OPSM2 - January 2004 - Issue#42
Rockstar North comes up with the most shocking game experience of the year. Snuff said.
Snuff is apparently a myth. But how would you react if we told you we had encountered real snuff. A fetishistic close-up of a man's head being hacked off with three blows from a machete. Someone being eviscerated with a sickle. A grainy segment of video depicting a mental patient being slowly decapitated with a peice of wire....
You'd question how people can get on this debasement. Murder viewed with the same voyeruristic, sub-gynaecological tendencies of a cheap porn film. Bloody close-ups. Vacant, emotionless stares. The sound of heavy breathing. The gasping, gargling diminuendo of the final throes of death. No soundtrack, no credits, no actors. It would give you nightmares for weeks.
If you're waiting for a matey gag to offset the bkleakness then forget it. Piss off and play Harry Potter. Why should we introduce Manhunt as anything other than a living hell. Its central subject matter is death. SO GET USED TO IT! You can't afford to be sensitive if you're going to last longer than 30 seconds here.
James Earl Cash should know something about death. He was one lethal injection away from experiencing it. But he didn't get to rest in peace. Instead, Cash has become the lone star of a series of snuff movies imagined by the hands of his resurrector and self-styled director, Lionel Starkwather.
ONCE UPON A DARK TIME...
The script is primary school simple. You're placed in the dark enviroments of Carcer City - the suburb of a long-forgotten flyover hicktown. Cash's role is to survive. His co-stars are a series of increasingly vicious 'hunters'. Scum is the only way to describe them. Dehumanised via their perverse quirks (one group are hardened racists; another, wife-beating gringos) and masked faces, they're employed by Starkwather to kill you. And they take it personally every time they are given the runaround.
Cash has the killer instinct. It's up to you to nurture and grow it. Starting with glass shards and plastic bags he's introduced to Starkweather's film method. Cash has to perform close-quarter kills - initiated by approaching a hunter from behind and pressing X - and the resulting death is viewed as the illustrious director sees it on his TV monitor, captured by the numerous cameras throughout his macabre playground. Think XXX-rated Crimestoppers CCTV ffotage. Grainy, distorted, harshly lit from a fixed position. The first time you see it...Well, you'll remeber it.
CASH MEANS DEATH
It's not enough just to suffocate with bags or eye gouge with a glass shard. Oh no. As far as Starkweather's concered, the more graphic, the higher the price tag he can slap on the product.The longer Cash dares to delay the kill (the hunter's life hangs tantalisingly in the balence for up to five seconds) the more violent the murder. White kill, Yellow kill, Red kill. All exterminate their victim but each with a different degree of helpless agony. Who wants to watch a snuff blow to the head with a crowbar when you can ram the hoocked end in the spine and then toll the final death knell by penetrating their skull with the spike? As well as pleasing the director, Cash has to stay alive, and this means killing hunters to progress - to obtain a crowbar to force a gate for example. Stealth is probably the wrong term to describe Cash's approach to dealing with the hunters. Stealth implies an elemnet of choice and power. For the most part he has neither of these. Cash is forced to use shadows for evasion to aviod the hunters' atention and survive. Lurking in the shadows becomes part of his lifeblood. It's imperative in early levels where he usually starts empty handed and needs to quiet kill to gain a weapon.
Then there's sound. You thought you could just stomp around with your hobnail boots and no one would hear you? No chance. Glance at these screenshots and you'll notice a large radar in the left-hand corner. This serves a dual purpose. First, it's a visual check for the position of hunters - they appear as chevrons when the same level as Cash, and a triangular blob if above or below him. As you move, noise is represented by a red glow emanating from Cash. The more noise you make, the wider it reaches. If it touches a hunter, his status will change to orange. He's on to you now. At this point you can still hide. However, it the hunter icon turns red it means he's seen you and the only option is to run.
It might cross your mind here that Manhunt sounds like Splinter Cell or Metal Gear 2 with plastic bags instead of tranq and silenced pistols. Cash can pick up dead bodies and hide them to avoid arousing the hunters' suspicions. He can back up against wall and look around corners. He can even hide behind bin and walls and pop up and shoot with a single button press. On papaer conparisons are there. The difference lies in the carefully constructed game world. The air of menace, the barren surroundingd, the ruthlessly explicit ramblings of the hunters, the first time you accidentally clatter into a dustbin or stumble onto some gravel and get rumbled. All are conductive to an unremitting sense of tention, a constant feeling in the gut that a single error of judgement could get you killed.
