The Problem With Manhunt

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.

9 thoughts on “The Problem With Manhunt

  1. Hmmm…I found very little wrong when Manhunt came out. Scared me to death (I sacre easily), some real tense moments (the final level) and and a very, very clever satiric slant on killing in games.

    But I played it again recently and yes, I realised it suffers from linearity like you wouldn’t believe. NOW, this is because your character is forced into maze of death and with all the atmosphere the first time around, you do get a sense your being pushed along with objective designed to get you killed. Take that atomsphere away a second time and you see the game mechanic. Wipe out bad guys, move on, wipe out, move on. Again, the narrative gives reason to the mechanic, so in a way it’s hard to go against it without bringing all the elements.

    I think you missed out Chris, the fact that while this killing is forced the second half, when Cash is freed, loses it’s justification. The whole of idea of being forced to confront the idea of how violent the player is willing to become (remember there’s no actual need for you to go fully red before a kill) is kind of wiped clean. Cash loses his comnnection with the player when he goes from forced killer to avenging angel. We lose the sense that we’re killing to be killed or we’re violent for some nutter on a mic’s sake. Instead, we go through the game wiping out groups of people that Cash could have easily bypassed. Sure, it would have made for a short second half or even stilted (losing the game’s main mechanic of killing to progress).

    I though Manhunt was satirical game which forced players to think about their actions more, despite the antagonists being horrible characters. I think it expertly made the player aware that their actions here were no different to playing other games and showed a gritty, if OTT, nature to the murders. I think the point of seeing the same death scenes WAS to make you numb to it all. But at the same time it’s also lazy programming. The game itself made this statement more clear than Metal Gear Solid’s “death sequence” cutscenes. There’s almost a rose-tint to those bits and these moments come rare throughout the game. The rest of time you have no problem killing because it doesn’t confront you in the same way with the grunts.

    So yeah, I liked Manhunt despite it’s exposed game mechanic the second time around. It’s not something I play a lot though.

  2. The last four paragraphs pretty much sum up my opinion on it. (Well, I suppose excluding the last paragraph)

    I didn’t have much ambition to play very far each time I had played it.

    …”M” means “Mature”. Hence, not for punk-ass kids who jack off to the likes of “Halo” and other XBox garbage. Manhunt’s not satirical, and…for Christ’s sake, how many different death sequences do you think can fit on one disc? It’s not lazy programming, it’s techincal limitations.


  4. Townshend: I admit that my opinion is based only on the first few hours of play, and I’ve heard that it gets better in the second half. But I couldn’t put up with it that long, so I guess I’ll never really know. I didn’t think that more death sequences would have added anything, though, since my basic problem with the game was that I had no impetus to continue playing: the death sequences did nothing for me, and there was no other compelling reason to continue.

    Tabris: If you want to act like a child, please do it somewhere else. There are plenty of sites available on the internet where you can vent your anger at anonymous people you’ve never met. But this site is here to discuss horror games. If you have an opinion, consider phrasing it with a modicum of maturity before you post. Otherwise, I’ll just ban you.

  5. There was only one part that made me jump and it was when that gang member jumped out from behind the wall and yelled at me. I got him back though, jeeze he was a freak. It is defiently one of rockstar’s more violent games, but I don’t shock from violence in a game, I mean it’s more fake than blood and gore in a movie, because it’s just computer animated. The way the deaths are done though are very violent in concept. Like chocking a guy with a bag and kneeing him to death at the same time does not sound good to me, how about you guys? I actually found the game really fun, really, really, fun. Not because of the violence though, but because of the great voice acting (escpecially the director) and the general sneaking elements, the radar helped me a BUNCH. Some levels I would have not survived if it had not been for that radar. One more thing. While it does emphasize on stealthing, later there are some REALLY hard gun shooting stages, jeeze those things are a pain!

    Aw, Chris! I liked this game! LOL.

    As a matter of fact, at one time, I was considering writing a page at my site about my favorite top 5 (or 10, whatever) creepy games, and Manhunt[/i] would be in there somewhere, probably in the top 3.

    I have the PS2 version of [i]Manhunt and even considered getting the Xbox version of it (when it dropped in price), since I like playing on Xbox more so than PS. Never got around to getting the Xbox version.

    I did find the violence to be gross and disturbing, which only made the game seem all the more creepy to me.

    I was also surprised to see full- frontal- male nudity in the game (on the corpses hanging upside down). I never expected to see *that* in a video game.

    Okay, the italics tags didn’t seem to work in my previous post – sorry.

    I forgot to add that I don’t recall having any problems with the radar thing in the game. From what I remember, it seemed to work okay for me.

    I did, however, notice what you did, Chris – that a bad guy could spot you, even though he was a million miles away. He could appear as a dot on the horizon from your perspective but still (amazingly) see you anyhow.

    Overall, I still had fun playing the game.

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