With the death of the Dreamcast now a distant memory, there are still little reminders of the console's life lingering about. Many consider the announcement of Shenmue II for the Xbox the final nail in the Dreamcast's coffin, but most forget Sega's answer to the Syphon Filters and Metal Gear Solids of the industry: Headhunter. Upholding its tradition of quick-and-dirty Sega ports, Acclaim has repurposed the Headhunter code from the Dreamcast to the PlayStation 2. And while the game has not been improved at all from a graphical perspective, its gameplay has certainly stood the test of time.
Set in the not-too-distant future, Headhunter follows a bounty hunter named Jack Wade as he attempts to remember his past after waking up in a hospital with a wicked case of amnesia and a pink slip from his employer. Before his memory was wiped away, Wade was one of the world's most celebrated bounty hunters and the reigning champion of a bounty hunter league. But just as he awakens the president of the ACN (Anti Crime Network), the privatized police force of the era, is murdered. The president's daughter, looking for answers, hires Wade to find the killers and bring them to justice. Figuring it's the perfect opportunity to get back into the good graces of his superiors and rediscover his abilities, Jack takes the job. Featuring several plot twists before the final act, the story in Headhunter will keep you on your toes without straying too far outside the bounds of probability.
The gameplay in Headhunter borrows heavily from several other games in the genre but still manages to find its own niche. There are two primary gameplay types: action stages and motorcycle stages. The action stages follow Wade from a third-person perspective as he attempts to get to the bottom of the case. Using force isn't always the answer, however, and Jack has a wide range of stealth abilities at his disposal. Much like Metal Gear Solid, Headhunter features a radar that shows Jack the location of enemies and the direction they're facing to aid him in his stealthy pursuits. Once they're facing the right direction, Jack can sneak up behind them and break their necks. He can also throw empty shell casings to lure them to a safe area where they can be dealt with. But stealth kills can be more difficult than they should be because snapping an enemy's neck from behind requires the same controller input as shooting weapons. Many times you'll run up behind an enemy only to pull your gun instead of grabbing him by the throat and giving it a twist.
But stealth is just a small part of Headhunter's gameplay, and the majority of times you'll be using projectile weapons to take out enemies from afar. When doing so, Headhunter plays nearly identically to Koei's WinBack. You must hide behind boxes, only popping up to bust off a few caps before retreating back to safety. Jack can also shimmy along walls, peek around corners, pop out to squeeze off a few rounds, and roll to evade incoming fire. This style of gameplay dominates the game, and if you had problems coming to grips with WinBack's controls, you'll have the same problems playing Headhunter. Thankfully, there's a training mode that can be skipped if you choose, but even if you decide not to enter training, you'll be forced to upgrade Jack's bounty hunter license throughout the game via virtual training missions. The virtual missions can sometimes be more difficult than progressing through the real game, but completing them awards Jack with new weapons and equipment to take on his upcoming missions.
Speaking of which, proximity mines, grenades, pistols, shotguns, machine guns, and missile launchers are all at your disposal. But damaging human organs is against the law in Headhunter, so these weapons are fitted with special ammunition that marks each kill for the respective bounty hunter and also disables the victim's brain so that the organs inside the body can still be harvested. The special ammunition results in bloodless kills, though there are several points in the game where the red stuff is plentiful. In addition to the brain-disabling weapons used constantly throughout the game, there are also weapons that can be used to simply stun enemies. These weapons come in handy when you're negotiating environments filled with friendly soldiers who do not recognize Wade as an ally.
The puzzles in Headhunter are oddly reminiscent of those found in Capcom's Resident Evil games. There's a lot of item collecting to be done, and it often involves a great deal of backtracking. You'll often find a new item in one portion of a building and will have to take it to an entirely different location to use it. It makes it necessary to search every nook and cranny of each room because items do not stand out against the background graphics enough to be noticeable. While there are nowhere near as many items to collect as in the average survival horror game, there are still times where you'll have a few items and have no idea where to use them. In another nod to the Resident Evil series, there are several instances where you'll have to push boxes around to solve puzzles. As long as you find the items to solve them, the puzzles are usually straightforward. There are a few points in the game where you'll be scratching your head, but anyone who enjoys the kind of puzzles found in Resident Evil games will be right at home playing Headhunter.
