This article originally appeared in issue 242 of PC Gamer UK.
Flight simulation wasn't always the sombre, dandruff-sprinkled academic he is today. Back in his youth he liked to giggle and gallivant as much as the next genre – indeed there was a time when you were almost as likely to find him larking about under blazing dirigibles and collapsing canyon bridges as fretting over fuel mixture settings and radar sub-mode choices.
Crimson Skies was probably the finest product of that wild childhood, but a joyously irresponsible, wilfully unconventional offering from eight years earlier gives it a good run for its money.
Stunt Island is the flight sim that insists you try all the things flight sims generally frown upon or forbid. Land on a busy road bridge! Fly through a railway tunnel! Collide with a Jumbo Jet! The 32 aerial challenges read like the secret 'To Do' list of an embittered, redundancy-facing flying instructor.
Of course, Disney Interactive don't publish games about vengeful sociopaths in Cessnas. The suicidal sortie instructions aren't an incitement to commit vehicular manslaughter, they're just a typical month at the office for one of Hollywood's hardest working and most orthopaedically resilient aviator-stuntmen. With a single inspired wave of the premise-wand The Assembly Line justify some of the strangest sorties you'll ever fly.(opens in new tab)
In Stunt Island a Sopwith Camel isn't for smiting Fokker triplanes or downing Gothas, it's for plucking felons off Alcatraz or flipping catering trucks driven by fleeing gas-station bandits. Parachutes aren't safety devices, they're how you get from skyscraper roof to getaway hovercraft, or from aircraft to hot-air balloon cranium. Giant fibreglass duck-plane? Obviously, that's for egg-bombing cop cars during the filming of a documentary on 'the criminal proclivity of birds'.
The sorties are usually as demanding as they are doolally. Nipping at the flight surfaces of the 45 types of flyables is some surprisingly spiky aerodynamic algebra. Spins might not be modelled, but as you struggle to line up with that speeding Humvee or narrow aqueduct arch – as you chop your throttle in preparation for another pocket-handkerchief landing – it's all-too-easy to provoke a stall or a fit of catastrophic wingtip wobble. One minute it's looking like Take #28 might be the one, the next you're gazing up at the misty visage of the studio's resident surgeon, as he declares, with a thick Teutonic accent:
“You have a lacerated arm, a fractured clavicle, a ruptured spleen, and a runny nose. We'll have you patched-up and flying again... tomorrow!”
The injuries vary but recovery is always, in effect, instantaneous. A couple of clicks after hearing the prognosis, you're back in the cockpit again, determined to turn a little more smoothly or maintain a tad more speed as you execute manoeuvre X, Y or Z. Short challenge durations and the freedom –outside of the game's 'Stuntman of the Year' mode – to select any of the game's missions, ensures Stunt Island, while brutally hard at times, never generates the speechless apoplexy that was the trademark of a certain other fall-guy game. (I still wake up bathed in cold sweat thinking about that Stuntman level where you have to beat the train to the level-crossing.)(opens in new tab)
And if the aviating does ever get exasperating, you've always got the extraordinary mission-editor/machinima creation mode to fall back on.
Lurking like a jewel-stuffed ziggurat at the heart of Stunt Island's fun-jungle, is a set of tools so powerful they could have been sold as a standalone 3D game creation package. Head for the production building and find a door marked 'Set Design' (the game's menus masquerade as various palm-fringed locales on the titular isle) and you enter a world of near-limitless pratting-around possibilities.
How did you spend yesterday evening? I spent most of it filming crucial scenes in Pterrorized II. I won't bore you with the entire backstory; all you really need to know is that after deep-frozen pterodactyl eggs are incubated by an accidental nuclear blast, the little town of Shyte, Montana finds itself acting as a giant bird-table for flocks of ravenous winged reptiles. In an effort to lure the screeching horrors away from a crashed school bus, visiting British ornithologist Bill Oddie ends up speeding through the streets on the back of a monster truck.
Will he survive? Not sure. When I finally crawled away to bed, he'd just been carried aloft in the talons of a sky dinosaur piloted by Yours Truly.(opens in new tab)
With a vast selection of animateable props and cameras at your disposal, and a simple yet powerful “If...Then” scripting language waiting in the wings, the possibilities really are mind-boggling. While you can just mess around creating obtuse flying tests (land a hang-glider on the wing of a taxiing B2 bomber! Put your A-10 between the President's motorcade and that incoming ATG missile! etc), since the devs have provided everything necessary for fashioning and exporting handmade action flicks, it seems a pity not to use them.
Naturally, any film you make today with Stunt Island will look as if it's been shot with one of those Poundshop webcams. You could saw wood with the tilted horizon, and play snooker quite happily on most of the island's rural land surfaces. The game looks its age, a fact that makes the absence of sequels all the more tragic.
If there are any devs out there stuck for ideas or wondering how to revive the popularity of flight simulation, just give the world a stunt-based flying game that looks like Arma 3 and lets players hunt Bill Oddie with a pterodactyl.
I guarantee you'll make a fortune.