Last week's routine trawl of the DVD trade-in dug up a £2.50 copy of Rob Zombie's horror film debut House Of 1000 Corpses. Like its demented follow-up The Devil's Rejects, it was a crass lesson in subversive terror, spooning out the splatter in big, thick globs. Limb amputation, bloody scalping and wide-awake brain surgery, all orchestrated on whiter-than-white victims by deranged, dribbling killers, whose mockery of classic genre convention saw them not only kick shit in such hideous fashion, but get away with the whole damn thing too. Another day in the age of the sado-horror flick.
Now let's take a small jaunt back to the previous week, perched on the tip of a black, leather sofa, as I was, in Rockstar's cosy office in London's billionaire playground of Chelsea. Up ahead, flashing on a giant screen, gentle-looking amnesiac Daniel Lamb (a twisted joke, surely?) was smashing in some stranger's head (presumably, a bad person) with a heavy slab from a toilet system while taking a pee.
Crrraacckkk (or it could've been more of a crrrrunnnchhh - either way, there were some pretty gratifying sound effects going on there that suggested this wasn't some lazy-arsed robbing of the BBC sound library).
Soon I was being treated to some tastier, more stylised set pieces as villains were multi-punctured in iron maidens and winched to the ceiling on giant, two-pronged hooks. And blood, conspiring with those great schlocky sound effects, was rampant in full glorious flow.
Oh sorry, let me introduce you to the world of Manhunt 2 by the way...
Just two days prior to my visit, the BBFC had famously denied Rockstar's 'stalk 'n slash' sequel an age rating, condemning it for "unremitting bleakness and callousness of tone". This, the normally liberating BBFC, who were passing torture scenes on innocent victims in movieland, and had yet to viciously waggle a finger at a video game since Carmageddon in the late '90s. It all seemed to point to one resounding fact - that Rockstar must surely have cocked up somewhere on a spectacularly grand scale.
However, if it's the grimace-provoking gore and relentless sadism that has ruffled the BBFC, then consider that the impact of watching the likes of The Devil's Rejects and Hostel were (for me personally, at least) far more powerful and repellent than the executions in Manhunt 2. Call it a photo-realism thing, or the fact that such accounts were being perpetrated on emotionally more developed and humanistic characters (both very significant factors), but while I was disturbed by the brutal raping of The Hills Have Eyes remake, and the spine severing of Wolf Creek, I don't ever recall wincing at Manhunt 2's violence once. And let's not forget who our victims supposedly are in Manhunt 2, either.
Inevitably the BBFC's concerns crawl back to that complex, age-old passivity versus interactivity argument. In movies, you're the voyeur, in the former, you're the player. Manhunt 2's gameplay focus (and appeal) lies upon the stalking and killing of villains, where not only are you required to carry out such atrocities, you're encouraged to do it in such a skilful manner that comes the reward of extra horrific deaths. Not nice on paper, granted, but perhaps little different to any gore-hungry movie fan seeking out the 'Uncut Version' of their favourite flick on DVD. But as the BBFC stresses, there's barely any gameplay alternatives in Manhunt 2 outside of the sadistic slaying, making such entertainment even more morally unnerving.
Okay, fair enough, point taken, but then again, perhaps unsuspectingly, the BBFC has also just described the gameplay of the original Manhunt, which incidentally passed through the radar with an 18 certificate in 2004, and the two games, in my opinion, play almost identically. And what's the horror genre for if not for shocking?
Time to look at the sequel in more detail, methinks...
First up, the new Wii control has come under severe scrutiny, critics claiming it brings a dangerous level of interactivity to your killing spree. Suddenly, you're not pressing buttons, you're 'slashing away like a total nutjob'. Well, call me 'cackhanded' with the old motion sensor control, but I wouldn't exactly describe my gaming actions as being akin to the onscreen mutilating. In fact, so concentrating was I on repeating the onscreen prompts, that the fact that I was committing heinous murder, for me, seemed rather inconsequential.
Indeed, as has been highlighted in arguments elsewhere, if Rockstar really wanted to capture the sensation of slaughter, it would surely have integrated free-roaming, improvised control of the motion-controller (as in Wii Sports), not the mini-game 'repeat the actions' system.
Elsewhere, and back to the issue of 'gore', and indeed Manhunt 2 has amped up the splatter with the introduction of its new 'environmental kills'. No need to rely on shards of glass to do your dirty work, people, you can pack your foes off into whirring grinders, or drill holes in their faces while they're skewered down into dentistry chairs. Of course, this has been done all before in 2004 with The Punisher. If my memory serves, I was part of a 20-man journalist crew at a Chicago showcase who 'amused' by scenes involving car compactors, piranha tanks, laser cutters and sausage mincing machines. The Punisher escaped (albeit, with some hint of warning) with the all-important 18 certificate - to reasonable acclaim, and the overall group press reaction to such over-the-top, inventive, excessive comic-book violence was one of blackly comic chuckles. The Devil's Rejects movie screening two years later, on the other hand, provoked entirely different reactions among its journalistic audience, some seeming genuinely upset at the levels of sadism, some of which was misogynist, being carried out against its incredibly innocent protagonists.
