Game Description: They just killed Cash. Now, they want to kill him again. America is full of run down, broken rust-belt towns where nobody cares and anything goes. In Manhunt's Carcer City, nothing matters anymore and all that's left are cheap thrills. The ultimate rush is the power to grant life and take it away, for sport. This time, James Earl Cash, you are the sport. They gave you your life back. Now, they are going to hunt you down. You awake to the sound of your own panicked breath. You must run, hide, and fight to survive. If you can stay alive long enough, you may find out who did this to you. This is a brutal blood sport.
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.
On August 9, 1969 Charles Manson's "family" broke into the home of filmmaker Roman Polanski. Polanski wasn't home at the time, but his wife, actress Sharon Tate (who was eight months pregnant), and several guests were. The group would slaughter everyone present—then strike again a mere ten days later, adding two more bodies to the total. When they're caught a short time later, Manson becomes a ghoulish celebrity—the devil incarnate, a man feared more than any other.
Since the crimes are so sensationalistic, it's no surprise several books chronicling Manson and his band of hippies sprang up almost over night. Naturally, most of these affairs were written in the style of today's tabloids—any facts that can't be corroborated can still be used and if you're unsure about certain details, feel free to use artistic license and make up something that sounds good.
However, one of these books, The Family: The Story of Charles Manson's Dune Buggy Attack Battalion (written by Ed Sanders of the rock group The Fugs), gains more attention than many of the others. Sanders' book asserts The Family not only committed the Tate and La Bianca murders, but they may have been involved in something even more heinous—the making and trafficking of snuff films. This may or may not have been the first time the phrase "snuff film" was used—but it is almost assuredly the point where it infiltrated the collective consciousness of the American citizenry.
For those readers who aren't up on the history and terminology of transgressive cinema, the "snuff film" is a film wherein a person (or persons) is murdered in front of a camera. This film is then offered to an underground network of collectors who supposedly relish viewing these atrocities. The snuff film is not to be confused with the mondo documentary (a la the sensationalistic Italian documentaries like Mondo Cane, Shocking Africa, et al.) or the Death Tape or "shockumentary" (e.g. Traces of Death, Faces of Death, etc.). The mondo documentary and death tapes exist—you can rent them at your local video store in most instances. Snuff, on the other hand, appears to be nothing more than a clever urban legend. After decades of raids, reported findings of snuff films (which have turned out to be legitimate movies like Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust, or Hidoshi Hino's Guinea Pig: Flower of Flesh and Blood—a film that Charlie Sheen turned over to the FBI because he thought it was real), and sensationalistic claims of underground murder movie rings, no one has ever found a real snuff film made for distribution. Murder has been captured on tape, but never in the way that the snuff film supposedly operates—as a commercial enterprise.
And yet, the myth of snuff cinema lives on—buoyed along not only by the popular media (before Nic Cage starred in 8mm or Alejandro Amenabar made Thesis other filmmakers were exploring the mystique of snuff in Emanuelle in America [Joe D'Amato aka Aristide Massacessi], Last House on Dead End Street [Roger Watkins], Hardcore [Paul Schrader], and the most infamous of all, Michael and Roberta Findlay's Snuff with a generous assist from distributor Allan Shackleton), but by the fact that no matter how repulsive the idea of snuff cinema may be, it also seems like something that could very well be real.
The latest group of mavericks to build a piece of entertainment around the supposedly taboo subject of snuff is none other than Rockstar games. Rockstar, no strangers to controversy since the release of the Grand Theft Auto III (GTA3), have once again pushed the boundaries of what's acceptable in gaming with the release of Manhunta game that plays like a cross between Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell and a 42nd Street grindhouse exploitation flick.
As Scott points out, this game isn't for the weak-hearted. Manhunt is the most perverse and disturbing game I've ever experienced. It does make GTA3 look like Sesame Street. However, my problem with Scott's score is that he's essentially penalized the game not because of technical shortcomings (which are mentioned in passing), but primarily because it offended him. Manhunt is a twisted game—but it's not a game that deserves a 3.5 rating.
