Maybe I'm getting too old or too soft-hearted or something, but the gratuitous violence in Manhunt really got to me. I'm certainly well-versed in videogame violence, having killed zombies, ninjas, Nazis, aliens, demons, robots, and KGB agents, among other things, over my 15-plus years of gaming. I have "fragged" millions, perhaps even billions of creatures, but never once did I ever suffocate anyone with a plastic bag. Not once did I castrate anyone with a sickle, or jab a glass shard multiple times into someone's face, or knock a man's head clean off with an aluminum baseball bat.
I did all these things—and worse—in Manhunt. Never before has the act of murder been so explicit, so intimate, and so lovingly rendered in a videogame. Never before has a game reveled so gleefully in its violent content. I'm telling you, this black-hearted game makes Grand Theft Auto: Vice City look like a walk down Sesame Street.
Manhunt put me in the shoes of convicted murderer James Earl Cash. On the night of his execution, Cash is "saved" at the last minute by a mysterious man named Mr. Starkweather. Starkweather tells Cash (he hears his voice via an earpiece) that the only way out of the situation, the only way to stay alive, is to do his bidding. Cash is then turned loose in a perpetually fog-filled urban hell known as Carcer City. The town is patrolled by murderous gangs. Cash's objective: to kill them all as brutally as possible. The more brutal the executions, the more Starkweather is pleased, and the higher Cash's mission rating will be. In other words, clubbing a man to death with a crowbar is fine, but eviscerating him with it gets me bonus points.
The gameplay—best described as a cross between Tenchu and Silent Hill—is actually fairly enjoyable. Outnumbered and out-gunned, the odds were always stacked against me, but careful observation, along with a bit of cleverness on my part, earned me the upper-hand. Distracting gang members with noises, splitting them up into smaller groups, then finally luring them one by one into the shadows makes for some compelling cat-and-mouse situations. The boss fights are also worth noting, especially the surreal showdown with the chainsaw-wielding Pigsy. There are a few kill.switch-style action levels later in the game, but Manhunt for the most part encourages stealth over brute force. In other words, plastic bags are preferred to bullets.
I had a few technical issues with the game—the control isn't much better than the on-foot segments in Vice City, and the disc froze up on several occasions—but ultimately it wasn't programming problems that sullied the game for me, but the hyper-violent content. Rockstar North certainly didn't spare any details when it comes to those execution animations. It's all here: the begging for mercy, the shortness of breath, the gagging throats, the geysers of blood and the wobble of the just-snapped neck, all of it motion-captured for maximum effect. During each execution, the in-game camera instantly switches to a claustrophobic close-up, bringing me so close to the action that I could practically see the victim's final breaths fogging my TV screen.
I confess, there's a certain morbid curiosity to see exactly what a level-three crowbar execution might look like (the longer Cash waits to perform a kill, the more outrageously stylish the kill is), but an hour or two into the game, the executions became a tedious annoyance more than anything else. The 4 to 5-second kill animations are always exactly the same, and they cannot be skipped. In other words, the game forced me to watch every evisceration, every gutting, every brutal beheading—whether I wanted to or not.
But what baffles me most about Manhunt is that I'm not exactly sure how I'm supposed to feel about those executions. What do the game's producers want me to feel? Should I feel...vindicated? Exhilarated? Vengeful? Empowered? I'll tell you how I did feel: I felt evil, and queasy, and numb. Eventually, a strange kind of self-loathing set in, followed by a low-level depression. During the final stages of the game, I found myself actually turning away from the TV during the execution animations, waiting for them to be over.
The not-so-subtle subtext of Manhunt is snuff, i.e., the filming of someone being murdered. It's without a doubt among the most taboo subjects in our culture. Why Rockstar North felt entitled to build a game around snuff—a subject books, film and television rarely ever touch, and whenever they do touch it, it's usually with the proverbial 10-foot pole—is truly beyond me. What worries me more is the fact that if snuff is apparently an appropriate subject for a videogame, what's next for Rockstar—serial-killers, rapists, and child-molestors?
Some gamers have mentioned Richard Connell's short story "A Most Dangerous Game" when discussing Manhunt, but I'd argue that the game is actually closer in spirit and pedigree to the one-note nihilism of Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho. Reading American Psycho left me hollow and cold, much like playing Manhunt did. In my opinion, dramatizations of sociopathic behavior don't make for good drama, in videogames or in literature. But the larger problem that a game like this causes is that no doubt at least one GameCritics.com reader, after reading my description of the game, is already on his way to the game store to pick up his copy, if only to see if the game is as brutal as I've described it. Indeed, Manhunt is the videogame equivalent of a traffic accident; gamers can't help but slow down to see just how violent it is. My advice: Move along, people, because there's really nothing to see here.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.