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Manhunt (PlayStation 2) artwork

Manhunt (PlayStation 2) review

"Death would have been a luxury for James Earl Cash, considering the hellish situation he was soon plunged into following his execution. He was a convict on Death Row, but that was so long ago, it hardly seemed necessary going into his past. Currently, he was cowering in the shadows like a cockroach while a band of street scum scoured the area, hurling threats and obscenities his way. Their baseball bats were strong enough to demolish concrete structures, and Cash was badly aching from one lucky ..."

Death would have been a luxury for James Earl Cash, considering the hellish situation he was soon plunged into following his execution. He was a convict on Death Row, but that was so long ago, it hardly seemed necessary going into his past. Currently, he was cowering in the shadows like a cockroach while a band of street scum scoured the area, hurling threats and obscenities his way. Their baseball bats were strong enough to demolish concrete structures, and Cash was badly aching from one lucky hit that he never even saw coming. The glass shard he grasped in his shuddering, clammy hands was his only viable weapon. Never had his heartbeat been louder in his ears. For the first time, he was genuinely afraid for his life.

For the first time in recent memory, I was also genuinely in suspense and apprehension throughout most of the time playing through a video game. With the almost too-gutsy Manhunt, Rockstar North (formerly DMA Design) creates a world so cruel and unforgiving, using such intense violence and harrowing imagery, that it eventually reveals itself to be a harsh critique on the state of video games in general. That said, many people are likely to be turned off by its gritty realism in favor of something "more like a video game", which I hate to admit could not be a bigger mistake. I'm going to quit wasting time on foreplay: Manhunt is a revelation wrapped in depravity and a little viscera, too.

James Earl Cash is your typical strong silent loner, a quality that the insane, reclusive director Lionel Starkweather admires. The Director, voiced with icy precision by Brian Cox (who is in roughly every other movie out of Hollywood), has great plans for his newfound talent: several strenuous film shoots. The catch: he specializes in snuff films. Our unlucky felon-cum-thespian is "reborn" by being dropped directly into a squalid warehouse district patrolled by the first of many unique gangs. Being a noted director, Starkweather gives you your motivation for the next dozen or so scenes; simply to extinguish as many lives as possible, using the most inhumane methods.

Invariably, your first run-in with an enemy will be awkward and usually results in getting stomped into the asphalt. Cash is about as proficient in hand-to-hand combat as, well, the average pasty gamer with six-inch biceps. For a good portion of the game, it is pointless to directly engage your foes, and God forbid you are ever caught by one. He'll call over his buddies and they'll organize a lynching party. They will sniff you out like bloodhounds and drink your ass like wine. Enemy goons, amazingly, see farther than Genome Soldiers or Russian commandos, and react to even the slightest sound.

This means you must accomplish things like our friends, the ninjas, would. Use the cover of darkness as often as possible, stay quiet, be patient, and rip them a new asshole when their backs are turned. Much like stealth kills in Tenchu, Cash can coolly dispatch a nearby punk by sneaking up to him undetected and getting in close enough. You need not worry about having a katana handy; a weapon as crude as a plastic bag or a length of razor wire will do in a pinch. A more gruesome kill can be executed by holding the button longer, with some thoroughly nauseating results. The gorier your kills tend to be, the higher your score will go. This kind of emphasis on violence is the most emotionally distressing aspect of Manhunt, and this is also where we start to see shades of genius in its twisted, crimson-tinged roots.

Take any assembly-line action title, play it for a few seconds, and there's a very good chance you'll find yourself rewarded for all your kills. It's only one of the oldest standards of video games, after all. Could we have imagined a game like Dynasty Warriors 2 with its hundreds of kills per level, complete with jolly running total, even a decade ago? The only thing preserving the well-being of our nation's "impressionable youth" is an ineffectual ratings system. How old were you when you committed your first decapitation? Slick, pre-chewed mindless human carnage has been a solid staple of the action genre, and most likely will stay that way.

Now look at most any negative review, and you will inevitably find that the author thought Manhunt has crossed some kind of imaginary boundary into the realm of Bad Taste. Surely not for the excessive violence; after all, they must have rented or purchased it at the neighborhood software boutique. Simply the fact that it wound up on the shelf at Blockbuster, with all its untold scenes of explicit graphic violence, represents all the leeway given to violent games. Could it be for its literal avalanche of profanity more suited for an episode of Deadwood? Not likely, in this day and age where uncensored R-rated movies can play on basic cable. To anyone who has spent an extended amount of time basking in the horrors of Manhunt, the answer is clear: it has the power to shock and disturb even an emotionally numbed society such as ours.