Once players get past the gore and nearly pornographic violence of this title, they're treated to one of the better action stealth games to come along in recent memory. Say what you will about Rockstar and their tendency to live off of controversy, but it's hard to deny they make interesting games that do more than simply up the ante in terms of violence and graphic content. GTA is cited by the mainstream because, in it, you can sleep with hookers and then bludgeon them to death. Gamers cite it as a great game because it offered up an unparalleled amount of freedom in its open-ended design. Manhunt will almost assuredly be looked at in the same contradictory terms by the opposing groups.
While there is no shortage of things that impressed me about this game (and I'll get to those shortly), I think the thing that left the biggest impression was the game's completely nihilistic tone. Manhunt is like the bastard offspring of Nietzsche and The Marquis de Sade—had they been game developers. It thrusts players into a world that's so dark, so foreboding, and so all-encompassed by evil, hopelessness, and despair that the hero of the game is a mass murderer. Playing the game reminded me a lot of watching John McNaughton's Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer in that there was no good in this world, just an endless darkness. This isn't a pleasant feeling, or one that many people go out of their way to experience, but it's really impressive for a game, a medium that's still in its infancy in terms of being an artform. That's not to say Manhunt is art, but it's certainly a title that is going to pave the way for growth in gaming (albeit in both good and bad ways, most likely).
Nihilistic tone wasn't the only thing that really impressed me about Manhunt, though—there are about a bazillion technical elements that stand out as well. Everything from the art design (which complements the game's tone flawlessly—I never want to visit Carcer City), the casting of the inimitable Brian Cox as the voice of the game's antagonist, to the ingenious use of the USB headset to add to the immersiveness of the gameplay (by allowing Brian Cox's character to speak directly in your ear throughout most of the game—he's like the little devil on your shoulder urging you on to greater atrocities as the game progresses) is top notch. This game isn't Roadkill—a lackluster game that tried to lure gamers in with graphic content but didn't have the gameplay to hook them. Manhunt is the real deal—one of those rare games that sports not only mature content, but also solid gameplay to go along with it.
Manhunt's main gameplay component centers on stealth. Lead character James Earl Cash must sneak around the gang-infested Carcer City while offing his enemies in some of the most brutal ways imaginable. Cash can lure his opponents away from their comrades and deal out swift and merciless death by using his environment. Tapping walls, tossing bricks, or chucking a severed head around a corner will all get the bad guys' attention—as will talking into the game's headset. Meanwhile, Cash hides in the shadows, watching his prey—and when they turn their back, he sneaks up on them and kills them. The brutality of the kill (there are three levels) depends on how long the player holds the attack button before actually committing the action. Level three kills are the most gruesome of the bunch
Each and every kill gets its own cutscene—the game switches to a grainy video camera point-of-view (further adding to the snuff film ambiance), and this is where the men are separated from the boys. The cutscenes in Manhunt capture everything in loving detail—plunging shards of glass into guys' faces, decapitation with piano wire, or beating them to death with baseball bats (amongst countless other tools of death) and are shown with an unflinching eye. The sound work only adds to the game's chilling effect
Many will question whether or not this level of violence was necessary. There's no real answer to this question—is the graphic portrayal of violence in any medium truly necessary? Truthfully, it's an aesthetic decision—not much different than Peckinpah pushing the boundaries of what could be done in cinema with The Wild Bunch.
There will be members of the gaming community and the greater community at large who will assert that Rockstar only included over-the-top violence for violence's sake and to create controversy. I can't say this isn't true. However, in my own estimation, the violence in Manhunt seems more designed as a response to the company's critics than a mere gimmick. While Joe Lieberman and company decry the GTA games for their violence at every opportunity—as though these games were the most graphic things ever created—Rockstar has come out with a new game that makes the violence in GTA seem quaint in comparison. People who were afraid that GTA desensitized them to wanton violence have now discovered they're not nearly as jaded as they thought. I'd go as far as to imagine that at some point, people who thought they were desensitized by the violence in Manhunt will discover there are even worse things out there, too (and I know—I make a living writing about some of the most twisted stuff ever committed to film; believe me, there are things out there that make Manhunt look fairly innocuous). Whether or not this is a good thing is a personal decision—but I like what Rockstar's done with this gamea lot.
