IGN.com - October 30th 2003
How does Rockstar's violent new game actually play? Impressions, screens AND movies.
Detached. Vicious. Unforgiving. These are the first few words that appeared in my head as I sat down to play Manhunt just less than a week ago in the San Francisco offices of Rockstar. After watching Rob "Pickle" Fleisher expertly navigate through two of the later levels, in which the Wardogs gang expertly tracked lead character James Earl Cash, it was my turn to play Rockstar's newest effort. For the record, I must say Manhunt holds its end up on violence. It's a cold slap in the face. You make a few mistakes and your head quickly turns into meatloaf.
Since much has already been said about Manhunt's violent themes, I won't delve too deeply into these again. After all, we know Manhunt is going to be brutal, a little sadistic and perhaps even cruel. But what does it feel like? How does it play? How does it look? Surprisingly, the team formerly known as DMA did not create a game that's just a happy, arcadey subset of Grand Theft Auto III. Instead, Manhunt is a surprisingly strategic stealth game, requiring precision tactics and intelligent game-playing.
After an anonymous man known simply as the Director frees your character James Earl Cash from a mandatory death sentence, Cash, the former criminal, is placed in a dank, degraded barrio known as Carcer City. Well choreographed cutscenes introduce the story premise, and with a radio earplug placed in your virtual ear, the Director then becomes your friend and simultaneous personal devil. Navigating you through the different sectors of the town, he explains how to hide in safe zones, how to attack enemies from behind and, essentially, he gives you the basic tools for survival. Just like a transparent tutorial.
From there, the game is all about just a few things: Using your few resources to kill gang members, and learning how each gang behaves in order to best kill them. If you've seen Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction and his newest film, Kill Bill, here's a little analogy for you. If Grand Theft Auto III is like Pulp Fiction -- deep, complicated, surprising -- then Manhunt is Rockstar's Kill Bill -- a seemingly simple premise packed with lots of bloody violence. Though, to be complete in the analogy, I don't think there's any anime in Manhunt...
But that doesn't mean it's easy, nor does it translate into being a shallow game; far from it. Manhunt is narrowly focused but deep. The game is designed as a freaky exercise in survival skills -- listening, watching and tracking enemies' movements. And more importantly, using your skills to survive and counter each of the specialized gangs you encounter.
The first two levels are sparsely laid out, but they're dark and filled with many corners, spots that require gamers to make a decision -- should I jump in and fight or sneak around the corner and perform a stealth kill? Ninety-five percent of the time if you jump into a harry situation with all guns blazing, you're just signing your death warrant. One reason for this is because the gangs are smart.
"From the start we wanted to do something special with the AI -- something unpredictable and life-like that would generate real tension for the player in both the stealth and combat scenarios in the game," said Andrew Hay, lead artist and producer of Manhunt. "We wanted to combine this with all of the little touches which make the bad guys seem unnervingly alive. [We use] masks to impart a slightly surreal quality to the game; they allow us to stay (mostly) rooted in reality. Giving the gangs masks also allowed us to imbue them with everything evil a hunter would have while avoiding the sympathetic qualities a face might add."
Cash's controls are solid, with smooth mechanics and a good range of moves. Cash creeps by default, but can run if needed. He can stick to a wall and peak around a corner, a la MGS, and he can arm himself and pop out from behind a corner and shoot, too. Or he can crouch and pop too. Cash carries only three classes of weapons simultaneously, a one-off item, such as a bag or a shard of glass, a hand weapon, such as a baseball bat, and a gun, including shotguns, rifles and others. Also, he can lean, face first, around a corner without having to put his back up against it to see what's going on.
Killing is an acquired skill all on its own. Players must have some kind of weapon on them (they're either lying around or they can be picked up from dead enemies), and then as they sneak up behind an enemy, they have some choices. When Cash gets close to an enemy's back his arm will raise, indicating he's ready to do the deed. A colored icon indicates what kind of kill it will be. If Cash acts right away, it's a "Hasty" kill. This is a kill in the 1-3 second range. If Cash waits for 3-5 seconds, it's a "Violent" kill; and if he suspends the action for more than 5 seconds, it's dubbed a "Gruesome" kill.
