- April 20th 2004

Gamespy Review

It's been nearly six months since I last played Manhunt. At the time, I remember feeling rather uneasy about the graphic content of the game -- y'know, the bit where you're the unwilling star of a series of snuff-slash-murder movies -- but I couldn't help myself. I loved the gameplay. The title was developed by Rockstar North, the same studio that developed the world-renowned Grand Theft Auto games. While Manhunt isn't quite up there with that series, it's a really great action/stealth game that's worthy of gruesome recognition.

As convicted felon James Earl Cash, you are sentenced to death by lethal injection under the watchful and hateful eye of the public and media. Something goes awry and you wake up in a cell feeling like you've just been pummeled with a sledgehammer. You should be dead. A voice comes over the speaker system informing you that the only way you're going to get out this room and make it through the night alive is if you're prepared to kill a small army of hired goons and thugs -- all in the presence of the ever-watchful eyes of the TV camera.

It's kind of like a really, really, really bloody and gory version of Arnie's The Running Man and Nick Cage's 8mm. Sure, the subject matter is highly inflammatory at best, but underneath the shock value and bits of brain is a really solid, highly enjoyable stealth game with hardcore action elements. Bear in mind, though, if the likes of Splinter Cell and Metal Gear Solid fill you with frustration, then Manhunt is certainly not the game for you. It's tough, unforgiving, and above all else, a waiting man's game.

Starting out, Cash is given a rather tawdry introduction on how to dispatch of the mercs that are all over his ass from the second the game begins. During this tutorial, you'll learn the arts of beating men with your fists, suffocating them with plastic bags, hiding in shadows, and running from confrontation. Everything else is a variation of these tactics. Sometimes, you'll be forced to go toe-to-toe with an assailant, but wherever possible, you'll want to use stealth techniques to gain the upper hand.

The mysterious, omnipotent voice belongs to snuff-king Mr. Starkweather, who's bent on filming all of your sick acts for the benefit if his illicit movie trade. The more violent you are, the happier he is. In some ways, Cash is an unfortunate pawn in a highly sick game of cat-and-mouse, but on the other hand, there's a chance that you the gamer might actually get a taste for the action waiting throughout the streets of Carcer City.

Manhunt revolves around smart thinking. If you're a hot-headed action gamer, then you'll fail. You'll fail so much, in fact, that you'll positively despise the game. If you're calm in your approach, then you'll become a lean, mean killing machine -- which, despite what you're mother might have told you, makes for quite a fun video-game experience. (Those gamers that can't distinguish games from reality need to remain firmly strapped into their straightjackets, however.)

On PC, Manhunt works really well. It has complete graphical superiority over both the PS2 and Xbox versions, supporting huge resolutions, crisp, clean animation and textures, and a rapid framerate that keeps the action flowing. Supporting either regular or widescreen aspect ratios is a nice touch, but played in the dark with the volume cranked way up, Manhunt looks at its best on the Windows platform. I was a tad concerned that the default keyboard controls might not handle the gameplay as well as the PS2 or Xbox's excellent joypads, but I was worrying unnecessarily. Standard FPS-style key mapping provides precision movement and attack controls, perfectly suiting the sneaky kind of gameplay offered by Manhunt. It's a little different than its console cousins, but it's equally well-balanced.

One aspect that disappointed me a little was the exclusion of the headset functionality. On Xbox and PS2, a headset can be used to listen to Starkweather's ranting and raving (rather than using your regular speakers). Also, the mic acts as another level of interaction, allowing you to speak or shout to gain the attention of the enemy hunters. It might not sound like a big deal, but the extra functionality really adds to the atmosphere created by the game. It seems weird that this would be left out on the PC, but there we have it.

In order to live, you'll need the tools of the trade. Cash's weapons are usually what he finds on the ground or loots from the dead guys: shards of glass can be used to stab victims in the eyes, baseball bats can be used to bludgeon skulls, and crowbars can serve as lock-breaking tools or neck-gouging weapons. Manhunt's gameplay really starts to heat up after a few levels, and more and more "fun" weapons become available. Starting with the classic nail gun and ranging up to the old pistols, chainsaws, and shotguns in later levels, Cash's methods of disposal rarely become "samey."

Manhunt's over-the-topness comes in the execution system. By sneaking up behind an unsuspecting victim, Cash will see a three-pronged cursor pop up over their head. This cursor changes in color from white to orange to red indicating the level of intensity of the execution death-move. One of three canned brutal animations then takes place, and then you're thrown right back into the action. Bear in mind that while you're prepping to off someone, Cash is in a prone, highly vulnerable state.

And, if there's one thing that Cash can't deal with, it's multiple enemies attacking him at once. You'll learn early on in the game that fleeing combat and hiding and biding time is the single-most important element of gameplay Manhunt has to offer. It might sound a little slow-paced, but the level of tension and atmosphere achieved is incredible. Pick and choose your battles carefully if you want to make it through to the end.

Axe plus skull face equals cool.

Manhunt is a game that's equally well-suited to PC as well as PS2 and Xbox (it's completely absent on the poor GameCube). It's a difficult, challenging game that really takes advantage of the keyboard/mouse configuration offered by a PC, while retaining all of the console-style gameplay elements. Its mature themes are perfectly suited to sensible PC gamers, and in the end, Manhunt takes another step towards blending specific game genres and platforms together. Look past the gratuitous, fleshy outer casing and delve deep into the tight stealth/action gameplay provided. Manhunt delivers.

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