Shock it to me.
The voice in your ear says "Kill, kill," but the sad sack at your feet begs for mercy. Do you leave him be? Do you kick him where it counts? Or do you bash his brains in? In Rockstar North's Manhunt, now out for Xbox and PC, you'll be faced with this situation many times, and so discover the plethora of gruesome options available to a sick mind playing a sick videogame.
However, you should recognize that if you choose to kick the hick in the nuts, then show false mercy and slip back into the shadows only to resurface and ram a blackjack through his throat as he shakily gets to his feet, it isn't Manhunt that's so disturbing. It's you.
The game follows the trials and tribulations of James Earl Cash, a death row con who, after being executed, awakens to find himself in a Lord of the Rings-sized snuff film. Fortunately for Cash, he's the star. Unfortunately for the player, the plot really takes a backseat to the intense, stealth-oriented violence. Although there is some plot to speak of, its tasty bits are few and far between. Instead,Manhunt has sort of a color commentator in Starkweather, the man behind the snuff films. He coos and growls perverse nothings into your ear via an earpiece.
If you're familiar with the PS2 version of Manhunt, then you'll already know all there is to know about the Xbox and PC versions, except that the PC version doesn't have the headset support of the other two. In the Xbox version you can don an Xbox headset and Starkweather will speak into your ear, just like he does into Cash's. In turn you can speak or shout into the mic and enemies will hear you and respond.
At its core, Manhunt is a third-person stealth action game with heavy emphases on assassinations and gun battles. The assassinations are extremely savage. Any given melee weapon in the game comes with three executions: quick and dirty, hard and painful, and loud, long and messy. Although there isn't a tame execution in the game, the longer lasting ones are by far the worst, as they allow the player to really soak in their own gory deeds.
Cash can sneak, walk and run. If he sneaks, no one hears him, if he walks, he'll be audible on creaky floors or gravel, and if he runs anyone nearby will know it. You're treated to a handy context-sensitive icon that reflects this awareness. If Cash is in a shadow and can't be seen by enemies, the icon is shadowed, too, but if Cash has been spotted it will flash red. With a bit of stealth and his handy dandy icon, Cash can lure enemies to his position by either making some noise or letting them catch a glimpse of him. Then the enemy will investigate, give up, and turn its back to walk away.
This is when things get…sticky. In the more depraved moments, you can sneak out of your hiding place and shadow your enemy. When Cash is close enough to strike he'll lift the hand holding a weapon. For a quick kill you can simply press attack, but if the button is held a targeting reticule will go from white (quick), to yellow (not so quick), to red (speaks for itself). The gorier the attack, the more excited Starkweather gets. This basic formula represents a big chunk of Manhunt's gameplay.
However, what might not occur to players is that they can also just sneak past the enemies. Cash has all manner of distractions at his disposal in the forms of bottles, bricks, and even the severed heads of his adversaries. You don't HAVE to be a maniac. And it was only after playing through Manhunt the second time around that I realized I didn't have to utterly brutalize every opponent I came across. What makes the game so disturbing is how you are prodded into such violence. The lunatic in your ear says "Kill, savagely" and you do. Why argue with a video game voice?
The act of assassination is always the same in terms of play mechanics, not to mention the fact that when the murder is actually carried out, you only get to watch. Right at the moment of homicide the game snaps to a cut-scene of Cash killing his enemy in whatever fashion you've chosen for him. This is one example of the several ways Manhunt distances the player from the grizzliest aspect of the game. Other examples include the way all enemies are masked, not to mention the terrible things they say when they're just standing around. Furthermore, most of the enemies clearly mean to kill you, so the harsh slayings can almost be considered self-defense. Almost.
Unfortunately, the enemy AI is extremely predictable. As a result, you have to dare yourself into taking chances you know are dangerous or risk being bored. Even though Manhunt is a relatively long, difficult game, it would be better if it were shorter. There simply isn't enough plot or character development in between the long stretches of stealth/shooting action to keep things interesting or fresh. There are some incredible twists and sick details, but they are nearly eclipsed by repetitive stealth slayings in the beginning of the game, and repetitive (and hard) shootouts near the end.
In a nice addition, Cash automatically aims for the head in the Xbox version if he's close enough to an enemy. Given the right weapon (a shotgun, for example), there's almost no limit to the viscera and blood Cash can coax from his enemies. In the Xbox version Cash can auto-lock by pressing L, whereas in the PC version he must aim manually.
Manhunt looks better on the PC than on the Xbox or PS2, although I'm not a huge fan of the graphical style in general. Everything is predictably dark and gritty (I would have loved a level in a sunny suburban neighborhood ala Blue Velvet or Edward Scissorhands). Cash himself looks a lot like New Jersey Nets star guard Jason Kidd, oddly enough, since Kidd isn't really known for exploding heads...or is he?
Manhunt sounds much better than it looks. The voice acting is great, and I'm utterly convinced that Brian Cox must truly be an evil psycho as he brings a distinct relish to Starkweather's raving madness. The sound effects are all excellently squishy and crunchy, and the ambient music is so good it deserves a better game.
Overall, Manhunt is a dark, difficult, bloody stealth game that puts fell weapons in the player's hands, and almost taunts them into action. "Go nuts," the game says, "they all deserve it, anyway." That might be true, but keep in mind you don't have to be the sicko the game wants you to be. It's just more fun that way.