IGN.com - March 10th 2004
 

Manhunt Impressions

There's a game under all this blood!

It's easy to fixate on extremes. When a certain aspect of a game really stands out, that single feature comes to define the entire character of a title. For gamers who haven't followed the title too closely, it may seem that Rockstar North's Manhunt offers little beyond the visceral thrill of chopping a guy's head off with a machete. And while it definitely does offer this, it does so within the context of a sophisticated stealth-oriented action game.

The guys from Rockstar came out here earlier today to let us get our hands on their bloody little monster. Before we dove in to get our feet red, we watched the game's intro movie. The disjointed, slightly threatening imagery appears in monochromatic washes of either red or black before transitioning to actual gameplay footage.

While we're watching the intro, the team outlines the story. James Earl Cash sits on death row. We're pretty sure he belongs there but since he's the player surrogate here we probably ought to give him the benefit of a doubt. Still, as Rockstar's admitted motive in making this game is to turn the good guy motif on its head, perhaps our friend Mr. Cash is as guilty as his two incarcerated namesakes.

No matter what the case, Cash is given a new lease on life courtesy of a crazed reality TV director played with an appropriate level of menace by Brian Cox; he played Hannibal Lector in the original Manhunter, one of the four films that served as a primary inspiration for Rockstar's GTA: Vice City. This director arranges to fake Cash's execution and then places the newly pardoned criminal in a closed environment and pits him against a number of frightening and violent gangs.

As Cash makes his way through the levels he'll have to kill pretty much everyone he comes into contact with, all for the sake of the director. The director films the entire 20-mission affair and encourages Cash to be both as violent and stealthy as the situations allow. As a captive performer Cash has to cooperate with the director if he ever hopes to escape.

Each level takes place in a rather run-down, usually urban setting where Cash has to eliminate a certain number of enemies. You're rewarded for the number of executions you perform and the speed with which you complete the level. There are a few levels where you're tasked with escorting someone, a bum for instance, through the level. Using the space bar you can tell him to wait for you in an area while you move ahead to take out the enemies.

There are a variety of executions you can perform with each weapon, each based on how long you stay behind the enemy before taking them out. Decide to kill them instantly and you're rewarded with a satisfying ax to the head or a simply plastic bag choke. If you can manage to find time to wait for a while before landing the blow, you may find some horrific combos that involve ramming your sickle up some guy's butt or gouging someone's eye out with a knife. The small overlay above each enemy will turn from white to yellow to red as you reach each new execution level.

The executions are displayed in a dynamic cutscene, based on the context of the fight. It's got a great broadcast quality complete with a little red recording light and some tracking noise at the top and bottom edges of the screen. Cox, as the director, will comment on each of your slayings and encourage you to help boost ratings by being even bloodier and more silent in the future.

You can carry one of each of three different types of weapons. The first type is largely silent and disposable and includes knives, plastic bags, glass shards and other, one-time-use weapons. The second type includes permanent melee weapons like axes, bats and the like. Finally, much later in the game, you'll be able to equip yourself with firearms, from pistols to shotguns. Though these weapons are useful in face-to-face combats, you'll want to sneak up on your enemies unawares to get the executions.

In most cases, there's a way to get around behind your enemies just by watching their behavior and keeping to the shadows. Eventually you'll find an approach that carries you right up behind them. The game is more interesting when you have to take an active role in tricking the enemies. You can, of course, carry bodies around and drop them along the remaining enemies' patrol routes. Seeing a fallen comrade, they'll run over and give you a chance to take them by surprise.

You can also pick up items like bricks and cans and throw them around the levels. Nearby enemies will head to the source of the noise giving you yet another opportunity to move around behind them. (You need to be careful that you don't disturb the various trashcans or other objects that litter the levels; they'll give your position away too.) The third option for making a distracting noise is to simply bang your weapon against a nearby wall.

Later on in the game, you'll run into more sophisticated gangs that can recognize these traps and tricks for what they are. They'll not only actively avoid your traps; they'll even call for back-up once they see they're in over their head. This is particularly true of the director's pet gang, the Wardogs. Even the regular enemies are pretty tough though. Not only is their peripheral vision a constant threat to your stealthy maneuverings; they also know how to chase you through a level once you're caught.

The good news is that you can easily hide in the shadows. As long as no enemy actually sees you step into the darkness, they won't know where the hell you are. This makes it fairly easy to run from a losing fight and seek security in the shadows. You're tipped off towards your stealth status when your small character doll in the lower right of the screen turns blue. At this point, you can't be seen by any enemies and you merely have to wait until one of them turns his back to you before stepping out and killing him.

Doing away with "easy" altogether, there are two different difficulty levels here -- "fetish" and "hardcore." The main difference here is that the hardcore level doesn't include any radar. On both levels, the player hits certain auto-save checkpoints so you'll not really ever have to replay an entire level because of one mistake. Even on the regular, "fetish" level, there's plenty of challenge and, as we said, the player is rated on how many and what types of executions he performs and how quickly he clears a level. This is all condensed into a star rating and, if you manage to get three stars or more in certain groups of missions, you'll unlock new bonus missions.

The game offers few changes from the PS2 version in terms of content. What it does add are better textures and higher resolutions. Having seen the game on both platforms, this version definitely looks better. The only other change is that the PC version doesn't support headsets, which was one of the surprisingly engaging features of the PS2 version. Having the director speak directly through your earpiece gave the game an intimacy that PC gamers will definitely miss. Still, the enhanced surround sound support will go a long way towards smoothing things over.

The game will be out in just about a month and we'll be sure to bring you more details before offering up our full review.

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