Rockstar loves controversy, and controversy loves Rockstar.
Grand Theft Auto, after years of being a sleeper hit, rose to national attention with GTA 3 and Vice City, and countless news reports were done on what the effect might be on the youth of the world. Lawsuits were filed. Millions of games were sold.
State Of Emergency got off the ground to similar effects, except that the game was so uniformly bland that the attention rapidly dwindled.
But now, with practically no advertising, Rockstar has released what may be their most violent game ever. Titled Manhunt, the game revolves around a man on Death Row being falsely executed, thrown into a run down city, and forced to fight for his life while the “Director” hisses directions in his earpiece and videotapes the whole thing.
Yup, it’s the only video game where you are an unwilling actor in a snuff film series. Read on, won’t you?
Describing Gameplay In A Roundabout Way
In order to explain the way Manhunt works, I need to circle around and hit a lot of the elements before I can get down to the nitty gritty.
At its core, Manhunt is a stealth action game. In some way, it’s similar to Metal Gear Solid 2 and Tenchu 3 – but luckily, it differentiates itself enough to not feel like a rip off of either.
The game is divided up into “scenes”, which correspond into scenes in the Director’s snuff movie series. Generally the scenes just involve moving from one place to another, with the occasional “puzzle” or objective thrown in. There is a plot overlying this, but I haven’t gotten far enough in to spoil it for you.
Your character, James Earl Cash, has a standard arsenal of moves: two attacks and a grapple, the ability to manipulate items in the environment, press up against the wall, peak around corners, surprise attack from around corners, and one more ability we’ll touch on shortly. There is no jumping and no crawling, although you will automatically crouch in the shadows when needed. Two shoulder buttons are used for strafing, which is useful.
There are a large variety of weapons, as is unsurprising in a game that defines itself on violence. There are three “single use” weapons (glass shard, wire, and plastic bag), a handful of melee weapons and blades, and around ten firearms. Each melee weapon can be used two ways; the firearms can be fired with auto-aim or manual aim.
Your opponents are – wait for it, wait for it…hired goons. Specifically, they’re gangs hired by the Director to both provide you with meat and a huge obstacle in your ability to survive. The early scenes all revolve around a particular gang so you can get acquainted with them; my impression is the later scenes mixes it up a bit more. Each gang has particular weapons they favor, hunting styles, and a general persona for the group.
As mentioned before, this is a stealth game, and Mahunt takes its stealth very seriously. There are two aspects to the stealth – light and sound. If you step into a shadowed area, an icon on the screen gets shaded and that makes you virtually undetectable to the goons, even if they’re two feet in front of you and staring into the shadows, unless they’re specifically looking for you. This leads to a lot of dashing between shadows and creeping around in them.
The sound aspect is what you’d expect from a modern stealth game and more. Foot steps make noise depending on the surface they are on and how fast you’re going. Banging into trash cans or hanging girders will make noise. Throw a brick or bottle against a wall, get a noise. Knock your weapon against the wall and pretend you’re Snake. Or, best of all, if you have a USB headset, you can make noise into that if you want to lure guys around, because they can hear you. This is a boon and a handicap – I read an account from someone who was playing, and hiding in the shadows quite well, until he coughed into his headset – and then immediately got pounded by three goons.
Which leads into an important note about combat in this game – while the combat system is typical Rockstar (more on this below), it is incredibly realistic in the fact that you are NOT going to be able to just dominate anyone who spots you. I’m lucky if I can get out of a fight with more than 50% of my health in a one on one battle, and if it’s two or more on one, chances drop to around zero. You will be running away a lot if you get spotted and the gang members call each other. They are well armed and can fight just as well as you. You will die a lot.
Luckily, you do have one thing in your arsenal that they don’t, and this is the most controversial point of the game. As you’ve probably already guessed, since this is a stealth game, you can execute unsuspecting idiots. You have to quietly sneak up behind them until your character’s arms raise a little (and the Director will generally hiss at you loudly to kill him). You hold either attack button and let go while the targeting arrows are either white (light kill), yellow (violent kill), or red (gruesome kill). Some of the animations are reused between weapons, and you can’t execute with a firearm (too loud to silently execute).
One last thing to note: there are unlockables, if you get a high enough ranking on each scene.
What’s Done Right
The atmosphere – Rockstar nailed the creepiness oh so well. The manual that looks like a snuff movie catalog – I always crack open newly purchased games on the subway, and this is the first time I’ve ever felt concerned that someone was going to turn me into the cops for reading this. The Director is played by Brian Cox, who is an absolutely perfect choice and there is no one better for this role. The grainy video effects during the executions and cut scenes fit in well. The audio (more below) is spot on. This game feels as good as it could.
The audio – in addition of Brian Cox’s voice work, the rest of the audio is done incredibly well. There’s no music during the main gameplay – if a guard thinks he sees something, an eerie string note is held. If you get seen, then you get some nice scary chase music strings. The ambient noise is perfect, and the sound effects all work out nicely. As an added bonus, the gangs have tons of voice work associated with them, defining them as characters, and even giving each goon a bit of emotion. Some just want to kill you for fun; some for money; some because it’s the only way they can get away from their wife. I’m not kidding.
The controls – outside having the push the buttons a little harder than any other game I own, the game controls beautifully. The camera is easy to control, although it can be a little glitchy in first person mode. Cash does what you tell him to, and any fuck up is your own fault 99% of the time.
The challenge – sweet god this game is tough. There are save points throughout each scene that let you restart if you die, and while they’re spaced just close enough together, you’ll end up wishing there were more. Take this away, if nothing else: this game is one of the toughest you’ll play this year.
Physics – among the other nice little details, there’s some fun physics at work here. One of the levels includes a crane with a magnet at the end, which you operate while you’re being shot at by multiple goons with nail guns. To kill them, you use the magnet to move a fridge around – you can drop it on them, you can run it over them, whatever. It works well. Also worth noting – one of the executions involves using a baseball bat to shatter/decapitate a hood. When you do so, if the brain chunks hit a wall, they will react to the wall appropriately – sometimes sticking, sometimes just bouncing off. Sick but nifty.
What Doesn’t Work
The hand to hand combat – from what I recall, this is always a problem in Rockstar games. It’s way too easy to get your ass kicked, even when you should have the advantage. Your hits don’t stun the enemy enough, and you will essentially trade blows until someone falls over. And this is somewhat acceptible because the point of the game is not to hand to hand fight all the time, but this really is a little over the line of fairness.
Unskippable portions – there are parts of the tutorial levels and the story that you just can’t skip. Come on, that’s bullshit.
Suspension of disbelief necessary at times – when a guy is staring in your direction from two feet away, it’s hard to believe he can’t see you. There are small glitches like this that will require you to break from the otherwise realistic nature of this game and go “Okay, for the sake of gameplay, I can get away with this” – which is never a fun thing to say.
I had a lot more I wanted to spit out, but I think this will get my point across – Manhunt is certainly one of the most interesting titles to come out this year. Not because of the violence, but because it’s a compelling game with great stealth action and atmosphere, all tied together with a unique (and, admittedly, grotesque) plot. If you don’t have the patience of a saint, you might want to pass this up, but for anyone who’s ever enjoyed games involving stealth, give this at least a rental.