It would be so easy to write up a Manhunt review from the viewpoint of Disgusted of NW2, churning out hundreds of bile-fuelled reactionary statements about the decline in the moral fibre of humankind and the dangers of videogaming on the impressionable minds of the youth of today, but we'll leave that to The Daily Mail to mull over, thanks.
Although it's hard not to be shocked by some of the most gratuitous violence yet depicted in the medium, the truth is we're more interested in how Rockstar's latest stacks up as a videogame and whether it can carry on its hot streak of creative brilliance than whether Manhunt signals the end of the world as we know it.
Questions for Cash
The actual concept of Manhunt is a subtle twist on the old Running Man idea of throwing a hapless individual into a series of life-or-death scenarios for the sick viewing pleasure of a twisted audience. In this case, Rockstar puts you in control of James Earl Cash, a shaven-headed, hardened criminal who has awoken from his faked execution with the voice of Starkweather in his ear, the 'director' of an underground snuff movie organisation who has promised "a way out of this mess" if he follows his instructions...
Starkweather wants someone capable of delivering the highest quality scenes of death and execution so he can satisfy his blood thirsty audience and has prepared a number of 'sets' for his movies in and around the dark, beaten up 'broken rust belt' environs of Carcer City, a part of a mythical America where 'nobody cares and anything goes'. To fuel his sick fetish, each set is heavily populated with cheap CCTV cameras to film the action from every conceivable angle, and littered with gangs of sick mask-wearing rednecks intent on delivering their own unique justice upon him. To them, this bloodsport is the righteous thing to do, and they are more than happy to risk their own lives to kill criminal scum.
As Cash, it's up to you to fight for your survival (who knows, maybe you were innocent in the first place?) and the only way to progress is to simply wipe out these sick gangs. Of course, you can do this by simply beating them to a pulp, but the director prefers you to do this in as grisly fashion as possible, and has littered each set with weapons for you to carry out some gruesome executions. These start off as one-use-only items such as plastic bags, shards of glass or wires, but progress to knives, machetes, axes, and eventually more destructive weapons such as nail guns, chainsaws, sawed-off shotguns, submachine guns and sniper rifles.
Shadow of the beast
As a pugilist, Cash is a bit crap, and unlike the unprepared occupants of Liberty City or Miami you're going to take one hell of a kicking if you attempt hand to hand combat with any of Carcer City's thugs. Even armed with baseball bat or machete, the chances are you'll either be outnumbered or simply outfought. The route to success revolves entirely around stealth, lurking in the shadows, sneaking up on unprepared victims and performing some kind of sickening act of violence upon their person.
Starkweather - ever mindful of his demanding audience - demands Cash to be as disgusting as possible, and rates executions on one of three levels. As you approach the victim from behind Cash will raise his right arm above his head to indicate that he's ready to perform a stealth kill. At this stage Cash has the choice of delaying his strike for up to five seconds in order to pull off a more violent attack. An instant blow will be rated at the bottom of the scale, a couple of seconds delay produces a more deadly kill, while a more risky five second delay delivers the most gruesome of all murders, and each is presented in grainy VHS-style close-up, complete with squelchy sound effects and claret all over the lens. At the end of each 'movie' you're rated on the basis of how brutal you've been from one star to five, with the best ratings unlocking the most bonus features - with four bonus movies to aim for among others.
As you progress through the movies, stealth becomes an ever more important skill to master. To begin with, gang members tend to wander around in easy-to-pick-off ones and twos, and often the odd hand to hand brawl is more than enough to dispatch them - especially given the scarcity of weapons in the early part of the proceedings. Monitoring an enemy's awareness is essential, and the mini-map radar not only gives you a quick reference of their position and the direction they're facing, but how alert they are to your presence. When they're coloured yellow, they're not suspicious and can easily be executed, barring some unexpected noise or the shouts of a gang member - at which point their colour will change to orange and they'll actively seek out the source of the noise. If they see Cash, their radar arrow will change to red and then they'll pursue you relentlessly until you manage to give them the slip.
