A hacked-up game about hacking people up.
Scientists in Ancient Greece believed that our bodies were made of four “humors”: blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm. The developers of Manhunt 2 must really be into reading Hippocrates, because this game shows us each of those four substances at least once every five minutes. Think of it as a four-course meal of your insides. Even after the highly publicized cuts that Rockstar made to its “murder simulator”, this is an incredibly gory and fluid-filled title.
[image1]So it’s not surprising that I’m torn in reviewing this game. Well, not “torn” so much as “eviscerated and forced to look at my own mutilated entrails”. I don’t want to judge a game for what it seems to be missing, but this game is obviously missing so much that I feel like I’m caught in a vise grip, squirming helplessly as the ESRB and Rockstar laugh maniacally at my tortured self. It’s impossible to play Manhunt 2 and not think about what it might have been prior to its present version. I’m not implying that it might have been the Mona Lisa of the gaming world, but it definitely could have been at least as good–if not better than–the first Manhunt. Manhunt 2 is a shell of its former self, but not for the reasons you might think.
Like its predecessor, Manhunt 2 plays like nearly every other stealth action game, only bloodier. You spend most of your time hiding in shadows, sneaking behind people, and killing them in a number of unhealthy ways. Imagine Metal Gear Solid meets Natural Born Killers. You begin as an escapee from a mental hospital and proceed to unearth your past. But like the great slasher flicks of the 1970’s, if you’re paying attention to the story, you’re missing all of the gruesome fun.
And there’s some great fun to be experienced. Manhunt 2 oozes with mood. The early levels demonstrate some of the most psychologically loaded environments in gaming. Few, such as Psychonauts, Max Payne 2, and Eternal Darkness, have conveyed such a strong relationship between the external environment and a character’s internal one. Danny Lamb’s twisted mind reflects the twisted, hellish world around him. Particularly in the early levels of Manhunt 2, the gutted buildings and stark lighting set the mood wonderfully, as you wander through claustrophobic corridors and visit the seediest parts of town.
[image2]Additionally, Manhunt 2 uses gritty visual effects that make it look a budget underground film screened only to a select (and perverse) few, particularly an effect that makes the screen look like a grainy, well-worn film print. As with Gears of War, the third-person camera shakes and wobbles as it follows behind your character. Environmental sounds bleed in and out – screams, moans, and breathing in all directions. Enemies have foul conversations and are not above turning their dirty mouths your way. Unfortunately, as the game progresses, levels have less psychological impact, and move further and further into predictable, drab industrial wastelands. Overall, though, the mood never slackens, and you always feel inextricably tied to Danny’s murky view of the world.
As fun and brutal as the first Manhunt game was, it had too much of the Grand Theft Auto series’ cartoonishness, and I never really felt the brutality down in my gut. In contrast, Manhunt 2 is as gritty and realistic as it gets. Even with the bloody sights of the executions left (mostly) to the imagination, the game remains so visceral, so intense, so convincingly disturbing that I feel far more unsettled than I did with the prior one.
If Manhunt 2 could stand on its moody environments alone, it’d be one hell of a game. Too bad you also need to play the game, though. To cut to the point, the gameplay falls flatter than a hammer to the skull. Everyone at this point probably knows all about how the executions have been visually toned down and obfuscated (and if you didn’t, now you do). Executing poor souls in the most grisly manner is the meat of Manhunt 2. Just like in the first game, executions are rated on a three-tier system. The longer you hold down the execution button without being spotted, the nastier your execution will be. But now, you’ll find yourself squinting at the screen trying desperately to see what’s happening.
[image3]While this particular change has received a lot of attention, this alone is no big deal. Many of the greatest and most brutal scenes in video games and movies aren’t directly visible, so the fact that the executions are difficult to make out doesn’t take away from their violent intensity, even if you crave brutal virtual slaughter. You’ll still hear the pulpy mess you make of your victims’ brains, eyeballs, fingers, noses, toes, kneecaps, and other squishy parts. Name the body part, and you can almost guarantee it gets sliced and diced somewhere in the game.
The biggest and most detrimental absence, however, is the end-of-level point tally. In the first game, this kept track of your execution skill. It tracked headshots, which tier executions you committed and how many, the time it took you to complete the level, and so on. Without this point tally, there’s little reason to kill enemies in any way other than by the lowest tier execution. There are many opportunities to commit executions using environmental objects – spikes, manhole covers, toilet seats – but since you get no added recognition for doing so, why bother? Dead is dead.
There’s no motivation to do exceptionally well on a level, to complete it quickly, or to kill people in more brutal ways. If anything, the absence of point tallies has made the executions even more gratuitous. The game gives no quantifiable reward for them, so now you just commit the most ghastly mutilations for no reason other than your own sadistic enjoyment. This is what I would call “broken”. While there is an alternate ending that you get for doing enough executions, you would have to be pretty bad at or bored with the game not to get it.
[image4]Outside of the executions, there’s little else to the game. Since executions are optional, I found myself far more often engaged in clunky hand-to-hand combat than in stealthy executions. What made the first game so compelling wasn’t just the story (which is admittedly far superior) or the voice-acting (Brian Cox as “The Director” was haunting), but the nuance and strategy of the executions. Without this, we’re left with a sub-par stealth action game.
The “cheap” aesthetic brings out the gritty underworld of our psyches to vivid life, but Manhunt 2 is far rougher around the edges than the first game. Since the game is built around broken and gutted execution mechanics, there’s nothing left to play but an emaciated and less-than-average stealth game. Even if the executions were restored to its original state, the game would still be a headless corpse wandering the dark streets searching for its missing gameplay.