Many may recognize Headhunter as being one of the last titles that was intended for release on the Dreamcast. Unfortunately, it was never released in the States on that system. Like so many other great Dreamcast games we were gypped out of in the final days of the system, Headhunter is a game that was re-coded and ported over to a competing system, in this case the PS2. I won’t go into how awesome games like Shenmue II and Rez also never made it stateside, but suffice to say that American DC owners really got screwed out of the deal. With that said, I can honestly attest to the quality and overall value of this game, despite it being on a hardware-superior system. The visuals, while not at all enhanced, look good and the play control, once mastered, is silky smooth. If you didn’t manage to snag yourself a European copy of this game when it was first released late last year than you’d do well to check out the PS2 version.
Headhunter takes place in the not-so-distant future, where a privatized police force called the ACN (Anti Crime Network) have just suffered the loss of their president, Christopher Stern. In a world overrun with corruption and greedy corporations, the ACN are the only guardians of peace and justice. These elite law-enforcers are known as “Headhunters”. You are Jack Wade, and the story begins as you wake up from a coma. Before your memory was wiped clean, Wade was the supreme bounty hunter for the CAN. Unfortunately for him, he wakes up to a pounding headache and a pink slip from his previous employer. The daughter of the assassinated president contacts you in the hopes of helping her find the people who murdered her father and bring them to justice. Wade accepts the proposition assuming that doing so will help to win the favor of his superiors and remember his past.
There are two distinctive gameplay modes in Headhunter: third-person action along the same lines as Metal Gear Solid and motorcycle stages. The motorcycle facet of the gameplay is the less-used form of play and while it does offer a nice sense of speed and is an unusual addition to this otherwise atypical genre-laden title, it feels like more of a formality as the game moves forward. Controlling the bike is simple enough but will initially take some getting used to. When in bike-mode, you will be able to rack up experience points by driving above a certain rate of speed. The more experience points you accumulate, the more driving tests you’ll be able to participate in. These tests, as I’ll explain later, are quite necessary for progressing throughout the game.
In third-person mode, you’ll traverse areas on foot in your quest to redeem your identity. Many of the offensive maneuvers found in other games of this genre were heartily borrowed and as is the case with some of those games, force isn’t always the best way of dealing with scenarios, though you do always have the option. Like MGS, you’ll be given a radar in the upper part of the screen which tips you off to the location of enemies and their alert status. This comes in particularly handy for instances where you’re running low on ammo or want to tackle objectives in stealth-mode since once the enemy is positioned properly, you can sneak up behind him and snap his neck. Shell casings can be thrown in order to ensnare a baddie who, upon hearing the clinking sound of a thrown casing, will investigate, giving you the perfect opportunity to sneak up behind him and perform a stealth kill.
Aside from stealth maneuvers, you’re also given a wide range of projectile weaponry to dispose of bad-guys. Long-range combat sequences are similar to that of Koei’s shooter, Winback. You’ll use the environment as cover and experience high-intensity shoot-outs with the opposition. You can also sneak against walls and peak around the side to get a better perspective of what’s going on without being detected, perform ground rolls to stay out of the line-of-sight while changing your location, and switch weapons on the fly via the trigger buttons. Taking another reference from Metal Gear Solid, Jack will take part in a slew of VR training missions. These sequences have you doing things like stealth killing all the enemies without being detected, reaching destinations on your motorcycle within the time-limit, and getting to the end of a multi-tiered level without being killed. The initial training can be skipped, but some VR trials are necessary for obtaining bounty hunter licenses and better weaponry.
In the Headhunter universe, human organs are priceless, and sooner or later everybody donates; headhunters like Jack just quicken the pace of the process. As such, each weapon that you have in your arsenal will be modified to preserve the vital organs of the target so that even after taking them out, their organs can still be safely harvested. I’m not sure if I like this blood-less approach at the shooter genre but at least it’ll keep angry moms at bay. In some areas of the game, it is necessary to simply stun an enemy. You’ll need to navigate areas that are swarming with friendlies but who do not recognize you, and as such, in these instances, a safe stunning will do the trick. Other weapons included in Headhunter are grenades, proximity mines, shotguns, pistols, machine guns, and missile launchers.
Item collecting and puzzle solving plays an intricate part of Headhunter’s dynamics. The problem with the puzzles is that they only ever make sense when you have, almost by pure chance, collected the items that the puzzles require. Items hardly stand out from the background and are easy to overlook. Luckily, a small but obvious red-indicator will signify the placement of items within a room. Thankfully, the scavenger hunts and puzzles are nowhere near as plentiful as in, say, Resident Evil, but there will be a few instances in which you might be stuck not knowing what to do or where to go simply because you don’t have a required item in your inventory.
While the gameplay mechanics of the game are practically untouched from its Dreamcast counterpart, developer Amuze did tweak the camera system a bit, resulting in less perspective hang-ups. But considering anxious gamers were hoping to get their hands on this game last year, and on the Dreamcast, the minor camera fix is hardly a worthy consolation. Even so, the game is a noteworthy hybrid of multiple genres that somehow solidly come together to create a superfluous and entertaining experience. If Winback, Resident Evil, MotoGP, and Metal Gear Solid got together and had a lovechild, Headhunter would be the result.
Graphically, Headhunter is slightly above average on the PS2, but when it was slated for the Dreamcast, it was set to be one of the most technologically impressive games ever for the system. Still though, Amuze should have saddled-up and given the game a PS2 caliber makeover. On the DC, Headhunter looked impressive, but on the PS2 the textures are blurry and less appealing than they should be. The motorcycle sequences are perhaps the most visually notable aspect of the game, featuring lots of traffic and detail in the surroundings, though draw-in problems do have a tendency to creep up from time to time. Character models, again, look fine, but are composed of less polygons than is required for the PS2 to flex it’s processing muscle. There are instances of CGI cut-scenes to break the graphical monotony but these full-motion clips look only marginally better than real-time rendered graphics.
Sound-wise the game is a bit better off, however. Voice acting sounds appropriate and surprisingly high-quality. The various bosses and enemies you’ll encounter each have their own unique personality and this fact is made clear in the instances where dialogue transpires. The soundtrack offers some stirring orchestrations that range from military-esque to fast-paced high-pressure-type compositions. The various sound effects also effectively do their job and the sounds of the various guns are not re-used from weapon to weapon.
If you’re pumped for the release of Metal Gear Solid Substance, due out later this year, than Headhunter may just tide you over until then. Like most games of this nature, it does not offer up a ton of lasting appeal but you can expect more than 10 hours before the credits start to roll. The unification of stealth, action, driving, and puzzle solving is a nice diversion from more formulaic shooters and the storyline is interesting enough to keep you playing. There are a few roadblocks along the path of the game’s progression but by and large you’ll be enjoying yourself more than you are scratching your head in confusion. So check Headhunter out, it’s a cool game.