IGN.com - November 18th 2003
 

IGN Review

The bloodiest, most gruesome game you'll play all year.

While stock analysts and the game industry's corporate bigwigs are puzzling over the next big thing from Rockstar (namely the next iteration of Grand Theft Auto), Rockstar North (formerly DMA) has once again created a different game, one they've been thinking about and building for the last three years. One based on fetishes.

Manhunt is all sorts of things -- an idea about control and the lack of it; about the diminishing sense of identity in our growing world of high-level security; about the rampant level of violence in our culture, and the sick dependence we have for seeing said violence on TV. Yes, it's about all sorts of things. Yes, indeed. But the core of Manhunt is about listening. Listening, reacting to your environment, and adapting. It's essentially the jail-bound, drug-taking step-child to the TV show Survivor, except you're not kicked off the island. You're hunted down and bludgeoned to death -- for fun, entertainment and, because in some strange way, it's sexy.

Take note, because the things you have heard are correct. Manhunt is bloody, violent and sick. It's M rated because of its graphic depictions of decapitations -- death by crowbar to the face, wire chokes and machete hackings. But also because it reaches into the wasteland of human life and returns with a quivering piece of rotting meat and makes you taste it. You may have seen this kind of thing in movies, anime or the like, but no videogames to date have gone as far as Rockstar's Manhunt.

The Basics

Players take on the role of James Earl Cash, a criminal who's sentenced to death row for a crime or crimes too heinous to even mention. Given a second chance by a power-hungry man known as "The Director," Cash is not killed. Instead, he's just given sedatives and taken to the cancerous barrio of a city known as Carcer City. The municipality of Carcer is controlled entirely by the Director, a.k.a. Starkweather, who's set up hundreds of cameras in every place possible, populated it with psycho gangs and a corrupt police force. Here, Cash is the one-man star of Starkweather's snuff films.

Each new level is narrated by Starkweather, who chimes into Cash's earpiece with sick applause or chiding criticism when you're doing extremely well or poor. His comments range from a sick sort of disgusting humor to just plain repulsive comments, but either way actor Brian Cox (William Stryker in X2) gives a top-notch performance in the voice-over. What's especially intense about his voice is that by using a USB headset, players can hear him in their own ear (his voice is separated and channeled into your headset). Players can use the microphone to make noise too. Using the headset genuinely enhances the already tense action by adding in an unpredictable human element. For instance, if a player is surprised by something on screen, he or she might yell or suddenly say something in surprise (like we did - "OMG" and "Sh*t!"). By doing so, he or she alerts nearby hunters, and well, it's all over so fast. Some Smiley-faced thug has pummeled you to death before you know it.

The bleak story -- of Cash getting set up again and again in more difficult settings -- is told in minimalist style. That's both good and bad. On the one hand, it's not overbearing. On the other, there is very little story to be told. You'll go several levels without really knowing anything new or anything at all. And it's only in the later levels that something finally develops. As with everything in Manhunt, the focus tightly clings to stealthy, brutal gameplay. So, needless to say, it's not a story-driven game.

But the stealth-action game focused on the fundamental principle of tactical hunting is indeed a testament to disciplined design. The 24-level game (20 plus four bonus levels) is deep with intriguing "scenes," and it's polished and refined to create a cruel gameplay experience. Each level comprises three to four parts, and because most of the experience is based on studious stealth, it's easily a 20-30 hour game on Fetish mode. There is a healthy learning curve and, like many old school games, the gameplay is unforgiving. Actually, as an example of the game's hardcore target base, Rockstar North has provided only two levels of difficulty: Fetish (Normal) and Hardcore (Hard). (In Hardcore, there simply is no radar. Eeek!) There is no "Easy." Which, in my mind, is sort of like saying, "This is not for kids; it's for adults, you f*%kheads." Kind cool, when you think about it. A game just for adults. I like that.

Utilizing a third-person perspective, Manhunt starts players by learning the basic moves in a seamless tutorial level. Players learn how to use the environment to hide, how to study the enemy's movements, and how to distract and separate enemies from the crowd. And to how to murder ruthless thugs.

