For all the emotional hand-wringing over Manhunt's gratuitous violence and total absence of morals, it's actually quite a simple game - and not one with a great deal of longevity either.
Coded by the legendary Rockstar North, the world held its breath last year to find out what else the talented Scottish studio could come up with, but what they got was perhaps something much less impressive and certainly less innovative than they would have reasonably expected.
Another baldy killer
Based around the simple premise that death row subject James Earl Cash has been unexpectedly saved from a lethal injection, the bald-headed killer is thrust into another, more sinister fight for his life in order to fulfill the twisted snuff video fantasies of his 'savior' Starkweather, (the 'director'), who promises to grant Cash's freedom - but only if he does exactly what he says.
In a distinctly Running Man-meets-8mm inspired gaming experience, killing for sport is the ultimate purpose of a game which won't let you progress until you've slain every one of the goons patrolling these enclosed environments (or 'sets' if you will). Being a man of voyeuristic bent, Starkweather wants to savour the violence, and thus prefers it if you sneak up on your foe and dispose of them in as brutal a way as possible.
For the first half of the game, the emphasis is firmly on sneaking around Tenchu/Hitman-style, picking off enemies quietly and efficiently with assorted plastic bags, glass shards, bottles and so on, hiding in the shadows, peeking around corner and creeping up behind your victims before delivering the fatal blows. But where Manhunt has offended many is the brutality of the kills, which the game has great delight in rendering close up with deliberately shocking detail. Not only that, the game offers you three stages of brutality depending on how long you hold the attack button down, and some of the more vile results can be quite disconcerting, even to a gamer used to endless quantities of claret.
The panic, the vomit
Oddly, the actual rewards for being exceptionally good at killing are hardly worth it. You gain a few odds and ends such as concept art, but it's hardly something you'd want to spend hours perfecting, so there seems little point taking the risk of trying to gain a better star rating at the end of each 'video', unless of course you're the masochistic one. Thus, the game quickly becomes a fairly repetitive exercise in trying to isolate each victim, and trying to dispatch them without having to resort to hand to hand combat - mainly because fighting with your fists is so badly implemented that you'd rather just avoid such means.
The game operates on some fairly basic AI principles too, with three stages of alertness and predictable patrol patterns to observe via the GTA-style radar. Should you find yourself chased, hiding in the shadows generally does the trick (unless they saw you slink into them in the first place), as quite quickly they go back to dumbly wandering their pre-determined zones. On some memorable occasions, the game has problems allowing certain drones to pass certain invisible barriers, which has amusing implications when you see four men running after you, then immediately turning around and going the other way and swiftly forgetting you were even there, should you happen to hide.
As PS2 ports go, this one's typically loveless, as are most Rockstar conversions in truth. Looking almost identical to the original, the Xbox still manages to stutter on occasion, which is fairly unforgivable for a game that doesn't remotely push the machine (if you could see The Chronicles of Riddick stood next to this, you'd laugh), while the final nail for PAL owners is the lack of the NTSC version's high definition mode, which could have given the game a distinct advantage over the PS2 version. As things stand, though, there are no discernable extras, and therefore no real reason to pick up this version over the PS2 one, which you may well find is cheaper than this, having been on the shelves for six months.
Betamax was best
Taken entirely on its own merits, Manhunt's visuals do have a gritty, stylish edge which we admire, with many impressive VCR-style touches interfering with the screen to great effect. But while it does output a far greater degree of detail than the open spaces of GTA can afford, at no stage does it get anywhere near matching the accomplished environments of, say, Splinter Cell, and its almost complete lack of narrative gives the proceedings a completely hollow feel to them. After a time your sense of purpose is reduced to literally killing for fun, and for many that simply won't be enough to justify a full-price purchase.
Maybe at a lower price Manhunt will gain a bigger following, as Hitman 2 did, but ranked next to the best stealth titles it doesn't come close, and even the more action-oriented elements further into the game don't save it. If you can stomach the gore, then there's a competent game in there, but it's little more than that for the price.