Since Rockstar North delivered the visceral and cinematic follow-up to GTA3, all eyes have been pointed fixedly in their direction, probing them for signs of what comes next. But while Vice City was like Road Runner meets Goodfellas, Manhunt is going to turn squeamish gamers away like a night in with Leatherface and pals. Although "there is nothing supernatural in the game," according to producer Devin Winterbottom talking to Games Master magazine this month, it's got more in common with Silent Hill and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre than GTA's Pacino and De Niro-filled inspirations.
Dead and loathing it
It's a game about escape by whatever means. Like Arnie in The Running Man, James Earl Cash is trapped in a closed circuit world fighting to survive for other people's entertainment. Even though he thought he was dead. Lying on the table with a lethal injection plugging up his veins, he couldn't really see a way back - and yet here he is, on his own and completely directionless in rundown Carcer City, a sprawling urban cesspit of dilapidated buildings, overgrown weeds and bloodcurdling screams - and he's got a perverted film Director whispering instructions in his ear. Kill them. Kill them or they will kill you.
This macabre production forces him to creep around assassinating "Hunters" before they can get to him, with no choice but to heed the Director's advice, according to Games Master's preview. Hundreds of Hunters are out there searching for him, muttering what they're going to do to him or what they've done to other people, and their voices grow louder as they approach from the shadows. Cash has some sort of radar device, which picks up audio and gauges Hunters' positions and levels of awareness to help him out, but still if he moves beyond a creep - jogging or sprinting like Tommy Vercetti in pursuit of a PCJ 600 - he's going to do nothing but draw attention to himself, and that's something he doesn't want.
Bagged and tagged
Cash's sinister relationship with the Director is set to be fragile and perverse, says Games Master, but ultimately the Director's the only 'friend' he's got. "We've always enjoyed the analogy that it's you getting the same perspective as the Director," Devlin Winterbottom tells Games Master. "You might be controlling Cash, but you're getting to see all the good bits the Director sees. So, the game is presented in two ways: you're playing, but you're also sort of watching the Director editing down the highlights." These highlights include gratuitously detailed executions captured on CCTV and relayed to the player for every violating pleasure.
Take the game's first execution for example - faced with a Hunter and backed into a corner, Cash fumbles around and finds a plastic bag, manoeuvres behind the Director's grotesque semi-human apostle and slips the bag over his face. The whole thing is captured in gruesome detail, from the look on the Hunter's face to the process of sucking plastic over his skin, up his nostrils and into his mouth with no way of stopping it. Remember those posters in your first year at school? This is what they were worried about. As the Hunter's body spasms, Cash pulls the bag tighter and crushes his windpipe with one last tug, as the Director whispers his approval. Disgusting? Maybe. But all you're trying to do is get out of there, and he would have done worse to you.
Perhaps you should feel bad though, because as Winterbottom puts it in conversation with Games Master, "The Hunters are real people and they die the way real people die. The game is weird and it messes with reality, but you're not going to be fighting vampires." Themselves victims of the Director's passion for slaughter, do the Hunters really deserve to die?
All Cash can do is assume the Director is a soulless nutter orchestrating this Manhunt for love or money, or a bit of both, and that by reaching him he might escape the nightmare. But that's bound to be difficult. The local authorities are in the Director's pocket, having closed off sections of Carcer City - which still throbs with life outside the borders of Cash's nightmare - and they're unlikely to want to be found out. It's pure speculation, but we wouldn't be surprised if they represent an obstacle to be overcome at some point, too.
The one good thing about a dark and rank kingdom of filth like Carcer City is that it's difficult to find anything - particularly a frightened Death Row inmate with a thirst for survival. So Cash will be able to take advantage of his surroundings - burnt out cars, crumbling masonry, neck-high clumps of weeds and long grass, shadowy alleys and rundown buildings - in order to evade and surprise his pursuers. All the usual stealth mechanics are in place - Cash can creep silently, sidle along a wall by pressing the appropriate button when an icon pops up, duck and peer around cover, distract Hunters with thrown bottles and by rapping his knuckles, and he can also seek cover for himself and his victims in the pitch black.
Should he need to make a run for it though, Cash is going to have to watch his stamina bar, which will act like a visual indicator for the same mechanic from GTA. And speaking of Rockstar's games, the health system in Manhunt will be based on topping one's self up with painkillers ala Max Payne.
Breakfast at Alcatraz
The tech is decidedly Grand Theft Auto however, even if the grisly texturing and environments have more in common with Silent Hill, and the mechanic for weapons-based combat will come naturally to any Vercetti throwbacks. The player will pick this up first hand when the Director decides to spice up the middle of his movie by giving Cash a shotgun. Up to now he's been fighting to make do with plastic bags, and a mixture of glass shards, blackjacks, crowbars and baseball bats for battering, neck-piercing, throttling and neck-snapping - which Games Master claims will be a regular fixture of the combat as it's immortalised on CCTV.
But once he makes it into a rundown prison at the Director's request, Cash is faced with a bombardment of Hunters lurching from freshly opened cells. Cue plenty of L1 autotargetting and firing, and violent buckshot splitting heads asunder and draping brains all over the concrete. Intense though this shooter section is, your adrenaline will probably go into overdrive with the next section, which begins with a big white bunny rabbit. A guy in a bunny suit, yes, but it's still surreal, and there's no way to understand its significance unless you catch up to it. If you can. Handling it with style, Rockstar doesn't spin the player's head with pounding bass and antsy music, preferring to go for dead silence. How do you react? No clue. "Will you see the White Rabbit more than once? All I can say is 'probably'," Winterbottom teases. "What I can tell you is that it definitely gets very strange..."
Escape from Rockstar North
In another life, Rockstar North enjoyed notoriety for coming up with new and interesting concepts on a regular basis. Not all of them worked, but many of them did, and some helped propel them to the position of world's most bankable developer. We wouldn't be too surprised if Manhunt turns into one of these, but either way it sounds like a fascinating experience, and one we can't wait to get our teeth stuck into. Or vice versa.
For a full rundown on what's going on in Rockstar North's latest, we recommend you pick up a copy of the current issue of Games Master, which has a multi-page preview and interview packed with shots and information. Manhunt is due out in October.