I wish I could talk about Manhunt 2 without addressing the endless debacle over its censorship. The press coverage of the game's AO rating, its near-cancellation, and eventual bowdlerized release has been so overpowering that it drowned out any discussion of the game's actual merits and flaws. Unfortunately, there's a very good reason for this situation, since the game, as released, is quite obviously the product of a troubled development and compromised release, and most of the things wrong with it can be laid neatly at the feet of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board.
Manhunt 2 is the rarest kind of videogame sequel, one that jettisons all plot elements from the first game, carrying over only play mechanics and tone from the first title. The most notable absence this time around is the first game's theme. Manhunt made a statement about voyeurism, suggesting that the player was every bit as deviant as the villainous ‘director' for enjoying the violence they caused onscreen. This time the violence is framed in an entirely different manner; instead of happening in what amounts to an elaborate film set, everything takes place in the ‘real world', or at least an extremely nihilistic interpretation thereof. The player controls a doctor named Daniel Lamb who, along with his murderous alter-ego Leo, must avoid being killed by government assassins long enough to discover just how he wound up trapped in an insane asylum with a vicious killer playing timeshare with his body.
The player is asked to accomplish this task primarily by murdering an awful lot of people. In that, Manhunt 2 differs very slightly from every other videogame available. The thing that sets it apart from other notable highs and lows of the stealth genre is that the murders are more immediate, plausible, and yes, realistic. While the Hitman slinks around garroting people to death with almost surgical precision, and Tenchu's ninja flit about supernaturally, leaving geysers of blood in their wake, for all intents and purposes, Daniel Lamb is Just Some Guy, and his weapons of choice, including baseball bats, ball-point pens, and battery-powered circular saws can be found in the average home. Even his pistols and shotguns are ordinary, everyday items, if we're including American households in the count. So when Agent 47 snipes the Vice-President of the United States from the roof of the White House, it's not controversial because a government official being shot is completely fictional, while depicting someone's head being cut open with a rusty saw could be classified as instructional.
The game is helped immeasurably by the quality of story that occurs between (and sometimes during) all of these brutal slayings. It's nothing that's going to win any awards, but everything progresses in a clear and logical fashion. Questions are raised, then answered in a satisfying manner, and it's all presented by extremely solid voice acting. The one problem in that respect is the actor playing Leo, the bad angel on the player's shoulder. From the moment the game begins, he's always there, urging the player forward to more gruesome and excessive acts of violence, taking on Brian Cox's role from the first title. Sadly, he just doesn't bring any gravitas to the role, and more importantly, just isn't scary enough for the part. It's too bad, though, because the game's treatment of Daniel's deviant personality is among the best I've seen in a long time. Especially because the character's status as a figment of the imagination isn't used as a twist or kicker. From the first moment he appears onscreen, players know exactly what Leo is, and that they're controlling a character with serious problems that extend well beyond the people trying to kill him. There's confident storytelling on display, and that deserves compliments, even if the story being told is one that very few people will ever want to hear.
The gameplay sticks pretty close to the series' previous entry, in that there's literally almost nothing to do but stalk and kill people. Sure, every now and then a key item needs to be tracked down, but beyond that, the game swings wildly from utterly competent stealth gameplay to woefully ill-conceived gunfighting. That's not to say the gunfighting is completely awkward—the Wii controls ensure that it's easy enough to sight and execute victims, but the game's movement and cover engines, while fine for ducking into shadows and waiting to slit throats, just aren't up to dealing with the sheer volume of gunplay the game requires, especially towards the end of the game. This is the exact flaw the first game suffered from, and I can't imagine anyone involved in that game coming away from the experience thinking "You know what that needed? More shooting." Only the inclusion of much needed 'firearm executions' keeps the inclusion of gunplay in the game from being a complete wash. The humor of tapping someone on the shoulder and having them turn around to see a shotgun aimed at their face goes a long way towards mitigating the terrible combat.
The Wii controls are also an incredibly mixed bag, with only one of the new ideas on display being worth anything at all. This is the hiding mechanic—when villains are peering into the shadows, looking for Daniel, the player has to hold the controller completely still to avoid being seen. This is a great idea that really goes a long way towards putting the player in the character's shoes. Especially because the camera switches over to first-person mode whenever it happens, so the villains lean right into the television screen as they search the darkness. Less successful are the ‘vicious murder' commands that got the game into so much trouble in England. In the first Manhunt, the viciousness of murder was determined by the amount of time the player spent creeping up behind their victim. Now, in addition to that time spent stalking, the player is asked to crudely mime various actions in order to see them reproduced onscreen. The motion detection works well enough, and I think there would probably be some visceral thrill to be gleaned from shaking both controllers from side to side, approximating the experience of strangling someone with barbed wire, if the omnipresent censorship didn't keep me from being able to tell what was going on.
That's right, the biggest problem with the game is just how overpowering the censorship is. When I heard that the game's violence had been toned down, I imagined simple touches, such as removing excessive amounts of blood, or tastefully panning away from the worst atrocities. After all, how may films have held onto their R rating by showing an axe swinging, but leaving the point of its impact just off camera? The solution offered here was to add a black and red filter over all of the execution animations. Whenever the player starts to do something nasty, the screen shakes badly and random shapes fly in their face, while everything gets so dark that anything but the broadest details are almost impossible to make out. This is one of the few occasions where I'd recommend playing the game on a smaller screen, because I played the game on a large HDTV, and wound up suffering from eyestrain and minor headaches. It's only natural, especially when playing a stealth game, to really get into the action, leaning forwards a little and focusing on the screen while sneaking up behind a victim. Having the screen essentially go schizophrenic at the climax of these sequences is not wholly dissimilar to having the game slap the player in the face for following the rules. The kicker is that the 'murder simulating' Wii controls, with all their thrusting and stabbing, lose any purpose in this version of the game. Every kill involves a series of steps, in which the player has to perform a new action to keep the kill going. The game offers no incentive for the gamer to play along with this, though—following the onscreen instructions only prolongs the amount of time the screen is covered in static.
In his review of The Punisher, Brad Gallaway pointed out something I had missed when covering the game—just how badly the game's inexplicable censorship crippled what little fun could be gleaned from that title. Manhunt 2 is a far better example of the same problem. Yes, it's an incredibly, borderline obscenely, brutal game, but within its own context it tells an interesting story and provides some great thrills for the player—or at least it would if it weren't so busy trying to give its players seizures. As a story, it's a minor success, but anything Manhunt 2 could have accomplished as a videogame is undercut by the changes forced on Rockstar by the ESRB. Given how willfully it wades into depravity and disgust, Manhunt 2 might not be the ideal poster child for a workable adult rating for videogames, but it's the game that started the discussion, and hopefully that discussion will lead, somewhere down the line, to someone making a game without worrying what might happen if a child stumbled upon it.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Wii version of the game.