Despite being evil of the first order, the hunters are on of Manhunt's
strongest inventions because they exhibit personality. The smiley's wail
like lunitics, The Wardogs and gruff military drop outs and the Skinz
are intolerably racist. The key is their unique approach to hunting Cash
- intelligent gangs search in groups and, if isolated, will call for back
You will get noticed though. This game is hard. Not just in temrs of it's treatment of violence - the fact that you don't flinch having just knoced a hunters' head with a bat, or split a cranium with the sharp end of a claw hammer - but also in the amount of dedication and precision it takes to finish. Played on the easy (fetish) setting, in certain sections, it's destressingly difficult but crucially it's designed to be fair. We never reached a stage where we feltit was unbeatable. There was always a save point just when we needed it - even if we had to take out three last hunter to reach it.
Defeating the gangs will yield some lucid memories; the first time you take out a group of hoods and execute them as Starkweather purrs words of wncouragement; the abese Skinz you throw a brick at while he sits on the toilet in his caravan and the illicit thrill of the nail-gun he leave behind, and the extended gun brawl through the Mall against the Innocentz where you'll find new enviroment in Cash's abilityto take cover, leap out and pop shotgun caps in the masked faces.
The face off with the Cerberus, Starkweathers personal police force, precedes your escape from his clutches and the snuff-film nightmare that Cash has been central character of. It begins with a shootout of Taxi Driver proportions while you chase a man dressed in a grubby rabbit costume armed with a shotgun and an armload of shells. You sense the end is near when thelast Cerberus appears and you leave the film set. "WHERE'S STARKWEATHER?" you scream. After what you've been through, you deserve some swift justice.
And then... something happens
Cash's emancipation is only the beggining of what follows in the crux of Manhunt. The point where everything you've learned becomes less a tool for survival and more for laying to waste and person standing between you and the grisly downfall of Starkweather. COME ON! Hadn't you worked it out? What's the natuural responce to being tortured, beaten, lied to, chased, phycholigically raped? REVENGE. Revenge like you've never felt it before. The hunted becomes the hunter. And it feels good.
An investigative journalist, claiming to have compiled enough dirt on Starkweather, picks you up and you escort her to safely to her flat. Now your only enemy is the Carcer City police. Their badges might say 'protect and serve' but they'll shoot you on sight. The first street gun battle is an indication of the sea chage in gunplay of the final thrid of Manhunt. As the player craves conclusion, closure and the ultimate demise of Starkweather, its all about powerful weaponary, taking no prisoners and a long trail of dead. If, up to now you havn't seen a hole-in-the-head animation - the result of a point-blank shotgun - it's going to figure heavily in your slog through the underbelly of Carcer City.
GET UP, GET AHEAD
leading Cash through the deserted streets, new game dynamics consistantly surprise you - if you can get on top of buildings or street facing balconies, sniper rifles can offer a safer way of clearing the way ahead. Working your way through the tube station, Cash is set apon by the SWAT team, a gruelling chapter puntuated by the efficently of your assailents' search tactices and the use of shotguns with lights attached. No longer is the dark safe. Luckily, you'll pick up the lethal, and noisy, Uzi -crucial to defeating the SWATS and allowing Cash to ride the tube station out of Carcer City.
But the surprises keep on coming. Every time you think you're getting closer to Starkweather, the more police are thrown in your way, the more ground you're forced to cover, the more body count spirals gruesomely out of control. Less people have died in wars, surely? It really puts you on edge. You never know what's coming next. Not in a contrived way, genuinely you have no clue other than at some point you'll come up against Starkweather. And you'll win.
It's only when you reach the mission 'Border Patrol', set in the grounds of Starkweather's mansion, that Manhunt's cruel intentions become clear. There's no philosophical ending. No social comment on violence, no self-indulgent cut-scene. This is as exploitive and base as the worst Death Wish film. You've got to fight your way into the house and murderise Starkweather. We won't give this bit away, surmise to say, you do end up fighting a faeces-smeared pig armed with a wooden spike. The director? If you dont want to know the end, close your eyes or something.
KILL YOU BOSS
The fact you'll kill Starkweather so easily is to be applauded. In keeping with the game's tendency too sterotype, he's the archetypal molester - fat, bald, tracksuil bottoms, dimond print cardigan - holed up in a secret attic room in his lavish mansion. He doesn't turn into a tentacled ogre with guns for arms and fire for breath. He just pisses his pants and runs. He's the boss. But he's not a boss.
Having acquired a chainsaw, you cut into his hideaway. This is only going one way - Cash is going to cut him up nice. It's fitting that the most viseral weapon is saved for him. One hit spills his guts and drives the blade through his skull. His death is met with mixed emotion. Do you recoil in distaste, whoop with joy or feel relief? Most likely all three in quick sucsession. It's a beautifully guilty pleasure.
Aswell as being extreamly hardcore game, Manhunt stands out as an experince. The staunchly linear chapter-lead structure is a million miles away from free-roaming GTA style that Rockstar north originally conceived but it doesn't matter. Manhunt is a finishable and perversely rewarding experience journey into a world so removed from reality it becomes fantasy but one that you can't help but be drawn into from the moment you taste first blood. It's killing for culture and we're loving it.