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Written by T. Blake Braddy, @blakebraddy
The reception that the first Manhunt got would make you think it was the opening volley to bring on the apocalypse. Amidst complaints that Rockstar Games, developers of the Grand Theft Auto franchise, was turning America’s youth into morally corrupt murder-zombies, the company released a game in which they handed players plastic bags and screwdrivers and just commanded them to kill people. That game was Manhunt.
Players were encouraged to perform increasingly vile, execution-style murders on drug-addled rednecks, sexual deviants, and people who could only be considered mentally-handicapped, all clad in terrifying and often ironic masks. The graphically violent cutscenes were so bad that even the game’s programmers were uncomfortable with the content.
Manhunt 2 came four years later, and it was not without controversy, which seemed to exacerbate its already tortured development. The game’s release was less widespread due to ratings issues, and the platforms were limited to the PS2, PSP, and, bewilderingly, the Nintendo Wii.
In the game, you play as Daniel Lamb – Gordon Freeman as imagined by David Fincher – who escapes an insane asylum during a riot. Led by companion Leo Kasper, Danny treks from one bleak, dilapidated environment to another, both trying to evade capture and also uncover the circumstances that led him to now.
It is ostensibly a stealth-action game, and though there are stealth games with better controls and variety of experience out there – Dishonored being just the most recent example – there isn’t one that is so very distinctly Rockstar, an attribute which carries a lot of weight through this sometimes suspenseful, sometimes monotonous experience.
While the first Manhunt has a thin veil of a story, hiding beneath it an excuse to brutally kill more unapproachable members of society, the second game takes story very seriously, which amounts to a vastly different experience. The set pieces are connected to an overall narrative, not merely just environmental puzzles for the murderer protagonist to figure out. Additionally, the execution sequences are blurry and less overtly sadistic, so it is obvious some attention was paid to the idea of being more mature.
On the downside, attempts at validating the game’s more self-conscious “maturity” occasionally fall flat. Sometimes – during cutscenes – it works to excuse the horrendous violence Daniel Lamb unleashes, but it always feels like a stretch, considering how unyielding Danny is in dispatching his foes.
And while GTA is adept at creating long-scope arcs for the characters, Manhunt 2 simply does not have the option. To maintain the unrelentingly grim tone, it has to place story around the edges of the experience, when it could have used any number of methods to intersperse the game with story. (Even audiologs would have been preferable to the info dumps in cutscenes.) Instead, the narrative comes in chunks and feels disconnected from the game and too self-serious by comparison.
Still, despite all of that, Daniel Lamb begins to piece together the circumstances that placed him within the walls of an insane asylum, and though it comes around as one (hopefully) would see from early details, it never quite makes up for the trail of blood that results from his search.
Overall, it’s an oddly simple experience, even for a game from 2007. Players pick up weapons and drugs (health), but little else, so there aren’t really any bonuses, upgrades, or collectibles to worry about. Even the weapons, which range from single-use items (shards of glass) to blunt instruments (the crowbar) to guns, all handle the same. Working in some slight differences would have given the gameplay some much-needed depth.
In addition, the sequel doesn’t introduce any interesting gameplay mechanics this time around, nor does it add layers of complexity to how the landscape is to be traversed or interacted with. For example, security cameras are introduced at one point and then subsequently – and immediately – abandoned. You walk down endless corridors and hide in the slim dark patches that are almost literally everywhere.
In dragging players through abandoned buildings and dilapidated cityscapes, the game transitions from being a straightforward stealth game to a sort of hybrid third-person shooter, which some people may like but I found anticlimactic. Manhunt 2 works best when it is a stealth game, and though guns provide some combat variety, they can also break the game. What it does not need is a comparison to other shooters, because of all the things Manhunt 2 is, a shooter it is not.
Including the potential for such heavy gunplay is what is frustrating, because stealth and violence are the two things the game excels at, and discounting one only reveals more easily the game’s true flaws. It suffers from the same faults that plague most stealth games – enemies immediately forgetting that they have just seen the target or staying glued to a single spot, no matter how many times they’ve spotted you – but that does not detract from overall enjoyment the way that clunky shootouts do.
I’d have much rather found myself in increasingly difficult and complex scenarios and environments, trying to use all the available resources to defeat an increasingly aware and skilled set of combatants. Being handed an assault rifle takes away from the experience, and it certainly allows players to opt out of what makes the game so interesting.
Becoming more combat-heavy would have been okay had more attention been paid to enemies. A few distinct variations exist, but for the most part they range from tough-guy mobster to tough-guy southerner to tough-guy spec ops guy (who is just naturally tough), and they all characteristically behave the same way, move in the same kinds of loops, and attack with the same kinds of movements. Being forced to reconcile one’s own playing style with different classes of foe would have been nice.
Or at least some variety in enemy type. The first game was full of interesting psychopaths, chainsaw-wielding hillbillies and the like, but these all eventually began to blend together.
As far as graphics go, Manhunt 2 is unmistakably the work of Rockstar. The enemies themselves look fine. They’re your basic stylized version of a person, and they possess all the on-screen behavioral flaws of a normal Rockstar character model: they seem to have been programmed the way extras are given direction in a movie. Just do something and walk around, in other words. Several times throughout the game, players will encounter an enemy doing a weird two-step against a wall, desk, or other obstruction. It’s not game-breaking, and patterns are key to a stealth experience, but it ruins the reality of the game when you see the gears moving under the surface.
However, the other thing particular to Rockstar games that gets in the way are the controls. Not unlike the GTA franchise, the controls are overly cumbersome and the combat unwieldy. Punching, kicking, and aiming are all inconsistent, which is frustrating when the stakes are so high for failing to execute certain button combinations perfectly.
But maybe that’s the point. I’ve always enjoyed movies that make the fight scenes look clumsy and realistic, so perhaps the inarticulate controls are something that should be lauded. Like the claim from earlier that violence should be brutal and off-putting, maybe the act of killing in a game, similarly, should be a burdensome undertaking.
The end of the game sort of gets lost in the postmodern-ness of its telling, and it feels less compelling when the truth of Danny’s past is actually brought to light. At least in the first game, the point was that the cost of freedom is not always what you pay for, which is an acceptably level-headed assessment for a violent video game, but the final quarter or so of Manhunt 2 is spent trying to legitimize the story and fill in the gaps, but by then it seems like an afterthought.
The Final Word: The problem with Manhunt 2 isn’t that it is a mere copy of the first game, which is a problem for a lot of sequels; in fact, it does quite a few things differently from the first. The game is a less interesting continuation of something that felt like an experiment in anarchy. It simply couldn’t heighten the stakes of the first game, because it seemed as though it went far enough. Manhunt 2 proves that even Rockstar will only go so far.
Despite the flaws, though, there is something singularly interesting about this developer doing a somewhat linear stealth game, with all of the personality that the studio generally brings to a title. That personality sets it apart from most every other game I’ve played. Give it a shot if you’re into a somewhat uneven but thoroughly violent and entertaining world and want to spend more time wherever Rockstar rests its bloody head.
Manhunt 2 is available on the PC, Wii, PSP and PS2 (reviewed).