- December 03rd 2003

Thunderboltgames Review

The chances are that you won't have heard of Manhunt. Believe it or not, the same game is a Rockstar title - yes the same people who developed and published GTA: Vice City. A section of the media has been very critical of Rockstar's marketing strategy for its previous games and they've taken a different tact with Manhunt. There's been little if any advertising and the hype has been so minimal that we never realised it was being released until a week beforehand. Rockstar have taken a mature approach to marketing what turns out to be a very mature game. We're impressed already.

James Earl Cash is a criminal, sentenced to death for an offense unbeknownst to us. His execution was all a ruse, his lethal injection replaced with a harmless sedative, sending him to sleep instead of to the grave. Waking up, he finds himself in a locked room, a voice over an intercom instructing him to put an earpiece on. He hears the voice of Starkweather, a sadistic director of snuff movies. Cash is simply told, "Now only you can hear me and that's the way you're going to want it because I'm your way out of this mess...Do exactly as I say and I promise this will be over before the night is out".

Cash is your in-game alter-ego, a rough, unlikable character. You first take control of him when he is dumped in a deserted corner of Carcer City. Here the streets are patrolled by a gang named The Hoods, hired by Starkweather to hunt Cash. You must use whatever you can to eliminate your enemy, be it a chainsaw or a shard of glass and proceed to the next portion of the game. You are relentlessly outnumbered, constantly alone and never safe. The first section of the game acts as a tutorial, introducing the game's ironic humour and gritty atmosphere. Starkweather tells you the basics as you cautiously move down the first street, stopping when you encounter your first enemy.

Here stands an unaware gang member facing away from you; cold, lonely and oblivious to your presence. Next to him scrawled on a nearby wall is a red arrow pointing towards him and the writing, "Kill This Dumb F**k". How appropriate. You approach him with a blue plastic bag, your arm raised. Holding down 'X', small arrows appear around the target's head, gradually changing colour. Releasing the button, Cash strikes. Immediately a cut scene intervenes, showing Cash pulling the bag over the victim's head then brutally kicking him to the floor. Next his knee finds the gang member's head, spraying blood over the camera and sending his victim to the ground, the bag still wrapped tightly over his head. Manhunt is sick and brutal, and this is only the start of it.

Imagine you are Cash for a moment; you're outnumbered, you have no backup, food or weapons. The only way you can survive is to scavenge for weapons, avoid conflict and stay in the shadows until it's safe to strike. By the nature of the situation, Manhunt is a stealth-based title, but don't buy it expecting Splinter Cell. The stealth mechanic isn't as surgical as other titles - your own shadow won't give you away - but it does give the game a distinctive tactical approach. Your radar, unlike the one in Metal Gear Solid does not show the surrounding buildings or all of your enemies, but shows opponents who make a sound. In the earlier levels, the gangs chat with each other and clutter around, giving you a good idea of who you're facing. Later on though, gangs begin to hunt in packs silently and intelligently. Cash has a few safe havens from his enemies; dark, shadow-cast areas which are called 'safe zones'. Once in these, Cash is effectively invisible unless he is spotted entering one, giving you an earned breather from the action. Like all stealth games, you're given the ability to peek around corners and hide behind pretty much any object you see, allowing you to spy on your enemies without being seen.

Controlling Cash is fairly straight forward, with the main functions spread across the face buttons. 'X' handles light attack when you're in a one-on-one brawl, firing weapons, throwing lures, executing and tapping objects to attract guards. 'Square' is used for strong attacks in brawls, reloading and executions, while 'triangle' acts as an action button and 'O' switches weapons. Moving around is slightly different than in GTA; the left analogue stick turns and moves Cash while the shoulder buttons handle strafing and sprinting. Cash can be moved accurately and smoothly around the levels, giving you complete control on the ground.

Once you reach your enemy the real fun starts. As you sneak up behind them, your arm will raise, weapon in hand. Three triangles appear when you press and hold the 'execute' button. The longer you hold the button before releasing it, the more gruesome the kill. This is indicated by the colour of the three triangles around the target's head; white for a 'hasty' kill, yellow for a normal and red for a 'gruesome' execution. The game instantly switches to a cut scene when you pull off the move, giving you a full, gory view of what happens. You often start levels with no weapon at all and have to find pieces of rubbish to fight with. Your first weapons include plastic bags, shards of broken glass and rusty wire - this is no game for the faint hearted. Firearms don't appear until about half way through the game and there are even a few levels that are purely gun based, giving you a breather from all that stealth. Later levels also introduce enemy snipers and SWAT teams, so keeping your head down is vital.

Typical encounters involve Cash entering an area patrolled by several gang members which he has to eliminate to proceed. Using the safe zones and the sound sensitive radar, you'll hide for a while and try and work out where your enemies are and which routes they are patrolling. Once certain of who you're up against, you might sneak forward to observe your first target. Moving closer and closer, you'll negotiate the terrain carefully, trying not to alert your foe. You stalk closer, your victim-to-be facing away. He stops and you quickly take cover behind a bin. He 'relieves himself' and announces this to his colleagues. How nice. You move in for the kill, but at the last second you step on a pile of dead leaves. Crunch. Your target turns around and in a instant, you're the hunted, not the hunter. You run for your life, relentlessly perused by every gang member in the area across the level, looking for safety. Finally cornered with no escape, you make a feeble attempt to fight back before being struck down for good.