The game engine is sort of a specialized hybrid Grand Theft Auto kit used to create a character that moves with precision movement, and more importantly, one that functions better in combat. Cash can sneak against walls and pick up and carry dead bodies (a la Metal Gear Solid's Solid Snake). He can sneak or run and, using corners or flat objects (like crates, doors or walls), he can duck and then peak around with either his back to the wall or his face to the wall by using the D-pad.

The game offers a healthy fight system, but it's hardly useful against three guys with bats and machetes. Instead it's designed to reward stealth, not straight up action. So 99% of the time it's best to run away and fight another day (like when you've acquired better weapons). Cash can deliver low and high punches, combos, he can grapple an opponent, and he can hit and kick enemies while on the ground.

When he's got a gun in hand, Cash can perform a quick 180-degree turn to shoot down his opponent, and then just as rapidly swing back out of harm's way. This mechanic works well in almost all situations, and it'll become your very good friend. Players can also expertly sneak round 90-degree corners with Cash's back to the wall, which keeps a healthy continuity. The few times it doesn't work well are at the top of stairs, on rounded walls, or against thin panel-type walls.

Gameplay

The core gameplay always comes back to stealth. Cash is relentlessly outnumbered and easily outgunned in every level, so he must hide in the shadows (called Safe Zones) until the time is right to sneak up behind somebody and kill them. Cash starts with nothing, but using a text-based set of goals, players learn how to use shadows to take cover. The AI (which I'll get to in a bit) can't see into the Safe Zones, which gives Cash some respite when he's in a pickle. There isn't any realism to these safe zones; an enemy can stand inches from your face and not see you. But they function as part of the game's stealth system and they work.

The learning process is pretty daunting at first. Players have to handle the mechanic, learn the landscape of the levels and recognize the gang's behavior. I tried playing this game like Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven and got my ass kicked. It doesn't work that way. Equally hard to time right at first are the stealth attacks. But over time I came to appreciate their subtlety.

So yeah, the interestingly designed stealth mechanic definitely takes some time to master. Players must slowly walk up behind an enemy and then when they're close enough, Cash's arm will elevate. This indicates the stealth kill process is in gear. Given that Cash has some kind of weapon in his hand, players hit and hold a button to execute three kinds of stealth kills. 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. Each of these is shown in a cutscene.

Naturally, Gruesome kills are the most dangerous because they leave Cash vulnerable for the longest period of time. But they pay off at level's end. Players are rewarded by types of kills (the more Violent and Gruesome the better) and the speed with which they complete a level. The five-star reward rating ties into the rewards, which range from concept art of gangs to bonus levels.

Players don't actually see a gun until more than half way through the game. Up until that point, Cash finds all sorts of household objects to slaughter his gang-style enemies. There are three major classes of weapons, one-offs, melee weapons and guns. One-offs comprise bags, wire, and shards of glass, to name a few. Melee weapons consist of bats (wooden and metal), crowbars (which also open doors), sickles, and short and billy clubs. Weapons show up as various handguns, sawed off and regular shotguns, shotguns modified with flash lights, machine guns, sniper rifles and more. Every weapon and gun has a different weight and feel, and each is responsive and easy to use.

But the fact that there is no gunplay until much later in the game will turn some people off. These folks want to get their action on -- and fast. For them Manhunt will seem too slow. The game does try your patience. It's hard. You may spend several minutes just hiding or looking for places to run to. You'll die a lot, and you'll have to replay most levels many, many times. But I LIKE hard games. I LIKE being challenged. The more I played Manhunt, the more I realized its narrow depth, it's finely honed level designs, it's pure skill-based gameplay. In other words, the deeper I got into it the more I realized how truly good it is (no matter how many times it took me to get it right).

What intensifies the singular killing experience is the exquisitely handled, sound-based Artificial Intelligence. The various gangs act with five levels of alertness (Very High, High, Medium, Low, and Very Low), but they indicate this with three colors, yellow (moving around), orange (alerted to your presence), and red (they've spotted you!). Everything in the game is tagged with some kind of sound. If you walk on gravel, rocks or concrete, the radar on the lower-left hand side of your screen shows various emanating circles from it. If you bang on a wall (which is a good strategy to gain attention) the enemies will hear it and come running. Using the headphones, players can yell into the microphone to attract attention to themselves, too.

