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Manhunt (PlayStation 2) artwork

Manhunt (PlayStation 2) review

"Manhunt’s critical acclaim led me to believe it would be more than a game that relied purely on the shock value of its graphic violence for attention. "

Manhunt’s critical acclaim led me to believe it would be more than a game that relied purely on the shock value of its graphic violence for attention.

I was misled.

Manhunt is the most violent game ever made. I’ve played Postal and Soldier of Fortune, but Manhunt surpasses both with confident ease in terms of wanton gore. Sadly, the same can’t be said for its relation to the forerunners of the stealth genre as far as plain old fun of playing a videogame is concerned. Grudgingly I’ll admit that Manhunt’s unsettling presentation exhibits persistent, deliberate care, with consistently dark and dreary, rundown slum-type environments, flawless animation, Hollywood caliber voice acting, and disturbingly genuine screams to accompany the gruesome deaths – but because practically none of this attention has gone into its gameplay, Manhunt is ultimately nothing more than an audacious, pretentious display of violence.

Manhunt’s macabre introduction acquaints players with ludicrously named death row-convict James Earl Cash just as his life is reaching its punishing conclusion. In a strange twist of fate, Cash is spared: the lethal injection was apparently replaced with a sedative, and after regaining consciousness, he finds himself alone in a room. Cash has cheated death, but at a certain cost: for the duration of the game, he’ll be cruelly subjected to the will of the deranged, perverse, sadomasochistic Lionel Starkweather, a snuff film director who is inconveniently out of Cash’s reach and only contacted by means of a radio earpiece. As the star of Starkweather's new film, the conditions for Cash's second chance at life are as such: he must silently sneak his way through rundown neighborhoods, stealthily execute the gangs of trashy thugs and white supremacists who populate them for Starkweather’s sadistic delight, and perhaps even acquire some firearms to shoot said thugs with. Essentially, Manhunt’s conditions for game completion are as such: players must slog through a clumsy exercise in stealth, and occasionally a slightly less clumsy exercise in gunplay.

The executions of these lowlife scum begin first by requiring Cash to procure any weapon from a fairly wide variety of tool shed and sporting mainstays (crowbars, axes, baseball bats, etc.). Once armed, Cash can either directly, but undesirably, approach his unsuspecting opponents, or stealthily creep behind for an excessively violent stealth kill. To discourage head-on encounters in favor of stealth, Manhunt’s melee engine has been designed with an intentional awkwardness, rendering it almost entirely ineffective. A direct approach on a single enemy is a monumentally stupid decision, while a direct approach on multiple enemies is certain suicide.

Thus you opt for a complete stealth approach until the acquisition of firearms, which proves difficult due to the inherently difficult nature of stealth and the fact that detecting these enemies isn’t nearly as intuitive as it should be. The third-person camera is set far back, and there are no means of manipulating it, which is particularly frustrating considering Cash’s movements are independent of the camera. A first-person view slightly alleviates the distant third-person camera, but it would have been better if the right analog stick to which the first-person view is bound were dedicated to rotating the camera left or right instead. The radar you’re provided with detects only enemies who are visible or audible, and they generally tend to be neither until they detect you.

Sneaking up on these goons is a tiresome affair because the pressure sensitive analog affords Cash only an insufferably slow walk, or an even slower, slouched sneak. In order to make your way through levels at faster than snail speeds, you’ll need to hold down the incredibly noisy sprint button and hope no one hears your spurt of impatience. Should you botch your stealth approach, you’ll need to employ the sprint button again and find a dark crevice in a nearby building to hide from the pursuing thugs. Some sort of jog would have been a welcome addition.

Manhunt relies on the unequivocally shocking nature of its needlessly gruesome stealth kills to entertain. Successfully sneaking up on someone results in the depiction of one of three execution animations, depending on how long you hold down the kill button for your equipped weapon. A mere tap yields a “quick” kill, a slightly prolonged press produces a “violent” kill, and further prolonging the button’s release results in a “gruesome” kill. When you realize that functionally there is no difference between a “quick” kill and a “gruesome” kill, the gimmick around which Manhunt is practically centered almost entirely loses its novelty. There is a rating system based on how gruesomely you execute the thugs in a particular level, but the rewards for scoring high are small at best and intangible at worst. You can unlock galleries, but high scores hold no influence over whether or not you beat the game. In fact, aside from one particular sequence when Starkweather demands that you kill three or four times in a particular manner, you can beat Manhunt entirely using only “quick” kills – and it’s certainly worth noting that this is also the most practical, least frustrating approach.

Meanwhile, there’s a frustrating element of range that unnecessarily complicates all attempts at a stealth kill. If you are even just barely outside the invisible radius in which stealth kills are possible, Cash will instead swing his equipped melee weapon as though he were confronting his opponent directly, often alerting the previously unsuspecting foe in the process. Stalk too closely and you run the risk of bumping into your target, likewise alerting him in the process. This sort of insanity crosses the line between finesse and frustrating exactness.

The fairly wide assortment of melee weapons at Cash’s disposal is deceiving because, as far as stealth is concerned, they all achieve the same end: an instant kill. The only incentive to choose different weapons is the different animations – and actually, that’s not really an incentive. In direct fights they may be slightly different – I assume a baseball bat would give Cash more leverage than a plastic bag – but because direct combat has already been dismissed as useless anyway, it really doesn’t matter. Further diminishing the novelty of the gory stealth kills is the fact that gruesome kills aren’t always even discernibly more gruesome than quick or violent kills. Execution by machete always includes some sort of chop or stab, followed by a decapitation. The sickle’s “violent” kill is a very thorough castration from behind, while the “gruesome” kill is a stab to the chest. The fact that these subjective kill stratifications reside entirely in arbitrary button depression lengths makes them seem all the more gimmicky.

Surprisingly, Manhunt actually functions better as a straightforward third person shooter than as a stealth game, even if unintentionally. A rudimentary but serviceable system of hiding behind cover and being able to quickly expose yourself to fire a few shots entirely undergirds the shooting engine; but like the melee engine, it has a definite awkwardness that makes it feel like a secondary feature. Manhunt’s movement system remains unwieldy in these instances – aiming even confines you to an extremely slow walk – and the lock-on system proves unreliable: it’s not uncommon for it to lock on to an enemy in the distance rather than the one right next to you. Even when it works correctly, Manhunt’s shooting system is limited, almost always requiring you to quite literally sit behind your cover, and wait for the predestined moment to fire off a few shots before cowering back. It quickly grows repetitious, if not tiresome – but it is certainly more workable than the stealth segments, and the latter portions of the game, where shooting takes prominence, are easily the most enjoyable.

But whether it was intended as a stealth action game or straightforward third-person shooter, Manhunt is nothing without its gratuitous gore. Maybe I’m missing the point. I’m sure Manhunt is supposed to be a social commentary, but Manhunt’s developers have much more tragically missed the point, because any success Manhunt achieves as a social commentary is negated by its failure as an enjoyable, playable game. If, and only if, it had succeeded in the latter would I even have considered its merits on the former.

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Community review by radicaldreamer (June 11, 2005)

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