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Manhunt (PC) artwork

Manhunt (PC) review


"You’ve been following the controversy surrounding the Grand Theft Auto series for… let me start over. "



You’ve been following the controversy surrounding the Grand Theft Auto series for… let me start over.

You’ve been laughing at the controversy surrounding the Grand Theft Auto series for about eight years now, and we will do our best to look past the dreaded (and over-cited) Hot Coffee fiasco, which, for the purpose of making a thesis about violence, had absolutely nothing to do with violence. The main reason people can’t seem to agree on whether the GTA games are a major influence on the gaming world or a menace to society is that the mindset behind making such games is complete freedom – and the power to do whatever you want just happens to include committing grisly acts of inhumane violence on random people. (Case in point: This can be done in real life, too.) The bums who pretend to stand for something but really just hate games in general – like that guy – point to the dozen or so GTA players (out of millions, I might add) who presumably used what they’ve learned to kill ACTUAL PEOPLE, while us gamers argue that complete freedom is what makes these games so great. Take away the cop-killing sprees and chainsaw rampages, and you’ve kind of lost the point.

As for Manhunt, well, let’s talk about Manhunt.

This particular game has no freedom, as it pits the main character in an enclosed, linear environment where he’s constantly being watched, and in which a very sick, deranged man named Starkweather is always telling him exactly what he needs to do, which usually involves killing someone in the most sickening way possible using whatever makeshift weapons happen to be lying around. Why? Because Starkweather wants to see some blood spilt, and really, so does the player. Whereas GTA used shocking violence as a means of carrying out a greater end, Manhunt uses shocking violence as a central gameplay mechanic. Which means, in a startling turn of events, the guys at Rockstar have gone and made the game that so many ignorant people thought GTA was.

Nah, I kid. I suspect Rockstar made Manhunt because they realized gamers enjoy the sight of blood and gore – a fact I won’t deny – and decided they should develop a game revolving around cringe-inducing acts of brutality as a means of reward. Thing is, the folks Rockstar certainly aren’t the first people to figure this out. I could round off dozens of examples of over-the-top violence being utilized when it wasn’t necessary, but the first recent specimen that pops into my head is Gears of War, which offered players an assault rifle with a built-in chainsaw bayonet. I mean, seriously. What military force, in this world or another, would think to implement chainsaws into their guns? Only those sketched to vibrant life by the artists at Epic Games, who understand that gamers think gore is fun. Call us sick bastards if you like, but it’s true.

The idea with Manhunt, then, is to take this very simple concept – gamers like gratuitous violence! – and stretch it until what you’re left with is long-lasting enough to be something people will pay fifty bucks to play. It masquerades as a stealth/action game while concealing its true intentions as well as something so unsubtle can be concealed. It goes like this: A death row inmate named James Earl Cash (who can’t decide if he wants to be a Silent Protagonist or not) finds himself busted out of prison and placed into gangland territory by the unseen Starkweather, who’s taping his every move and insists he slaughter the raiding gang members with a particular eye for bloodletting. The execution mechanic has players stalking, I’m sorry, sneaking up behind their enemies, readying whatever weapon they have handy, and making the kill. There are three “gore levels,” all determined by how long the player waits. If you manage to restrain yourself long enough to get the red marker, you know you’ll get the bloodiest (i.e., most satisfying) execution.

I’ll admit that this takes a few tries to get used to. The problem is that once you’ve got it down, there’s little else to keep the game running other than the drive to find all of the available weapons and witness the sickening ways in which you can take your opponents’ lives with them. The stealth/action mechanics are barely developed in any meaningful way, and it’s easy to see how such a genre seems out of place in this context, anyway. You could argue, for example, that beating someone to death with a crowbar is the very antithesis of stealthy, or that Rockstar’s philosophy by awarding “good” players with the most cinematic executions makes no sense in this kind of playing environment. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the “good” stealth/action players aren’t the idiots who get into killing position behind their enemies and then wait several seconds, furthering their chances of exposure (which is what Manhunt’s execution attempts often lead to).

But this is irrelevant. What’s important is how enjoyable the game is without its execution gimmick, which (it goes without saying) loses its appeal fast. I’m sure there are plenty of people who would complain that it’s unfair to compare any game to Splinter Cell, an argument I’m more than happy to oppose. That game set the standard for its genre, and Rockstar had more than enough time to respond. Their underwhelming answer is to allow players to find immediate and full cover from all of their opponents by hiding under just about any shadow, and Cash hasn’t even got an inch of black clothing on him. A fat, greasy, Bible-quoting redneck could be positioned two feet in front of you and looking in your direction, and you could be standing there in your fucking jeans with about as much shadow cover as one could hope to obtain from a tree on a partly cloudy day, and you’d be perfectly safe.

Sound plays a part in this too, but not really. Cash has three speeds: Running, walking, and sneaking, the latter of which is useless since the gang members will never hear you when you’re walking, either. The length to which enemy manipulation plays its hand narrows down to Cash pulling out a baseball bat and hitting a wall, which forces the curiosity of your ceaselessly stupid opponents to lead them into dark areas where a one-man ambush with a plastic bag is all but guaranteed.

But while the stealth/action stuff doesn’t work well, most of Manhunt’s attempts to introduce other elements into the gameplay fail just as miserably, starting with the ill-advised inclusion of long-range weapons and certainly not ending with the short-lived sequences in which Cash must operate a magnetic crate in order to drop refrigerators on the legions of adversaries assaulting him with nail guns. (I couldn’t make this shit up if I tried.) And the melee combat predictably blows, though this might have been excusable as an intended flaw in order to keep the player focused on “stealth” (mind the sarcastic quotes) if Starkweather didn’t throw you into a setup every now and then just for kicks.

