IGN.com - August 22nd 2003
 

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The disturbing truth behind Rockstar's newest creation.

While the rest of the videogame industry is madly trying to imitate, replicate or even understand Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto series, the devilish folks at Rockstar North (formerly DMA Design) have been tinkering away in earnest at something they hope ups the ante. Manhunt, created by a different internal team than the GTA group at the Scottish development studio, began the project almost three years ago. The core goals here aren't to parody societal issues via a living, breathing virtual city, or to ascend through the ranks of the town's mobs using their own tactics against them. The central goal in Manhunt is to stay alive -- to adapt to the brutal environment around you and survive by any means possible. It's to convey a deep disturbing sense of dread and fright and then to provide players with a sliver of a chance.

Drawing upon numerous influences from modern literature (Richard Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game") and movies (Surviving the Game and The Running Man), Rockstar North has fashioned a brutal urban videogame based on the paradoxical notion of control and the complete lack of it. It has created a game based on the brutality, ugliness and violence of an artificially created society in which you, the player, have no control at all. On being part of a hunt in which you are the prey.

The concept isn't new by any means, but Manhunt will indeed deliver something new to gamers. What then is it? -- stealth and action elements infused with the disturbing, perverse notion that as you play through the game, scared to death that a masked gang-member of member might hack you to pieces with a cleaver or bludgeon you to death with a baseball bat, someone is watching you at every single moment. Someone who's actually taking pleasure in the violence you do or that's done unto you. It's the idea that anything and/or everything is being taped, often for entertainment. With TV pervading deeper into our lives, nothing -- however personal it may be -- is off limits. Sadly, the idea isn't very far-fetched in the grim world of the 21st century. It's not far from the truth.

Players take on the role of James Earl Cash, a death row inmate with no lease left on life. The introductory scenes convey Cash making his way to the execution room in which he is to be put to death by lethal injection, and from what is shown Cash meets his maker. But he doesn't die. He wakes up, but he's far, far from heaven. Placed in a man-made city dubbed Carcer City, a nearly abandoned urban ghost town with more resemblance to a hellish ghetto than to a quiet suburb, Cash finds himself alive, unarmed and connected via an earphone jack to an unknown man who plans on watching his every move.

That man in simply known as the Director. A powerful man with connections authoritative enough to snag Cash from deathrow, he has placed Cash in Carcer City for his twisted bemusement. Cash, like a rat in a maze littered with hungry cats, is the starring player. Not only has the Director placed cameras across every viewable surface in the decaying city, he's populated it with psychopathic gangs hired for the sole purpose of finding and slaughtering the former deathrow inmate.

Manhunt is a third-person perspective stealth game. Cash starts with nothing. No knife, no rocks, no sticks, no nothing. All he has is a f*cked up voice in his ear. Many of us have played stealth games before -- Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven, Splinter Cell, or even The Mark of Kri -- and Manhunt employs gameplay elements similar but not the same as these. Like Splinter Cell, Cash must use shadows to his advantage. While in the shadows, aka safe zones, Cash is practically invisible. He can sneak from patch of darkness to dark, dank alleyway in order to kill the enemy. Using darkness is extremely crucial to his survival.

Gamers are given a few tools with which to work. While Rockstar is adroitly working on cleaning the screen for a minimal amount of clutter, it's placed a specialized radar on the screen's lower left side. The radar conveys enemy movement using arrows, which appear in yellow, orange and red. The radar doesn't pick up visual movement per say. Instead it hones in on aural movement, kind of like a bat uses echolocation. If an enemy moves, he is shown on-screen in yellow. If he hears Cash's movement, the enemy will turn orange, meaning he suspects something and is investigating the location from which the sound originated. If he hears and sees you, he turns red. The coolest part is that the enemies don't always appear on screen. See, if they stop, they disappear. So, Cash won't always be able to locate every enemy.

That's where stealth gameplay changes focus from sight to sound. While Rockstar North has yet to decide which technology it will eventually support (it's still deciding between DTS and Dolby), moving like a snake, creeping like a psychotic killer, or prowling like Jack the Ripper are all dependent to survival. If Cash runs, he's sighted. If he appears in the light, he's likely to be seen. But if he is as quiet as a mouse, only the Director has the pleasure of seeing the killing.

