Manhunt is the type of game that I’m not really interested in. Gritty realism, with gangs and torture and an emphasis on ultra-violence, performed by none other than the player-controlled protagonist? Not really my cup of tea. I mean, violence in context can be extremely interesting (see A Clockwork Orange, or better yet, read the book), but from all the hype I got the impression that Manhunt selected violence as a means to stick out from the crowd–a way to sell more units. I can sympathize with the Blue Sky in Games campaign.
But on the other hand, a lot of people praised the game for being extremely emotionally disturbing. I read a couple of reviews where the reviewers wanted to enjoy Manhunt, but found themselves feeling a little queasy because of the game’s combination of intensely difficult sneaking gameplay and the brutally violent gang kills. This site is all about games that elicit emotions from the player, so “makes you feel queasy” sounds like something that I should be interested in.
Torn between the trite-sounding premise and the promise of emotionally disturbing gameplay, I decided to rent Manhunt a few weeks back and give it a shot. I generally enjoy sneaking games (the ones that don’t suck, of course), and I also happen to be one of the five people in North America who bought the PS2 headset (I got it for Lifeline, of course), so I was ready to experience everything the game had to offer. I also needed to determine if the game was correct for the Quest given my new-and-improved Quest requirements.
Manhunt is a pretty hardcore sneaking game. It follows the regular sneaking game rules: sneaking is a requirement because if you are seen, you’ll have to fight somebody, and fighting is very hard. Like many other sneaking games, it also allows you to hide in the shadows and obscure yourself from your enemies’ view. The developers at Rockstar did a really good job with this mechanic: they made it clear when you were hidden (via a HUD element), they made hiding places plentiful, and they made it so that you can move at your default speed without making any noise (you don’t have to crawl around on your belly to get behind guys you want to take out). An interesting difference between this game and most other sneaking games (like the Metal Gear Solid series, for example), is that the enemies do not follow predictable patrol patterns. They move might visit the same areas after a while, but they are not on a well-defined path like the bad guys in most other sneaking games, which makes predicting their movement a lot more difficult. The goal, of course, is to sneak up behind each guy in the level and take them out as violently as possible. The kill mechanic only requires a single button, so as long as you get up behind the guy without him noticing, you will kill him every time.
I think the sneaking mode in Manhunt is flawed in two ways. First of all, the radar isn’t just useless, it is deceptive. The radar in Manhunt only displays enemies that the player can see or hear. Now, if you can see the enemy the radar itself is useless, so you mostly use it for enemies that you can hear. In order to make the radar less useless, the developers have made all the bad guys make all kinds of noise (they talk to themselves, whistle, etc). But there is no guarantee that all the enemies in the area will be making noise, so you cannot rely on the radar to tell you when it is safe to move. I think the reasoning behind this decision was to increase tension: you may be able to conceal yourself easily in shadows, but since there is always some ambiguity about when it is safe to move, leaving the shadows is supposed to be a more traumatic experience. But in practice, I just found this approach frustrating. I’d wait in an area for several minutes while a whistling guy walked around, then I’d pop out at the last moment to kill him only to be noticed by his silent friend who happens to be standing a few feet away. Often the radar will suggest that nobody is around when that isn’t the case, and I found that relying on it actually worked against me. I think the game would have been a lot more fun with a motion detector (guys light up only when they move), or with no radar at all.
The other flaw I had with the sneaking in Manhunt is the enemy perception model. Most sneaking games follow the Tenchu awareness system: an enemy can be unaware of the player, can be aware of something but unsure what to do, can be aware of something and begin to investigate the area, or they can be fully aware of the player and move to attack. Metal Gear Solid follows this formula, as does Siren. But in Manhunt, the enemies only have three states: they are entirely oblivious, they heard a sound and move to investigate, or they saw you and are now moving to attack. The enemies have perfect vision, and can see and identify you from very far away. This, combined with the useless radar, makes it very easy to be spotted. Every time you leave the shadows, you risk being seen by a guy several hundred feet away, which will automatically alert all the other guys in the area. Even worse, if one guy sees you move into the shadows, all the other guys magically know where you are as well (this really sucks when they start carrying around guns). I think the game would have worked a lot better if there was some more fuzziness to the enemy’s perception.
But the real problem I had with Manhunt was that despite the fairly solid sneaking mechanics and the interesting instant kill system, I found it horrifically boring. The moment-to-moment game play is always the same: approach the new area, discern the best hiding spot, then take enemies out one-by-one. The levels are very linear and there is little room for elaboration on this theme, and the only real reward is the animated kill sequences. Compared to Tenchu or Siren or Metal Gear Solid, there is almost zero variety from one room to the next, and the entire game hinges on the idea that killing guys is a fun thing to do.
Unfortunately, I didn’t really find killing guys brutally very fun. Sure, there’s a couple of different animations for each weapon, and it’s sort of fun to see the over-the-top violence once or twice, but really, there’s nothing very compelling here. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not criticizing Manhunt for being violent; I’m criticizing the game for relying upon that violence as the single source of entertainment. I got bored with killing guys pretty quickly, and the sneaking wasn’t interesting enough to hold the game on its own, so I lost interest.
I didn’t think that it did a particularly good job of scaring or disturbing me, either. Maybe I’m just too desensitized to violence, but the shock value wore off pretty quick. The sneaking mechanics were well implemented but not nearly as tension-inducing as those in other sneaking games. Basically, the whole thing felt like a well-implemented but ultimately shallow vehicle for violent scenes, which is not what I’d call “emotionally substantive.”
So, next time I get around to it, I’ll add Manhunt to the Close Calls list. I think that it is weak in both of the categories I require: it does not try to be very scary and it does not have any real horror themes other than brutal violence. Too bad, because though the content was lacking, the implementation seemed to be pretty top-notch.