STAFF REVIEW of Manhunt (Xbox)

Monday, May 3, 2004.
by Stacy Code

Manhunt Box art I\'m sitting on the sofa playing Manhunt when Mark gets home.
\"What\'s this?\" he asks me.
\"It\'s the new game from those guys who did Grand Theft Auto. See, the engine looks sort of the same - it\'s third-person, big levels, roomy. Definitely from the Grand Theft Auto guys - look at the way the guy runs and all. And when I pick up a powerup or a weapon it makes that same funny noise.\", he said. \"So? when do you get into a car and drive somewhere?\"
\"You don\'t,\" I answered. \"That\'s the point. You run around and attack these guys on foot. It\'s up close and personal. Hey, watch this - I\'m about to do a level three execution on this guy with a crowbar.\"
I watch Mark\'s face as the animation plays through. My character onscreen swung the wrecking bar into the bad guy\'s neck where it got stuck, then braced his foot on the thug\'s shoulder and wrenched the weapon out with a noisy wet crunch.
Mark winces. \"That was NOT cool. Did you HEAR that sound?\"
I started laughing. Playing this game was like watching Jackass: The Movie - ten times funnier when you did it with an audience and saw their reaction.
\"Yeah, this whole game is chock-full of sick stuff like that. If playing Viewtiful Joe is getting J-Lo to follow you back to a hotel room after the prom and profess her undying love for you, Manhunt\'s like getting that twenty dollar hooker in behind the 7-11 and then finding out you can do all kinds of crazy stuff with your wingwang you never thought you\'d get to do in your lifetime. I mean, technically, they\'re both very memorable experiences, but definitely of a different caliber.\"
Mark watched me play some more. \"So? is there, like, a story or something? Who is this guy? Why\'s he killing everyone?\"
I kept on playing. \"You remember the opening of Hitman, when that creepy German doctor was coming over the intercom and goading you into doing stuff? They took that and made it into a whole game. You put this headset on and listen to some twisted snuff film director give you mad props in your eardrum while you mutilate these thugs just to stay alive. Early on in the game, it\'s all about sneaking and stealth. It\'s a lot like Hitman, actually. Later in the game you get all kinds of wicked weapons and you get to go Rambo, but right now it\'s about the stealthy approach. You step out of dark stairwells and work people over with a piece of broken window glass.\"
Mark frowned. \"I dunno, man,\" he said, \"it\'s definitely something new, it\'s definitely mature, but I don\'t know as this is necessarily the direction I want to see my chosen hobby evolve.\"
\"No way, man, this is great,\" I said. \"It\'s like an interactive version of the opening credits of Se7en! Look at all the crazy lighting and graphical effects they\'ve done with the Renderware engine. Renderware\'s usually pretty fugly. This is sexy. It\'s like the guys who animated Southpark went and pulled off Princess Mononoke. Great stuff. Look at this abandoned tenement, here. It looks like the kind of crappy dive people would kill each other in.\"
I played it a while longer, neither of us saying much except for a groan or a wince whenever a particularly brutal execution took place. Mark continued to watch in spite of himself. \"See?\" I told him. \"This really grows on you in a hurry. Every time I get a new weapon I\'m itching to try it out on some thugs. You get three different animations for every kill you do, depending on how long you \'charge\' up the attack. So being stealthy pays off big, because you have more time to get the really nasty attacks readied up. Except the machete, man. I love that one. You get a decapitation every single time no matter what. It\'s like the prize in a box of pink candy corn. Decapitation, every time!\" I laughed.

