The Game: Manhunt (2003)
Developer: Rockstar North
Publisher: Rockstar Games
System: PC, Playstation 2, Playstation 3 (PSN), Xbox
Buy it on Amazon: RIGHT HERE
The Premise: The Running Man by way of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.
Is It Any Good?: As I’ve mentioned in my previous spooktakular Random Select entries, video game controversy rarely lives up to the hype and caterwauling. While politicians and parents bemoan the wanton violence and moral depravity, it’s obvious that the real problem lies not with the content itself, but the perception of video games as the domain of children. Far more disturbing material is readily available in other mediums, meaning what we’re left with is the proverbial tempest in a teapot and a bunch of jaded gamers shaking their heads ruefully as they beat a pedestrian to death with a bat-sized purple dildo. Rockstar is a company has historically thrived on such unfounded controversy, from the comically wrong-headed kerfuffle surrounding Bully to the 100-Megaton mother of all outrage surrounding its flagship car-jackin’ series. So it’s a touch ironic that when they finally did release a game at least partially deserving of some eyebrow raising, it was largely overshadowed by its goofily vulgar cousin.
Where Grand Theft Auto is a series that reveals in cartoonish hyperbolic violence, Manhunt is a far more grounded affair. Playing as condemned serial killer James Earl Cash, you find out that your “execution” was a ruse and that you’ve instead been drugged and dropped in abandoned Carcer City at the behest of snuff film producer Lionel Starkweather. There you engage in a game of cat and homicidal lunatic with various gangs tasked with hunting you down. Gameplay is stealth-focused, and until the later levels were gunplay becomes more predominant (more on that later) you’ll typically only encounter a handful of enemies at a time. It’s a far cry from the rocket launcher vs. police tank encounters of GTA, but the scale, and more importantly, the presentation of the violence give it a much more visceral impact. Rather than simply killing enemies, by engaging them stealthily you can hit various execution maneuvers and…well, I’ll let this video speak for itself:
Yet it’s more than just the violence. Carefully stalking an enemy, isolating them and then executing one of the finishers brings with it a grim satisfaction, and between the minimalist soundtrack, the grainy VHS filter, the ambient audio and the dilapidated settings, the overall feel is one of grungy sleaze appropriate to the games snuff film narrative. Again, taken in the abstract nothing in here is any more shocking or gruesome than what you might encounter in a Saw or Hostel. Yet for me at least, much like the recent Walking Dead overcame its genre clichés by providing engagement through interaction, actually controlling Cash grants an increased degree of immersion to the proceedings. You’re not the audience in twisted this little production, you’re the star, and there were moments in Manhunt that managed to illicit that fleeting emotional connection unique to the video game medium.
Oh, and speaking of stars, one of the key elements to the game’s atmosphere is the director Starkweather, who keeps in communication with Cash throughout the proceedings via earpiece. Voiced to greasy perfection by none other than Brian Cox, Starkweather constantly urges Cash to greater and greater violence with such gems as “oh yeah, that’s the moneyshot” and “you’re really getting’ me hot Cash.” Frankly, if the concept of Brian Cox jerkin’ it so right while you murder people isn’t disturbing to you, please never come by house. PS2 and Xbox gamers had the option of being able to plug in their headsets and get their disturbing commentary delivered in appropriate lo-fi fashion, with the added bonus of being able to use your voice to distract or bait your hunters.
Still, while it may shock out of the gate, ultimately Manhunt falls prey to the standard narrative weaknesses of the medium. Desensitization is born out of sheer repetition, and by the fourth or fifth level video game syndrome will have likely set in. I found myself concerned less with the disturbing nature of entertainment and man’s capacity for violence, and more with upping my post-level star rating. The fact that the game’s story moves into a more traditional (and far less interesting) anti-hero direction doesn’t help matters either. Thankfully the mechanics hold up even as the initial atmosphere fades, and as someone who typically isn’t a big fan of stealth I found the gameplay consistently entertaining. If there’s one glaring hiccup it’s the guns, never Rockstar’s strong suit but particularly obnoxious here when contrasted with the solid stealth mechanics. It’s undeniably crap, and considering how fragile your character is these sequences often come down to rote memorization born out of constant re-spawns as you’re force to one-shot enemies in preset patterns. While personally I don’t think it’s enough to spoil the experience, fair warning to the curious.
Bonus Points: While the sequel Manhunt 2 took flack for moving the narrative in a less interesting direction and having arguably weaker gameplay, one area where it exceeded its predecessors was in the graphic executions. Or at least it did, until Rockstar was required to make a number of changes, including implementing an obnoxious visual filter, in order to ditch the game’s original AO rating (a de facto ban from all consoles). Thankfully that kind of change is like catnip for hackers, and soft mods were quickly available for all platforms that removed the distracting filter. There’s also an uncensored PC version currently available on Rockstar’s website. As one of the few deviants who actually like motion controls I ended up with the Wii version, though sadly the pre-release speculation regarding authentic Wiimote shanking and garroting action proved false, meaning we’re just going to have to wait for the holodeck to get that proper murder simulator politicians are always whinging on about. In the meantime, enjoy this compilation video, and have a very graphic Halloween!
MOAR LIKE THIS PLZ: Manhunt 2, Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, Hitman, Velvet Assassin, Condemned: Criminal Origins, Hotline Miami
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