Manhunt is the latest PlayStation 2 release from Rockstar, the publisher responsible for the Grand Theft Auto series of games. The GTA series has been a huge commercial success for the company, simultaneously winning praise from critics and scorn from conservative elements of the press and public. Rockstar's recent titles have taken centre stage in the debate surrounding the content of games and the roles and responsibilities of publishers. Regardless of whether you are interested in the wider debate, Manhunt is littered with dark cinematic references, a perverse sense of irony and the most extreme acts of violence. Rockstar are once again pushing the boundaries of taste and decency, and this is a game aimed squarely at a mature audience.
The player takes control of a former death-row inmate, James Earl Cash. It appears that Cash was given a sedative instead of a lethal injection by his prison doctors, and waking up in an empty room, he has barely staggered to his feet when a voice begins to bark instructions from a speaker in the corner of the room. It would appear that he's not dead, and has been given a slim chance to escape the city alive... Following his instructions, he picks up a wireless ear-piece from a nearby table and leaves the building for the city streets.
All the action in Manhunt takes place on foot, from a third-person perspective. You roam the various locations in Carcer city entirely at night, in near darkness. The derelict buildings and empty streets are patrolled by organised gangs of thugs, whose apparent mission is to find and kill you. The anonymous benefactor, apparently rich enough to buy your life from the prison guards, has his own agenda. "The director" films everything using CCTV cameras placed around the town. His snuff movies are little more than a string of filmed executions, and you've been chosen for the starring role in his latest production. You'll have to avoid the thugs hunting you, follow instructions to stay alive, and keep your mentor happy by murdering your persecutors. The director captures the carnage on film, and at the end of each level you are awarded points based on the brutality of your kills.
Playing the role of Cash, you will effectively spend most of your time creeping around the city's locations, hiding in the shadows where he can't be caught by gang members. Running from place to place generates noise, and noise brings the hunters looking for you. The hunters tend to patrol the city in groups, which means that you often need to throw objects to create distractions and split them apart into manageable numbers. The first couple of levels gently introduce the player to the structure of the game, and the developer has chosen to use the director's instructions over your ear piece to guide your actions. This is an excellent device to keep what is essentially the game tutorial within your character's story.
Cash's weapons start out as plastic bags, pieces of shattered glass, knives and baseball bats, but later in the game a selection of guns becomes available. The controls are kept simple and easy to grasp, so few players will have problems here. With a greater emphasis on shooting over stealth, the later missions can become quite difficult. There are some excellent scripted sequences to break things up, and these swing wildly from hilariously entertaining to outright shocking.
The intelligence of your opponents is not spectacular, which means the play mechanics remain fairly simple right to the game's finale. This is probably Manhunt's only real weakness. While the overall production values in Manhunt are superb, some players might find linearity and lack of variety leads to a loss of interest before reaching the end.
The graphics utilise the same basic engine as the Grand Theft Auto series of games, consistently good, although perhaps lacking in detail. A grainy filter has been placed over the visuals, while the brief flashes of violence during executions swap to a view from the director's cameras, complete with bands of noise designed to give the impression of video tape. The music is perfectly chosen to set the mood, and I suspect is deliberately similar to that found in John Carpenter's movies. However, it's the voice-acting that really steals the show. While the mutterings of the gang members are often brilliant, frequently amusing, it's the director that delivers his scripted lines with real style.
Apparently, if you are in possession of the PS2 online kit you can use the headset to receive the director's instructions in your ear in the same manner as Cash. Sneeze loudly, and the microphone will pick it up and alert the hunters in the game. It sounds like this would add an interesting additional element to the game, although I didn't get the chance to try it out.
If you're even slightly squeamish, then this game clearly isn't for you. Fans of Rockstar's previous titles are unlikely to be disappointed with what's on offer here, although a word of caution should probably be added; the overall pace of Manhunt is rather slow. This is in keeping with the overall feel of the game and somewhat necessary for development of the linear story line. However, it does require the player to persevere in order to progress through the story; it is likely that some players will lose interest before reaching the final scenes.
If you consider yourself a games enthusiast, and you can stand the gore, you probably owe it to yourself to play this game.
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