Written by T. Blake Braddy, @blakebraddy
Rockstar Games put themselves into a weird position after GTA: Vice City, because it seemed as though there was no one left to piss off. Murder. Profanity. Gleeful disregard for even the most serious of traffic laws. These are the things the Rockstar brand became associated with, and it looked as though they had peaked, because even the government had begun to take notice of these criminal action games.
What could they possibly do to top killing hookers to take back money paid to them for illicit services?
And then Manhunt came along. To hear the likes of Jack Thompson talk about it, Manhunt was the game that would turn every person who played it into a violent, unrepentant Manchurian Candidate and each of America’s schools into human hunting grounds for death-obsessed Dylan Klebolds.
This is the world Jack Thompson envisioned.
Manhunt was paraded around the media as a brainwashing murder simulator, held up as a sign of the decline of Western Civilization. The game was so closely scrutinized that a sequel was barely released, and only with some pretty substantial cuts to the gory execution sequences.
And yet, not a single person hurling vitriol at it seemed to have played it. The game was crucified on the basis of Rockstar’s reputation more than anything else, and a few screenshots and some unflattering game footage supplied the non-gaming public with a smug justification for denouncing it.
To be sure, the game is violent, and it is not for kids, but in the decade since its release, Manhunt has become an interesting divining rod for the industry. You can see bits and pieces of it in, say, The Last of Us. Granted, it’s difficult for any game that is not GTA or Red Dead Redemption to sort of get lost – kind of like the way Bully did – but Manhunt is a curious case of hype eclipsing a game. The question is, has a decade vindicated this cynical, violent satire?
In Manhunt, players are thrust into the role of James Earl Cash, a death row inmate whose reprieve from execution comes at the hands of a perverse “director” (voiced by Brian Cox) specializing in snuff films. Cash is taxed with hunting down and executing members of various gangs using plastic bags, hatchets, machetes, shards of glass, and whatever else is lying around for the benefit of whoever watches snuff films.
It’s difficult to imagine a time when reality television might have been seen as a fad, one that was disgusting in its own right and one that could potentially still go away, but Manhunt kind of takes that stance. In the way that Rockstar does satire, it is a very direct skewing of the viewing habits of Americans at the time, as seen through the lens of cult movies like The Warriors (which, of course, they would go on to make in the future anyway).
What upset so many people at the time were the executions, which lingered on an enemy’s death for what was considered a ridiculously long time. Because stealth is encouraged, players are “treated” to increasingly gruesome executions, depending on how long the attack button is held down. Armed with a knife, for example, Cash might just stab a gang member in the neck and let him bleed out in the most vanilla version, but if the cursor glows red, he is likely to jam the knife into the victim’s face in a totally not-vanilla way.
It is a weird game mechanic but one that is sound in the conception of its development. It challenges players to avoid detection for an extended period of time, though I could see how that could be construed as some form of sadism.
Honestly, it sounds a lot more sickening in description than it is in reality. The graphics are distinctly Rockstar, which means that they contain some form of realism but also have a doll-like quality that shades the violence with a distinctly cartoonish hue, and though this might sound like the sort of thing a psychopath might say, the portrayal of violence didn’t demand the firestorm it received at release.
What is interesting is that Manhunt does not portray violence and murder positively, because the player’s (or Cash’s) hand is forced. The main character is not killing out of some kind of immoral glee but because he is, at heart, a narcissist who values survival over human life. No, it says something more bitter and cynical about those who orchestrate the violence, whether it is the supposed audience or The Director.
As the game progresses, it becomes obvious that the act of killing is less about what the viewers want and rather shows The Director’s own penchant for sickening brutality. Whenever you linger for too long in a scene, he urges you on, and particularly violent sequences of murder elicit a near-sexual response from the disembodied voice the game’s real villain.
Beyond psychoanalyzing the game’s intent, it should be said that the game controls like a more refined early GTA. The stealth aspects, including the simple but effective execution mechanics, are really what stand out. Because the teams at Rockstar are essentially world-builders, it’s easy to criticize the sometimes uninspired controls of these games, but Manhunt is a rather tight experience.
The game conveys plenty of information visually and over time, progression becomes a kind of instinctual endeavor. Stepping within execution distance sees Cash raise his hand to ready the attack, and the simple white-to-red meter gives players an idea of when to unleash on an unsuspecting enemy. The shooting is so-so, but that’s not out of line with other Rockstar Games of the era, and the lock-on, head-or-chest aiming feels like an improvement over, say, Vice City.
The stealth is also simplistic in a good way, and even though the mini-map isn’t always an ideal way of maneuvering an area, it gives the game a believable paranoia. You’re forced to peek around corners or approach long corridors with an extreme amount of caution, because the farther you progress, the less forgiving the enemies become. You can run through an area and then find darkened cover to fool enemies, which kind of breaks the experience, but the combat balances everything out because enemy attacks are unrelenting and punitive enough to make you think twice about turning it into an action game.
Walk out into the open in front of suspecting enemy and expect to be pummeled.
To go back to visuals briefly, Manhunt mostly manages to straddle the line between realistically dark and over-the-top. In fact, it looks like a GTA written by Andrew Kevin Walker, and beyond strange hiccups in tone, the game carries itself with the sort of seriousness that GTA has rarely been able to achieve. It is unrelentingly bleak but never falls into moroseness, in part due to the superb vocal performance of Brian Cox.
It’s hard to believe they could have found someone to do better line readings of this dialogue than Cox, and his performance is, in a lot of ways, one of the most memorable aspects of the experience. Cash doesn’t talk really at all, so having an Atlas of your own to entertain you as you endure this endless parade of violence is especially satisfying. The music, like Cox’s Director, is a subtle, unseen character, one that appears when necessary and shuts up when the game demands it.
The game certainly works well. However, it kind of abandons the core concept of stealth toward the end, and gunplay becomes a much bigger factor, which does not benefit the playing experience. Rockstar games have always been a little slight on shooting mechanics, but it doesn’t feel as clumsy as the early GTA games did. Also, stealth kills with the pistol or shotgun only require a single bullet. You’ll just spend more time sprinting around the environment to find a corner to hide in.
Manhunt is an interesting game and a dark satire of the Rockstar variety, and even though it has aged about as well as the other Rockstar titles of the era, something about the simplicity of the controls and the singlemindedness of the mission help it to hold up a lot better after all these years. For Rockstar completionists, this game is a must. Stealth fanatics may also find something compelling, as well, and hey, if you’re into dark stuff, then this game is a great experience.