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by Rockstar Games

The ESRB really dropped the ball when they gave Manhunt an "M" rating. They probably saw the little note that it was by the same developer that made Grand Theft Auto 3 and Vice City and must have assumed there would be more of the same in Manhunt. Boy, were they wrong. Manhunt is the first and only game that I know of that fits that crackpot David Grossman’s description of videogames as being "murder simulators", because that is all you do in Manhunt. You walk around and kill people in the most gruesome ways imaginable. What is most disturbing about Manhunt is that you brutally murder people with everyday objects, and you get a very clear view of exactly how it is being done. I can just imagine that some kid is going to play this game and then kill their little sister or best friend with a plastic bag. Everything in the game is so realistic and it is so easy to reproduce in the real world that I am absolutely serious when I say that kids should absolutely not play this game.

What is most surprising about Manhunt is just how little attention it has gotten. The Grand Theft Auto titles set off a media firestorm where even ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption was blasting it for its mature theme. Acclaim’s BMX XXX was banned outright by several retailers due to its content. No one seems to care about Manhunt, despite the fact it is potentially far more damaging to children than GTA 3 or BMX XXX ever could have been. Even Wal-Mart, a store that has done everything imaginable to shield its customers from boobs, bad words, gore, and violence has Manhunt prominently displayed in their game case. It would seem that a game where you do nothing but stab people in the back of the head with a piece of glass or beat them to a pulp with a baseball bat would grab the attention of the mainstream media, but it hasn’t happened yet.

When I say kids shouldn’t play this game, I mean kids 16 and under–and anyone else should be considered on a case-by-case basis. If you are mature enough to handle the carnage featured in Manhunt, you’ll find a game that is surprisingly fun even though it is pretty offensive. The presentation is top notch and really draws you into the twisted world of movies featuring murderers doing what they do best. The gameplay mostly consists of stealthily executed surprise attacks, but there is quite a bit of shooting involved as well. There are lots and lots of ways to execute your victims and they are pretty impressive to watch. Not everyone will enjoy this game; in fact, most people will probably be turned away by the violence almost immediately. Horror fans will definitely dig it, though. For people that can stomach it, the game is fun enough that it is worth investing some time in if only to satisfy your morbid curiosity.

In Manhunt, you play as James Earl Cash. He was supposed to have been executed, but the lethal injection he was given only knocked him out. When he wakes up, he is thrust into a sick game where he must kill or be killed and so the manhunt begins. The person behind this horrible scenario is known as Lionel Starkweather, a shady character who speaks to Cash through an earpiece. Starkweather makes movies of real life murder called snuff films, so the more gruesome the murders, the happier it makes Starkweather. He promises Cash his freedom once he completes a few scenes for his films and guides him around the levels so that there can be a maximum number of executions. The story is interesting but never rises beyond anything more than an excuse to add new, more difficult enemies like SWAT teams into the mix and doesn’t ever come to a very satisfying conclusion.

The way you execute the thugs patrolling each level is by walking up behind them undetected and killing them with one of the many weapons that Cash will find along the way. The weapons include plastic bags, baseball bats, knives, several types of guns, and even a chainsaw. Each weapon can perform three different executions, and the way you do them is by walking up behind an enemy until Cash raises the weapon to the ready position and then holding the X button until an onscreen cursor changes from white to yellow to red depending on which execution you want to perform. When Cash is in a gunfight with enemies, he automatically targets their heads and they usually explode in a nice cloud of goo. Manhunt will keep you playing for days on end simply because you’ll want to see what executions each new weapon you pick up will do. Just about the only thing you can’t do in Manhunt is beat someone to death with a sack full of kittens, but what is included in the game is interesting to say the least.

A majority of the game plays like the many other stealth action games available where you can hide in the shadows and have to rely on surprise attacks in order to advance through the level. If an enemy sees you, you can simply run around a couple of corners and hide in the shadows and they’ll stop looking for you. At which point you can sneak up behind them and perform an execution. You can also lure enemies to your location by tapping on the walls or throwing bricks or glass bottles in order to get their attention. As long as you are in the shadows, they won’t find you, and you can quietly sneak out and kill them while their backs are turned. The last few hours of the game present you with more powerful enemies that are packing guns, and the stealth gameplay is pushed aside in favor of more straightforward gun battles. The firefights get repetitive pretty quickly, though, and the more stealth-oriented levels are a lot more fun for the most part.

Manhunt is also a rather scary game. It really feels like a perfect mix of survival horror, stealth, and straight up action games. It is a frightening feeling to be walking around the streets of this abandoned town and know that there are people around every corner that want to kill you. Even though you have radar so you know where nearby enemies are, enemies will jump out from behind dumpsters and scare the crap out of you. Everything about this game is meant to make you feel uneasy. On many of the walls there will be messages written in blood that are eerily relevant to your current situation. An example of this is early in the game when you need a crowbar to break a lock and enter a room that has "Here is your fucking crowbar" scrawled on the wall and you only have just enough time to read it before the enemy rushes at you from the shadows. It is sort of like Silent Hill or Clock Tower 3 in that it tries to be as disturbing as possible, but what makes Manhunt even scarier is that everything is so much more realistic. People are trying to kill you, and you are trying to kill them, with realistic weapons in a realistic setting. Absolutely horrifying.

The game takes place in a run down town called Carcer City where dilapidated buildings and empty streets make up most of the scenery. The levels are very linear and you are led from one thug to execute to the next with no opportunity to choose a different path. However, the game is so entertaining that you look forward to the executions enough that any exploration would ruin the pacing of the game and kill the survival horror atmosphere. Most of the levels are nothing more than alleyways or buildings with quite a few big open areas thrown in for good measure. You don’t have a lot of choice as to where to go next, but this is one case where linear level design is a good thing.

Graphically, Manhunt is surprisingly good. You can tell it uses the GTA engine since a lot of the buildings seem familiar and the character models have the same sort of blurry looking faces on them, but it still looks very good. Everything has a dark and dirty and gritty look to it that suits the game very well. During executions, the screen changes to a sort of a hidden camera view so you can see each execution the same way Starkweather is seeing it, which is a nice touch. The blood and gore looks very good as well.

The sound is every bit as good. The soundtrack is dramatic and well suited to the game and builds and builds, as you get closer to your next victim. The voice actors did an exceptional job and fit the characters very well. The enemies say a lot of different things as they are patrolling the levels, and if Cash is hiding in the shadows where they can’t see him they will yell all sorts of insults at him to try and get him to come out into the open. The presentation in Manhunt is truly outstanding in terms of both the audio and visuals.

Overall, Manhunt is an excellent game if you can stomach it. Great stealth gameplay combined with lots of weapons and impressively crafted executions all wrapped up in some very advanced graphics and sound. Not everyone will enjoy the disturbing content, though, so hopefully you have figured out whether you’ll like it or not by what I have said in this review. I just want to repeat what I said at the top of the review one more time. Kids don’t need to play this game. It has very realistic depictions of murder that kids don’t need to see and try to imitate, and the dialogue is littered with enough swear words and references to genitalia that I’m sure you don’t want your kids repeating it. If you can handle it, Manhunt is worth a rental at the very least but the 15-hour game is fun enough to play through more than once so I think it is a solid purchase.


Eric Qualls   (12/13/2003)


Ups: Fun stealth oriented gameplay; excellent graphics and sound; lots of gore

Downs: Extremely realistic depictions of murder with everyday objects; keep this game away from your kids at all costs

Platform: PS2