Manhunt Preview

We get a look at Rockstar's upcoming action game for the PlayStation 2.

Manhunt is Rockstar games' upcoming action title for the PlayStation 2. The game is being developed by a team within Rockstar North, the studio whose recent claims to fame--Grand Theft Auto III and Grand Theft Auto III: Vice City--have done pretty well for the company. However, while it would be a no-brainer to crank out a game that doesn't stray too far from the formula that has catapulted Rockstar North into the limelight, Manhunt is anything but GTA 1.5. Manhunt serves up a disturbing blend of third-person stealth action that's equal parts Splinter Cell, Tenchu, and, because Rockstar loves its disturbing influences, snuff film. We took a look at some of the game and are intrigued by what we've seen.

No, Manhunt is not rated E.

Manhunt's story is a grim one, and it does a fine job of preparing you for what to expect from the game. You play as a death row inmate named James Earl Cash who, when you first get a glimpse of him in the game's opening cutscene, doesn't appear to have lot of time left in this world. You're brought up to speed on the events unfolding before you by a female journalist whose narration provides the context for the impending execution. Now, as you'd expect--since you're playing as Cash--Manhunt is neither the world's shortest game nor is it set in the afterlife. Despite the fact that Cash does, in fact, appear to die from lethal injection, he is spared from death by a shadowy figure who addresses him as he regains consciousness in a dark room while lying on a gurney. Disoriented and out of sorts from his recent experiences, Cash is a little fuzzy on what the hell is going on--much like you. His mysterious savior is a little vague on the specifics but does offer some information that makes Cash's survival a bit of a mixed blessing. It seems the mysterious one didn't actually save Cash for any humanitarian reasons; his motivations were entirely selfish. It seems he is in the market for some entertainment and has chosen Cash to fill that void. The mysterious man has set up a disturbing sandbox for Cash to play in: a city customized to his specifications and chock-full of individuals who are at least as troubled as our boy Cash. What does this mean for our recently saved inmate? A world of trouble and pain, of course. However, it also spells out sadistic fun for players.

You get to meet--and brutally kill--some very interesting people.

Your basic goal in Manhunt, once you've finally taken control of Cash, is to survive. Unfortunately, your survival is complicated due to the omnipresent stranger who dropped you into this twisted situation. The macabre city he's created is wired to the hilt with video cameras and other high-tech gadgets that let him track your every move. He'll also taunt you, via an earpiece you'll be wearing, when you start your troubling adventure. Apparently, the voyeuristic weirdo has a "thing" for disturbing video and is hell-bent on ensuring that you provide him with what he wants--hence his request to be addressed as "Director." To that end, he will offer you some direction on how to survive, not that you'll need many pointers (it's not like Cash was on death row for a speeding ticket). However, his twisted pointers are helpful in their own way, as he's basically directing you in his own personal snuff film.

Snuff film? For those who aren't familiar with that particular form of entertainment, here's a brief primer. Snuff films are a phenomenon that first came to public attention in the 1970s. These short films were ostensibly directed by amateurs who captured real-life graphic acts of violence that resulted in death. More recently, the concept has made it into mainstream entertainment with the big-screen release of the Joel Schumacher-directed 8MM, starring Nicholas Cage. It's best to think of these flicks as home movies where your relatives do unsightly things to one another and one of them winds up dead.

This probably won't end up on America's Funniest Home Videos unless they really change their submission criteria.

Rockstar North has managed to marry unspeakable acts with conventional elements to create Manhunt's gameplay. The game's core structure follows a fairly conventional linear model that's broken up into "scenes." Each scene sends you exploring and killing through dilapidated environments as you work to meet whatever requirements you need to proceed. More often than not, your main goal is to find a way to the next area. While killing plays some part in the time you spend in a level, you also have to use your brain as well. You'll encounter puzzles that require you to find items to access new areas. For example, at one point you have to find a crowbar so you can break through a locked gate. Other puzzles involve, not surprisingly, killing. For instance, you have to "MacGyver" yourself a way to take out a group of armed foes during one level. (The easiest solution here is to separate the group members from one another and kill them off one by one.)

