Reviewed: June 6, 2004
Released: April 20, 2004
In their never-ending quest to piss off every last senator in Washington and every irresponsible parent everywhere else Rockstar secures their place in the “Twisted Hall of Fame” with their latest title, Manhunt. Originally released for the PS2 back in November, it now makes its much-anticipated debut on the PC (and Xbox) with a few minor improvements, but it's still the same solid game you may have already heard about from your console gaming friends.
With games like Grand Theft Auto and the less popular State of Emergency paving the way for their chaotic, crime-inspired games, Manhunt comes to us with a fairly original and horribly brutal theme. You play James Earl Cash, sentenced to death by lethal injection, but your execution is a fraud and instead, you are forced to participate in a twisted reality TV show where you go up against dozens of gang members in a “kill or be killed” contest of stealth, wits, and pure brutality. Yes, Manhunt is violent, sick, twisted, and perhaps the most socially unacceptable game of all time, but that’s no reason not to love it. You are encouraged to dispatch your victims in the most brutal fashion available and reprimanded when you fail to create enough visceral thrills for the unseen audience.
Manhunt is a unique blend of violent gaming wrapped up in a trendy reality-TV presentation. You are given instructions from the sinister voice behind the camera known only as the “Director”. After a quick briefing you are cast into the streets of Carcer where cameras have been strategically placed to capture all the gory action.
Like any good director, you are given verbal instructions on what do to, who to kill, and how to do it in the most violent method available. Weapons vary from clubs, shards of glass, a plastic bag, and even conventional firearms much later in the game, but no matter what your pleasure, stealth is the only way to play this game. Sneaking up on a target makes for a somewhat easy kill and the longer you have to prep the attack the more violent the death.
The way the stealth kill system works is this. You sneak up on an unsuspecting target and hold down the attack button. Depending on what weapon you have in your hand will determine the type of kill and how long you hold down the attack button dictates the brutality of the kill. There are three types of kills, Hasty, Violent, and Gruesome. The longer you hold down the attack button the more violent the kill and the more disturbing the cutscene.
Let’s say you sneak up behind punk #1 with a plastic bag. A quick press of the attack button will have you yank the bag over the victim’s head and suffocate him. Boring. Hold down the button for 3-5 seconds and you get a violent kill where you suffocate him and punch him in the face while he’s dying. Better. Press and hold for more than 5 seconds and you are rewarded with a three-part cutscene that includes the first two cutscenes followed by even more violent beatings and body blows and neck snapping. So basically, a complete kill is a three-part movie and how much of that movie you get to see is based on how long you can prep the attack.
Of course, during this “prep time” you are totally vulnerable to discovery and counter attack. The victim could turn on his own, you could move, or accidentally make a noise. If you are discovered before or during an attempted assassination you will have to engage in a more direct confrontation and the odds are invariably stacked against you. While many thugs will just fight, others will yell or run for backup.
There is a decent fight engine in Manhunt that allows for a variety of punches, kicks, grapples, and even some combos. There is nothing more wickedly delightful than kicking some punk in the head while he’s down and bleeding while the Director cackles gleefully from his mysterious control room. Even with all of the cool combat moves, you still don’t want to face off against more than one or two opponents at any given time. Control on the PC is surprisingly excellent with the keyboard and mouse, and you can fully customize the controls to your liking. I had my doubts at first but the standard WADS and mouse combo worked great. Ultimately, my console instincts had be revert to my Saitek P2500 gamepad and if you have one I would still recommend playing with a dual-stick gamepad.
Even though stealth is your ally there are times when you need to make a little noise. You can tap on walls or kick over a trashcan and attract the attention of anyone in earshot, but for some reason the PC version abandons the support for a headset thus eliminating the ability to vocally taunt your enemies. This was one of the more interesting elements of the console version and it's sorely missed on the PC, at least for me. Another great feature that was lost with the headset is the haunting voice of the director right in your ear. To their credit, Rockstar has done some amazing 3D sound design to make the voice just as haunting in a surround sound environment.
So basically, you have the premise of the gameplay. You sneak up on people and kill them, or if you can’t sneak up on them you make noise to lure them to you. There really aren’t any puzzles other than analyzing patrol routes and figuring out strategies for taking down multiple gang members. You have a brief setup for the weak plot and are thrust into a multi-level killing spree where only the environments and the gang colors change for the most part. The story does manage to pick up around the second half of the game but it’s still paper-thin and not even needed. This is a game of indulgence and living out your most violent fantasies.
To say Manhunt is a “challenging game” is an understatement. Manhunt is freaking HARD! You will die, you will die often, and you will replay levels or sections of levels repeatedly. Thankfully there is a nice checkpoint system that keeps this process from driving you to the point where you put the plastic bag over your own head.
Much of this difficult gameplay stems from the stealth aspects and the fact that throughout most of the first half of the game your best weapon is a shard of glass, a crowbar, or a baseball bat if you are lucky. But what really surprised me was the downright scary AI of the rival gangs in this game. Manhunt features some of the best AI seen to date in an action title and I can only hope that future games can come close to this level of “virtual awareness”.