The other area where the game works really well is in terms of intensity. Manhunt is a hard game—a lot of the gameplay revolves around the old "try-and-die" school of game mechanics, meaning players will wander into an area, try something, fail, die, and start again. The enemies can be unforgiving and unrelenting in their pursuit of Cash, meaning that a slow and steady approach is often the best course of action. Running from a group of white supremacists whose only goal in life is to dismember me is intense—I literally had sweaty palms at some points (particularly in the level where Piggsy—a creature you must see to believe—was chasing me with a chainsaw).
Yet for all that's good about Manhunt, it's not a game without some problems. While Scott wasn't enamored with the controls, I didn't find them particularly troublesome. What bothered me were the title's later levels, wherein the game will switch from a straight up stealth gore game to a more frenetic action shooter. Levels occasionally employ run-and-gun game mechanics that seem strangely out of place after all the sneaking around, and it's just not as much fun as stealthily taking out enemies. While the early portions of the game tend to let the player decide to fight it out if he chooses (which is rarely ever the best course of action, but players can succeed by not using stealth), these later stages force the player into shooting everything. It's a bit of a letdown, particularly when the targeting system could use some tweaking.
Another problem area is the title's inevitable reliance on "game logic." Game logic issues are those weird things that happen in a game that could never happen in real life—and I don't mean flying, or magic mushrooms, or anything like that. Instead, I mean things like hobbits who can't cross ankle-deep streams, or players who can jump over some cars but not others—things developers put in to make the gameplay work or to keep players on the predestined path, basically. Manhunt's biggest game logic problem is an essential one, but it's still a problem. If Cash enters the shadows and stands still, no one can see him, even if the enemy is standing two feet in front of him. Even more interesting is that no one in the game, not even the bad cops, has access to a flashlight. I can understand why this is, but it does occasionally ruin the immersiveness of the experience.
Finally, even though the stealth portions are the highlight of the game, there's a fair amount of repetition while playing them. Cash sneaks around, lures in his prey, kills them, and does it all over again. Sure, the different weapons and gory animations attempt to keep things fresh, but even the novelty of killing someone with a chainsaw wears off after the 20th time the player has done it. Factor in that players will be dying a lot, and hence re-playing areas over and over, and the repetition factor increases.
I don't think Scott's wrong for scoring Manhunt with a 3.5 rating. I believe he was genuinely affected by the content of the game (which is so in-your-face it can't be ignored), and it kept him from enjoying the experience. Reviews are ultimately subjective pieces, and I think Scott did a fine job of saying why he didn't have fun with Manhunt. I feel the opposite of Scott, but at least part of that's attributable to the fact that I have a keen appreciation for gore films and transgressive cinema as a whole. Yet, even getting past that, there's a solid game here, buried under all the violence and controversy—it would be a shame if stealth game fans missed it because it was overshadowed by the title's gory aesthetics.
According to ESRB, this game contains: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language
Manhunt is, at heart, an interactive snuff film. Without a doubt, it's among the most unapologetically violent videogames in history. Human heads explode like pumpkins. Machetes, axes, meat cleavers are all used to disembowel enemies. Sniper rifles, when carefully aimed, can blow holes clean through heads. Wounded gang members beg for mercy, and the game gives players but one choice: deliver the death blow (an act which always left me feeling vaguely saddened). If there was ever a game that deserved the ESRB's Adult rating, this is it. (For some curious reason, it got a Mature rating.) Violence serves no dramatic purpose whatsoever in Manhunt; it's violence for the sake of violence. Adults with a delicate sensibility should obviously steer clear of this game. Manhunt, not surprisingly, is also racist and sexist. The White Trash gang, whenever they caught a glimpse of me, referred to me as a "half-breed." Another gang member, while chasing me, said, "You run like a beat-up hooker." There's absolutely nothing playful or lighthearted about the game. The protagonist kills without remorse, which makes it difficult to sympathize with him (even Agent 47 of Hitman fame has his moments of remorse).
Fans of the Tenchu, Silent Hill, Resident Evil series, or any of the recent Grand Theft Auto games might find a pleasurable moment or two in the game.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing gamers could have some trouble playing Manhunt. The cut-scene dialogue is adequately subtitled, but the in-game comments of the gang members and certain audio cues (like Pigsy's wailing chainsaw) are obviously not subtitled.