As for the details on how you kill... We'll say that the Rockstar North team certainly has some twisted, albeit vivid, imaginations. You simply sneak up on an enemy and target them with whatever weapon you have handy. The cursor on your foe changes colors, depending on how long you're behind your prey. When you sneak up behind them you're able to start a kill. Manhunt offers you three separate levels of kills--to match your sadistic whims--as you go through the game. When you get behind your intended victim, Cash's hand raises and an onscreen arrow appears. The arrow 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 arrow. Kills performed when the arrow is white, which can be done immediately, are hasty executions. Kills performed when the arrow turns yellow, after a few seconds of standing behind your victim, are called violent executions. Finally, if you wait for the arrow to turn red, after six seconds or so, you're able to perform a gruesome execution. The actual kills are canned animations that kick in once they're triggered. This is done to accommodate the cinematic camera switch that occurs in the game when you're going about your dirty business. The switch is more than just for show, as your insane director is, of course, taping the whole shebang. Rockstar reps have stated that there will be some reward for players who skillfully go about their executing, although they wouldn't elaborate.

Manhunt features an exceptionally creepy atmosphere.

Your killing implements come in four handy color-coded classes. Throwable items, such as bottles, are yellow. One-use items, like plastic bags that can be used to suffocate your enemies, are green. Items you store on your belt, like pistols, Uzis, crowbars, and blackjacks, are blue. Finally, larger items you can store on your back, like baseball bats and shotguns, are red. Unfortunately, you're only able to carry a limited number of the aforementioned items, which forces you to think before you eviscerate.

The act of killing is tied directly to Manhunt's stealth-gameplay elements, which force you to make like you're walking on rice paper as you negotiate your way through the various scenes. Sound is one of the most important elements in Manhunt as it will let you know where your foes and prey are. The catch is that the in-game radar only reacts to sound. This means that it only shows you enemies who are moving around in a noisy fashion. As a result, you shouldn't get too comfortable with what the radar is displaying as you could run into a heavily armed foe who's simply being quiet. This, of course, could have some unpleasant results. While this puts you at a bit of a disadvantage, you can make the constraint work in your favor. Since the enemies you face react to sound, you can use throwable items or noisy terrain to your advantage. In some cases you'll also have to rely on one-use items, like the plastic bag, to finish off foes without letting the world know you're killing someone. At the same time, you also have to "sweat" being seen and must stick to the shadows to avoid being discovered and marked for death.

Death can be cinematic.

The graphics are a departure from the brightly colored expansive environments of Grand Theft Auto III and Vice City. At first blush, Manhunt's graphics may appear to be far less ambitious than its cousins' graphics. However, you'll find that the opposite is true once you spend some time poking around the game's environments. The decidedly cramped atmosphere has afforded the development team more room to play with its polygon budget, and it's kept them from falling back on the now-familiar bag of visual tricks seen in the GTA games. While Manhunt's claustrophobic setting and eerie atmosphere were created using the latest Renderware tools, the game doesn't share a whole lot in common with its predecessors. The tightly constructed environments feature a higher level of detail and some impressive lighting effects. The character models in the game feature clean, unsettling detail that is underscored by creepy character design. The various execution animations live up to the three tiers of killing. Hasty executions are fast and unsettling, while violent executions are slower and pretty gross. As you'd expect, the gruesome executions are suitably unsettling and should creep out those with weak constitutions. The various camera angles do a fine job of balancing cinematic angles with functional views for you to go about your business.

The audio is an impressive collection of simple music tracks and ambient effects that paint a very subtle but sharp picture of the dark world you're going through. Based on what we've heard so far, the game's soundtrack features a minimalist approach, relying mostly on sparse synthesizer pieces. The music tracks linger in the background, for the most part, dynamically coming to the foreground only to underscore the latest sequence of disturbing action as you play. The music bits we heard called to mind the spare approach taken by Tangerine Dream and the soundtrack from John Carpenter's Escape from New York. The jittery tracks are a nice underscore that help set the game's tone perfectly. The other impressive aural component that contributes to the game's atmosphere is the plethora of ambient audio effects--ably piped out in Dolby Pro Logic --that do a fine job of keeping you informed as to what's going on in your environment. They also keep you unnerved at the same time. You'll hear the wind, the rustling of paper, and disturbing chatter from the assemblage of freaks who are out to gut you. Thanks to some impressive layering in the audio, you'll hear all of the above spread out around you, which should keep you good and paranoid as you make your way through the game.

Don't you hate it when you're pulled into a deadly game of cat and mouse?

From what we've seen so far, Manhunt should offer a decidedly different experience than Rockstar is known for. The change of pace appears to be a promising one and should be a fresh take on the now-heavily-trafficked stealth action genre. Whether or not it can manage to offer a compelling enough experience to set it apart from the long shadow cast by its predecessors remains to be seen. So far, though, Manhunt is shaping up to be a disturbing and unique game in its own right. It should definitely be worth a look, provided you're not easily unsettled or have an aversion to blood. Manhunt is currently slated to ship next month for the PlayStation 2.

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