Manhunt is a hard game and you'd be a fool to think otherwise. This is a game for adults, and the difficulty has been tailored to suit that. There are only two difficulty levels - Fetish (normal) and Hardcore (hard, duh!) - the latter of which removes the radar completely. You'll die a lot but this just drives you back for more. When you do fall, it's often your own fault for not looking round a corner or checking the terrain correctly, not the game's. The opening levels see the gang members working on their own, whilst later levels have them alert, waiting for you in packs. Thankfully, save points have been distributed around the levels allowing you to restart from there if you die, instead of making you traipse through the whole level again. Manhunt's gameplay is likely only to appeal to seasoned gaming veterans who can handle the difficulty, but it's rated 18 (and rightly so!), so this shouldn't be a problem.

The game's violence is easily its most talked about feature. I'll cut to the chase - Manhunt makes GTA look like candy floss. When Tommy Vercetti kills someone, cartoon-styled blood appears in neat puddles or fountains out dramatically. The one-on-one physical combat isn't that bad really, it's just the way it's presented. When James Earl Cash kills someone, he makes a proper job of it. It's hard to visualise exactly what happens in the game if you haven't played it, but let's just say you'll cringe at a few of the executions. Just try to imagine the sight of your victim kneeling on the floor, Cash with a chainsaw raised, ready to strike. I'm sure you can guess what happens next. A game that allows the player to gouge their opponent's eye out with a piece of broken glass is one that's bound to cause controversy, but at the time of writing the mass media seems to have missed Manhunt altogether due to Rockstar's stealth marketing. It's quite possibly one of the most uncomfortable and disturbing games you'll play; let's just say that you'll be careful what you do in-game when your parents or children are in the room.

When you first play Manhunt the first thing you'll notice is the presentation. From the second you load the game right through to the stealth action, Manhunt excels in setting an authentic atmosphere that perfectly captures the game's gritty, sadistic world. The television theme that runs right through the game is reflected in the menus and cutscenes where interference and noise that you would normally see on a bad video is strewn across the screen. The menus also hint towards that of a DVD, just like we've seen in The Getaway, with 'Select Scene' instead of 'Select Level' as you'd expect. The world of Manhunt is a crude, unforgiving one but Rockstar represent it with style and subtle sophistication.

The in-game graphics are notably similar to recent Grand Theft Auto games, but with enough differences to make it unique in its own right. Carcer City is just how you'd expect it, full of scuttling rats, discarded shopping trolleys and litter strewn about. The world that you are thrown into so suddenly is totally believable, a living nightmare for Cash. The gangs who patrol the city have their own unique look, but they aren't a cloned army, but more of a group of misfits. Animations are all motion captured, making executions exceptionally gruesome. The camera behaves itself surprisingly well for a 3rd person viewpoint, zooming in and out automatically when needed and also allowing you to swing it left and right to a certain degree. The visuals aren't the very best you'll see on the system, but they certainly create a great atmosphere which you'll thrive in.

Sound effects are suitably themed with videotape noise, swirling rubbish, rats and gang members all represented. Voiceovers are extremely well done, with little repetition in your enemies' speech. The game's audio also neatly ties in with the gameplay with the sound-detecting radar and another feature I haven't mentioned yet; headset compatibility. You see, guards can be distracted by tapping on walls or hitting objects with your weapons, but you can also shout into a USB headset to distract them as well. Starkweather (the evil guy, remember?) will give you instructions through the headset, leaving your TV speakers solely for in-game sound effects and music. Using your voice to distract enemies is an interesting innovation, with the theory being that you can cinematically taunt your opponents before smashing their faces in. In practice though, you'll be happily playing, sneaking up on some gang member when your dog comes running in barking, ruining the moment and sending Cash running. The games can already hear you, whatever next? Will the EyeToy be watching and interpreting your facial expressions? I'm sure it's already in development.

Manhunt isn't perfect though. There's one area in which it doesn't excel so much and that's lifespan. Manhunt is a hard game, and it's inevitable that you're going to get stuck eventually due to the nature of the game. You might just give up and never play it again, you might struggle on; it's your choice. If you do complete it though, there's not much else to do afterwards except to trade it in for a newer game. There's only so much replay value in tow difficulty levels and although there are four unlockable levels, these are too weak to boost the lifespan. Manhunt's core gameplay will keep you occupied for long enough to warrant a purchase, but it's a real shame to see a complete lack of multiplayer. Rockstar's latest offering would be brilliant in a co-operative or adversarial modes, online or offline, but there's no attempt at either.

Ultimately, Manhunt will only appeal to a set number of people and that target audience will love it. Carcer City is a rough, violent and brutal place and Rockstar have done a superb job of doing it and James Earl Cash justice. You get the feeling that they've always wanted to make Manhunt, but haven't had time between GTA installments. Fortunately, the result of their time away from their main franchise is a game that is polished to the core, a real hidden gem on the games industry. It may not have had a huge launch campaign, but boy does it pack a punch. There's so many adjectives that come to mind when I think of it - brutal, violent, sadistic, vicious, cruel - but one stands out above the others in its representation of the game. Hardcore.

Thunderbolt score: eight out of ten.

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