Manhunt: All the fun of the abattoir
When Rockstar released Manhunt in November of 2003 it was a rather low key release without much of the publicity or hype normally accompanying a Rockstar like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City the year before. However with time this game would become a byword for everything controversial in video games with its graphic depictions of murder, death, torture all set amid a setting of underground snuff movies. Super Princess Peach this is not.
Despite all that and the huge shit storm of tabloid allegations made against it since release and the ongoing controversy with both this original game and its 2007 sequel it is, as far as I’m concerned, an under rated game that often gets written off and dismissed as cheap exploitation for gore fans like Thrill Kill or Postal. So let’s put its reputation to one side (I’ll talk about it later) and just examine the game on its own terms to see how it ticks.
James Earl Cash has spent the last three years on death row in Carcer City a fictional eastern seaboard city much like Detroit or Chicago. Awakening after his ‘execution’ still very much alive but without much of a future as he discovers his death has been staged so he can become the latest star of a Manhunt snuff video for the mysterious Director. The Director gives Cash an ultimatum of death or active participation in his Manhunt game. Taking the route of willing pawn Cash is given a earpiece so he can hear instructions and is set lose in a derelict area of Carcer City filled with hostile gang members and a CCTV set up that would make Gordon Brown wank himself to death.
‘best option is to flee and hide’
In a â€œnormalâ€ game the protagonist might have some qualms about being used in such a way but at no time does Cash show any outward emotion. This has lead many to label him as a psychopath but a more accurate description would be a nihilist as Cash straight up don’t give a fuck and barely shows any remorse over his actions save for later in the game when his family become involved in the Directors twisted games.
With the scene set, Cash wastes no time in offing his first gang thug from The Hoods using a plastic bag much to the delight of the Director who’s joy and displeasure is always easy to hear thanks to Cash’s earpiece. Your first kill is a sitting duck but teaches you the basics of how to play and survive Manhunt. The controls handle much like any PS2 era Grand Theft Auto game thanks to their shared linage of being Renderware games. The left analogue stick controls Cash’s movement along with a sprint button while moving the right stick puts Cash into a first-person view. With the default view being in the 3rd person this can lead to some frustration as this control scheme goes against your natural desire to manipulate the camera to give yourself a better view around walls and other obstructions but once you’ve learnt to adapt it helps add to the sense of isolation and increases the need for stealth.
Make no mistake stealth is what it’s all about here, if you try to go toe to toe with the gangs you’ll not last past the first scene. On your first playthrough the sound meter in the corner of the screen will be vital as it not only shows you how much sound you’re making but where gang members are in relation to you and their state of alertness from unaware to cautious to hunting for you. If you’re spotted your best option is to flee and hide in a shadowed area as the gang members will always shout for help and in some areas outnumber you a much as 10/1.
‘severed head as a handy decoy’
You’ll need to make use of every shadowed area you can find to hide in along with collecting any handy bricks or bottles you find to throw for distractions or drawn in gullible gang members. Another option was to use a voice coms headset to make noise to attract attention. The PS2 and original Xbox headset could be used in such a way but don’t try to have a conversation with it on or you’ll quickly end up with a failed scene on your hands.
Once in a shadowed area (provided you weren’t observed entering it) you can hide you from the gangs and if you stay still you can often wait out any pursuers or even better wait for your chance to ambush them. Once they turn their back to you and you get close enough you can use an item and attempt an execution. Items found early in the game are usually one use weapons like plastic bags or glass shards with later items like crowbars and knives being reusable as often as needed.
With your weapon to hand and Cash close enough to use it the targeting marker will come up. A green target shows you have them ‘locked’ but out of range with it flashing to white when you get in range. From there the longer the hold the lock without detection the colour will change to yellow then red then black with each stage granting a more violent execution and better footage for the Director. Executions always trigger a quick cut scene with Cash performing the deed with short and vicious yellow kills all the way through to the ultra hardcore black kills that have Cash taking his time and in some cases decapitating his victims leaving him with a severed head as a handy decoy that can be thrown to attract gang members.
‘taking extra care in your ambushes’
As the game progresses the Director sets Cash up against bigger and stronger gangs with many a Warriors style thug to be found from white supremacist Skins, insane gibbering Smileys to military trained human hunters the Wardogs. Aside from the common stalk and kill gameplay you’ll sometimes need to protect allies or follow particular characters from encounter to encounter as the Director demands and even rescue family members when they’re kidnapped and forced into the Manhunt as leverage against you.
The weaponry gets more dangerous with simple six shooters appearing then giving way to shotguns and automatic weapons in the later stages as the Director employs the Cerberus security forces to at first to capture and transport Cash between ‘shoots’ but later as you break free of his control you’ll have to eliminate them before you can progress. The Cerberus guards will often work in groups and don’t fall for the same tricks as the common gang members so taking extra care in your ambushes is essential as one wrong move can leave you a bullet ridden corpse.
All of this builds towards the final stages where you manage with the help of a reporter to expose The Director as Lionel Stark weather a former Hollywood player turned snuff producer and track him down to his private mansion crawling with Cerberus security and an insane pig faced chainsaw wielding giant locked in the attic called Piggsy. After dealing with Piggsy who brakes free and begins to slaughter anyone he could find you trap Starkweather and exact your revenge using Piggsy’s chainsaw. Cash then flees the mansion grounds and disappears leaving behind him media frenzy not unlike the one that happened here in the UKâ€¦
‘still banned in New Zealand and Germany’
In February of 2004 some four months after its release Manhunt would suddenly become the tabloid favourite scapegoat as it was implicated in the murder of Stefan Pakeerah by Warren Leblanc, a seventeen year old who Pakeerah’s mother had claimed was obsessed by Manhunt. She called for all violent video games to be banned as â€œâ€¦this sort of material is allowed in a society where anarchy is not that far removed.â€
This sparked a true British media frenzy normally reserved for paedophiles or missing children with every newspaper, TV bulletin and chat show dominated by the tragic story. The fact the police said from day one that the game had nothing to do with the murder and that Leblanc didn’t even own a copy and that in fact it was the fourteen year old Pakeerah that had the game was all but ignored in favour of chasing the sensational ‘video games killed my son’ style headlines. Retailers such as GAME and Currys fearing a public outcry yanked any remaining copies from its shelves only to see the value of them sky rocket as everyone suddenly wanted to play the forbidden game.
By the time the case came to court and the truth came out that the murder was drug related and had less than nothing to do with the game the media didn’t care that they’d left the industry with a tarnished image that even today is still trying to remove. At present Manhunt is still banned in New Zealand and Germany with Australia reviewing their currant ban. The sequel hasn’t fared much better with many territories demanding cuts before release and a protracted high court battle to insure its release in the UK but despite winning on appeal has yet to appear on this side of the ocean.*
All of this negative press often detracts from what Manhunt is, a really good stealth game with an amazingly bleak atmosphere thanks to the different video filters added to the on screen graphics and the John Carpenter style soundtrack that ratchets up the tension to a point where you find yourself holding your breath when hiding in the shadows (especially if you where using a headset). If anybody says it should be banned just ask them if they know what the BBFC is.
* Manhunt 2 recived a UK release on October 31st 2008 but was the same watered down version that was released in the US.