Unnecessarily obscene language for obscenity’s sake
Horrifically gory, tedious kill sequences
Utterly moronic enemy AI
Um, it loads fast
It might interest you to learn, or perhaps not, that it is sort of my typical methodology to go to somewhere like gamerankings.com and look at other game reviews after I have submitted my own. What did I miss? What did other game reviewers think? (I’d like to hear more about what you, the reader, think, but alas as a group you’re not big writers). It’s one way that I try, completely free of charge to you, to improve myself as a game reviewer. So it was sort of a shock recently when I was reading reviews of Hitman: Contracts that I noticed the average reviewer score for Manhunt was up near 80%. Without reading any of the reviews I don’t know what they were thinking, and perhaps they were playing a different game called Manhunt than I was, but I found Manhunt to be one of the most gratuitously violent and tedious games I’ve played in quite some time. In fact it’s interesting playing a game like this after a game like Hitman because both of them are heavy on stealth elements, but the AI of Manhunt is positively moronic making the stealth feel more like a cheat than a gaming element. Let me back up a little bit and start from the beginning.
You play James Earl Cash, probably no relation to the late Johnny Cash, who is on death row for some unspecified (or if it was specified I missed it) crime. You’re in fact put to death for your crime (in a grainy home-movie style video). Or are you? You awake to find that your death was staged, and you have been released into a sort of Running Man, third-person, urban environment. At the urging of Lionel Starkweather, who is apparently filming your exploits for snuff films, you are told that if you kill the people in each area that want to kill you, you can earn your freedom. It’s a serviceable plot that ultimately ends up going nowhere. And so begins, naturally, the Manhunt. The “hunters” (for lack of a better word), walk around more or less at random looking for you. You in turn sneak around trying to get a shot at their back. You see, the weapons you have to choose from are mostly hand weapons – knives, hand axes, crowbars, baseball bats, wire, pieces of glass, meathooks, etc. They have the same weapons at their disposal. If you fight one guy face to face you’re going to take some real damage. If you try and fight more than one you’re as good as dead. But if you manage to get a back strike, a single killing blow will finish your opponent instantly. So begins a game of stalker and stalkee, but which is which and who is who? This would be a pretty good game perhaps if not for shadows.
The key to the whole game is that when standing in shadow (and everything casts shadows), a small icon of your character in the corner is grayed out and you’re effectively invisible, unless a hunter actually saw you go into the shadow (in which case your icon flashes, and you’re visible). So what I would do is run out into the open, get a hunter’s attention, take off running (oh, did I forget to mention that you’re faster than everyone else?) and duck into any convenient shadow as soon as I cut a corner. The hunter stops and looks around for me, but then ultimately gives up and turns away, which is when I would step out of the shadows. Guess who gets a knife in the back, or a wire across the throat, or a baseball bat to the head, or (gasp!) a meat hook to the groin, etc, etc. The game has a lot of this type of thing. Oh, there are a few variants. You can throw a rock or a beer can (or a head) to attract a hunter, and then see above. And in one of my personal favorites, hunters run to look at the dead body of another hunter, and then turn away to let you add their body to the pile. I once had four bodies all piled up when a fifth hunter came along… I don’t know about you, but if I see one body I might go over and investigate, but if I see five bodies, I’m certainly not going to try and add mine to the stack.
The basic problem with this game is twofold. One, you’re too invisible in shadows. A hunter mere inches from you peering into the shadow won’t see you. I’ve actually had hunters, chasing me, run through the shadows, bump into me, and keep going as if nothing had happened. Two, couple this with a completely predictable response to your actions on the part of the hunters, and you have some pretty simple hunters to hunt. It can be a little difficult to kill several hunters in a small area without being discovered, but if you are patient, and realize that you are 100% safe in a shadow, you can always manage to separate them out for easy dispatch. As you progress through the game you advance in enemy from redneck to white supremacist to soldier, but they all seem to have pretty much the same brains, or lack thereof.
About halfway through the game guns show up – handguns, shotguns, and a few rifles. This makes the game both easier and harder. Easier because you can now do a kill shot from range rather than close up. Harder because hunters that merely see you can take a shot at you, and they’re pretty good shots, so the run-and-hide approach is not without danger. This is where a special move comes in handy: with a key combination you can hide behind a nearby object like a box or a wall, and then pop up just long enough to take a shot and duck back down again. It’s different from the whole stalker/stalkee thing, but it’s not a heck of a lot more fun. Think of it as the videogame equivalent of Whack-A-Mole. Weapons are divided into categories; single use (garrote, plastic bag), small (knife, crowbar, handgun), large (shotgun, rifle, baseball bat), and distractions (brick, can, bottle). You can only carry one item in each category at a time, so sometimes you’re given the choice of, say, a baseball bat which has unlimited usage, and a shotgun which is only useful as long as you have shells. It’s not a fair balance exactly, but life isn’t always fair.
Graphically the game is good stuff, using what appears to be a souped up GTA engine. It’s gritty, grainy, just the atmosphere they’re trying to achieve. Ragdoll physics are fully in play and you can do some pretty amazing things with bodies. When you make a killing attack, the game switches to a cinematic exterior camera angle to show the kill. The longer you sneak behind the hunter holding the attack, the more gore involved in the kill, but naturally the greater the risk of being discovered. There are three levels of intensity for killing with each weapon, and something like 20 weapons (though not all of them have killing attacks), and you kill hundreds of guys – the result is that you see several of the kills over and over again. Cracking a guy over the head with a bat and watching teeth fly out is fun a couple of times, but 30 times I could do without. Likewise, the adult language used by the hunters (“I know you’re close because I can smell the shit in your pants”) and Starkweather (“Quit stalling and gut the fuckers”), though well voiced, gets tiresome. Incidentally, gorier kills gets you a higher rating at the end of the level, but if it alters the gameplay in any substantive way, I didn’t see it. While I’m on the tangential subject, the sound effects are well done, though squishy and quite gross. The music is understated and left no impression on me at all.
What began probably as a good idea on the drawing board suffers badly in execution. It’s for the most part far too easy, and that tends to dilute any tension that builds up. Then at other points it’s very, very hard, resulting in extended snapshot gun battles with enemies under cover and ammo in short supply. Save points are at fixed locations, and they occur farther and farther apart as the game progresses (or at least it feels that way). That’s also about the same time the guns show up giving the hunters a significant edge, and causing you to replay large sections to solve them. There’s no multiplayer component at all. I found it repetitive and stulifying, but I seem to be in the minority if everyone else’s ratings mean anything. It’s not the first time I’ve been on the fringes of the game reviewing opinions, and it won’t be the last.