Ever have a nightmare where you’re all alone in a dark, cold city? You’re being hunted down by people whose only purpose is make sure you are dead? Every corner could harbor an enemy, every shadow could host an assassin, and the only way to protect yourself is with your wits and whatever you can scavenge from your surroundings. Rockstar has managed to extract these frightening experiences, combining it with the taboo urban myth of the snuff film to create their latest title, Manhunt. A game that will easily spark more controversy than any other title in Rockstar’s library, I’m warning everyone before getting into the premise of this game that it is not, I repeat, NOT for children.
Manhunt stars James Earl Cash, a convicted death row inmate whose death by lethal injection introduces the game. Or shall we say expected execution, because Cash later awakens to find himself in a darkened room outside of his penitentiary. As Cash struggles to adjust to his surroundings, a voice over a loudspeaker directs him to put on an earpiece found on a nearby table. Introducing himself as Starkweather, the disembodied voice informs Cash that he saved the convict to provide a form of entertainment, (namely, snuff films) for he and his friends. Cash will be freed provided that he manages to survive the night and navigate through Carcer City.
With minimal instruction (save that whispered and cackled into his ear from time to time), Cash sets out upon the streets. However, unbeknownst to him, Carcer City is infested with brutal, psychotic gangs, each member armed with some deadly weapon. For instance, the Smilez are an incoherent group of lunatics whose faces are adorned by a number of smiling masks. Plus, everyone is actively searching for Cash, looking to put his head on their wall. This forces Cash to use stealth to outwit and eliminate his enemies. Granted, the idea of another stealth game, considering the glut of these titles since Splinter Cell, seems unappealing.
But Manhunt actually redefines this genre in two major ways. First, Cash is essentially a quiet character when he moves, unless he walks across sound-emitting surfaces, purposefully hits a wall to draw attention to himself, or sprints from place to place, which echoes his footsteps. His natural tendency towards silence gives him the ability to hide in the shadows or sneak up on patrolling enemies. Obviously, this opens the door to perform a stealth kill on your opponent; however, this is modified by the weapon that Cash is holding at the time of the execution and the amount of time he waits before attacking. The longer Cash waits, the more violent a kill is performed, although it also increases the chances of being detected by patrols.
The second is with the inclusion of USB headset functionality, which gives players a more interactive experience. Plugging in the SOCOM, Logitech or other USB headset emulates the earpiece that Cash has in the game, enabling gamers to hear the insanity of Starkweather piped directly into their ears. This can truly be unnerving depending upon what the malevolent mastermind is saying. Even more creatively is the fact that players can use the headset’s microphone to distract or attract onscreen enemies. Much more organic than simply hitting a button, this gives gamers a little more control over when they make their move against gang members. However, players also have to be careful of accidentally saying something at the wrong time and giving their attack away.
Although hand-to-hand combat is an option, Cash really won’t survive a direct one on one encounter without some serious weaponry. There are four levels of arms found in Carcer City: Yellow items are primarily used as lures to distract foes, Green items which can only be used once, Blue items which are multi-use weapons and finally Red heavy damage objects. Thanks to his need for speed and secrecy, Cash can only carry one of each class of item, but acquiring new implements of death are easily done.
This brings me to the last sentence of my opening paragraph, which is how this game is definitely not for kids in any way. Beheadings, broken necks and spurting carotid arteries are merely three separate forms of murder that can be committed upon your enemies. These scenes aren’t implied or generally suggested like other games; instead, Starkweather’s cameras perform tight zooms and close-ups from multiple angles to get every gory, mind-bending detail. As gamers, we’ve become accustomed to the continual debates about violence in games. Manhunt elevates this to a violent ballet, a murderous sequence of images and realism that few games till now have been able to approach. (I’m not even going to argue the validity of violence for adults or not; what I will say, however, is that the content of the game is completely appropriate for adults who can rationally understand the consequences of actions and the fact that that this is a game, nothing more, nothing less.)
Graphically, Manhunt is groundbreaking for the sheer amount of realism and gritty textures brought to life onscreen. Characters are large and incredibly detailed, making the plausibility that every figure in the game is capable of murder completely believable. Animations, especially during kill cutscenes, are incredibly fluid and lifelike, which might easily make the nauseous loose lunch or dinner. The environments of Carcer City are gritty and washed in plenty of dark light, burned cars and destroyed landscapes, reflective of the animals that live and prey upon the poor fools that stumble upon their lands. Even better, the consistent film-quality filters that scroll across cutscenes or other video sequences do a great job of creating verisimilitude for the game. You really get the sense of watching action through the lens of a security camera or other surveillance device. The only caveat is that the actual control of the in-game play camera can be a little sticky, which can sometimes result in blown attacks when your targets spot you.
The sound quality of Manhunt is surreal, simply because the game seems like a living, breathing entity by itself. Characters swear, muse and taunt each other like you’d expect realistic gang members to do. What’s more impressive is the fact that they’re auditorally responsive. When you actually hear some of the comments you’ve made about Cash based on your actions, you’ll find yourself actually double-guessing whether or not you made a good choice. The fact that the AI is so completely responsive to the difference between a whisper and a shout in the USB headset also deserves praise, and the variance in music levels, from moody and atmospheric to charged and thumping during attacks, is perfect to put any gamer on edge.
While the decision about the content of the game or the choice of plot is completely up to the Adult gamer that plays it, there are a few issues that need to be recognized about Manhunt. First of all, the kind of violence seen in this game will easily stagger even the most desensitized gamer simply because of how realistically it’s depicted. I’ve seen some of the most gruesome footage ever captured on film, and yet being responsible for making a character carry out such effective executions still made me squirm for the first couple of times that I saw each new animation. This means that this kind of game will definitely not be for every adult gamer out there. More of an issue than that is the AI present in the game, which at times can be incredibly persistent and at other times lazy. It’s understandable if you manage to outrun someone who’s only got a general sense of where you are because they’ve heard you. It’s another thing if they investigate the shadows half of the time, even if you’ve done numerous actions to call attention to your position, such as leaving the bodies of their fellow comrades lying around. Even the running away brings up yet another issue, that of constantly fighting and fleeing, with limited pursuit or even reinforcements called in by your opponents, allowing you to pick off enemies at your discretion. Once you manage to get firearms later on in the game, this becomes less of a survival trait and more of a leisurely elimination tactic.
Overall, Manhunt should be applauded, much like many of the other Rockstar games, for pushing the gaming envelope farther than it’s gone before. This is subject matter that’s truly for adults (something that I can’t try to stress enough) but it’s well designed and calculated enough to appease the hardcore player looking for an adult challenge to their skills and their senses. If Splinter Cell seemed too political and Metal Gear Solid too esoteric, try a taste of the bloodthirsty with Manhunt. Your console might never be the same.