Run little man
Evasion depends on two things; a good dark hiding place and whether Cash can outrun them in the first place. Early in the game, the gangs are a fairly unfit bunch and quickly lose sight of the bald-headed victim, giving you the chance to take refuge wherever you can. Later on it's a different story, with multiple assailants all capable of keeping up with you. As with GTA, Cash can sprint for a limited amount of time, depicted by an energy bar next to your health, but the further you progress, the more important it is not to be discovered in the first place. For a good portion of the game it's possible to simply run away and hide until suspicion levels drop and then sneak up and whack enemies as they're returning to their patrol areas, but later on it's an altogether more trying prospect when attempting the same tactic with four gang members firing hot lead.
As with other stealth action games, the AI is perhaps the crucial deciding factor in its success or failure, and Rockstar succeeds admirably for the most part before shooting itself in the foot several times over. When things are working as they should, you really get a sense of being hunted. Startle an enemy and they really do appear to jump out of their skin, before shrieking with murderous intent and sprinting after you. By the end of the chase they're panting, complaining about their lack of fitness and generally taunting you for your lily-livered ways. The more committed enemy make a decent fist of a search, but it's funny how they never thought to bring a torch. Unless they're right on your tail, they never probe into the darkness, which is slightly odd in a game centring on hide and seek.
Of course, the best way to dispatch your foe is to catch them by surprise and creep up behind them, but that's not always the best thing to do if there's a pack of them. Attracting them in other ways is often a good solution and Manhunt offers a variety of ways to do it; lobbing bricks, bottles, thumping the walls, or, ingeniously, via a USB headset/mic set. By yelling into the mic you can gain their attention and they will follow the source of the noise so that you can perhaps whack them as they emerge through a doorway. Not only that, Starkweather's promptings are isolated so that they only come through the headset, making it an even more immersive proposition, and a neat idea. It's doesn't exactly top Rainbow Six for innovation, but it's a nice touch nevertheless.
On the flipside of the AI coin, there are some wince-worthy incidents we feel it's only right and proper to share with you in depth. On the 'Fuelled By Hate' movie level, one particularly galling scene near the end has Cash taking on five goons at once; an area that sums up some of the most hateful bone-headed game design in recent memory. Kicking off at the bottom of a footbridge, taking out the first gang member is straightforward enough if you wait for his back to be turned. It's the four patrolling the area at the opposite end of the footbridge that really show up some rank issues in the AI. If one of them sees you (which they almost always do), all four of them charge after you up the footbridge, but never down the other side. No matter how close they get to you, they reach an invisible wall and cease their hunt. Worse still, if you hide behind a section of stairwell a few feet away from them, their suspicion status changes back to yellow in about three seconds flat and they wander back to their sentry posts like nothing happened.
This abject idiocy wouldn't be so bad if the game ever made it easy to auto target enemies when they're on staircases, but for some immensely frustrating reason, more than half the time the targeting reticule refuses to acknowledge an oncoming enemy until they're virtually in front of you, rendering your nail gun a fairly useless weapon. Whatever, we got past it in the end - more a case of iron will and determination than anything, as with so many arbitrarily tough games ("look at us, we've made a hardcore game!").
How to disappear completely
And then, just to absolutely ice the cake, we're forced to board a crane which allows us to magnetically shift a fridge which for some bizarre reason is blocking our ascent of the next stairwell. Of course, the second we remove the fridge a barrage of gun-toting enemies appears, and it's up to our fridge swinging abilities to crush them - except that it's stupidly difficult given the positioning that our considerate foe takes. After half a dozen tortured attempts (and having been forced to repeat the previous hateful section a painful number of times) we legged it the second we removed the fridge and attempted to take out our foe by more conventionally stealthy means. This would have gone to plan if the said enemies tried to track Cash down, but instead, one overweight slug sat stationed at the top of a set of stairs refusing to budge until we said "peek a boo" and legged it back out of the compound.
At this point our fat foe came-a-looking, and then impressively disappeared before our very eyes. "Hmmm", we thought "interesting bug". Upon re-entering the compound and climbing the stairs we noticed he'd returned magically to the same spot. And so the process was repeated three times until the game presumably ran out of its allotted scripted enemies and allowed us to continue.
This painfully bad piece of game design wasn't restricted to this section, either. Time after time we'd attract an enemy and hide mere feet away from them and watch as they walked up to some predetermined barrier and gave up. Terrible.
