- November 26th 2003

Gamespy Review

The team that brought us GTA3 and Vice City takes mature gaming to the next level. Take on the role of James Earl Cash in a sick game of kill-or-be-killed. Bring on the Manhunt!

When you create an award-winning franchise like Grand Theft Auto, you'd better be prepared to take some flak when you try something a little different. Rockstar North is certainly trying something very different with its latest gore/action fest on the PlayStation 2. Manhunt is a sick, twisted game of survival taking cues from movies such as The Running Man and 8mm. The premise is not for weak-stomached. You play the role of James Earl Cash -- a death-penalty criminal -- who's just been killed by lethal injection. But it turns out that the lethal injection is in reality a heavy sedative. Cash's drugged body is now dead as far as the authorities are concerned, so it comes as quite a shock to the anti-hero when he wakes up a room surrounded with closed-circuit cameras.

An insipid, weasel-like voice comes across the PA system and informs Cash that he's about to experience the ultimate night of pain and survival. The voice belongs to a sicko ex-movie director named Starkweather, who peddles ultra-violent, repellant snuff videos to a highly secretive clientele. It turns out that you were saved from death only to face extreme danger in what becomes an insanely grotesque game of cat-and-mouse. You are the hunted, and in order to survive, it's a case of kill-or-be-killed.

Manhunt takes place in the rather neglected and seedy Carcer City. Angry gangs rampage through the streets as the bent police authorities sit back and take back-handers from the likes of Starkweather. It's in the streets, complexes, and back alleys of Carcer City that Cash must face-off against the gangs in a fight for his life. All the time, Starkweather and his army of closed-circuit TV cameras record the hideous acts of murder and violence, and goad Cash along through one night of indescribable hideousness. Carcer City looks very much the part on the PS2. Rockstar has done a great job of cranking out gritty, dirty textures making the environments feel terribly claustrophobic. In fact, the entire game engine feels like a honed GTA:VC affair with little or no choppy framerates or clipping problems.

Cash must use stealth and silence in order to be successful on his mission. The aural aspects of Manhunt are the most important of the game. Rockstar has implemented a really innovative way to increase tension and fear through the use of the USB headset. While it's not required to play, using the headset adds so much mood and atmosphere that I can't imagine playing Manhunt without it. Starkweather's creepy voice is purposely channeled into the headset's earpiece providing a realistic separation of the audio channels from those that spill out of the TV. The feeling of suspense is excellent when the player is being goaded on by Starkweather through the headset as Cash creeps up behind a hunter on-screen and pulls off an execution move.

As creeping around in the shadows is an important feature of the game, it makes sense that noise and sounds in the game be equally important. Aside from the usual methods of attracting the hunters' attention by hurling bottles, bashing fists against walls, and walking over loose rocks and pebbles, players can also shout into the USB headset's microphone to create a ruckus. Manhunt's GUI is minimal, but an on-screen radar serves to be extremely important when it comes to planning attacks. Any noise created in the game is reflected by red pulse emanating from Cash via the radar. It's possible to lay an ambush for a hunter by hiding in the shadows (called safe zones) and then shouting obscenities into the mic to attract attention. If you've planned the attack well, the hunter in question will not spot you in the dark, and will ultimately let his guard down, allowing you to take him down.

Manhunt's strongest gameplay element is ultimately providing the gamer with a very precise stealthy set of actions and controls. As a stealth/action game, there's little else out there that comes this close to being real life. Conversely, it's really easy to get Cash into sticky situations where running from the action is the only way of survival. You'll need to bail on these situations a lot, so gamers looking for pure action will find themselves frustrated as they repeatedly get butchered over and over again. Run away and fight another day should be everyone's Manhunt mantra. Luckily, around halfway through the game, the action portion of the game heats up a little more and as Cash's temporary arsenal starts to include more and more guns, rifles, and firearms, you'll be able to deal with multiple enemies more easily that in the early stages of the game.

Part of the reason that Manhunt works so well as a stealth/action game is the intense violence and carnage that's witnessed by the player. I personally found the first few hours of gameplay to be some of the most disturbing video gaming I've ever experienced. The sheer raw and visceral nature of Cash's actions against other human beings is shocking to say the least. Given the fact that Cash is fighting for his life, I felt less guilty about essentially murdering white supremacist gang members as more time passed, but there's no denying that Manhunt is possibly the most mature video game to date. Whether or not the gaming police tuned into this fact remains to be seen, but parents should take heed of the Mature ESRB rating slapped firmly on the box.

Without going into too much gory detail, Cash's actions rely on him sneaking up behind the hunters that are after him, and performing a series of grisly execution-style moves. These moves really depend on which weapon you are in possession of, and how much insanity you want to put into the death move. For example, each execution has three levels of grossness. As Cash sneaks up behind a target, he'll raise his hands to signal that he's in execution range and a white target will appear over the victim. A game of chicken ensues, as the longer Cash primes his attack, the more hideous the outcome will be. The cursor changes from white to yellow to red, issuing three potential canned animations resulting in death. Of course, the tradeoff is that the longer Cash waits to kill, the more likely he is to be discovered by the target.

Methods of disposal include garroting a hunter with some razor wire (and subsequent decapitation -- yes, the head of your victim can be picked up and used as a projectile), suffocation with a regular plastic bag, skull-crushing blows bestowed with a baseball bat, neck-rending hacks and slashes with a machete, and a good old house brick which can be used for breaking faces. The execution scenes are not for the weak of heart. You have been warned!

Once you get over the initial shock value of the associate taboo subject matter of Manhunt -- e.g. snuff movies, murders, graphic obscenities, etc. -- what you're left with is a highly atmospheric game that'll keep you glued to your PS2. Certainly not intended for younger gamers, I believe Manhunt will undoubtedly be given merry hell by some members of society. However, if you can get over the sometimes repetitious nature of the game, Manhunt provides some of the most intense and subversive stealth gaming to date. Forget it if pure action is your bag, but fans of MGS-style thievery owe it to themselves to check this one out. Just keep a couple of puke bags handy if you're a little emotionally sensitive.

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