If someone were to ask what the "Holy Grail" of videogames might be, one likely answer would be "A perfect blending of Hollywood storytelling with the player interaction of Silicon Valley." Like the Grail itself, this goal is currently (and may always be) out of reach. Developers made several attempts over the years, meeting with varying degrees of success. Until now, I'd say that most agree that the Metal Gear Solid series has come the closest to achieving the optimal formula. Still, Hideo Kojima's well-known masterworks aren't perfect. The line between well-told narrative and long-winded melodrama is indeed a narrow and easily broken one. Enter Headhunter. Originally intended for release on the now-defunct Dreamcast, Sega developer Amuze has adapted it for the PlayStation 2 in order to take a shot at discovering the treasured chalice. They don't quite reach it, but they come closer than most.
Headhunter is an action game with stealth elements starring black-clad tough guy, Jack Wade. The game is played from a third-person perspective, with a floating computer-controlled camera. The left analog stick moves Jack around freely, and R1 draws his weapon. In the "weapon drawn" mode, the game takes on a fixed perspective, but the viewpoint can be turned by holding down the Square button. Much like Solid Snake from the Metal Gear series, Jack can hug walls and pop out for surprise attacks, as well as perform stealth kills on unsuspecting enemies. Different weapons such as automatic pistols, grenades or rocket launchers can be equipped via the pause menu, or by the "quick select" option mapped to the R2 and L2 buttons. Jack also has a motorcycle that is used as transportation between locations, but I'll get to that later.
The story finds our hero waking up in a science lab with no memory of who he is or how he got there. After making his escape, he is approached by people he doesn't remember and discovers he was once a top bounty hunter involved in high-level clandestine activities. The game revolves around Jack staying alive long enough to uncover the secrets of his past, trusting strangers with his life, and taking on an evil syndicate—all while wearing dark sunglasses.
Easily, the best thing about Headhunter is the level of detail that went into constructing the game's world and characters. The first thing that I found impressive was the way that Amuze introduces the setting. Using live-action FMV with real actors (yes, the long-dreaded return of full-motion video!), they stage several bogus newsbreaks to brief the player indirectly on the elements of this near-future dystopia. Rather than being laughably bad or nauseatingly jarring like older attempts, it's high-quality stuff that does a great job. There are also numerous false advertisements for things like organ donations and a sports drink called "X-Must" that lends the entire game an air of believability and substance lacking from most titles.
While the game's setting got a lot of attention from the developers, I'm happy to say that the characters weren't ignored either. Jack isn't initially distinct besides his mustache and full beard, but he soon develops a likable action hero's penchant for one-liners and sarcasm. The rest of the game's characters receive equal treatment as well, with pleasantly cheesy B-movie dialogue along with a moderate amount of swearing and braggadocious put-downs. The plentiful CG cutscenes come off like something youd see starring Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme, except that Jack Wade doesnt have a speech impediment.
As much as I liked the atmosphere, don't let my appreciation of low-budget vigilante flicks fool you. My opinion isn't so easily swayed when it comes to games. Underneath the plot and dialogue, Amuze really hit the mark with their nearly flawless judgment in the game's pacing and direction. The stealth gameplay itself is decent, and the gunplay is entertaining enough, but none of it is anything to really write home about. However, every time the game threatens to slow down or become boring, Amuze spares you the dull part and skips right along to something more exciting. As an example, where most games would force you to go through the obligatory "escape from the self-destructing building", Headhunter cuts to a shot of the characters escaping and moves you to the next objective. Headhunter's play is also surprisingly forgiving and player-friendly for a game coming from a Sega developer. Literally EVERY time I was prepared to jump through the standard videogame hoops, Amuze came out of left field and delighted by sparing me from the usual boredom. It was quite refreshing to see that they weren't afraid to put out such a lean, mean package. The game is relatively short because of this (clocking in at about ten to twelve hours) but it's a thrill ride from start to finish.
While great design choices were made in many areas, some of the not-so-great choices that slipped through are a bit puzzling. This is especially true when riding Jack's motorcycle. Basically serving as a way to get from point A to point B in a hurry, the bike adds yet another layer of believability to the game. The control of the vehicle is fine once you get going since there aren't any special bike levels, but actually getting going is the hard part. For some unfathomable reason, the bike pops up into an unsteerable wheelie every time you hit the gas. Its irritating when youre trying to get somewhere in a hurry and makes things harder than they need to be. If motorcycles handled like this in real life, they'd be banned from the country.
Another perplexing choice (also regarding the bike, strangely) was the inclusion of "Skill Points." In order to gain access to later parts of the game, you must take tests to upgrade your Headhunter's license. One requirement for these tests is collecting a number of Skill Points. The way you earn these points is to ride like a hemorrhoidal madman up and down the game's roadways without crashing into things. Encouraging high-speed driving is all well and good, but it doesn't really have anything to do with bounty hunting, and frankly, it makes no sense. Qualifying for licenses was justified in my eyes, but it's silly to require reckless driving as a part of the process.
Those minor annoyances aside, the games most significant weak points are the perennial bugaboos of 3D games: the camera and control setup. When moving Jack around, the camera will often point in the wrong direction, or spin wildly when near corners. Constantly pushing R1 and keeping your weapon drawn solves the problem by locking Jack's viewpoint forward. However, it's not a complete fix. While in this "weapon ready" mode you can't run, and you also have to push another button in order to turn your viewpoint. Oddly, while moving Jack's targeting reticule, it would sometimes "miss" enemies as well, though this was rare. Using this makeshift system is workable for most of the game, but not as natural and smooth as it could be, which is a shame. Eating some lead is going to be unavoidable in tight areas or near corners, but it's more irritation than serious frustration.
While I initially had doubts about the wisdom of adapting Headhunter to the PS2, the game ended up completely winning me over. I'm very glad that it didn't end up as just one more casualty of Sega's poor domestic effort with the Dreamcast, since it definitely deserves some recognition. It may not the most original or inspired game on the market today, but there's no denying it contains an unusually large amount of action-film energy blended together with some of the best game direction I've ever seen. Headhunter isnt revolutionary or even very deep, but ends up being the videogame equivalent of a completely addicting popcorn flick. I look forward to Amuze's next project with great anticipation.
Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.
Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.
Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway