Retrospective: Manhunt

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http://nerdylittlesecret.com/2011/08/retrospective-manhunt/

This is the first in an occasional series exploring the hidden gems of gaming, exposing their strengths and weaknesses. Relax, we won’t be revisiting The Legend of Zelda or Silent Hill like everyone and their dog. And before the emails start coming in, yes, “gem” is a very subjective term and these are my opinions.­

Manhunt is a third-person stealth-horror game released in 2003 for the PS2, and later for the Xbox. Developer Rockstar, who evidently weren’t satisfied with pissing off many politicians and parents groups with their smash prostitute-stomping hit Grand Theft Auto III, decided to up the ante. They announced they’d be releasing a literal murder simulator where players act out a snuff film at the behest of a fat pervert. The civilized world proceeded to go apeshit insane.

Anticipating a ban or recall, I picked this thing up on day one (or damn close to it). The crackdown never came, but I’m glad I bought it.

Manhunt
 chronicles the ill-fated adventures of death row inmate James Earl Cash, whose crimes are so unspeakably heinous that the game doesn’t actually mention them. After years awaiting his sentence in fictional Carcer City, Cash is finally given the lethal injection he deserves. The American justice system at its finest, right? Except that Cash wakes up later that night in an abandoned building, alive and well.

Your savior introduces himself as The Director (voiced by brilliant character actor Brian Cox in a gleefully deranged role), and bids Cash to pick up a small earpiece sitting next to him. Do exactly as the Director says and Cash can walk free. Only one long, grisly night stands in his way…

The game’s levels are separated into scenes, reinforcing the premise that Cash is a participant in the recording and marketing of snuff films. “Snuff” is the operative word here, because Cash extinguishes quite a few lives before the night is through. The Director is a powerful man, and he’s hired gang members, corrupt cops and mercenaries to make his sick game more interesting for Cash.

Don’t expect an easy weekend stroll through Manhunt. Even on the default difficulty, Cash is far outnumbered by his pursuers and usually outgunned. Expect to retry the same scene multiple times after you make the wrong move and Cash gets torn apart. The extreme difficulty never seemed cheap to me, though. If one approach kept getting me killed, it just meant I had to experiment with another. Eventually I got it right.

No game before or since has made me feel more vulnerable, exposed and helpless in its world. Cash might be a death row-hardened criminal, but he’s dog meat if he gets spotted by a group of hunters. Even one-on-one brawls that would be a cakewalk in other games turn into a war of attrition here that will leave Cash stumbling away with low health.

Stealth is vital in Manhunt, even more so than Splinter Cell and Metal Gear Solid (at least in the first half of the game, anyway). Stripped of his makeshift weapons by the Director’s goons at the end of each scene, Cash is forced to re-arm himself frequently with whatever he can find, including shivs, baseball bats and hammers. This limited weaponry forces the player to skulk around in the darkness, waiting for an unsuspecting hunter to turn his back before creeping up for the kill. Once guns are introduced to Cash’s arsenal though, the feeling of helplessness evaporates a bit. It’s much easier to kill someone with a shotgun than a simple plastic bag.

The execution kills themselves (the focus of family groups’ ire) are genuinely shocking. Cash can hold back his attack against an unsuspecting hunter for several seconds, making the resulting execution much more brutal. A level-one garrote kill shows Cash strangling the victim, while a fully charged level-three garrote kill depicts Cash graphically sawing off the victim’s head (which he can then pick up and use to distract other hunters). The effect is heightened by the game cutting to a grainy, static-filled angle of the kill that looks like it’s being recorded by a cheap video camera. I remember staring at the screen in shock the first time I saw the executions, disbelieving that such material could even make it into a game, simulated or not.

The atmosphere is top-notch. Background music is minimal as Cash stalks his enemies, with the shouts and jeers of his pursuers ringing out into the night. The Director adds color commentary, goading the player to get on with it, and threatening to reveal Cash’s position if he dawdles. Once spotted, electronic music very reminiscent of John Carpenter’s 80’s classics blares out of the speakers as Cash runs for his life.

The finest example of what Manhunt has to offer comes later in the game. Cash flees from the dangerous streets of Carcer City down into a subway station, with corrupt cops in the Director’s pocket in hot pursuit. Cash is heavily armed at this point, enabling him to take down the first resistance easily. However, as soon as he steps into the dark, dank subway tunnel a platoon of SWAT officers closes in on both sides, forcing Cash to retreat to the shadows. A single gunshot will bring every cop in the area running to your position. What do you do now?

It never really bothered me to hack, bludgeon and choke the various malcontents stalking Cash, because of just that: they were all nasty, despicable people who wouldn’t hesitate to kill me in a second. I had more difficulty with a game like 25 to Life (a borderline-racist piece of garbage for the PS2 that I had the misfortune to be assigned to review during my brief time writing for a gaming site), which forces the player to shoot regular everyday cops who are just doing their jobs.

In fact, despite being a death row inmate Cash is the only semi-sympathetic character in Manhunt, even moving into an anti-hero role at times, though in all cases where he saves an innocent it’s to benefit himself. It’s particularly jarring, the notion that a hardened killer who has no problem with taking off a man’s head with a home run swing can be a hero.

The game certainly isn’t perfect. The controls are needlessly obtuse and the GTA III engine shows its age, even with the upscaling and smoothing provided by the current generation of consoles. Why even give Cash a health bar in the first place if one screw-up leads to a fatal curb stomping, even on normal difficulty? Why can’t I use the right thumbstick to rotate the camera? Why is it so simple to evade baddies by turning a corner and standing still in a small shadow? To be fair, Manhunt 2 fixed this by handing out flashlights to its hunters, but I won’t be going into detail about that piece of crap.

The controversy flared up again in 2007 with the heavily-edited release of Manhunt 2. It’s impossible to recommend the sequel; stick with the original. You can probably find Manhunt for under $10 online. If you have a yen for a horror game that dispenses with supernatural cliches (and still have a PS2 hooked up or a backwards-compatible PS3 or Xbox 360), give it a shot for a demented, difficult, disturbing stealth adventure that raises some uncomfortable questions about the nature of mankind.

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