I found myself re-playing Manhunt for sheer perverseness – which is probably the best reason to play it. Some Hollywood columnist did a quick blogpost linking to a video of all the Manhunt executions chained into one another and opined that “The guy who created this needs to be put in a damp dungeon, his leg chained to the floor, a pile of straw to sleep on. For life.” And I watch the video and think – fuck it! Let’s go and and introduce a machete to a head and see how it feels.
I reviewed Manhunt when it came out, giving it a mark somewhere in the mid-seventies. Playing again after wrestling with getting it working on Vista, I suspect that may have been an axe-stroke generous. Low seventies would be nearer the point, or perhaps even high sixties… though I suspect the mark was fine, and it’s just the game’s awkward aging which makes me play the pointless hindsight game. Some bits which were just a bit iffy in 2003 are just plain horrendous now – like the cover system, which doesn’t let you do simple things like move from one adjacent piece of terrain to the next, even when they’re actually physically touching. When bullets are as brutal as they are in Manhunt, having to stand up and run over the few steps is deeply annoying. And then there’s the momentary physics-element, like an early section where you use a magnetic crane to bully enemies with a fridge. It’s about as easy as… well, trying to make a small fridge swing into someone when you’re controlling a fucking crane. Compare and contrast with a similar sequence a year later in Half-life 2 to see how quickly games development got the hang of this kind of stuff.
Of course, all of this was a bit duff then. People certainly said mean things about the shooting, and rightly so. Why were we shooting people with guns? This is a game about the aforementioned-head-slicing with machete. Stop pissing about and cut to the sheer brutality.
But the violence was only ever half of it. When it didn’t distract itself, Manhunt’s design was really a delightfully cut-down stealth game. It’s key mechanics – hide in shadows, stalk enemies, run away, repeat. Perhaps the most elegant mechanic is the actual executions itself. To get the most brutal execution – which also scores the most points – you have to stay unobserved, holding down an attack button and waiting for the cursor to change from white to yellow to red. AND THEN THE VIOLENCE. In other words, it’s a risk-reward system, encouraging increasingly risky play for the best rewards.
To be honest, bar curiosity to see the executions, I barely did it once I got past the initial few levels. Part of it was a fear of failure, since the game works on an oft-punishing checkpoint system. Most of it was because I actively didn’t want to go as far as the weapons let me. I could handle the crowbar, plastic bags and slices of knives fine. But when we start getting to the aforementioned machete, the sickly wet sounds of metal forcing apart flesh and bone are actively hard to enjoy. Sure, I take great pleasure in picking up the head and using it as a tool to lure my thuggish opponents close to my hiding place, but actually doing it is fucking hard to get through. It’s a revolting game, and determinedly so.
I dunno. Part of me wants to spin off into the analysis of Manhunt as an examination of the murder-simulator nature of videogames. You set up the kill, but you never actually perform it. Each death is a cut-scene, entirely out of your actual control. It doesn’t really simulate the kill, but the stalk. I mean, it’s telling the game’s called “Manhunt” not “Mankill” (or “Manslaughter” or, more likely, “Snuff”). The game is the stalking. The killing is… something else. The game is about filming a snuff-film, with everything – from the sinister narrator urging you on to the (then, relatively novel) grainy filters to the distortions on images to the blood splattering against the camera lens – trying to capture that. The point being, that at the point of murder that the game is trying to be as close to the idea of a snuff film as possible. Like the narrator, you watch, you don’t play. How do you feel? Do you laugh? Do you wince? What is your response to this thing you’ve put in motion?
The other part of me feels as if that’s too much for the game to carry. That aspect only shines when the game is working – as in, when you’re properly hunting. The normal, everyday game-violence (the shooting, the occasional melee) undercuts that effect. And, generally speaking, the game’s terribly crass in its approach. Its character designs are often more cartoon silly than decadent-horror. Voice-acting is Rockstar’s normal high quality, but some of the writing isn’t quite there. For a case of compare and contrast, play Manhunt’s asylum levels next to Thief’s Cradle or Shock 2 (Or Bioshock, even). The lunatic’s language and scrawled messages on walls has little of any of those game’s flair – though the grindhouse sound effects do have their dirty charm. Stepping away from the artier-side of mainstream gaming, compare it to Left 4 Dead’s dense scrawl. All too often, Manhunt feels like empty, artificial mazes.
I generally compare it to a sociopathic Pac-man. Occasionally it’s just as bare. Occasionally it’s just as purely compulsive. My finest time with Manhunt were playing at past midnight, after a few drinks. Inhibitions and caution lowered, I started playing more dangerously, pushing the kills instead of waiting for a perfect moment. And it’s here where the game shines – stepping out of the shadows, grabbing a guy’s shoulder and putting an axe through the top of your victim’s skull. A kill like this in Thief has grace. In Splinter Cell, it feels clinical. Here, it feels ruthless. The game flicks between admiration for the power of your character and disgust for exactly the same. It’s mostly its own game, and I always find that admirable.
I also find it a little sad, because it was a swansong of sorts. It was Rockstar North’s last new game. Since then DMA/Rockstar North have worked solely cultivating the golden-egg franchise of Grand Theft Auto – their only other credit is Manhunt 2, which they share with just about every Rockstar studio in existence. It was their last chance to be anything other than the makers of one of the most successful games in the world, and Manhunt wasn’t enough to show they were more than that. It’s the fate of many studios: you don’t make a hit, you’re closed down. If you do make the hit, you only make the hit forever. DMA were one of the best, most variable-in-approach British game developers of all time, and – as such – their passing into a new age of franchise service is to be mourned, no matter how much I like GTA.
In other words, Manhunt makes me sad as it’s the real moment they became Rockstar North, with the last of DMA snuffed out.