Manhunt is an audacious game that backs up its extremely violent subject matter with solid stealth action gameplay.
The developer of Grand Theft Auto delivers its darkest, most violent game yet in Manhunt, an original third-person perspective stealth action game that puts you in the role of a death row inmate forced to run a deadly gauntlet at the whim of a sadistic cinematographer. The game unflinchingly depicts intense graphic violence, the likes of which you might expect from a slasher movie but not from your PlayStation 2. However, these grisly scenes are done up in style, as Manhunt has a real cinematic flair to it--not to mention a suffocating atmosphere that perfectly fits the theme. The game also does a much better job of incorporating stealth mechanics than most other such games, though the latter portion of Manhunt devolves into a nearly continuous, mind-numbing series of shoot-outs. Nonetheless, those wondering whether Scotland-based Rockstar North is capable of putting together something remarkable that doesn't have "Grand Theft Auto" in the title, need wonder no more. Manhunt is seriously intense, and anyone with a stomach for the game's concept ought to find it fiendishly entertaining.
There's no reason to like the main character of Manhunt. Debates over the ethics of the death penalty aside, at the beginning of the game, James Earl Cash is presumably about to be put to death--and with good reason. Something happens, however. The "lethal" injection he's administered merely knocks him out. He later comes to and finds himself alone in a cell with an earpiece nearby. He puts it on, and this is how Cash meets Lionel Starkweather. Starkweather presents himself as Cash's savior and promises the man his freedom...after he performs a few key tasks. From this point on, Cash is thrust into a series of levels, called "scenes" in the game, during which he is hunted by ruthless thugs and must make use of any weapon he can find to dispatch of them--or else die trying. All this happens to Starkweather's great delight. You see, Starkweather makes "snuff films" and captures on video the bloody executions conducted by people like Cash. Cash, it seems, is Starkweather's latest leading man. The rather original storyline is very intriguing at first but doesn't really take off. As a result, it proceeds in predictable directions and essentially just acts as a setup for Cash so that he can be thrust from one hopeless situation into another.
The premise of Manhunt is actually highly reminiscent of the original Hitman: Codename 47, and, indeed, the game's combination of stealthy surprise attacks and full-bore shooting action is also similar to that game (and its superior sequel). Manhunt is also directly comparable to Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell, which, too, combines stealth and shooting, though not with such gory results as the kind you'll find here. By now, most gamers have experienced stealth gameplay before. Some enjoy the tension and suspense that this style of gaming is uniquely capable of providing. Others don't have the patience for the sort of trial-and-error approach that most stealth-based games boil down to. Ultimately, Manhunt won't change most people's minds about whether they like stealth games or not. Yes, it can be highly suspenseful, and, yes, it can get quite frustrating at times--especially in the later scenes. But, for what it's worth, the game does handle certain aspects of the stealth action formula remarkably well. The game's control scheme does have a few issues you'll learn to get over (mostly with the camera controls, since there's no simple way to snap the camera back to the default behind-the-back-perspective), but the core mechanics are great.
Though there aren't many legitimate comparisons to be drawn between Manhunt and the latest Grand Theft Auto games, it does have certain mechanical similarities to Rockstar North's previous work that should give you a good frame of reference. Those experienced with GTA III or Vice City won't have any problems getting started with Manhunt, especially since Starkweather will conveniently walk you through the basics when you first begin play. As far as specific points of comparison, Manhunt's hand-to-hand combat system is basically a crude, button-mashing affair, just like in GTA. There are a couple of additional moves; however, you'll rarely need or want to get into a head-on brawl in this game. Guns (including pistols, shotguns, submachine guns, assault rifles, and even a nail gun) come into play later on in the game, and you can fire them using an auto-aim feature, much like in the GTA series (though you can aim manually as well). As if to encourage brutal, close-quarters shoot-outs, Cash will automatically target his foes' heads if you lock onto them from a short distance away. From medium range, an upward tap of the left analog stick, while locked-on, will likewise cause Cash to raise his sights to the opponent's most vital region. Of course, he has perfect aim. Cash, himself, can take a number of hits before dying and will never show any real signs of fatigue or injury (except for the cuts and bruises you'll see on his body when he's particularly hurt). In a nod to Max Payne, you recover health in Manhunt by finding painkillers, which instantly restore large portions of your health on the spot.
Like any stealthy video game character, James Earl Cash can become virtually invisible by standing in shadows. A context-sensitive onscreen icon, shaped like a silhouette of Cash, turns blue when he's in shadows, though you'll also quickly learn to identify the dark, shadowy areas you can hide in just at a glance. This contextual icon is quite useful, in general. It points out when you can, for instance, pick up a dead body and move it someplace. Additionally, it points out when you can use a crowbar to pry open a lock; kick a garbage can to cause a diversion; press your back flat against a wall; or instantly kill an unsuspecting foe. Cash may carry several different weapons at once, but only one of each category. His bare fists are always available, though Cash is capable of carrying a large weapon (like a shotgun or a baseball bat), a smaller weapon (like a hammer or a revolver), a single-use weapon (like a plastic bag or a glass shard), and an object for throwing (like an empty bottle or the dismembered head of one of Cash's victims). You can quickly cycle through your weapons, and many missions revolve around trying to find better weapons than the little ones you start with. You are also able to sprint, which is noisy and alerts nearby foes, though Cash's default walking speed leaves him completely inaudible to his foes, unless he steps on some loose gravel or something to that effect.