The developer of Grand Theft Auto delivers its darkest, most violent game yet in Manhunt, a 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. Released a few months ago for the PlayStation 2, Manhunt is now available for the Xbox and PC, and while these new versions feature exactly the same content as the PS2 original, they deliver relatively superior graphical quality--and in the case of the PC version, improved controls. The game itself unflinchingly depicts intense graphic violence, the likes of which you might expect from a slasher movie but not so much from games. 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. It also does a 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, as well as the new Hitman: Contracts). Manhunt is also directly comparable to the Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell games, which, too, combine 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. Some aspects of the controls can take some getting used to, 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 nailgun) come into play later on in the game. In the Xbox version, you can fire the weapons using an auto-aim feature, much like in the GTA series. You can aim manually as well, and on the PC, you'll have to, though there's a useful ability allowing you to snap your aim onto the closest foe. 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, a downward tap of the Xbox controller's left analog stick or a slight shift of the mouse, 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.
Cash cannot crouch or lie prone. He cannot climb onto ledges or anything like that, either. The levels tend to be structured in a clear, linear fashion. Clearing one area gives you access to the next area. Occasionally, the level design may confuse you, like when there's an inconspicuous switch or other item you must use in the environment to proceed. Paying attention to the brief cutscenes prior to each sequence should keep you from straying off course, though. Besides all the stabbing and shooting, Manhunt's levels occasionally throw in a few twists, which give you other options besides just killing your enemies. Without spoiling these things, it's enough to say that the game's twists generally serve their purposes well by breaking up the basic action with a few interesting surprises.
The great variety of close-range weapons include knives, machetes, axes, police clubs, sickles, and more; all of these can be used to instantly kill a foe in three distinctly different ways, and each method is generally more brutal than the last. Pulling off these instant-kill moves is relatively easy--at least more so than in most stealth action games. Since the same exact technique is used for all weapons, they are all functionally identical, which is somewhat disappointing. Cash needs only to walk up behind an enemy who's unaware of his presence to finish him. When he's within a few feet of his next victim, you'll see Cash automatically raise his hand in preparation to strike with whichever close-combat weapon he has equipped. Pressing an attack button at this point will cause Cash to slay his enemy. Alternatively, pressing and holding an attack button allows you to delay your strike by a few seconds, thus charging up for something even nastier than usual. Starkweather prefers that you do it this way, though circumstances won't necessarily permit it. All the executions in Manhunt use a great-looking video filter effect--as though they're being played back in one of Starkweather's appalling movies--and are chock-full of blood (which tends to gush right onto the camera), gurgling noises, and pure shock value. The stylish, gory presentation of these sequences, combined with Manhunt's surprising assortment of weapons and three executions per weapon, means that you probably won't grow tired of seeing these despicable acts performed frequently throughout the game (that is, if you can stomach them in the first place).
Cash will face a variety of foes in Manhunt. Despite the fact that you'll find yourself being hunted by everything from thuggish gangsters to lunatics to SWAT teams to private armies, you'll notice that all these foes exhibit exactly the same sort of behavior. As mentioned, Manhunt is part stealth game and part shooter. During the stealthier levels, which comprise the majority of the game, the enemy AI delivers a rather convincing performance. At the standard difficulty setting (a harder setting is also available), a convenient onscreen radar-style display shows you if any enemies are lurking about, which way they're facing, and whether they're aware of your presence or not. Making noise in their vicinities or moving into their lines of sight will cause them to give chase or open fire if they're armed. Fortunately, Cash is a very fast runner, so you can usually lose your opponents around a couple of corners if you're spotted. As long as you stick to the shadows, your enemies should be unable to find you and will soon give up their searches in frustration. In so doing, though, they'll expose their backs to your weapons.
All the enemies in Manhunt are quite chatty, and there's a surprising amount of dialogue in the game. Suffice it to say that the rather lazy enemy behavior seems justified within the game, as most of the hired goons you'll face seem unable to understand the danger they're in. One noticeable issue with the AI is that your enemies won't care much if they see their dead comrades lying in heaps. Some will comment on their slain allies, but no one will raise any alarms or act any differently as a result--even if you throw one of their friend's heads into the fray.