Everything in Manhunt generates some kind of sound whether you are walking on concrete, creaking floorboards, or opening a rusty gate. Much of the game is in total silence so when I accidentally knocked over a metal trashcan I nearly soiled myself. You can monitor the awareness level of the nearby gang members with the in-game radar that color-codes the targets.
The AI grows more aware with each new level driving the difficulty up in a steep progression. While you can dispatch the first few levels of gangs with just a bit of practice, later in the game your opponents become much more skilled and won’t fall for your distractions. They will also stick together in tight groups moving silently and hiding their numbers. They will also start using your own tactics against you, luring you into the open so one of their strategically placed snipers can take you down.
I am forced to admit that the game does get a bit repetitive with all the sneaking and killing. After you have executed a dozen guys with a plastic bag or slit their throat with a piece of glass the cutscenes lose their thrill. The designers do an impressive job of mixing up the environments and even tossing in some interesting mission objectives that include total stealth, total weapons, and even an escort mission through a creepy graveyard.
Make no mistake about it. Manhunt is an adult game that is unfit for younger kids and probably too violent for most adults. There were several death scenes where I winced and even looked away, and I’m a huge fan of gore and violence. Manhunt takes violence to new levels of extreme, and if you aren’t just a little bit disturbed while playing this game then you might need therapy.
Manhunt is all about presentation. The entire game is shown through the lens of the TV cameras scattered about the city. There is an intentional graininess to the video along with scan lines and even some random reception problems that make you want to adjust your rabbit ears. Since the game is played from fixed camera angles there are several places where you are unable to get that perfect view. I never really died because of the camera, but it annoyed me on multiple occasions.
Level design is suitably dark and sinister with plenty of places to hide, set traps, and plan your ambushes. Everything looks really trashy, almost with a post-apocalyptic theme and there are some nice subtle and not-so-subtle touches that lend to the realism. One of my favorites is a certain piece of graffiti written on the wall next to your very first victim. The textures are noticeably better on the Xbox and the lighting is brighter and more realistic, but unless you had them running side-by-side you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference..
Character design and animation is superb. Cash is a burly man with bulging arms that can throttle most men into submission. His crew cut, violent scowl, and even the way he walks and creeps around define Cash as a man on a mission. The rest of the characters include a creative and wonderfully assorted cast of gang members, corrupt police, and other thugs sporting all kinds of masks, costumes, and other disturbing imagery including a Donnie Darko rabbit costume.
All of the movement is flawlessly animated thanks to some wonderful motion-capture work. I feel sorry for the actors who actually performed these violent death scenes, but their pain and hard work will be appreciated by all of us who play and watch time after time. Even the non-mo-capped action like walking and running looks really good.
The PC version is enhanced with high-resolution textures and much more sophisticated model with a higher polygon count than the console versions. Naturally, you can run the game at much higher resolutions than possible on the consoles, so everything looks much sharper and the framerates hold up even at these higher resolutions. The added support for a widescreen presentation for those of us with widescreen monitors is also a much welcome surprise.
Sound plays a critical role in Manhunt, not only in what you hear but what the characters in the game hear. Everything in the game sounds great and very realistic, but more importantly, this sound is modeled so that it carries over a realistic distance and can be detected by anyone within that range. This works both ways and you will be able to enjoy plenty of dialogue thanks to your skills of stealth and eavesdropping. The gangs in Manhunt are very vocal, and you will be able to hear hundreds of lines of original dialogue, taunts, and one-liners throughout the game. There is more cursing in Manhunt than Kingpin (if anyone remembers that game), further reinforcing the M-rating.
All of the sound elements are modeled in 3D space making the most of Dolby, EAX, or whatever your high-end sound card can support. While it's still slightly superior in quality to the Pro Logic II mix on the PS2 it's a dead tie with the Dolby Digital mix on the Xbox.
The dark and moody music in Manhunt is more environmental than instrumental, creating a threatening mood or generally disturbing ambience. The tempo changes based on the events in the game and some of the more tense themes like the heartbeat sounds while hiding in shadows will have the hair standing up on your neck.
Manhunt is a lengthy game, partly due to its sheer size of 24 substantial and challenging levels, but also due to the pacing of the game. This is a slow and methodical game where you creep, observe, then wait for your opening and take it. You’ll probably make plenty of mistakes, either in timing, or tripping over a trashcan or getting ambushed by gangs who are smarter than you thought. When this happens you will get to play sections of these levels over and over again.
Expect 30-40 hours to complete this game on the Fetish (Normal) skill level and only the most dedicated gamers should even think about attempting the Hardcore mode. There are also four bonus levels you can unlock through particularly violent gameplay. These add a bit of incentive to perform well and extend the game beyond the narrative experience.
While Rockstar has managed some impressive improvements with the PC version I find the lack of headset support odd considering that most serious PC gamers have some type of headset lying around. It really takes away that extra level of immersion that the consoles manage to offer. Combined with the fact that you are going to need a pretty serious PC to play this game at the same level as the console version, PC gamers with a console might find themselves with a tough decision.
Manhunt is a demented game that is going to appeal to a very limited audience, but if you are in that select few then you are going to love it. If you enjoy slow, strategic, stealth gameplay, if you've hacked your way through the most violent games available and still want more blood and sick, twisted, violence then look no further. You won’t find a more stylish or disturbing game than this.