- November 06th 2003

Manhunt Hands-on

We spend some time playing a deadly game of cat and mouse in Rockstar's upcoming action game.

The last time we saw Rockstar's Manhunt, we checked out an assortment of levels from a work-in-progress version of the game, and we got a good taste of what Rockstar North was cooking up. The disturbing third-person stealth action game offered a promising marriage of style and substance, combined with disturbing visuals and interesting gameplay. After a bit of a wait, we've been able to try our hand at some levels in the game and view a demo of some later levels. The game is shaping up to be a gross, unsettling experience that's actually pretty fun.

We were able to check out four levels of the game--two that we were able to play through ourselves and another two set much later in the game that we saw via a demo by Rockstar reps. Our look gave us a better idea of the game's structure and how the story plays out. There are two difficulty settings to choose from: fetish (normal) and hardcore (hard). After we made our choice, the game threw us into Manhunt's disturbing world. The intro sequence is extremely brief and wastes little time getting you into the game. The tightly edited cinema juxtaposes "video" of the main character, James Earl Cash, being executed with video of a female reporter giving some background on him. Aside from giving us a brief bio on Cash, the reporter also mentions her discovery that someone called Starkweather is taking convicts and using them for his own amusement, and she states that she intends to expose this practice by getting testimony from Cash. Following the brief setup, the scene shifts to Cash's awakening and introduction to Starkweather, the nut job who fancies himself to be the director of the impending craziness. From there, the game's first level, Born Again, begins.

You'll start out on a deserted street in an area of Carcer City that Starkweather has conveniently blocked out for his own use, one of the perks of being filthy rich and being able to buy large chunks of the city. As is often the case in games these days, Manhunt's first level also serves as a tutorial for the game's basic mechanics and control scheme. Starkweather's mad rantings and onscreen help windows will bring you up to speed on how to play the game.

The basic control in the game is solid, thanks to a simple control scheme and an effective use of a context-sensitive action button. You'll move Cash around with the left analog stick and use the right analog stick for a first-person free-look mode when standing still. Cash's default moving speed is a slow creep, to ensure he's not spotted and subsequently eviscerated by the fine people out to hunt him down. However, by holding down the R1 button, you'll be able to run like the wind, which is handy when being chased by a mob. The X button will serve as a multipurpose attack button and will let you fire a weapon if you have one out, throw an item, trigger an execution, or perform a light attack when in hand-to-hand combat. The square button will let you reload your weapon, trigger an execution, or perform a strong attack when in hand-to-hand combat. The triangle button will serve as a context-sensitive action button and will let you perform actions such as kicking objects or pressing yourself against a wall, depending on the situation. The L2 and R2 buttons will let you strafe or perform a quick 180-degree turn when you hold them down together. The L1 button will let you target your opponents. The D pad will let you peek left or right when you press either direction while your back is against a wall.

The solid controls are complemented by a clean interface that keeps onscreen clutter to a minimum. An onscreen radar in the lower left-hand corner is keyed to react to sound and will let you know how much noise you're making as well as the locations of any noisy gang members around you. Enemies will show up as arrows that will let you know their location in relation to you and their level of alertness. Solid arrows on the radar mean your foes are on the same level as you, while thin arrows that point up or down let you know if they are above or below you. Their level of alertness is reflected by the color of their arrow on the radar. Yellow is idle, orange is on alert, and red reflects that the enemy has spotted you. Aside from the radar, you'll see an icon representing Cash, which will change color when you're hiding in one of the shadowy "safe zones" you'll come to rely on as you try to avoid enemies. When the icon is blue, you can't be spotted by an enemy unless he walks into you by accident.

The only catch to using the safe zones is that if an enemy spots you going into one, your attempt at disappearing into the shadow won't work. Directly above the icon for Cash is a color-coded representation of the weapon you're currently holding. Killing implements come in four handy color-coded classes: Throwable items, such as bottles, are yellow; one-use items, like plastic bags that can be used to suffocate your enemies, are green; items you store on your belt, like pistols, Uzis, crowbars, and blackjacks, are blue; and, finally, larger items you can store on your back, like baseball bats and shotguns, are red. The catch is that you can only carry one item from each group.

The first level walks you through all of the above and familiarizes you with the ins and outs of avoiding and sneaking up on enemies. The biggest challenge is to ensure that you gauge their behavior--nothing is worse than trying to be sly and creeping up on a foe only to have him turn to face you. As Starkweather points out in the level, it's in your best interest to study your enemies to get a feel for their behavior. If you do take his advice, and you should, you'll notice that the weirdos out to get you all have their own unique quirks.