Please feel free to cite photo-realism, emotional intensity, profundity, characterisation, mood, tone, and the victims of such horror, for the differences in response.
So, on the grounds discussed thus far, even with the passivity versus interactivity gaming argument (which is somewhat spoiled by the gameplay similarities between not-banned prequel and sequel), it would seem Manhunt 2 has been hard done by. Sadly, things just never are that black and white.
Returning to The Punisher, THQ's bloody shooter boasted a tone heavily comic-book in nature, a Marvel world so over-the-top, a lead star so anti-heroically far-fetched, and villains so obviously bad (and shallow), that the whole experience, despite the violence, was really quite hilarious in a disgustingly twisted way. As with Max Payne, it was pure John Woo bullet opera served up for the video game medium. Interestingly, there was even a hint of narrative purpose to some of the environmental kills, too - interrogation. By threatening certain captors with gruesome demises, you could extract important information, and then decide whether they should croak it or not.
Now, let's discuss one of the three Manhunt 2's levels that I was taken through, entitled Sexual Deviants. After some apparent snooping, the quest for your identity leads you to a mysterious S&M club. As soon as I was inside this club, my character was ruthlessly eliminating its inhabitants in that typical Manhunt extreme brutality. We were several levels into the game, so perhaps the story may have been slightly out of context, but I honestly couldn't see how there was any logical justification for your character's slaughter of everyone and anyone in such a sadistic manner.
The assumption, of course, is that if you don't kill, they kill you, but hell, this was an S&M club, not the original Manhunt where you're imprisoned in a cat-and-mouse arena, facing off against a bunch of murderous punks. Here, I could easily have been gutting the cleaner. As the 'outside' gamer, we know that we need to kill these people. But does your character?
If tiny little alarm bells were ringing, then they were bashing me in the cranium when I encountered the door puzzle. Having butchered nearly every worker of the club's top floor with abattoir-like precision, my path into the next section was blocked by a doorman operating the other side of a doorflap. Guess what, he wouldn't let me through because he didn't recognise me.
So hang on a second, I'd just been murdering everyone else in the club because I assumed they'd kill me, and here was this guy - a genuine member of security refusing me right of passage because he didn't know who I was. Go and tell that to the bloodied, twitching hole-ridden carcass of the barman I'd just gleefully castrated and disembowelled with a large, rusty medieval mace...
To intensify the silliness, the puzzle was cracked using a decapitated head of any of my murder victims, incidentally, all of whom were wearing gimps masks. Such perverted disguise didn't stop the doorman recognising our character as Bill, John or Tony, though - perhaps he had a distinguishable incisor tooth or something...? Maybe. Who knows? Not me. I was flummoxed.
So shoot me for being pedantic, but outside of that 'snuff movie' arena of the original, I genuinely felt unjustified in the bloodshed. Who for me to call Rockstar's development team lazy after the investment and time in producing such an effective thriller (which Manhunt 2 most certainly is), but it hints of too much time being spent on the mood and the set-pieces, and not enough on the psychological reasoning behind the ordeal.
Even your character, Mr Lamb, is an odd one. In Manhunt, you played a hardened criminal, forced to kill. Here, you're an amnesiac escaping an asylum, who, incidentally, vomits after committing his first kill. Next thing you know it, he's ripping balls off with pliers and sawing unfortunates in half with DIY tools. Okay, so there's a strong implication of madness, illustrated through the presence of a mysterious companion who follows you through parts of the game (a voice in your head, a ghost? Expect plot developments to reveal all). But it's too ambiguous. Even for a videogame, which requires no strong character development. But we're in dangerous waters here. Why not establish the fact he's a schizophrenic or a madman - distance him from us, the player - find justification in his behaviour.
Of course, it's impossible to be too critical - I only played/saw three levels of the game, but if the narrative holes are apparent here, then God knows what else lurks in the rest of the story.
If there's a conclusion to be gained from my brief time with Manhunt 2, it's that Rockstar appears to have been naïve and reckless when, considering the microscope its predecessor fell under, it should have been cautious, clever and alert. Because for all the other criticisms levelled against it, there's too much grey area and weighty arguments for it to fight back with.
Rockstar hasn't leapt dramatically over the mark, but through slight carelessness, has stumbled over it, and given fuel for fire for people a little too wary of video games. After all, there's always the knowledge that 18 certificates won't stop masses of minors desiring, and getting hold of, these games. Let's just hope its not too late for the publisher/developer to find some kind of reprieve for this fantastic game. Even if it does mean zombies and green blood...