you hear it; after that you'll want to rip off your leisure suit and don a "Disco Sucks' t-shirt. The only voice from the show is that of Antonio Fargas, Huggybear himself, who also narrates. I liked Huggy as much as the next five year-old would-be pimp, but the guy even gets top-billing in the opening credits above Starsky & Hutch. Maybe it has something to do with his stellar music career. I guess an ex-pimp's gotta get his Benjamins somewhere"
Speaking of which, the best part of Starsky & Hutch is that it only costs a Jackson, which makes it one of the highest quality "bargain" games yet for the PS2. Is it really worth a twenty? I guess that depends on how much you miss cool cops. At least it's a better idea than giving Ricky Schroeder a badge.