The second level, Doorway to Hell, expands on the first level's lessons. It also provides the first taste of the game's puzzles and introduces you to dealing with multiple foes in close proximity. Due to the heavy emphasis on sound as you go through the levels, you'll have to decide which weapon of death best fits your needs. For quick, quiet kills, you'll have to rely on the mighty plastic bag, which kills people with the least amount of sound. If you're eager to attract attention, weapons such as the shotgun will guarantee you'll have an audience. The level also introduces the annoying way Starkweather can mess up your groove by forcing confrontations between you and whatever loony is handy. He does this by using his control over the buildings you're in to lock you in a room. While the events keep the gameplay fresh, they also ensure that you'll be wanting to do some unholy things to Starkweather if you meet him.

When we played through our two allotted levels, we were able to use the SOCOM headset, which Sony and Rockstar recently announced would be supported by Manhunt. While headset support doesn't add anything mind-blowing to the experience, it's certainly cool. Being able to hear Starkweather as he instructs and taunts you through the game is quite cool, and the slight loss of hearing from wearing the headset adds to the tension in the game, thanks to the slick Dolby Pro Logic II. It was also quite cool to be able to verbally get a gang member's attention by speaking into the microphone. You'll be able to adjust the headset's sensitivity to ensure that heavy breathing doesn't accidentally bring any nearby gang members down on you.

In addition to our hands-on time, we were able to check out two later levels in the game via a demo, which showed off the bump up in difficulty as you get deeper in and have to deal with smarter enemies. The first level we saw, Fueled by Hate, pits you against a white supremacist gang called the Skinz in a junkyard. The level opens with a brief CG movie that sets the scene for you via footage from the security cameras strewn throughout the area. Your twisted director offers some disparaging background on the Skinz and gives you your goals for that level, which, not surprisingly, involve killing the members of the Skinz. For the most part, the level reiterated our initial impressions of Manhunt's core gameplay as Cash snuck up on various members of the Skinz and took them out. However, there were some amusing variations on the theme as well. While your director has ensured that there is an assortment of deranged freaks after you, they're only human.

You'll find that some may not be as intent on gutting you as others, which may require you to put a bit more effort into brutally killing them. For example, one happily slacking member of the Skinz was far more interested in watching porn than hunting Cash. While it would be great to leave him to his "private time," he was blocking a route Cash needed to take. To open up that path, Cash had to break a nearby fuse box, which lured the hapless porn lover out of his shed and gave Cash the opportunity to put his trusty baseball bat to gory use. The gameplay took an interesting twist further into the level as the director instructed Cash to find a gas can to power a nearby crane. The new objective complicated matters a bit. While Cash still had to kill the Skinz, going through the level lugging a gas can added a new challenge to being sneaky. Our demo of the level ended before we were able to see Cash actually pull off that particular challenge.

The second level we saw, Divided They Fall, introduced Starkweather's "event coordinator," a charming fellow by the name of Ramirez, who, in addition to leading a paramilitary gang known as the Wardogs, is the man responsible for rounding up and organizing all the gangs eager to kill Cash. The level featured a mix of the stealth gameplay we'd already seen and some good old-fashioned fast-paced carnage that was quite refreshing. The level opens with Cash being stripped of his weapons and pummeled by Ramirez. You'll start out doing the now-standard "stealth kill" maneuver by killing Wardogs, but as the level progresses, the action will turn into a timed bloodbath, and you'll be given two minutes and 30 seconds to blast your way out of a building crawling with the Wardogs. Once you make it out, your goal is to kill Ramirez before time runs out.

While our time with Manhunt was brief, we have to say there's a definite charm to its time-based stealth kills. The gameplay is solid overall, although we're a bit concerned with the game's linear structure. We're hoping the bonus features, such as the bonus missions you can unlock, offer a nice chunk of replay value, since the main game appears fairly straightforward. Still, there's something to be said for trying to perfect your killing skills, going through a level and only performing gruesome executions. As it stands you'll have to play the game at least twice if you want to get the best results in all the scenes. When you finish a level you'll see a stat screen that tracks the length of time it took you to go through a level, the number of hunters killed and executed, any timer bonus you earned, style points based on whether you played on fetish or hardcore, and your final score. Finally you're awarded stars based on your performance. While there are five stars you can earn, you'll never be able to earn them if you play only on fetish. The only way to earn five stars is to play on hardcore, which offers a painfully significant bump up in difficulty, thanks to the total absence of a radar.

Manhunt is currently slated to ship later this month. The game is a unique offering from Rockstar and is a different and addictive experience from what you'd expect. Anyone with a twisted sense of humor or an all-consuming bloodlust will want to check it out.

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