Players can use light and sound to their advantage and to simply stay alive. Gangs are far too powerful in a group to beat. In the two levels ("Doorway to Hell" and "Pool of Tears") we saw, Cash lured a single hoodlum away from the group by making a sound or leading an enemy away from his normal path and then hiding in the shadows to disappear. The AI is more lenient in the beginning, and it will wait for a few seconds before hiking back to its dedicated territory. That's when Cash can pounce on the enemy from behind. But as the game progresses, the enemies use the shadows too. The gangs grow more intelligent and aggressive as players progress, and the simple tools Cash finds in the beginning -- shards of glass, baseball bats, cleavers or crowbars -- won't suffice later on.

The watching part is key to the whole experience. When Cash sneaks up and cleaves an enemy, the game switches from a third-person perspective to a low-budget video camera angle. So, players get to see the killing from the director's point of view. Depending on how long a player takes to execute an attack, the cutscene gets better, or at least more brutal. Of course, the longer he waits the more likely he is of getting caught too, but that's where skill and experience pay off. For each weapon used, there are three cutscenes. At the end of each level, players are given the tally of their performance. Good performances will be rewarded by the Director in some way or another, but Rockstar North hasn't decided exactly how this will be worked out.

Like in GTA, in Manhunt Cash can carry a single weapon per class, plus he's got a bag of one-offs. So, he can carry a sawed-off double-barreled shotgun and a meat cleaver, and then whatever he's has in his little pouch. He collects ammo from dead enemies and after a scene (i.e. a level) is beaten, the game is saved automatically. Cash is capable of good movement. He can walk and run, fight and sneak. He can do the Snake-inspired walk crawl and he can exercise a swiveling attack from behind a doorway, column or similar object. The game offers about 20 weapons in all, but as always, Rockstar is staying mum about the others. Our recommendation is to think of the most twisted, sick and evil weapon possible, and well, it's probably going to be in this game.

So what will make this stealth game click, after the novelty of sneaking around and gagging, hacking, and bludgeoning thugs is over? First of all, the environment, the mood of the game, is inarguably unsettling. It's very likely that the sense of dread, of deadly silence, of being hunted and/or chased might never wear off at all. But for those older or sicker folks, the level design evolves into at least two kinds of levels. Players not only fight more gangs, or several sets of gangs, each with their own personality and set of unique characteristics (there are the Hoods, the Smileys, etc.), but they must progress through more dangerous situations. In these, the manhunt turns you from the prey to the predator to a degree. In the later level (Pool of Tears) players must follow a messed up dude in a rabbit suit. Known as the White Rabbit (what else?), he leads you through multiple indoor and outdoor environments riddled with gang members just waiting to get a piece of you. These are not only brutal and surprising, but only a skilled player can pass them without taking substantial damage.

Manhunt shares many visual elements with Rockstar North's Grand Theft Auto series, but it essentially takes only the best qualities. Using the latest version of Renderware, the engine shares similar tools with its GTA brethren team to model the characters, environments and more. Baseball bats, for instance, stand on the ground slightly askew, with a little halo around them, like in GTA. The character models show similar form, though these guys are far better textured and detailed. Naturally, this team isn't streaming in a giant city all at once, and Carcer City is also smaller, and usually shown only at night. Weather effects such as rain and fog help to create variation and players will hear thunder and see lightning throughout the game. In the dark, players can even fashion a flashlight to their guns to pierce the darkness.

Manhunt is an interesting and challenging endeavor for Rockstar. And certainly, it's a risk, as was pointed out to us in our late night demo in New York City. With the massive association of Grand Theft Auto at its side, no publisher is better off to take such a risk, but at the same time, it's a new title, and a much darker, more disturbing one than Grand Theft Auto, which offered seasoned comic humor and parody to counter the bloodshed and chaos.

Manhunt is rated M for a reason. It's perverse, brutally violent and, from what I can tell so far, unapologetically cruel in tone and subject matter. But it's been made clear again and again that Rockstar, more than any other publisher, can handle adult, modern and violent themes better than most if not every other publisher in the business. We're looking forward to the challenge, the dark sickness and perhaps even the perversity of the game, in all its detached voyeuristic glee. During the demo I smiled when I saw Cash bring the meat cleaver to his enemy, taking three huge swings to lop off his head, and I'm smitten with the idea of expanding on the theme when Rockstar finally gives us a playable copy. It's going to be gruesome. Expect to see Manhunt hit store shelves in late October on PS2.

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