The one area where Manhunt shows promise is when it delves into survival horror territory later on, elevated to unforeseen heights by the presence of a naked pigman who, in the world of chainsaw-wielding foes in video games, ranks right up there with “that guy with the burlap sack on his head in Resident Evil 4” in terms of one’s ability to strike fear into gamers’ hearts. Manhunt even puts a number of old survival horror sound devices to work: The shrill background music, the escalating thumping of Cash’s heart – tricks we’ve seen before, sure, but that’s because they work.

Starkweather himself is voiced by Brian Cox, in one of the most stunningly perfect examples of celebrity casting I’ve yet to witness in a video game. You can tell Cox is having fun being an evil fuck, and I get the feeling his delight in seeing so much blood is meant to mirror the player’s own sense of satisfaction. Starkweather never seems to tire of it, either, which is where I draw the line between him and myself. Even if this element of the game had been developed to its fullest extent, and it wasn’t (from what I can tell, the animations for the knife and glass shard are identical), it’s the kind of thrill that only lasts so long: Once you’ve seen it, you’ve seen it. The entertainment derived from Manhunt could have been delivered in equal amounts through a fifteen-minute tech demo, which certainly would have left a better taste in my mouth than an eight-hour game I actually, y’know, paid for.

Rating: 4/10

Suskie's avatar
Community review by Suskie (October 13, 2008)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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mrmiyamoto posted October 20, 2008:

After reading this, I hardly can remember why I even enjoyed Manhunt. You highlighted some very important flaws, many of which would cripple a game today. But you're right. The brutal violence is the only thing keeping this game tolerable.

I liked this quote, and for no other reason than its fluidity and--to me--humor: "The length to which enemy manipulation plays its hand narrows down to Cash pulling out a baseball bat and hitting a wall, which forces the curiosity of your ceaselessly stupid opponents to lead them into dark areas where a one-man ambush with a plastic bag is all but guaranteed."
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Suskie posted October 20, 2008:

Thanks for the comments. I've always wanted to review Manhunt but never really had enough playing experience with it to work up a credible review until just recently, when I got the game as part of Steam's thirty-dollar Rockstar package. Glad I finally got this out of my system.

You're right about it being tolerable, though. The reason I didn't give the game a lower score is because it wasn't broken or particularly painful to finish, and it didn't have any flaws that rendered it unplayable. It was a dumb, pointless game, but tolerably so.
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Lewis posted October 20, 2008:

I remember really liking Manhunt, but knowing I probably shouldn't. Below is a (rejected, natch!) piece I wrote for PC Gamer bloody aeons ago. Just for the fuck of it, like.

-----

We live in a civilised society. Today's idealist views give little
opportunity for brutal expression, for malevolent bloodlust and
gore-soaked annihilation. Rockstar, it would seem, have delved deep
into the mind of today's Average Guy, and by doing so have managed to
create something that appeals to the little psycho in all of us:

"And then I started smashing his face against the ground, right? And
he was screaming for me to stop, but I carried on anyway - and there
was blood, like, /everywhere/..."

Of course, such actions are passive. While Manhunt markets itself
around the concept of nauseating brutality, it's rare that the player
is actually given a chance to control such attacks. Although ranged
weapons come into play later on, resulting in more open gunfights,
combat is generally based around a time-based system, whereby the
longer you lurk behind an unsuspecting victim before pouncing, the
more vicious the eventual assassination. The results are viewed in
short but highly graphic, CCTV-style cut-scenes.

It's a good suspense builder in an experience that is fundamentally
about tension. Manhunt, technically, is rather weak. Controlling
lead character James Earl Cash can feel stilted at times, clunky from
the transition to PC. The story is solid, but its credibility is
often ruined by terribly lazy level design and irritatingly obvious
gameplay aids. Enemy AI has a tendency to be rather abysmal, with
moronic thugs skulking around Carcer City without any knowledge of
your presence unless you're directly in front of them. Either that,
or they hear you from half a mile away, and charge at you with all
their might.

Despite the occasionally suspect mechanics, however, Manhunt's
atmosphere is generally fantastic. The background to the game is
enough to send a shiver down anybody's spine, revealed by both the
chilling opening cut-scene and the game's manual. The player controls
death row convict James Earl Cash; the game begins with his apparent
execution. However, not all goes to plan, and Cash awakes in a small,
dark room, brought back into consciousness by the sinister voice of
underground filmmaker Starkweather. It soon becomes apparent that he
wants you to be the star of his new picture, and has positioned his
band of deadly minions around Carcer City for you to dispense at his
pleasure.

It's a gritty concept, and one supported well by strong voice-acting
and impressive aesthetics. Although the Renderware engine doesn't
look as luscious as it once did, Manhunt nevertheless features some
nice, grungy graphical touches. Add to this some unsettling and
somewhat distressing audio, and the atmospherics are of a rather high
quality.

Perhaps where Manhunt succeeds most of all is its willingness to treat
the gamer like an adult. Sure, it's going to attract those sick
individuals who find the idea of decapitating a clown with a crowbar
somewhat enchanting. But it's important to remember that it's just a
game. If you forget the mechanics, and focus on the unforgettably
dark and warped experience, Manhunt is way ahead of the pack.

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