Hunters grow smarter and work better in squads as Cash progresses. So, after you get used to splitting off one or two guys in the first five levels, the next set of levels give you the likes of the War Dogs (a Southern group of ex-military fanatics using war tactics), which hunt in packs. They will hide their numbers on screen by moving silently. They'll avoid setups and traps, and they recognize when you're banging on a wall to bring them out. They've also got snipers. SWAT teams and Cercerbus squads act with even more diligence.

(There are a few spoilers in this paragraph, as I'm describing the mission design in detail.) While the gameplay remains tightly focused on stealth tactics, each level is a different experience. Players will undoubtedly die a lot experimenting with Manhunt, but each scene has its badge of honor, its right of passage. The first missions are simple find-the-lock-and-key setups. Most are straightforward survival missions. But there is a modicum of variety, even if the range seems narrow. For instance, the White Rabbit level has you running after this nutty guy dressed up in a Rabbit Suit as he runs through a maximum security prison. Naturally, you run through a mess of thugs in your path. Another level finds you having to have steal a thug's bat. Almost all of the levels strip Cash of the weapons he's gained, thus positioning him in the role of resourceful survivor, using whatever means necessary to survive.

Another mildly interesting mission finds Cash hauling a heavy gas container across half the landscape to a crane, in which he uses it to pulverize thugs. There is even a level in which Starkweather has kidnapped some people close to you, and you have to remain entirely out of site to keep them alive. It's cruel, but it's not out of the game's context. There is an excellent level in a cemetery in which you have to accompany a drunken bum from point A to point B, and it's unbelievably well designed, gradually upping the level of difficulty to another plane. All of the scenes are intriguing and intense, and honestly, they're compelling, despite the lack of any major variation.

The game's difficulty level evolves with a brilliant sense of pacing and control. Players start with several levels of one-offs and melee weapons, and then head into gun country. If I remember correctly, the first all-gun level is View of Innocence, which takes place in a mall. Compared to the measured, controlled manner of the previous levels, the speed and mayhem of this level is an incredible rush. The game then offers a handful of nearly pure gun levels, and in the last five levels it really opens up to both stealth and gun combat. It's at these moments that Manhunt is at its best. Players are skilled enough to use either kind of weapon, the AI is heightened, and its' just a matter of how you apply your skills.

Despite its repetitiveness, players are exposed to a huge set of landscapes, they'll find a glut of oh-so-carefully designed sweet spots, and each time they play a level, they'll experience something different. The AI seems almost entirely random but it's not. The gangs walk their beats, occasionally whistling or talking to themselves. But if they see or hear you, they'll leave their territory and chase you as far as they can see you -- which is technically across the whole level, if necessary. Cash is faster than the gangs, but they have an uncanny knack for walking right up to Cash, as he's hiding in the shadows, and taunting or lambasting him while being blinded by the Safe Zones.

The brutal, violent nature of the game also has its affect. At first I thought that the whole violence thing was gimmicky. Then I experienced it myself. It's one thing to talk about wires and machetes. It's another thing to see the animated cutscenes of a gang member wheezing, choking and sputtering blood while his head is hacked off in three thick-sounding strikes of the meat cleaver. It's a visceral experience, and even the most hardened gamer will squint their eyes or grit their teeth as they watch these grisly deaths. The gruesomeness of the deaths is strangely complemented by the constant sense of fear (because, after all you are being hunted!), and the omnipresence of the gangs. Some snort and yell, others howl or even curse at you, but nearly all of them are dim-witted killing machines, waiting to hack you to bits. With the lights out and the headphone jacked in, Manhunt will scare and shock you.

Graphics

If you haven't been able to see this game in your mind without comparing it to the Grand Theft Auto series, the visuals ought to do the trick. While some visuals appear similar to other Rockstar games (such as the weapons in GTA and the Pain Killers in Max Payne), enough elements separate it to make a splash. The most notable of them are the character models. Cash himself is a hardened, weather-beaten man, with a thick brow and ruddy facial structure. But he's unique looking. The gang members, however, are striking. Whether it's the Mohawks, facial paint, masks, bags over their faces, or the War Dogs' bushmen covered in vegetative camouflage, the enemies are both fascinating looking in character design and in texture work.