The second primary form of gameplay takes place on Wade's motorcycle as he ventures from one location to another. Just like in the action stages of the game, you'll have to pass license tests on the motorcycle as well. In order to receive your new license, you need to accumulate a set number of riding points that are awarded for driving through the environments above a specific rate of speed. However, the motorcycle license tests are much easier than the action training and they become little more than an annoyance as the game wears on--especially when you find a hidden area that allows you to roll up the points without worry. Riding the bike is difficult at first, and you can only dismount when it's parked outside a building that's pertinent to the mission. But once the thrill of riding the bike at high speeds has worn off, it simply becomes an annoying formality. In some of the later stages of the game you'll have to race from one location to another while going up against a timer, but objectives such as this are few and far between.
The gameplay in Headhunter is a hybrid of that found in Metal Gear Solid, WinBack, Resident Evil, and, to an extent, Grand Theft Auto III. And somehow, it all manages to come together into one cohesive experience. The motorcycle riding portions of the game are predominantly pointless and the puzzles leave a bit to be desired, but the visceral quality of the gunfights and the contrasting style of the stealth kills helps to even things out a bit. It should also be mentioned that the camera has a tendency to get hung up on walls occasionally, but for anyone who has played the Dreamcast version of the game, this is one area that has been slightly improved.
As previously mentioned, Headhunter started as a Dreamcast game. It was also one of the most graphically advanced Dreamcast games ever created. But that's no excuse for not making any improvements for the PlayStation 2 iteration. The same issues that plagued the Dreamcast version are present in the PS2 version, but the small touches that once were something to be proud of on Sega's console are now yesterday's news. Jittery, blurry, and washed-out textures permeate the entire game's landscape, and the character models are constructed of a low number of polygons. During the motorcycle stages, the cars driving around the urban environments will use their turn signals before turning and obey traffic laws, but there's not a single person walking down the sidewalks. Perhaps this was done to flesh out the postapocalyptic setting, but in the end it makes the environments seem empty and lifeless. Making matters worse, during the motorcycle stages, nasty draw-in rears its ugly head.
Indoors there are plenty of objects reused throughout the game, and the texture variety is below PlayStation 2 standards. Other small details found in most other high-profile PlayStation 2 games--such as real-time facial animation, real-time lighting, and reflections--are completely absent. Thankfully, the sacrifice in the graphics department allows the game to run at a smooth frame rate throughout, and there are a few nice touches such as rain pelting off Jack's shoulders during one particular boss fight. But graphical niceties such as these are rare. Also, if you're not a fan of watching your video games, Headhunter may not be for you. It's chock-full of full motion video that moves the plot forward, but the graphics aren't that far above what can be done in real time on any of the three present consoles. In all, Headhunter looks like an impressive Dreamcast game but is visually average when compared with other recent games for the PlayStation 2.
Unlike the graphics, the voice acting in Headhunter is unquestionably strong, and Jack Wade's voice is a dead ringer for the voice of Solid Snake of Metal Gear Solid fame. It's obvious that Sega was going for the same type of hero when it created the character, but you'd think that it could have been a bit more original. The game's soundtrack consists of a variety of military themes, with some rousing orchestral compositions thrown in for good measure. Captions are included for the hearing impaired or for those who would prefer to skip the dialogue, but don't expect Dolby Digital or even Pro Logic II sound output.
If you're looking for a fun action game for your PlayStation 2 to fill the void between big releases, Headhunter fits the bill nicely. With two endings, multiple playable characters, and around 15 hours of gameplay time, Headhunter will be hard to finish during a rental period. Its graphics fall short of the best the console has to offer, but its blend of action, stealth, and driving manages to keep things interesting throughout.