Note: You play James Earl Cash, and you’re dead. Or so the world thinks, you having been executed for unnamed crimes. Instead of spending eternity wherever he was fated, Cash’s execution has been staged for one man’s murderous fantasies, and has been unwillingly dropped into the middle of Cancer City. A city littered with bloodthirsty gangs and video cameras. You’re only way out is to survive. The only way to survive is to kill. And that’s all we’ll say of the story, because that’s all the game says of it.
I’m going to be frank with you — I love this game, and I don’t care what that says about me as a person. My stance on it is simple: if would be singers and dancers can get their grove on by playing Karaoke Revolution and DDRMax2, if gamers can hike the ball in Madden 2004 to live out their gridiron dreams, if those who love speed but can’t get behind a real race car can play Gran Turismo 3, if wannabe punk skaters can hit a 900 in Tony Hawk’s Underground, then I can play Manhunt to vent my frustrations. And I don’t care.
Considering Rockstar’s track record, namely the Grand Theft Auto series, Max Payne franchise, and the forgettable State of Emergency, it should come as no surprise that this game is riddled with violence. ‘Riddled’ isn’t the right word — this game is violence.
Unlike its afore mentioned predecessors, Manhunt has little to do with story, but instead is driven by your need to kill. (Then again, State of Emergency had very little in the way of story, but as I said, it’s forgettable.) And when I say ‘need to kill’ I mean need to kill. You have no choice, because Cash has no choice. In simpler terms, it’s kill or be killed.
Take Grand Theft Auto: Vice City for instance. If one so chooses, they can follow the non-linear story, killing who their boss-at-the-moment tells them to, and let that be that. Or they can choose to dive into one of the seemingly endless side-missions, and kill a few more people. Then again, one can choose to forget the missions and story altogether, pick up a gun, and destroy everyone in sight just for the Hell of it. It’s your choice.
But that’s hardly the case in Manhunt, where The Director (voiced by Brian Cox) — a sadistic pervert with a hard-on for hardcore snuff films — well… directs your every move. Whereas the beauty of GTA lies in the game’s expansive world and your ability to freely roam wherever you so choose, Manhunt acts more like a platformer — going from Point A to B to C, collecting items along the way — than then third-person action game it’s billed as. Granted, comparing Manhunt to Super Mario Bros. is like drawing a comparison between The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974, not 2003) and Psycho. There’s some similarities and violence in both, but one has the knob turned past 11.
Fans of the GTA series might find these directions and walled-in levels constraining, but open-minded gamers will push past the obvious comparisons to GTA and see Manhunt for what it is — an entirely separate beast. (That is if you look past the Easter Eggs connecting Manhunt to GTA III.) But that’s easier said than done.
In October of 2001 Rockstar Games became a household name by releasing the third installment (fourth if you count Grand Theft Auto: London 1969) to the then lukewarm Grand Theft Autoseries. To quell the fans who longed for the next GTA game, Rockstar rushed out State of Emergency, which bombed with gamers in much the same way Jackie Brown, Quentin Tarantino’s follow-up to Pulp Fiction, disappointed moviegoers worldwide. Because it wasn’t a sequel to its unbelievably popular predecessor, it therefore wasn’t as good in the minds of the public.
Having learned from experience and not wanting to suffer the same fate twice, Rockstar made sure to give gamers something in exchange for GTA V — more violence. And when I say ‘more violence’ I mean more violence.
To make limbs leave a virtual victim’s body in both GTA III and Vice City, one has to enter a special cheat code. (Otherwise the virtual body simply falls to the ground in a small pool of blood.) Such is not the case in Manhunt, where you have two ways to kill: 1) hand-to-hand combat, which is not recommended considering the gang members are much stronger than you (that is unless you have a gun), and 2) a stealth kill. Meaning, hide in the shadows until a gang member roams your way, stealthily creep up behind him, and stab, gut, hack, or decapitate.
Each weapon (save guns) has three kill levels: grey, yellow, and red. The longer you hold the X button, the deadlier the kill. Holding a machete and want heads to roll? Get behind your soon-to-be-victim, and wait for the rotating triangles (which float around his head) to turn red — a dangerous undertaking, because the longer you wait, the greater the chance he’ll spot you — and release the button. The dark and gritty game cuts away to a darker, grittier, staticy camera where we’re forced to watch the kill from The Director’s perspective. If the kill is quick (grey), The Director is pleased, but not as pleased as he could be, so the next time you kill you wait ’til the triangles are yellow. Again, he’s happy with your handiwork, but you could do better with a little more patients and guts. So, again, you hold the X button that much longer and when the triangles turn red and you murder your victim ever so foul, The Director cackles with sexual glee. Sometimes going so far as to inform you just how turned-on he is.
Yes, the game is that sick. (If that’s not bad enough for you, bear in mind that the game only has two difficulty settings: Fetish and Hardcore.)
The first few times you wander from the shadows (or are experimenting with a new weapon) and kill a member of The Hoods, Innocentz (comprised of Skullyz and Babyfaces), Smileys, or Wardogs, you’re taken aback by the level of gore that this game gets away with — even with a Mature rating. But by the time you’ve killed several dozen virtual killers and seen all three deaths assigned to each weapon, you’ve become numb to it all — and seen it all. At that point you realize that Manhunt is nothing more than a deadly game of hide-and-seek, and the lack of a story becomes ever so evident.
But that doesn’t mean you stop playing. The two things that keep you going are the suspense, and the final payoff of seeing Cash finally get his mitts on The Director. Even past the point where I thought the game had numbed me, I found myself jumping (and sometimes cursing in fright) when a Wardog lunged from the bushes. Horror movies don’t scare me because I’ve seen all of their clichéd tricks (i.e. the camera held tight on a soon-to-be-corpse’s shoulder, just waiting for them to turn around and face whomever‘s holding the knife; an open door banging against a wall, yet no one’s seen standing in the doorway until lightning flashes, revealing whomever‘s holding the knife), but with this game none of that exists. It’s typical over-the-shoulder (RE: third-person action) gameplay, yet you’re still terrified because your confidence (and a radar that only shows you your enemies position if they’re making sounds) lulls you into thinking there’s no one in that bush or behind the Dumpster.
Good or bad, too violent or not, that’s where this game separates itself from the GTA series, because it strives to be something different. (Dare I call it ‘survival horror’?) It seems as if every other game that’s released is a GTA clone, so instead of creating one themselves, Rockstar gave us Manhunt.
Note: By connecting the optional PlayStation 2 USB Headset you can experience an entirely different game — an immersive one, where The Director doesn’t speak to Cash/you through the TV, but through the earpiece you both share. So when he calls Cash/you vulgar names, he’s calling you vulgar names. Which, in an odd way, makes the game that much more personal. Because you hear The Director in your ear, you want to survive as much as Cash does because, suddenly, you are Cash.