The motion capture work is excellent. Everything except for the walking is mo-capped, and the cutscenes show an incredible realism in human movement and response. It's by far the smoothest looking, most realistic looking of Rockstar's PS2 games to date.

The game takes place all in one night, so unless you're inside under fluorescent lights, it's always dark out. The backgrounds are less detailed and extravagant than the character models, so there is nothing extraordinary about their polygonal make up or their textures. But the entire game is dark, which masks out the simplistic texture work. To be fair, Rockstar North did an excellent job with its color palette using minor effects to create a great sense of decay and grit. The mossy, brownish colors are subtle but effective, as are the carbon-ish rust colors. And it should be said, Carcer City is a crappy, run down town, so why should it look anything but broken and trashy?

Sound

More than any game this year, the sound work in Manhunt is crucially important and expertly done. The AI work is so damn good, it's just fun to experiment with gangs to see what they'll do in different situations. The quality of sound is uniquely crisp in Dolby Pro Logic II (which the game supports). And the ability of the AI to hear so many different levels of sound isn't just cool to hear, it translates directly and has major affects on the gameplay. It's crucial to the gameplay. And if the game isn't freaky or intense enough on its own, using a USB headset ratchets the level of fright another notch.

Even though the technical aspects of the sound are impressive, equally impressive is the huge list of conversations and one-liners recorded here. The gangs are capable of hundreds of responses to Cash and one another, and they often talk to themselves, which is usually far more entertaining. If you remember the great comic relief provided by the AI in GTA III or GTA: VC, you're going to love these gangs. They say crazy things, call you names and taunt you. They're constantly swearing. They curse and spit out your name with vile disgust. Or they talk to you with a calm, frighteningly passionate deathlust. They'll howl, cluck like chickens or bark like wolves. They giggle as they chase you down. The voice acting in Manhunt is so dead-on good, it's spooky.

The music is excellent. Mostly ambient, the music responds to your situation. If you're safe, it's lower key, if the gangs are alerted to your presence, it cranks up a bit. If you are spotted, it goes full blast. Even better is when Cash hides in a safe zone. The bass sound of his heartbeat jumps up high, which in turn intensifies those moments of anxious waiting.

Closing Comments

Manhunt is going to cause a stir, without a doubt. The game's extremely violent nature shouldn't be seen by young kids. Which is why it's rated M, for mature. If you're a worried parent, you should read this review and study perhaps some others and make an educated decision. You wouldn't let your kids watch an R-rated film, right? Right. Of course not. So, use your brains and do a little research instead of over-reacting. Manhunt is a violent videogame, but the only thing that's new about this violence is in the way it's presented. OK, sermon over.

When it comes down to it, the grisly cutscenes are just icing on the cake of a superbly honed stealth and tactical action game. Manhunt is a solid, deep experience for seasoned gamers pining for a hardcore, challenging game this fall. The level of difficulty evolves gradually from basic stealth fundamentals to tactical guerrilla warfare with melee weapons and a variety of guns with nary a hitch in continuity. It's hard, but it's a great challenge. One thing I LOVE about its steep learning curve is that it's never, ever cheap. If you die, it's because you messed up.

Aside from the harsh death scenes, the thing that makes Manhunt stand out as unique is its sound. The audio features here are incredible, from the USB headset addition to the brilliant responsiveness of the AI, to the unmatched level of hilarious and creative voice-overs and the disturbing sonic sounds of the musical score.

In the end, Manhunt is a highly polished strategy game of hide-and-seek, kill-or-be-killed gameplay. It's narrow in focus, but deep in its specialty. There is not much of a story nor are the levels terribly varied, but without a doubt, Manhunt is (with the exception of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty) nearly unsurpassed in its unique brand of stealth and tactical combat. If you're up for a serious challenge and have a tough stomach, go get it. But don't make the mistake that this is an all-out run-and-gun action game. That would be a $50 mistake.

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