PSM2 - Christmas 2003 - Issue #43
 

PSM2 Manhunt Review

The first weapon you’re given in Rockstar’s none-more-black paranoid opus is not a rocket launcher. It’s not a plasma rifle, or a shotgun, or a pistol. You don’t even get a proper weapon until level four’s puny nailgun. No, you approach the first enemy armed with nothing more than a plastic carrier bag.

The fear of having to walk out into the mean streets of Carcer City armed only with a meagre polythene receptacle is soon superseded by the unpleasant dawning of what you’ll have to do with it. That’s right, you’re required to suffocate people. Violently. Graphically. And, if possible, finish them off with a kick to the head while they’re desperately gasping for breath.

Read the next sentence very carefully. Manhunt is not Grand Theft Auto. It may share the same publisher, developer and age rating as the bestselling videogame series of recent times, but Manhunt was never designed to be similarly populist. It’s an altogether darker and more intense experience designed for the demanding appetites of hardcore games players. No shit.

You can feel the nausea rising already. Whereas in most games the kill is the money shot, the ultimate celebration of your gaming superiority. Manhunt subverts the pornography of violence to actually leave you disgusted at the whole business of murder – which is much closer to the real life emotional experience of killing than the gung-ho portrayal we’re usually offered.

It doesn’t help that you’re being manipulated by the games mysterious ‘Director’, who, having faked your execution and given you a second chance, now holds your life to ransom. You must kill or be killed – and the Director demands that you execute opponents in the most unpleasant manner possible for his warped personal satisfaction. And how does he know what you’re up to? Because he’s watching you via CCTV cameras positioned all over Carcer City at all times. And that’s Manhunts brilliant twist.

At it’s most simple the areas you must negotiate are corridors of scenery, men and objects. But the notion that the director has set up the scene to be like this - you’re being watched and lured and channeled towards your next kill.

The game - perhaps inevitably – looks a little like GTA. The camera tracks you and can be rotated with the right stick. Enemies show up as arrows on the radar, but only once you’ve seen them. While its possible to play the likes of Metal Gear with only a radar, that’s just not possible with Manhunt. Only once you’ve sighted an enemy (or they’ve detected you) will their position be logged. You can then tell which way they’re facing by which way their arrow is pointing.

Be prepared for lots of sudden reversing as you slowly, stealthily approach your next victim only to have a distant second goon suddenly turn and start heading your way. Every kill needs planning to perfection. And you’ll soon master the art of pressing against a wall and scoping around a corner to see who might be waiting.

There are three modes of execution (Standard, Violent, gruesome) for each weapon, and the mode you activate depends on how long you are willing to risk detection by hovering silently behind your victim. Gruesome executions please the Director more and will give you a higher game rating on completion. But they also mean you have to suffer watching your vile handiwork as the camera cuts to passive CCTV mode, before enduring the Director’s semi-orgasmic reaction as he purrs encouragement. This will affect you surprisingly deeply.

The feeling of total unease is exacerbated by you complete reliance on stealth. Without a gun, confronting enemies is simply not an option. And don’t go thinking you can take on two blokes at once. Just as in real life, your best option is to take someone by surprise. Next best is one on one, then two against one (and upwards). By then you’re fighting a losing battle…

Your only friend is shadow. Throughout the environments there are safe areas where hunters will not be able to locate you – even from inches away – unless they’ve actually seen you hide there. The most effective trick is to lure a hunter from his patrol by tapping a wall or lobbing a brick or bottle, then crouching in a safe area when he comes to investigate. Eventually he’ll conclude that he’s just hearing things and turn away, at which point you creep up and pounce.

The catch is that if another hunter sees or even hears you executing a college, he’ll rush to the scene. As you progress through the levels, enemies become more numerous and hunt in packs, requiring steely patience to isolate individual hunters and then conceal their bodies in shadows. Superb level design and AI (none of your predictable ten-second patrol patterns or tunnel vision here) make for increasingly complex puzzles. Occasionally you’ll be forced to precipitate a nail-biting chase through a level to attract attention. Then, just when these games of cat and mouse become a little repetitive, guns are introduced. Suddenly armed hunters can’t be persuaded to abandon their lookout posts by any amount of aural distraction. The only option is to steal a revolver and engage in a tense stand-off where every bullet counts and every dash across the line of fire could mean curtains for you. The fact that the shootout takes place in a blood splattered asylum with dirty matrices for cover and your foes and gibbering man-babies in chef’s hats doesn’t aid you feeling of unease. You really feel like you’re playing as if your life depends on it..

Manhunt is a game fuelled by stealth and paranoia to the point where you don’t dare move for minutes at a time as your trembling fingers hover over a sweat-soaked joypad. You don’t dare open fire for fear of giving away your position.

And when fire fights do break out the game becomes an adrenaline pumping action game (though no less tense and strategic). After 12 levels of hiding in the shadows, it’s a joy to let rip with a shotgun. And you’re always being driven forward by a desire to find out just what makes the Director tick, who’s really in control of Carcer City and, of course, what happens when you have killed everyone there is to kill. Lets just say its not a pat on the back and a carriage clock…

Manhunt is a game you have to play. It’s unique in so many ways, not at least its use of extreme violence in games. It relentless shocking intensity means that Manhunt really gets under your skin. It’s conceivable that the games strict linearity, slow early pace and bleak imagery – punctuated by incidents of barely palatable brutality – will not appeal to all. But if you pride yourself on assimilating new gaming experiences, Manhunt’s the only game pushing back boundaries this Christmas.

Game Play

+ Takes stealth to another level and the action is equally thrilling.
- A few repetitive tasks and occasionally messy gunplay.

Graphics

+ Grim apocalyptic atmosphere is maintained throughout.
- Doesn’t push the PS2, but Manhunt isn’t meant to be pretty

Sound

+ Brilliantly disquieting ambient sounds and voice samples.
- No 80’s classics (unless you count Throbbing Gristle).

Lifespan

+ 20 long levels that require a cautious pace.
- No multiplayer modes. But did you want them?

Overall

Dares you to play despite your natural revulsion. Manhunt is a tour de force, and worth every nightmare it’ll give you.

91% HARROWING

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