Very bloody and brutal. One of Rockstar's more infamous titles that despite it's content, is definitely worth a look.
The story is pretty straightforward. You play as James Earl Cash, a death-row inmate who has supposedly been executed by injection. However, he later wakes up to hear the voice of a man (later identified as Lionel Starkweather) who claims to have given Cash a second chance at life. After putting on an earpiece, Cash makes his way onto the violent streets of Carcer City and is ordered to kill the violent gang members and murderous thugs that roam the street, all for the sick purpose of the deranged Starkweather capturing footage of the brutality through security cameras and using it for a snuff film.
Manhunt's subject matter does not shy away from brutal violence. As said, you are forced to dispatch numerous enemies using an array of weapons such as plastic bags, glass shards, claw hammers, machetes and more. Hiding in the shadows prevents you from being seen by enemies, also giving you a chance to sneak up behind them and brutally execute them. The longer you hold, the more violent the execution is likely to be. Although the blood and gore effects are quite tame compared to many games today, they'll still likely be a shock to gamers who aren't used to this kind of stuff, especially with manner that blood splatters onto the screen. What makes the executions (as well as cutscenes) really stylish is the use of a grainy VHS filter to give the look of a trashy snuff movie. To put it simply, Manhunt is the video-game equivalent of a video-nasty.
The game is not just about stealth though. Sometimes you may find yourself in a melee brawl with either your fists or a weapon such as a baseball bat. Melee combat is not very easy, it's a total button mashing fest in fact. Fighting two enemies at once is not the best of ideas and likely to result in your death. The game later turns into somewhat of a third-person shooter when you'll have to use firearms to unleash your brutality against the relentless enemies. You'll be taking cover and blowing heads off with shotguns mainly. Although the shooting mechanic is somewhat flawed, it does make a great change as the stealth mechanic can get somewhat boring and repetitive after a while. Stealth seems to become less and less common as the game progresses.
Not only are you forced to kill in this game, but it also rewards you depending on how fast you complete and how brutal your executions are. Manhunt is not an easy game. Although there are useful checkpoints throughout levels, it is in fact quite hard to complete a level without at least dying once, especially in the shooting levels. You'll have a limited amount of health throughout and will often find yourself searching for painkillers in order to replenish it. The game is even more difficult on the Hardcore difficulty as you have no radar that indicates when enemies are nearby. It's not completely impossible, though it will require quite alot of patience and experience to complete. It may be one of the most challenging (and somewhat frustrating) games I've played.
Graphical wise, Manhunt obviously does look dated in today's age, but really good for the time. The atmosphere is very believable and well done. The various run-down locations of Carcer City have obviously been inspired by places such as Detroit, Michigan or Camden, New Jersey. You will roam around streets with dilapidated buildings, seedy abandoned zoos, malls, junkyards, subway tunnels and more. These various levels are accompanied by a very eerie synth-based soundtrack by Craig Conner that is resemblant of that heard in the 70s cult film The Warriors and 70s/80s John Carpenter flicks. The music goes with the environment perfectly, and reinforces the game's dark, gritty nature. I also really like how the music gets more intense with the more danger you are in.
When compared to Rockstar North's other games like GTA, Manhunt is extremely different in terms of gameplay. Although some mechanics feel similar, the game is exclusively linear and is played through "scenes" rather than missions you can choose to complete at any time you like. There are some references and reused models/textures from GTA games. You'll see some of the fictional brands, car models and even hear some sound effects. This all seems to imply that Manhunt is part of the GTA universe interestingly enough (or the 3D Era at least).
The characters in Manhunt aren't the game's highest point. Cash is not the most interesting protagonist as he is emotionless throughout most of the game and has very few speaking lines (similar to Claude from GTA III). However, he does seem to have a ruthless nature about him that does make him fun to play as. Starkweather (voiced by Brian Cox) is a very interesting villain that despite not being seen in person until the final mission, has a very sick, disturbed personality and evil tone of voice that make him a memorable antagonist.
Then we have Piggsy, one of the final bosses in the game who appears to be a very psychopathic fat guy who wears a pig's head as a mask and slaughters people with a chainsaw. He almost seems to be taken right out of a classic horror movie. The final level in which you battle him is extremely intense and heart-pounding, especially when he is chasing you down corridors while making squealing like a pig. You'll encounter other strange characters, such as a guy in a White Rabbit costume who tries to lure to your death and Starkweather's military right-hand man Ramirez.
As for the gang members you encounter, they have unique personalities and often spout funny comments while trying to search for you. These gangs are not very realistic and often exaggerated or horror movie versions of real-life street gangs. You have a gang of off-duty cops who also take part as thugs, a gang of neo-nazi skinheads who wear hockey masks, a gang of gun-touting war veterans (led by Ramirez), a gang of Latino gangbangers and satanists, and a gang that consist of murderers and serial killers who mostly wear smiley face masks.
Overall, Manhunt may be one of Rockstar's best PS2 games and is a must-play for fans of their other work or stealth games. It may be a bit hard to find a copy of in today's age due to the controversy and the game will likely turn off people who are disturbed by violent themes within games, though that is quite understandable. I also wouldn't recommend younger gamers to play unless they feel they are mature enough to handle this type of content. If you are used to it though and are a fan of Rockstar's other work then I definitely recommend you try it out.