When the original Manhunt hit, the moody action game offered an atmospheric slice of life that revolved around a deadly game of cat and mouse. The stealth-focused action game cast you as a hapless prisoner that gets pulled into the twisted machinations of a "director" named Starkweather, who's big on snuff films. The game's departure from the Grand Theft Auto style of gameplay, as well as its claustrophobic setting, was a dramatic new experience that resonated with players and found a loyal audience. For its follow-up, Rockstar is taking an equally striking approach that it hopes will offer a fresh variation on the original game's theme. We were given a demo of a work-in-progress version on the PlayStation 2, and it offered a sampling of what to expect from the distinctive game.
One of the first new aspects of the game is its developer, which is not Rockstar North. That studio is currently busy on another little title we'll see later this year. Rockstar London, a newly created studio in the Rockstar stable of developers, is picking up the baton and handling the development of Manhunt 2. However, those worried that Manhunt 2 might suffer from a new developer can rest easy: Rockstar London is working on the game in association with North, who are lending their experience with Manhunt's special brand of crazy.
The game's story casts you in the role of a young doctor named Daniel Lam. The ambitious young doc is well on his way to an ideal future, with two children, a loving wife, and a promising, well-paying job. The catch to the job is that it's a privately funded neurological weapons project, codenamed the Pickman Project after the doctor who's heading it up. Unfortunately, things take a turn for the worse, and the project has its funding pulled. Doctor Pickman, convinced the project is close to a breakthrough, takes the project underground and keeps on plugging away. Lam follows, and in a not entirely bright move, offers to be a guinea pig. Recipe for disaster? You betcha. A few mishaps later, and Daniel is dispatched to Dixmore Asylum, a mental institution for the criminally insane. The good news is he evidently served quite capably as a guinea pig. The bad is that he's a bit on the crazy side now, hence his swanky new digs and comfortable, yet restraining, white pantsuit with the long sleeves and buckles. It appears the folks at Dixmore are quite well equipped for dealing with folks of Daniel's temperament, as it's essentially a dumping ground for Pickman Project guinea pigs--of which Daniel is hardly the first of.
Fast forward six years to the game's present day, and we find Daniel still kicking it at the old asylum. Years of living there have led him to question if his other life even existed. Cue up a fateful night and an electric storm that knocks the power out at the asylum, letting the inmates have the run of the place, and Daniel escapes with a friend named Leo. Now unsure if his wife and kids were real or the products of his mind, Daniel sets out to find out just what the heck happened to his mind, which is where you come in. Your goal in the game is to try to uncover what happened to you and what is going on with the Pickman Project. Given that an entire asylum housed former guinea pigs, there's certainly more going on than meets the eye.
While the game's story may be all new, the gameplay remains true to the original game and expands on it in some very cool ways, as was evidenced in our demo. The action is still third-person stealth and focuses on smart use of your environment to do your killing. Our demo featured two levels, dubbed The Awakening and The Honey Pot, which showcased the game's wider scope. Whereas the original game had you navigating a confined area filled with people looking to murder you, Manhunt 2 has you traveling to new, exciting locations...filled with people looking to murder you.
The Awakening level opens the game and acts as a tutorial. It's set in the aftermath of the electrical storm and finds you following Leo out of the asylum. Your surprisingly lucid friend offers words of encouragement that serve as a refresher on the game's systems. You'll need to make use of the shadows to sneak around as well as be conscious of the noise you make as you move. As with the previous game, your onscreen radar alerts you to enemies and the amount of noise you're making as you move around. The PS2 game will support a USB headset and microphone, allowing you to make noises to distract enemies and help you line up for a kill.
As far as kills go, Manhunt 2 sticks to the same, easy-to-pick-up-but-difficult-to-master three-tiered kill system. When you sneak up behind enemies, you're able to start a kill when they're targeted by a cursor. The cursor cycles through three separate colors--white, yellow, and red--the longer you stay behind your target. You're rewarded with a different kill animation depending on the color of the cursor. Kills performed when the cursor is white, which can be done immediately, are hasty executions. Kills performed when the cursor turns yellow, after a few seconds of standing behind your victim, are called violent executions. Finally, if you wait for the cursor to turn red after six seconds or so, you're able to perform a gruesome execution. The actual kills are set animations that kick in once they're triggered. One of the new twists to your killing is a whole new kind of kill that revolves around using your environment. Your radar will clue you in to some environmental fun by showing a skull in the area you're in, letting you know that something around you can be used to perform a kill. The Honey Pot level, set in a brothel, showcased the cool new feature and proved it definitely has possibilities.
Your killing weapons will again come in four handy color-coded classes. Throwable items are yellow and one-use items are green, while items you store on your belt are blue and items you store on your back--like baseball bats and shotguns--are red. And yes, there are some funky gun executions added into the mix. Unfortunately, you're only able to carry a limited number of the aforementioned items, which forces you to make some tough choices. Some items will now play into your melee combat--for example, if you're holding a pen or a piece of glass, you'll do a bit more damage for a period of time (before it breaks).
The stealth and exploration components have been tweaked a good amount, too. You'll need to make your own shadows, as we saw in the Honey Pot level, which can be done by breaking light sources. One new wrinkle on hiding is that shadows are no longer a free ride. Whereas you could hide out indefinitely in the shadows in the original game, it's now possible for enemies to see you if you're not quick. A random system is being implemented to ensure that players are always on their toes. Enemies looking into shadowy areas now have a chance to spot you. In the event they do, you'll still have a chance to hide, thanks to a minigame where you have to quickly match onscreen controller prompts. If you do it fast enough, you'll remain hidden. If not, prepare for some melee. The new element in exploration we saw was a sequence where Daniel sneaks through an air duct, which switched to a first-person mode as he worked his way through the airways in the Honey Pot level.
The game's visuals are a bit jarring if you're used to the shiny polish of the new-generation consoles. That said, the game benefits from Rockstar's experience with the PlayStation 2 hardware. The work-in-progress version we saw moved smoothly and featured a smart use of special effects to once again create an unsettling atmosphere that matches its premise. Character models were angular and featured varying levels of detail, with Daniel having the most. The environments we saw popped, thanks to a vivid color palette that worked well at setting the game's tone. The game's lighting also impressed us, as it looks pretty ambitious coming from the PS2 platform. As with the previous game, Manhunt 2's story will unfold via cinematic flashbacks experienced by Daniel over the course of the game. Though far from done, the one we saw in our demo retained the shaky, documentary-style presentation that had a movie feel to it.
The audio in the game was still being tweaked, but what we heard was sounding good. As with the last game, audio is key to Manhunt 2's atmosphere, and it definitely sounds like Rockstar London is going in the right direction. The ambient sounds in the asylum and the brothel were nicely done, and the character speech was sounding good, too. The end result so far is a nicely unsettling sound mix that fits the action very well.
Based on what we saw, Manhunt 2 looks to be an interesting follow-up to the original game. The core gameplay that was so appealing is intact and expanded on in smart ways. The visuals, though not next gen, are stylish and nicely done for the platform. The story looks cool so far, with a crazy X-Files-esque conspiracy under the surface and some Jacob's Ladder "Am I insane?" touches thrown in for good measure. The game is slated to ship later this year for the PS2, PSP, and Wii. We weren't able to see the other versions, but reps on hand noted that the game content will be the same on all platforms. However, the Wii game will feature a new control scheme better suited to the Wii Remote and Nunchuk.