Those lovely people over at Rockstar Games certainly know how to create a stir. Their titles are consistently dragged over the coals by sections of the media, fuelling anxiety in the minds of concerned parents and politicians the world over. Titles such as Grand Theft Auto and Canis Canem Edit are key protagonists in a fervent debate dealing with the supposed harmful effects of interactive media.
The moral panic leading up to a new Rockstar release is simply profound, but perhaps more striking is our inability to avoid the arguments whether you play games or not. Of course, the hardcore gaming crowd are unlikely to be swayed in their opinion by the deranged rants of the Daily Mail, but with Manhunt 2, it seems the other side have won. Banned outright in the lead up to it’s release in this country by the BBFC, but eventually released in the States on condition that several cuts were made to the game’s content, Manhunt 2 may never have seen the light of day at all. It’s not the first time a videogame has been treated in this manner, but rarely has a gaming product caused mass debate on this level.
Should responsible adults be prevented from playing the game? Is it not down to bad parenting if a title clearly aimed at adults falls into the wrong hands? Is pixellated violence any less harmful that the ‘real’ violence we see on our cinema screens? These questions will never be definitively answered, and i’m certainly not going to try. The question I intend to answer is one that has probably been overlooked amidst the rows and court cases, and it’s one that many critics of Manhunt 2 and gaming as a medium would do well to try and answer, once they’ve calmed down and had a cup of tea. What’s the fucking game like?
Let’s answer that question with another question. Remember when your parents told you about how terrified they were by The Exorcist, or how sickened they were by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre? Remember the disappointment when you actually saw these films decades after their original release? That’s what playing Manhunt 2 is like. This isn’t to say the aforementioned works aren’t great pieces of cinema, or even that Manhunt 2 is a particularly bad game, because it’s not. It’s just an incredibly average one.
Playing as mental patient Daniel Lamb, it’s clear that the game’s opening environments are just as menacing as the BBFC made out. The flickering lights of the asylum and an S+M club lifted straight out of Hostel are two particularly striking examples of the game’s dark side, but once you move out of these atmospheric, dread soaked settings the game turns very bland very quickly. This isn’t helped by the fact that the storyline simply doesn’t hold a candle to its predecessor. The deranged whisperings of Starkweather in the original Manhunt were genuinely threatening, but Daniel Lamb’s story simply isn’t as engaging. The narrative jumps back and forth throughout the game which marrs any sense of immersion offered by the game’s early stages.
Crucially, there’s not as much reason for the violence here. Lamb does not have a psychopath breathing down his neck every inch of the way forcing him to commit the brutal acts witnessed in Manhunt 2, though the game significantly ups the ante in terms of violence. You’ll get the chance to burn, suffocate, bludgeon and even castrate your victims at various points in the game, but ultimately there’s less reason to do so. Cynics may be tempted to accuse Rockstar of resorting to shock tactics to sell the game. They could be right.
However, Manhunt 2 does feature some interesting mechanics to compliment the stealth based gameplay, most notably the QTE’s which occur as an enemy stares into your hiding place. They add a considerable level of tension in the game’s closing stages, especially as the gangs become more powerful and numerous. You’re also able to perform ‘environmental’ executions which require an added level of skill. Luring an enemy near these areas takes patience which is ultimately rewarded by the brutality of these types of execution, and you’ll have to know the environments fairly well if you want to perform them. Good ones to go for are the manhole covers and industrial mangles. Ouch.
Sequels can go either way. The problem with Manhunt 2 is that it exploits the aspects of the original which gave it notoriety rather than those which made it an entertaining videogame. As such, the sense of threat which made the original feel like a snuff movie is lacking here, and the nagging feeling that Manhunt 2 is a wasted opportunity is resident throughout. This title could and should have revitalised the stealth genre; inventive in part as the game is, it’s a shallow, depressing and ultimately dull experience.