We kept playing. \"You know,\" he asked me, \"the interface for combat in Grand Theft was kind of awkward. I mean, you had to do all that weird target locking stuff with the triggers and the camera was a pain. You\'d be all shot to hell before you even got to look at the guy attacking you. How does this play?\"
\"Oh, much better, man,\" I answered. \"They\'ve really changed up the control scheme. You can strafe easily, there\'s two buttons for it OR you can use the stick while you\'re \'locked\' on a guy. See, when I come up behind him, how the crosshairs lock on this punk\'s head? If I stay hidden I can charge up my attack by holding the button down. If I make a noise or he sees me it turns into a fight, and it\'s going to get ugly, more so if his buddies come running. But if he doesn\'t spot me, you can do one of three execution-style killings, like this.\"
Onscreen my character sawed a piece of wire back and forth around a thug\'s neck. The thug gurgled, choking on blood, and then slumped, his head falling in a different direction from his body. I picked up the severed head and carried it in my free hand.
\"You see this, man? I\'m carrying his HEAD around! I\'m going to wing it at one of these guys! Check it out! I\'m going to bean this guy in the head with a head!\" Onscreen, James hurled the head at a passing thug. It smacked the enemy with a loud thud and he shrieked profanity, running at me like a seriously ticked linebacker.
\"So, who are these guys?\" Mark asked me. \"I know who YOU are, you\'re some guy sprung from death row to star in a snuff film. But who are all these jokers you\'re cutting down? Who the hell are they?\"
\"Uh, I don\'t know, they\'re, like, gangs and stuff,\" I answer. \"You know. White supremacists and stuff. That sort of makes them like Nazis. It\'s okay to kill Nazis, right? They\'re bad. You\'re supposed to kill thh huh. Right,\" Mark answered. \"You know, this raises some really interesting moral questions. Like, obviously, a snuff movie is very, very wrong. Is it any less wrong to enjoy a video game simulation of one? Like, watching a hentai animation of rape or something. Yes, no one got really hurt, but what does it say about the viewer and his taste? Should something like this exist in the first place?\"

I don\'t know man, but I said, this game really grows on you. This is what the Insane Clown Posse video game SHOULD have been, man. I stab people. I stab people all OVER the place.\" I chuckled as the onscreen character, James Earl Cash, smashed a thug\'s head with a ball bat after a hefty swing. Skull chunks spatter against the camera. \"FORE!\" I shouted.
\"I mean, think about it. Look at the way you\'re killing these people,\" Mark said. \"Can you imagine if your victims were, say, women? Or ethnic minorities? I mean, just imagine the outcry, the kind of response it would generate if you stepped out of a stairwell and stabbed a woman to death with a piece of window glass, or beat a black guy to death with that crowbar. This game would get destroyed. Are we saying it\'s all right because you\'re killing dumb redneck white supremacists? What is this saying?\"
\"I dunno, man,\" I answered, taking a swig from my coffee. \"But I can\'t stop playing it. I don\'t know what it is. I just need to SEE what\'s going to happen next. I mean, hell, do I get to kill people with a weedwhacker? Can I execute some punk with a screwdriver next? This is wild.\"

Manhunt, Rockstar North\'s autumn PS2 release, is now available on the Xbox and sports a few new enhancements as well as a general shot in the arm in terms of graphical quality. A third-person action game, it has a visual style and animation style that veterans of the last two Grand Theft Auto games will find comfortably familiar - the engine has been significantly enhanced since its last use, though, and where it looked impressive on the Playstation, it really gets to stretch its legs and show off on the Xbox. Textures are gorgeous and gritty, the lighting is well done and moody, with streetlamps and overhead bulbs casting stark shadows and giving a rich contrast to the look of the game. One minor complaint is the slight static or gritty filter applied to the onscreen image (and no, it wasn\'t signal noise on the video line, because it freezes when you pause the action) presumably to give a grainy video-feed look but frankly it just washes out the look of the level and weakens the graphical impact. Fortunately, you can turn it off which really cleans up the look of the graphics, but you\'ll have to go into the options menu to disable it. It reminds me of that old cinematographer\'s trick where you hid bad effects in your movie by smearing Vaseline on the camera lens, and to the game\'s credit it\'s pretty enough that it doesn\'t need that kind of visual filter in place. In the plus column, onscreen executions are carried out in a cutscene shot through a video camera lens, with scratchy visual artifacts, onscreen tape counter, and realistic camera shake, so you will find yourself marveling at your own killer style.