Oh, the glorious things our hero can do with an ordinary claw hammer; the damage he can inflict on a mushy human skull. If you have the slightest shred of a conscience, it isn't difficult to be awed and moved to disgust when you find yourself rhythmically chopping off a man's head with that harmless-looking hatchet you found next to the guy whose face you shot full of nails. Yes, and the spiral of debauchery and degredation continues, ever downward, for a gruelling 20+ levels. Much of the action tends to center around some inane adventure-game objective such as getting gas, to fill up the crane, so you can pick up a heavy object, so you can bash down the wall, so you can advance to another room crawling with bloodthirsty maniacs. The bastards will be crawling out from under your feet after a time.

With so many bad guys to deal with, the violence never once feels rewarding or "cool". Stealth kills are done with an absence of unnecessary style and flash. With all the spouting arteries and eviscerations and bone-crunching sound effects making the experience as unpleasant as possible, you find you don't especially enjoy the act of killing. You exist as a rat who crawls out of his hole to deal with a careless predator every now and then. James Earl Cash must operate on pure motorized instinct to be any effective. Then there is the psychological level. Your faithful Director will always be in contact with you, always giving you advice to succeed. Given the general atmosphere of Manhunt, his advice is always "kill more people" or "give me more gore". Of course you are warmly thanked after your latest execution, helpfully guided to other weapons that allow gorier kills, and on it goes. Soon you think exactly like Cash would in any given situation within the game.

Oh, there is a story that involves a stupid reporter and her quest to expose Starkweather's evil scheme to the world.

But it's completely irrelevant when you're being stalked by a paranoid hunting nut who shoots elephant tranquilizer into you, hidden 50 feet away. It is even less relevant when his friends surround you, swinging their machetes, and you can see the foam spilling from their clenched jaws. When they shout things such as "I'm gonna slit you open and serve you like a pig," and you are about as coordinated as Hunter S. Thompson due to the contents of that fuzzy dart sticking out of your jugular, things don't get more complicated than save your own ass.

It surprised me how often I had to pause to take a breather. In the harsh, uncompromising universe of Manhunt, one is forced to learn lessons quickly and brutally. You will die often, especially during your first sessions, but thanks to some amazingly brief loading times (especially for the PS2) you are never taken out of the action for more than a few seconds. And, given the repellant gruesome killings, the game is amazingly playable. You'll learn to slink around like a rather unattractive urban ninja in no time flat. For lame newbies there is even a radar display much like Metal Gear Solid, complete with sight lines. Why, even an innocent young child could get the hang of these controls. I'd imagine him running away in pure, abject terror after seeing a virtual California Smile firsthand.

To be honest, the game overstays its welcome after it has run its logical course. Once guns are thrown into the mix, seemingly as an afterthought, the game turns into a series of firefights, each desperately trying to top the previous one. However, the gun battles are handled with much more skill than, say, Rockstar's own tongue-in-cheek GTA series. Cash is able to aim around corners and hide behind cover quickly to avoid return fire. The violence is no less effective -- try using a sawed-off shotgun from two feet away. These particular sequences are about the exact opposite from those found in every other third-person action game on the market. These gun fights are usually over in a few seconds if you have any skill whatsoever, and this is a moot point because you have had to struggle through a dozen tense Tenchu-style levels by now. Cash can aim manually in addition to his usual lock-on, making head shots a breeze to pull off. No overuse of bullet-time necessary.

Once Cash gets his hands on an assault rifle, the game is basically over. There is no longer any challenge. There is only the overwhelmingly oppressive atmosphere, and one corker of a boss fight placed right at the end of the game. In fact, it's downright operatic and a fine capper to all the grungy violence that preceded it, though not nearly as tough as the first stretch of the game. By the next time you play through, even the tough parts will be cake.

Would a game like Manhunt, with its virtuoso demonstration of how graphic violence should be presented, really beg for repeated play-throughs? While it makes its point, and does so admirably, it has been collecting dust for a good long time now. Really, there's no reason to replay because it has imprinted itself on my memory well enough. As a video game, Manhunt is a purely visceral experience. It would not be perfect any other way.

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Featured community review by johnny_cairo (March 12, 2005)

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