Imagine one day you were thrown into a large, dilapidated metropolis filled with nothing but thugs looking to kill you in the most gruesome ways imaginable. Although you are of reasonable build and can hold your own in a fight, you must resort to stealth and cleverness to stay alive. Behind it all is the motivation of one man's sick and twisted fantasies. Welcome to the stealth-based psychological horror video game, Manhunt.
Manhunt was developed by Rockstar North, published by Rockstar Games, and was originally released for the PlayStation 2 in 2003. The game was subsequently released for the Xbox and Windows the following year. Because of the game's notoriety and cult-following, the game was also made available for the PS3 over PSN last year. Despite being favored by critics and players alike, the game goes hand in hand with controversy. Because of the game's depictions of sadistic violence, the game is banned in several countries. Cooperating very well with its gruesome violence is Manhunt's dark storyline.
Our story centers around James Earl Cash, an inmate on death row who has just been "executed" by lethal injection within a run-down metropolis called "Carcer City." Unbeknownst to everyone, even Cash, a mysterious man who calls himself "The Director" has managed to swap the lethal injection with sedatives. Cash awakes to The Director's voice coming from a nearby earpiece. Cash equips the earpiece and is promised freedom provided that he follows The Director's instructions. The Director instructs Cash to move through a nearby abandoned section of Carcer City that is overrun by a gang called "The Hoods." The catch is that this director is in fact directing snuff films, using Cash as the star. Cash manages to kill all of The Hoods all while being filmed from various cameras set up by The Director and is seemingly granted his freedom. However, as soon as Cash thinks he is in the clear, an elite group of private security personnel arrive, beat Cash, and throw him into a van. From here on out, Cash is brought to various sections of Carcer City and is forced by The Director and his private security team to take on various gangs who are looking to kill him. Along this edgy storyline, Cash will take on a white supremacist gang, a group of mercenaries, a gang of Satanic occultists, and a group of sociopaths across various environments including abandoned buildings, a zoo, and a shopping mall. If the stakes and danger are not high enough, "The Director" will eventually drag Cash's family into the picture. With literally everything on the line, James Earl Cash will need to give it his all to survive The Director's filming and to ultimately provide an ending to the films once and for all.
With a storyline so gruesome, the gameplay matches very well. The game is made up of 24 scenes (20 levels and 4 bonus levels) in which players can choose to either play on Fetish (normal difficulty) or Hardcore (hard difficulty) and are graded a number of stars at the end of each scene based on how fast and brutally each scene was completed. From the start of the game, in a short tutorial segment, The Director urges you to be stealthy. Players will first learn how to move around, use the shadows for hiding from enemies, and how to perform a stealth execution. The first "weapon" that Cash comes across is a plastic bag. Conveniently not far from this bag is a hostile gang member facing the opposite direction of where Cash is coming from. From here the player can quietly creep up behind the gang member and execute him by smothering him with the plastic bag. Once Cash is close enough to the thug, he will raise the plastic bag when the player holds down the attack button. The longer the player holds down the button, the more intense and violent the execution is. Holding down the action button longer can mean the difference between a throat-slit or a decapitation and can also mean the difference on how good your grade is at the end of a scene. This type of stealth-execution is the core factor of Manhunt's gameplay. At times, however, the player will be detected and will be forced to fight in the open (at least temporarily). If the player becomes injured, they can look around for a bottle of painkillers to refill their health bar. Although the player will eventually be able to access firearms, the main way to dispose of enemies is to hide in the shadows, make a bit of noise to attract enemies to the general area, and wait for the right moment to strike them down.
The weapons in Manhunt are divided into 4 different categories. Green weapons such as the plastic bag, a glass shard, and a wire are used for one execution and are then disposed of. Blue weapons such as a club, a crowbar, and various blades can be used for multiple executions and are useful in non-stealth combat. Pistols and a nail-gun also fall under the blue weapon category. Red weapons are similar to blue weapons, but are considered "heavy" weapons and often take longer to use when compared to Blue weapons. Some examples of Red weapons include a baseball bat, a chainsaw, and various shotguns. Lastly there are yellow weapons that are used by Cash to lure enemies to or away from him. These weapons are thrown and can be re-picked up and re-used unless they break. Some yellow weapons include bricks, bottles, and human heads (from your victims that you decapitate).
When I started to play Manhunt, it was the arsenal of makeshift weapons which first intrigued me. I quickly learned though that despite being able to carry one weapon of each type and feeling armed to the core, playing this game carefully is the key to success. When you move Cash quickly, bump into objects, or even walk on certain types of gravel, noise is emitted to which the enemy AI respond. These sounds are shown on a mini-map in the lower left hand corner of the screen by emanating circles coming from your position. When an enemy is making noise or can be seen by Cash, an arrow appears on the mini-map representing that enemy. The arrow faces whatever way the enemy is facing and changes colors to show how aware of Cash's presence the enemy is. For example, the arrows go to the colors yellow (idle or moving), orange (the enemy is suspicious of you being around), or red (the enemy has spotted you). Although the concept of being stealthy seems simple and the process may seem slow to some gamers, this game can be quite tough. I found myself dying on a good number of occasions from silly mistakes such as killing one enemy too close to his friends, alerting them. Although Cash can hold his own against one enemy, when two or more show up, it is best to run to some shadows, and try again after they lose sight of you. On the other hand, the AI do sometimes seem to set themselves up or purposely come inches away from you without bumping you, only to give up on their search. In short, to complete the game on Fetish difficulty it is pretty feasible, but to obtain a good score I found it to be fairly challenging.
As for the technical aspects of the game, Rockstar did not disappoint. The grainy, grimy, dark graphics are perfect for the game. Although sort of cliché looking, the extra static and camera lens view that come into play when executing enemies look pretty nice as well. Going further from just the scenery looking unique, the character models are always intriguing to look at. Cash himself looks pretty hardened, with a rugged facial structure, thick brow, and shaved head he sets himself apart visually from that of a traditional protagonist. The enemies have their own unique vibe with their scary masks, intimidating tattoos, and vile quotes. Although the enemies are full of words, Cash rarely seems to talk, which sort of helps the player remember this is sort of a horror game and you are on your own. The best part which adds to this psychological horror title is its soundtrack, insofar as the ambient, creepy sounds kept me leaning closer and closer into my television screen. For example, when an enemy becomes suspicious of Cash's presence, an extremely low bass-like groan chimes in. After the first time I heard that noise, I was able to say to myself, "I know what Hell sounds like."
All in all, I tip my hat to Manhunt. The controls are smooth and easy to master, the graphics are fitting, the sound is epic, and it even had some nice jump-scares built in. The gameplay can be a challenge, but completely possible with patience and strategy. What makes this game so memorable is its sadistic violence, harsh death scenes, and its kill-or-be-killed gameplay. Admittedly, the first half of the levels do not provide much of a story per se, but the second half of the game seriously picks up on this dependency. If you are more of a "run-and-gun" type of gamer, Manhunt may not be the best for you. However, if you're up for a challenge, not easily nauseated, and have a severe morbid curiosity like I do, find a copy of Manhunt and take a stab at it!
If any of you readers have played Manhunt or are have any thoughts about the game, feel free to post your thoughts below! Also feel free to suggest any other strange/horror video games you would like to see me review.