Publisher: Take-Two Interactive
Developer: Rockstar Games
Release Date: October 29, 2007
Manhunt 2 made me sick to my stomach. But it's not for the reasons you think.
Rockstar is known for being one of the edgiest companies in the industry. Whether it's dealing with heavy, socially relevant material, gameplay innovations or a combination of the two, the company's body of work has always left a mark on those who play its games. So it came as no surprise when it moved into that uber-gore/torture-porn area of entertainment with the Manhunt series. Banned in several countries, the original Manhunt became a beacon of curiosity. It was probably the nastiest stealth game in existence.
What shocked me about Manhunt 2 was not its material; it was how sloppy it felt, and how intensely straining it was to play. And I'm not talking intensity in terms of Call of Duty 4 or Bioshock, where your heart rate race s with excitement. This is more like sitting in a dentist's chair or going in for minor surgery — this game hurts.
The experience starts out promising enough. You're put in the nutty shoes of Daniel Lamb, a patient at the Dixmor Hospital for the Criminally Insane. It's in the middle of a riot, where there are dead orderlies and assorted nutcases running around, fighting other orderlies. During your breakout, you are introduced to the game's core playing elements, as well as some of the characters. The most significant of the other characters is Leo Kasper, who serves as Daniel's guiding voice and companion. You see him in cut scenes but can only hear him during actual gameplay, which leads you to believe he's an entity that resides only in Daniel's mind. During the course of the game, you learn that both have roles in something called "The Project," and it's Daniel who left himself clues on how to piece his past back together. Of course, since he broke out of the hospital, he's got goons from the project looking for him.
As far as gameplay goes, you are essentially told to stay in the shadows as much as possible. A life meter at the bottom right of the screen indicates how well-hidden you are. If it's white, people can see you. If it's blue, you're fully concealed. You get to fully experience this while walking past a few cells, where mistakes lead to inmates either trying to pee on you or hurl poop at your head.
You've also got a radar icon on the screen's bottom left corner. Actually, it's more like sonar — you can only "see" enemies on it if they make noise or are close enough for you to hear their footsteps. It's a nifty point of tension when you see enemies on the radar suddenly pop up when they mumble something. On the flip side, you also have to be mindful of the noise you make, unless you want to be swarmed by enemies, who then bludgeon you into oblivion.
Of course, the core of Manhunt 2's action is the various ways you can kill your enemies. Most of the goriest stuff can only be accessed if you successfully sneak up on someone. The killings mostly require some kind of weapon, ranging from a piece of glass to a syringe to a plastic bag. Weapons also have different color denotations, and you can only carry one kind of each.
If you manage to sneak up on someone (target lock-on with a shoulder button), you can actually control how vicious the kill can be by holding down the Square or R1 button. The longer you hold it, the nastier it gets. A hasty attack with a bat is just a smack to the back of the head, while a glass shard attack at its apex can lead to someone getting stabbed repeatedly in the chest or neck (or both).
You'd think that the killings would be the most visceral and entertaining parts of Manhunt 2, but they end up being hugely disappointing because of the concessions that had to be made before the game could obtain a "Mature" rating. Most of the killing scenes lead to an irritating sensory assault that can be confusing as hell to the player. Visually, you get a lot of camera shaking and color changing, where the figures in the scene gets washed out in hazy blends of red and purple, like a bad acid trip (not that I'd know). I guess this is supposed to symbolize insanity, but I just couldn't see what was happening.
In terms of audio, you can hear bone crunching, flesh tearing and victims gasping and gurgling, which might be a great experience if I were blind (I know some blind gamers … I should ask them). But all the overall visual nonsense makes it seem like the game really doesn't want you to see what you are doing. And it succeeds.
This made me think of THQ's The Punisher a few years back, which featured gory deaths and the concept of torture with some visual trickery of its own. But The Punisher didn't blanket its killing scenes quite the way this game does, which is probably why I still remember it. Of course, The Punisher was released before the "Hot Coffee" controversy, so it wasn't subject to the same intense scrutiny.
The more satisfying deaths in Manhunt 2 are "environmental" kills, where you can do things ranging from strapping someone in a chair and power-drilling his face to "processing" someone in a machine. These were the only times I reacted with some kind of shocked expletive, and I figured I'd have reeled off a lot of those by then.
When you are busy not seeing what you're doing, you can get caught in sloppy slugfests where you can mix light and heavy blows, hopefully knock your enemy down, and then beat him to death on the ground. Daniel's not exactly Jason Bourne when it comes to hand-to-hand combat, so you've only got simple punch combos and an awkward haymaker at your disposal. Weapons are the key; if you have an axe, saw or spiked bat, it gets a lot easier if you flub an attempt to sneak up on someone. For instance, an axe attack practically guarantees a severed head — which, at one point, you have to show to a doorman. At a sex club. Run by crazy people.
I also didn't enjoy how so many facets of Manhunt 2 seemed designed to make you extremely uncomfortable. Daniel essentially controls like a tank, slogging through some really flat and drab scenery, from the hospital to the aforementioned sex club. I also hated the extremely claustrophobic camera angles, where I would literally find myself getting pummeled by three or four guys because I couldn't find (or wasn't allowed to find) the right viewpoint. There are also some pretty stupid moments in the game, where you can "hold your breath" to stop anyone from detecting you in the shadows, even though they're about three feet away. I also encountered a potpourri of silly bugs and glitches, like bodies being embedded in a staircase or someone I just killed still being able to finish his dialogue — a friend of mine playing this game also managed to pick up the occasional invisible dead body, in addition to all the other gaffes I just mentioned. It's sloppy, sloppy stuff, but it could be attributable to the developer's rush to retool the game. Removing some of the objectionable content could have had a ripple effect on other aspects of the title.
The only bright spot in Manhunt 2 for me was the story of Daniel and The Project. Somehow, through all this, I still wanted to find out where Leo came from and what the seemingly mild-mannered Daniel had to do with all of this. With the difficult camera angles, blurry death sequences, bugs and glitches, playing Manhunt 2 really was like doing to the doctor — it'll hurt like hell, but something tells you that you have to do it. I shouldn't think of a game like that.
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