This review originally appeared in E132, January 2004.
On the face of it, Rockstar’s stealth marketing strategy for Manhunt doesn’t appear to have worked. As Edge goes to press, the week after the game’s launch, it has just entered the UK all-format chart in the lowly position of 15th (ironically below Activision’s GTA pastiche, True Crime). Not an auspicious beginning if it’s going to match Rockstar North’s previous titles to become a startlingly successful global phenomenon. Even in spite of the controversial subject matter, gamers simply don’t seem to have noticed the game’s release. Is there anything more to Manhunt than its lashings of ultraviolence? Anything that will ensure it will become a slow-burning sales success?
The premise is certainly interesting enough. After his apparent execution for murder your character, James Earl Cash, regains consciousness to the voice of ‘The Director’, Lionel Starkweather (played by Hollywood’s original Hannibal Lecter, Brian Cox) who urges him to escape from the dystopian urban slum in which he finds himself by the most violent means necessary. Which sets up the structure for progression through the first tutorial-type levels that introduce you to the basics of the game. Later, you must travel across the turf of an increasingly bizarre assortment of gangs of Hunters, all bent on killing you.
Essentially, this is Rockstar does stealth. It’s a game that rewards patience – rewards it with disturbing and dramatic depictions of uberviolence. By sticking to the shadows and avoiding direct confrontation, your character can despatch enemies with ease, and by luring Hunters by making a noise, or by throwing objects, it’s possible to split up the more threatening groups and make them more manageable to dispose of.
Each execution is rewarded by a brief, CCTV-style cut-scene depicting the fruits of your labour with gory and visceral attention to detail. Delay your attack while creeping up behind an unsuspecting victim for long enough and these cut-scenes ramp up the degree of violence depicted.
A hasty attack with a baseball bat will, for example, result in a few quick blows to the body. More patient players will be rewarded with blood and brain flying everywhere. Like the rest of the game, it’s all illustrated with gruesome visual aplomb, the gritty urban decay is stylishly rendered and peppered with instructive graffiti, while the character animation is convincing and lifelike.
Within its linear structure – which, by the way, is totally justified by the plot and adds boundlessly to the sense of Cash’s loss of control – there is a lot of freedom within which to act, much more so than both Splinter Cell and Metal Gear Solid 2, the titles which Manhunt most closely resembles.
Each level is an architecturally intricate composition of external and internal spaces, which can be used in a variety of different ways. It’s a testimony to Rockstar’s design talent that there’s normally not a single best strategy to follow.
Above and beyond basic design competence this is a hugely atmospheric title, comparable in its own way to titles such as Rez, Ico and O.TO.GI. The use of a USB headset adds immeasurably in this respect. While the game requires you to be patient, the horrifying tones of Starkweather, veering inappropriately between neutrality and enthusiasm, occasionally urge you to violence, creating real tension between the wish to act and the need not to. Forget that you’re wearing a headset, and any inadvertent exclamations will alert the Hunters to your presence.
There are disappointments, however. The controls are initially difficult to get used to, although after a while they do become second nature. More frustrating are certain obvious and unnecessary design flaws that occur once or twice. One level in particular features save points that are spaced terribly, for example, requiring you to slowly carry a can of petrol before subjecting you to an ambush at the end, and then requiring you to execute five Hunters before subjecting you to another ambush. But these aren’t game-breaking problems. Nor, in Edge’s opinion, is the degree of violence. While Edge isn’t going to defend the game from charges of a potentially desensitising obsession with brutality, the game is, in Edge’s view, amoral rather than immoral. The gore is disgusting, but it’s disgusting in the same way as old-skool horror movies were, because of the use of over-the-top, Troma-like evisceration. Certainly, the basic act of killing enemies is a videogame commonplace, and although critics might point to the fact that heightened violence is used as a reward, in doing so the game removes control from the player.
In any case, as a cultural artefact the title is much more interesting than the majority of videogames because the range of pop-cultural influences are so refreshingly different and diverse, from ‘The Warriors’ to ‘Running Man’ and ‘Escape from New York’ and beyond. As a game it’s fun, the memories that stick in the mind aren’t the visceral gore, but the set-pieces and heart-stopping moments – the moment when Edge, heart in mouth, spotted a Hunter emerge from his hiding place in the shadows where it had just walked, for example.
Which is why, in spite of its inauspicious start, Edge would still back Manhunt to match Rockstar’s sales expectations. Like GTA, there’s more to this than shock and awe, and that’s why it will generate the word of mouth it needs to shift units.