The sound and music are heavy. For starters, if you play with your Xbox communicator headset on, it\'s more immersive, as the film director responsible for you being in these situations will prompt you through your earpiece, goading you on when you lag behind and yelling enthusiastically when you lay into someone with a weapon. You can also shout at onscreen characters and they\'ll hear you, with the range of your shout being visible on the corner radar. It\'s fun to shout profanities right back at the searching enemies, seeing them get visibly upset when they can\'t find you but they can hear you.
The sound effects for the weapon attacks is nothing short of horrific, and I mean that in a positive way. It\'s genuinely hard to listen to some of the attacks, as the sound of the weapon\'s damage is more unpleasant than the actual image of the attack being done. The strongest example would be the sound of the hooked end of a wrecking bar being extracted from some poor slob\'s neck after you\'ve stuck it in there a bit too forcibly. The music isn\'t spectacularly noteworthy and largely takes a backseat to the violence - moody suspense tracks when you\'re being stalked, slightly more agitated \'danger\' music when you\'re fighting - the game might have seriously benefited from some licensed rock tracks from some hairspray metal bands; getting your killin\' on to Quiet Riot or Judas Priest might have been seriously, seriously cool. Even custom soundtracks would have been a benefit here, and I\'m sure it wouldn\'t have been difficult to implement. Come on, Rockstar, you know what we want.
Another point to mention is enemy dialogue - there is a TON of heavy, hardcore profanity in this one, so Mom better leave it on the shelf if she doesn\'t want little Jimmy getting corrupted by thirty f-bombs a minute. In some ways the game tries a little TOO hard in that respect - sometimes the onscreen enemies sound like they\'re \"F**K THIS\" and \"F**K THAT\"-ing their way through everyday conversation because they know they won\'t get grounded for it at summer camp. I mean, I like the way the characters feel free to swear, but I was far more impressed hearing the one guard mumbling about how he thought his girlfriend was home banging some other guy. Rockstar, take some cues from Elmore Leonard and Quentin Tarantino. Bad guys don\'t just say \'f**k\' all the time. Sometimes they talk about eggs benedict and the Maxim covergirl and the Lakers score. Overall, though, the soundscape of this game is as dark, gritty, and violent as the onscreen action, and truly enhances the immersion in this unpleasant game world.

In all, the gameplay is solid. There\'s a decent variety of mission objectives above the standard \'lure enemy, chop head off\' gameplay mechanic, such as escort missions (\"Drunk Driving\", where you babysit a wino through a churchyard full of psychotics is a funny one) and rescue or protective-style missions. The mechanics initially focus on stealth heavily and you will likely find yourself replaying levels or \'scenes\' repeatedly, as you are rated on the completion of the level with grades on how many stealthy executions you made, how violent they were, and how quickly you completed the level. The levels aren\'t completely linear, and although you move along a set path of objectives, the means through which you move through the level allow for some improvisation. You\'ll find yourself luring individual enemies away from pairs or groups, attempting to isolate them so you can take the time to execute them more brutally. A favorite schtick of mine in the sixth mission was whistling at enemies to taunt them on, then luring them back into a washroom cubicle where they got stacked like wood after decapitating them in the door with a machete.
The control scheme is comfortable, borrowing from GTA but with significant enhancements more appropriate to a game on foot. Camera control is slaved to the onscreen character but a freelook-view can be engaged at any point, and more moves are available to the character that are better suited to a stealthy kind of play, like sliding along a wall, crouching, and ducking.

In the end, this is an action game that is reasonably solid but earns most of its press hype through its questionable subject matter and level of violence. There isn\'t a lot of story here, but I don\'t think anyone came out for the story. It\'s a good, visceral action game with a lot of graphical \'moments\' that you\'ll likely find yourself telling your friends about, and it\'s lengthy enough that you\'ll probably lose a fair amount of the shock value by the time you reach the end, whereupon you\'ll see that Manhunt is a good action game, definitely a week well spent, but it\'s not going to revolutionize the industry. Play it if your stomach is strong and you\'re not easily offended; if you\'re feeling jaded about carjacking in Liberty City, maybe this is exactly what you need.

Overall: 8.0 / 10
Gameplay: 7.6 / 10
Visuals: 8.0 / 10
Sound: 8.4 / 10


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