You've heard about snuff movies, and it seems the guys at Rockstar have too. Should Manhunt really be in your Christmas stocking?
Manhunt's plot themed closely around gruesome snuff movies as you follow convicted murderer James Earl Cash through a world of staged deaths and video cameras. Enter the rundown Carson City and guide Cash as he brutally murders again and again and again to save his own life. The only question you need to ask yourself before you play is, "do I have the stomach for this?"
A snuff movie is a tape of someone being murdered, thought to be fictional but perhaps lurking in the darkest corners of peer-to-peer file sharing facilities. When the final day of death row convict James's execution arrives, we watch as he is given the lethal injection and apparently dies, right at the start of the game. But hour's later, Cash wakes up to a yelling voice coming from a wall speaker above him - he didn't die, but he still could if he doesn't do exactly what the voice of 'the Director' tells him. Cash is ordered to pick up a nearby earpiece so he can hear the Director in private then heads out onto the streets of Carson City where his mission begins.
It's at this point of the game you can attach the PS2 microphone and earpiece to the USB port on the console. With the earpiece on you can hear the Director's voice in your ear, rather than through the TVs speakers. By itself it sounds interesting, if hardly a reason to buy the headset, but luckily that's not all it does. By using the microphone, your voice becomes a part of the game; while playing, any noise your character makes will alert enemies to his position but with the headset on your own voice works in the same way. Cough too loud or let your dog bark, and you're dead meat! This adds another element of human error to the game and a whole bucket load of tension.
It seems odd that our new anti-hero happens to be a convicted murdered with no regard for human life. We did found ourselves wondering if Rockstar had gone a bit too far with this one. Grand Theft Auto's bloodthirsty side-quests are easily redeemed when you look at the game's major achievements; you can travel around a huge living city in all manner of vehicles exploring, performing stunts and even take on more pleasant jobs such as an ambulance driver. Now we're trapped in small alleyways and back streets, fighting for life using the most brutal of tactics to kill and stay off enemy radars. There is nothing else but the kill, and how violent you can make it.
Out on the streets you are the 'hunted' up against the 'hunters', different groups of mentally unbalanced street gangs recruited with the promise of a big cash prize if they can get ahead of the pack and be the first to find and kill the prey (that's you). As you progress through the city you come up against new and more brutal gangs you must kill to save your own neck. But hand-to-hand combat is not an option. It may work on a lone hunter but against a group you only have one option: the stealth kill.
Hide in wait for the right moment to approach the hunter from behind, target him and watch as the reticule varies in colour. Hit the attack button while it's yellow and you get a quick kill, but hit when it goes red and you get a prolonged and more brutal slaughter, to the delight of the Director watching from the many cameras in place around the city. If you have the headset on you hear the Director whoop with pleasure and joy before commending you on a fine kill. Of course, mess up the kill, and you are subjected to not only a tough fight with a hunter but a barrage of abuse from the Director in your ear.
Each kill varies depending on the type of weapon you use, whether it's of the 'one-use' variety (plastic bags, wire or glass shard), the firearms (shotgun, tranquilliser or assault rifle) or melee (hammer, sickle or meat cleaver), they all have one thing in common: they are shockingly violent. One of the worst that springs to mind is the glass shard assault where Cash will spike the shard into the hunter's throat letting blood spray sharply from the wound before beating him in the face until dead. Although with only two kill sequences for each weapon I did find myself bored with the mandatory viewing, you can only be entertained by someone's head being cut off a few times before it gets monotonous.
Before starting the game you are encouraged to turn off the lights and turn up the sound for the optimum horror experience, I was a little surprised since I didn't think the game was a meant to be horror. Gory yes, but scary no. Rockstar has perhaps mistaken tension and gore for horror, and while tension plays a big part in the emotion of fear it isn't one hundred percent of the package. We tried out Manhunt as a group, and much as I expected the game was frequently met with laughter rather than discomfort - I watched as they cheered when a hunter's head was splattered on the floor, and laughed as they continued to beat a dead body with a baseball bat. While playing it alone in the dark, I too found little to be frightened of except for a few surprise encounters here and there, although the music does its part to add suspense, with an eighties stalker movie feel.
Visually the game can be compared to a scaled down yet more polished version of GTA, the character models and environments look a little better and there's no sign of fogging or pop up. The stealth kills are shown as the Director sees them through the grainy surveillance cameras, this adds a great rough effect and manages to show the graphic violence as Rockstar North wants you to experience it.
The game world and its story seem to be based on a few well know movies from the eighties, most notably The Running Man and Escape from New York; the city is dark, rundown and grimy but lacks the level of detail needed to make it feel as real as the worlds of Silent Hill and Resident Evil. You feel even more GTA when you collect a pick-up and hear the recognisable 'bong' sound from the GTA games, but I'm unsure if this is meant to be homage of some sort or a sound effect rush-job.
After completing each area you are graded by how well you played - stealth, brutality and cunning are all taken into account. You receive stars for your skill and on most levels a good star rating will award you with some nice extras such as sub games, new levels and cheats that enhance replay value.
The game lacks polish but does have a gritty charm to its visual style, and there is no denying the visual depth and quality of some of the murder sequences. The way Rockstar North has presented everything - the menus, load screens and kills - in a surveillance camera style is very effective in setting the dark and murky scene. While the game won't take that long to complete, you can find a mass of hidden depth when trying to score five stars on all the levels to unlock all the sweet extras.
Make no mistake: Manhunt is unashamedly violent and brutal in almost every element of play. It's you who has to decide whether or not you can derive pleasure from it.
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Official, deliberately grainy Manhunt video. [280x220, 800kbps]