Love 'em or hate 'em, the boys at Rockstar are arguably the best thing to ever happen to videogames since Mario. With their controversial Grand Theft Auto series easily outselling any other current franchise, Rockstar has earned the praise of game critics and the wrath of political activists. However, the devious minds of Rockstar North are intent on taking their vision of modern day violence to the next level with their latest effort, the terrifyingly violent Manhunt. Unlike the GTA series, which managed to infuse quite a bit of parody and humor with excessive carnage, Manhunt will focus more on the disturbing aspects of brutality and fear.
Manhunt makes it obvious right from the opening scene that this is not a game for the faint of heart. The main character, murderous convict James Earl Cash, is set to be executed by lethal injection. After being shot up with enough poison to kill a cockroach, he finds himself in a strange and mysterious city, completely alone except for the voice in his ear. Cash quickly learns that he is in Carcer City, a deadly urban landscape full of violence and death. The voice in his ear is a man who calls himself The Director; someone with enough authority to thwart Cash's fate, plant an earphone jack inside his head, and drop him in a desolate urban wasteland. Sound strange? Well, it gets stranger. The Director makes it plainly obvious that Cash is nothing more than small prey in an environment full of nasty predators, placed there solely for the purpose of The Director's amusement, who plans to watch Cash as he fights for survival. To aid in The Director's viewing pleasure, he has placed cameras across every imaginable angle in the city, so that no matter where Cash goes, he is always being watched. Being popular is a bitch, I guess.
As dark and disturbing as the story may sound, the gameplay is even more horrifying. Playing as Cash, you'll be forced to rely on stealth tactics to sneak through the darkness and avoid the murderous thugs who are hunting you. Cash starts out with absolutely nothing- no gun, no knife, not even a pack of Solid Snake's favorite brand of smokes. Your only advantage comes through sneaking through the shadows until you can arm yourself with whatever weapons you can find, be it a piece of re-bar or a shard of glass. Even then, you're going to be totally outgunned, since you'll often encounter hordes of gang banging mo'fos who want your head. Because of this, you'll have to fall back on instinct, hiding in the shadows, very similar to Splinter Cell or Tenchu. Even though this game plays the stealth angle heavily, don't expect some Metal Gear Solid clone. If anything, the game more closely resembles survival horror, without the zombies and mutant creatures.
The AI in the game will be fairly intuitive, and quite similar to that found in Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven. There is a radar system in the game that alerts you to the presence of nearby hunters, which provides a plethora of information. Like Tenchu, there are several levels of alertness displayed by enemies from a visual standpoint. If you hear or detect the presence of an enemy, an icon will appear on the radar. If an enemy has heard but not seen you, the icon representing them will turn yellow, and they will begin to actively seek you out, tracing the source of the sound. If they actually do lay eyes on her, the icon turns red, and you are in trouble indeed. However, there are many times when, after appearing on the radar, an enemy will stop being displayed, as they have lost interest and stopped moving about. When that happens, you have to go by sound to locate them. At this time, the sound technology to be employed in the game has not been decided, but subtle audio cues will play a large part in how you progress. Of course, all this subtlety goes right out the window once you break cover. True to real life, if you leave the shadows and run under a street light, chances are good that you'll be seen and pursued. Therefore, you'll have to think and react instinctively if you want to survive, rather than count on the limited vision and hearing of enemies, which happens to be a problem that plagues most games.
Of course, the game isn't always about running and hiding. More often than you would think, you'll find yourself ramming a shiv into a gang member's back or busting his head open with a crowbar. However, you can't just run into the fray Mark of Kri style and start swinging; you'll have to lure enemies away from the pack one at a time, get them to search a darkened area and sneak up on them. Once they turn their back on you and start wandering back, you can creep up on them and do them in. When you do execute a stealth kill, the camera angle will change somewhat, giving you a sense of what The Director sees as he watches his sick game. The longer you take to execute a stealth kill, the bloodier it gets, and the more dangerous is becomes. Linger too long and you may very well be spotted; kill off your prey too quickly and you don't get to see the extra gore. It's your choice, one that is determined by your skill as a player.
There are also some similarities to the Grand Theft Auto series, but most of these are simply a byproduct of the fact that Manhunt uses the same engine as Rockstar North's infamous mobster sagas. The character models, while much better done than those in Vice City, are still quite similar. Also, other small touches are very reminiscent of GTA. For instance, when you find a weapon, it will lay on the ground, semi hovering with a little halo around it. However, the game world will be much smaller than those found in the GTA series, and as such the graphics should be much sharper and more refined as the burden of constantly streaming a huge living city has been lifted.
Even though it is sure to draw comparisons to Rockstar's most infamous franchise, Manhunt is in fact a completely different beast, one that attempts to do something completely different from anything that has come before it. This game is nasty, disturbing, dark and dangerous, and it should give gamers an awfully good scare while at the same time thrilling their pants off. Manhunt is currently set for an October release date, so if things go according to plan we'll all get some good gory fun this fall while Lieberman attacks this latest affront to society that is Manhunt. We'll have more news on this game as it becomes available, so stay tuned.
8/27/2003 Ryan Hartmann