The AI is much worse in the more action-oriented levels. Manhunt provides some highly intense shoot-outs, since the weapons in the game seem to pack such an incredible punch, but these levels are also rather difficult and can only be finished by exploiting some obvious weaknesses in the enemy behavior. Again, irrespective of whether you're fighting insane murderers or highly trained combat squads, you'll notice that all your enemies will either just hang back, taking potshots from behind cover, or they'll rush your position. Cash can flatten his back against a wall and spring out from around a corner to fire upon any nearby foes, and you'll need to use this technique to stack the bodies high. You'd think the fourth member of the SWAT team would be reluctant to rush your position when his three friends all got their heads blown apart trying to do the same thing. The smartest thing the enemies will do is occasionally try to flank you if you've hunkered down into a defensive position. One serious problem with the shooting action in Manhunt is that there are no explosives whatsoever (apart from a handful of exploding canisters for you to shoot). A real SWAT team, faced with an entrenched opponent, would surely flush him out by using grenades. Likewise, you'll find yourself in situations where you're required to advance on a group of enemies who are hiding behind cover. These situations can be maddeningly difficult when all you've got is a revolver to work with.
As you'd expect, once you've got your guns in hand, there's little need for stealthy killing. You get a ranking based on your performance in each mission, which loosely encourages you to take a stealthy approach as often as possible, but the bonuses for sneaking your way through the levels consist mostly of concept art. Manhunt's story consists of a linear sequence of 20 scenes that, provided you don't get too frustrated, you should be able to get through in an average length of time--say around 15 hours. Beyond that, there's the higher difficulty setting and a vague incentive to replay some of the missions, but you'll be so accustomed to the enemy AI by the time you finally finish Manhunt that it's unlikely you'll want to go back to the game, except to show it off to other people. With all that said, though, Manhunt isn't a short game--it probably could have been shorter, since, as mentioned, the game seems to run out of steam toward the end by putting you through one seemingly impossible shoot-out after another. Even as the difficulty ramps up, the painkillers become harder to find, and the midlevel checkpoints (from which you restart if you're killed) seem much farther apart. Consequently, some of the challenge feels rather artificial, though this is, by all means, a tough game.
It's a great-looking game as well, though you wouldn't know it from looking at the screenshots. In fact, the grainy, washed-out look of the game is carefully contrived and is perfectly suited to the dark subject matter. Manhunt uses the most up-to-date version of the same technology that gives the latest Grand Theft Auto games their distinctive looks, and, while there are no wide-open city streets or drivable vehicles to be found here, what you do get are some starkly realistic environments and some good-looking character models. The enemies you'll face are bizarre and pretty creepy. The dilapidated buildings you'll fight your way through are even creepier. And, as mentioned, the cinematic executions are the star of the show. Not all aspects of Manhunt's presentation are so over-the-top. The game makes impressive use of realistic physics here and there. Most notably, you'll see some hanged bodies in some of the game's more disturbing levels, which will dangle lifelessly if pushed. You can also slam open doors with satisfying results, either by running straight into them, kicking them open, or shooting them. Not everything about Manhunt looks outstanding, though. For instance, in many of the levels, rats can be seen scurrying about, and they look pretty phony. Overall, the game does look very impressive, especially on a high-end PC. The Xbox version looks better than the PS2 original, though it suffers a few slight frame rate drops here and there. As an added measure, Manhunt provides support for widescreen, high-resolution displays for those who seek superior picture quality.
Audio is a vital aspect of any stealth action game, and Manhunt really delivers in this respect. The executions sound as sickening as they look. Gunshots ring terribly loud and clear. An ambient soundtrack, seemingly styled after the suspenseful, synthesized music of John Carpenter's movies, builds in layers, adding tension to the situation as you move closer and closer to danger. You'll hear Cash's heart beating in his chest all the while. The voice work in Manhunt is of universally high quality as well. It happens to be laced with profanity, which doesn't seem in any way out of place in the context of the game. The characters' lines are delivered with real conviction, thus giving all the foes you'll face some real depth. You'll rarely hear Cash speak, but Brian Cox, as Starkweather, provides a truly outstanding performance that makes this evil character also seem strangely charismatic. At times, you'll almost feel convinced that he's on your side.
Manhunt is an audacious game that backs up its extremely violent subject matter with solid stealth action gameplay. Subsequent games in this vein could stand to learn a thing or two from how Manhunt successfully provides all the tension and grim satisfaction that this style of gaming can offer but does so without so much of the sluggish pacing and trial-and-error tedium that hurts other games of this type. On the other hand, the shooting sequences do feel a little stripped-down and are rather overbearing, but the incredibly visceral action, coupled with the game's impressive graphics and sound, makes even these sequences relatively good. Obviously, Manhunt isn't for the faint of heart. Like it or not, the game pushes the envelope of video game violence and shows you countless scenes of wholly uncensored, heavily stylized carnage.