By dankempster 8 Comments
2011 has proved to be a very draining year for me so far, at least from a gaming perspective. Pretty much all my game time has been devoted to huge experiences - two immense open-world RPGs in the guise of Fallout: New Vegas and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, the sprawling JRPG Final Fantasy VII, and a vast racing sim in the form of Forza Motorsport 3. Even Viva Pinata: Trouble in Paradise, a seemingly simple affair restricted to the confines of a polygonal garden, managed to consume me with its incredible depth. For the last month and a half, it's all been about those big experiences. That changed this week when I finished Oblivion. Thoroughly burned out on the open-world RPG formula, I found myself desperate for something completely different. Something short. Something linear. Something focused.
I found a lot to like in Manhunt - a lot more than I was expecting to like, given the game's ultra-violent nature. One of its strongest points was its story, or perhaps lack of it. The scant shreds of story that are present are told through piecemeal cut-scenes, but a lot of what's going on in Manhunt is left to the player to decode and interpret. The themes are nothing new for Rockstar - crime, decadence and corruption - but they're given a much darker and more serious tone than in, say, the Grand Theft Auto series. Carcer City is a bleak place where there are no likeable characters and everybody seems to have their own agenda. My biggest complaint with the story is that its protagonist is left remarkably under-developed. Maybe it's because I've been spoiled by more recent Rockstar offerings like Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption, but I was left really disappointed by how uninteresting James Earl Cash is as a protagonist. One of the game's missions asks the player to save members of Cash's family, with the proviso that if he's seen, one of his relatives is executed. While the game demands that at least one family member be saved to complete the mission, there really is no incentive to rescue them beyond that, because Cash's lack of characterisation makes it impossible to care.
Manhunt's aesthetic presentation is also worth praising, starting with the visuals. While the game's graphics haven't aged all that well, they're rendered almost irrelevant by a brilliant video filter effect that kicks in during cut-scenes and executions. These grainy filters make the scenes look like they were captured on a home camcorder, which does a great job of conveying the "snuff movie" aesthetic that Rockstar North were obviously going for. Even better than the visual style, though, is the game's incredible repertoire of sound effects. Every single execution is accompanied by an appropriate sound effect, and in most cases the audio cues are a lot more nauseating than the visual ones. I actually ended up deliberately avoiding a few specific types of execution, simply because the corresponding sound effects brought me close to heaving. Somebody at Rockstar must've had a lot of fun in the sound room doing indecent things to various fruits and vegetables, and it really paid off.
Considering everything Rockstar managed to get right in the presentation, it's a shame they didn't have as much success with the actual game aspect of Manhunt. In games that feature both stealth and gunplay, it's somewhat expected for one to suffer at the expense of the other. What isn't expected is for both to fall short of expectations, but that's what happens in Manhunt. There are moments when the stealth action seems to flow smoothly, but those are few and far between - for the most part it feels clunky and inconsistent, making it difficult to set up and execute kills. The gunplay can be equally frustrating - Cash has a nasty habit of breaking cover on his own, which can get you killed very quickly. The fact the last third of the game pretty much abandons stealth in favour of shooting is a tad disappointing, and results in some nasty difficulty spikes towards the end. My final complaint is directed at the game's level of graphic violence. I understand the game is centred on the concept of the snuff movie, so a certain degree of violence is both expected and appropriate. However, I do think some of the violence in Manhunt is simply violence for violence's sake. Does every machete execution really need to end with a lopped-off head?
I think Manhunt is exactly the kind of game I needed to play at this point in time. Its bite-size chapters encouraged me to play in bursts, as opposed to spending hours on end questing in New Vegas and Oblivion. The violent nature of the game helped to keep me detached from the experience, a welcome change of pace from the immersion of open-world RPGs. It was short, simple and above all, fun. Now that I've wrapped up Manhunt, I'm in the process of choosing my next game. Prime candidates at the moment are Dead Space 2, which I picked up on Friday for a measly £1, more stealth action in the form of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, or maybe even a foray into 2D Zelda territory with The Minish Cap. For now, all that remains for me to say is thanks for reading, and I'll see you around.
Currently playing - Forza Motorsport 3 (X360)