The Director likes his snuff films, and the longer you wait to act, the more danger you put yourself, the better his films become. Obviously, the longer you wait, the stronger the chance the enemy might turn around. But the better the reward. After a stage, players are given their stats on their performance, and the interface, as with everything in Manhunt, replicates the iconography of videotapes, be it labels, the same typeface style, and in general the same design. Players earn stars to gauge their performance, one being low and five high. The higher the star count the more unlocked bonus features players get.
To aid in your death toll, players are given several tools. On the screens is a RADAR icon, which indicates the movement of gang members. It conveys enemy movement using arrows in three colors, yellow, orange and red. To create a sense of skill in the game, Rockstar's radar 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, his arrow 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. Which means you can turn to face him or run.
In this game, you might be able to confront the enemy in the beginning levels, but a few levels in, that's just a bad idea. The coolest part of the radar is that the enemies don't always appear on screen. If they stop moving, they disappear. Thus, Cash won't always be able to locate every enemy. Which is why you have to move like a shadow, brother.
By the way, don't get too caught up in the words "narrow" or "exercise". It does seem, from the information we have gathered to date on Manhunt, that the gameplay only focuses on hiding from gangs and stealthily killing them once by one. Admittedly, Rockstar hasn't revealed all that much about the game. Just like with Grand Theft Auto, it wants you to discover the experience on your own. Having said that, it's clear the game becomes far more intense and more strategic as it opens up.
The simple one-off weapons you begin with, shards of glass, bags to suffocate, and wire, aren't so useful when, say, Cash encounters a later-level gang like the Wardogs. In the level against this intense, ex-militia group of man hunters, players learn more about their overall situation. In a cutscene, Cash sneaks into a room and meets Ramirez, the Director's manager, the hunt leader, so to speak. He strips Cash of his weapons, beats on him and then throws him out into the area -- to be hunted by his own personal gang, armed with rifles, machetes, and sniper rifles. This brutal level requires sharp skills, to be sure, especially with regard to learning its geography, and being able to keenly draw off a single gang member at a time. If done well, Cash can then use the enemy weapons and avoid the snipers hidden on the rooftops.
Later in the game, Cash learns from an ambitious female reporter more about what's going on. She's uncovered a small sample of Starkweather's plans. She attended your execution and watched you "die" in the chamber. But now she knows you're alive. If she can get video footage -- and testimony -- from you, she may be able to expose the snuff film ring -- and launch her career. Is she your friend? Or is she simply using you as a tool? In any case, you meet up with her and agree to try and bust the whole operation wide open. The story is far more interesting that we first expected.
Visually, Manhunt doesn't disappoint. The near final version we played does, however, pound away at the one theme -- the dark of night. The entire game takes place in the dark of one single night (that's 20 chapters, plus bonus chapters all in a single evening, my friends). Given that visual theme, the character textures are far better than in GTA, and the models are far more distinct. The areas aren't pieces of impressionistic art, but the decaying streets, alleyways, shacks and thoroughfares in Manhunt are spare, dirty and gritty in nature.
Technically, the game is solid, too. It supports 16X9 widescreen and it does indeed support Dolby Pro Logic II sound. Which is killer. Cause this game is all about the subtleties of sound. And for those who loved the funny one-liners and jokes in GTA, listening to the gangs is quite hilarious. They earlier ones talk more than they should, revealing to Cash things they shouldn't, but they also say funny things while they're waiting around for you. For instance, one guy said, "What I'd do for a bong hit right about now. Just a little something to take the edge off."
In short, Manhunt is game of instincts, cunning, and quiet patient death. Yours or theirs. But either way, it's going to happen. It's a single-player encounter with brutal gangs that hunt you down, using sound as their guide and fueled by the lust for money, blood, the "high" of it, or the pure sport of it, you're the hunted. The question is, are you ready for it? More than anything, Manhunt is a tense, nerve-wracking experience filled with beatings and gruesome deaths. Definitely an M-rated game. And definitely one we want to play more than just a mere two levels.
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