ChicagoTribune.com - November 24, 2003
'Manhunt' a solid game, but do you want the gore?
What could possibly top "Grand Theft Auto's" rampant carjacking, vicious crime rings and the oft-discussed running over hookers? How about a game about snuff films? Capturing merciless killings of hardened thugs on videotape for a gleeful director all too happy to give you stage directions for the perfect, bloody scene.
Titled "Manhunt," the newly released game is just that. You are James Earl Cash, convicted murderer. The last thing you remember, you were strapped in for lethal injection. But instead, you wake up in the middle of a rundown industrial metropolis, the star quarterback in Rockstar's take on the classic short story "The Most Dangerous Game." All you know is the city is crawling with thugs of varying degrees of disturbance -- and if you want to survive, you had better be ready for your close-up.
"Manhunt" is easily the most violent game ever made. It will likely be dismissed by many as a disgusting murder simulator with no reason to exist. ("Manhunt" is M-rated and is not appropriate for children, or even adults who do not firmly grasp the difference between fantasy and reality.)
But "Manhunt" also is the "Clockwork Orange" of video games, holding your eyes open so as to not miss a single splatter -- asking you, is this really what you enjoy watching? Had "Manhunt" been poorly made, using the snuff film angle as a cheap gimmick, the game would have been shameful and exploitative. What elevates it to a grotesque, chilling work of art is both presentation and game play. "Manhunt" is solid as a game; it's engaging to use stealth as you creep through the streets of this wicked city, using your smarts to avoid death, while dishing out much of your own. It's Ubi Soft's "Splinter Cell" meets the cult "Faces of Death" videos.
And, like the "Matrix" movies, "Manhunt" has a look all its own. The stark cityscape layered with matter-of-fact gore creates an unnervingatmosphere. The grim, washed-out filter creates so much dread that gamers will spot a staircase leading up into the darkness and think twice before wandering up it. Who knows what madman could be lurking in the shadows, ready to do unto you as you've been doing to others?
The audio is brilliant. The soundtrack is resonant and droning, like a death march always heard two miles away. When the action heats up, so does the score. But mostly, it's content to let ambient noise play in the background of your character's racing heartbeat. The voice of the director is ever-present, and perfectly delivered by actor Brian Cox, who portrayed Hannibal Lecter in the original "Manhunter" movie. If you have a USB headset, the director's silver tongue slithers directly into your ear. The effect is fiendish.
This is a dark, sinister and gory game where death comes from suffocating somebody from behind with a plastic bag, slicing them up with a chainsaw or executing them point-blank with a nail gun. When the goal of the game is to kill, you find reward in pleasing the faceless Cecil B. Demented. You discover he's got plenty of footage of beatdowns with baseball bats. What he really wants are "money shots," where you wait in the shadows for your quarry (all bad guys, there are no innocents in "Manhunt") to approach, then lunge out for a brutal score.
These "money shots" are viewed through the director's camera, as you watch yourself slaughter on VHS playback, complete with grainy footage and the occasional vertical bar slip. Almost always, a fat spurt of blood splashes across the camera lens.
If "Manhunt" succeeds at retail, it will say more about America's fascination with violence than any political discourse or social debate. That makes "Manhunt" the most important video game of the last five years.