It's a real shame, because for the majority of the game these drones are capable of some superb displays of hide and seek, sniffing Cash out in the most terrifying of circumstances, and giving us a right headache as we tried to suss out how best to attract them without giving ourselves away. The tense atmosphere created by such a grisly game environment with such a vile premise is one of the most unsettling and unnerving gaming experiences ever. And typically, Rockstar's ability to hire some of the finest voiceover talent around gives it an edge that few game developers ever bother with. Brian Cox is in impressive form as the disturbingly unhinged Starkweather, forever barking out frustrated angst as you mess up yet again, and purring with fetishistic delight when you pull off a particularly gruesome murder. If there's anything that tips Manhunt over the edge of insanity, it's his deranged rantings.
Elsewhere, the numerous gang members utter all manner of unprintable insults and sick taunts that rarely get repetitive; helping to paint an even more distasteful backdrop for the game and immensely important in a linear game otherwise almost entirely bereft of narrative structure.
Manhunt's visual appeal is definitely worthy of immense praise, creating a grimy, disgusting and unnerving atmosphere a world away from the eighties style of Vice City, but recognisably Rockstar North. Every movie is set outdoors at night, so the comparisons with the grainy style featured in Silent Hill are on the money, albeit with the character model and animation style of GTA. Perhaps the most impressive elements of Manhunt are the environments, riddled with damp and decay, bereft of life and almost echoing with a sadness of what once was. A perfect backdrop for the sick joy of death, pain and misery. Occasional items of graffiti pointing you in the right direction are the only signs of recent visitors, and the minimal use of light does just enough to penetrate the inky gloom. Hiding in the shadows was pretty intense in Splinter Cell, but it's never been as downright tense and sinister than this. Manhunt is all about the fear of death, and on this level it nails it perfectly. Cleverly, this lack of light creates a convincing illusion of detail, but in fact any close examination of the texturing reveals Manhunt to be quite sparse in that area. Not that it matters, given that you'll barely even notice.
The camera system apes the system implemented in GTA with all of its quirks. Again it's left stick for movement and right stick for an instant first-person view. Once more, the odd bush or tree conspires to obscure your view at inappropriate moments, while we're still not convinced the disorientating first-person solution is the most graceful there is, especially when it's so crucial to get your bearings quickly when there's an enemy creeping up on you. Being able to control the third person camera dynamically might have been a preferable solution, but at least Rockstar managed to avoid vile clipping issues for the most part. Aside from some niggling quirks, Manhunt does a pretty solid job of giving you the best angle of the grisly proceedings - most evident when you've just hacked someone's head to a pulp with a machete. No one could ever complain that they don't get a ringside view of the death scenes.
If you can remove yourself from the concept that you're starring in a series of snuff movies for the benefit of a sick voyeur, what you're left with for your forty quid is actually a linear and repetitive stealth action game. From the first movie onwards, all you're essentially doing is the same thing over and over again, albeit with a greater degree of difficulty (and it's never at any stage an easy game). It really is a case of lurk, bash, or lurk, mess up, run away, hide, lurk, bash and on until you finish the game. Whether you'll replay the levels to gain better star ratings is down to the strength of your stomach. Frankly, we're not totally convinced that seeing an even gorier animation is our idea of gameplay incentive. What would have acted as a greater incentive is a greater degree of variety. DMA/Rockstar North virtually invented the sandbox gameplay concept, yet it's gone totally backwards in creating what amounts to a one-trick pony - a linear murder simulation that gives the player absolutely no freedom and then constricts the experience even more with some appalling AI gaffs that we can barely believe have not been ironed out.
Twisted and bent
When it's firing on all cylinders Manhunt is a disturbingly entertaining take on the stealth action genre with the trademark high quality Rockstar production that mask some of its shortcomings. But scratch beneath its grimy surface and it's blighted by serious AI issues, repetitive gameplay and frustrating combat. As gamers, we're more than happy to kill people routinely in the course of our videogaming lives, but one thing's for sure; Manhunt is by far the most gratuitous example of all, and whether you're comfortable with that is the most important issue you should confront before you consider grappling with the most morally challenging game ever made.