When I saw the footage of aquatic murder sim Maneater from E3 last year, I had two responses. The first was that it looked really thrilling to play. The second was that it had the potential to be obscenely stupid. I wrote all about this in my preview, and tbh it's worth a read before you carry on, so I don't need to repeat myself too much. But was I right about Maneater? Yeah, I was.
The core simulation here is a perfect encapsulation of how it feels to be a fool's idea of a shark. It's acrobatic, intuitive, and drivingly vicious, like Ecco The Dolphin after a long spell in prison. But what could have been great in a game that was nasty, brutish and short has been stretched into an open world plodder weighed down with lacklustre mission design, endless repetition, and a confused, blundering disaster of a message. Maneater has moments of brilliance, but they're islands in a lagoon of bollocks-infested water, and it gets increasingly tiring to swim between them.
You play, as you've probably gathered, as a shark. And you'll absolutely need to play with a controller, as you're zooming around in three dimensions, flipping from the water and jackknifing in order to do murders or avoid them. Apart from anything else, you'd be missing out without the gritty haptic rumble through your hands as your shark GASHUNKK-GASHUNKK-GASHUNKKs its way through fish, turtles, humans and the hulls of boats. You can lunge, leap, roll, thrash, and do this completely mental thing where you use your tail to welly things in your mouth fifty feet into the air.
The control scheme is well-thought out and swiftly grafts itself to muscle memory, but it can be a bit hit and miss - your shark has an irritating tendency to stick to the surface like glue, shrouding everything beneath it from the suddenly-elevated camera, and it can be too easy to mix up diving and jumping, resulting in some momentum-killing belly flops. Also, at least until you up your stats a fair way, it feels like you can never quite wring enough speed out of the fish while swimming underwater, and end up frustratedly mashing the lunge and bite buttons to speed up your stately progress with little surges of motion.
When you get into long fights, such as early struggles with alligators or confrontations with human bounty hunters, it's really hard on your hands - you're constantly wrenching yourself through neckbreaking turns while hammering multiple buttons, and I started blistering in the course of a single day's play. But that's a complement as much as it is a complaint. Overall, the thing this game is built around is a well-executed, simple pleasure - as I said in the preview, it brings to mind that thing you probably did as a kid, where on long car journeys you imagined a shark zooming alongside the vehicle you were in, swooping and leaping and eating cars like metal crisps.
It's properly gruesome, too, with blood-clouded water, flesh chunks and all. Real hashtag-fat-blood stuff (a little RPS podcast joke for you there). There's constant roaring, even though sharks cannot roar, and it evokes the sort of feelings that leave review writers struggling to find alternatives to the word "visceral". There is a predictably sadistic pleasure to be taken in mauling defenceless human swimmers, of course. They scream and flail and flop, and the game encourages you to inflict the most primal horrors imaginable on them. Apart from anything else, after umpteen infuriating dogfights with alligators, there's a lot of catharsis to be had in letting it all out on something that can't fight back.
But of course the humans can fight back, in a fairly nifty mechanic that apes the cop-summoning of GTA. You've got a certain amount of time to sow carnage off a beach without repercussions, but when your "threat" level is high enough, redneck bounty hunters will come swarming after you on jet skis, patrol boats, and those things from the everglades with massive desk fans on the back. You can fight back by battering their boats till they fall in the water, or leaping into the air and biting them off the decks, which never truly gets old. And unlike in GTA, the game of "how long can I hold out against an ever-increasing army of cops" actually has a purpose here. The more bounty hunters you kill, the more your "infamy" increases, and eventually a boss shows up. Kill them, and you unlock an “evolution” which upgrades some part of your shark's anatomy.
These sequences of desperate leaps and rolls to throw off laser targeting, interspersed with wild aerial lunges at passing boats, and all taking place as you chug hunter after hunter to replenish your health, are a riot. If anything, they're a little too easy to master, once you've got the rhythm of them. After killing one boss (they're just as easy as any other human to pluck off a boat, so once you've mastered the aerial lunge they're a piece of piss), I decided just to throw caution to the wind and keep killing until another one showed up. I ended up chaining my way through four of the game's ten bosses in one Christian gulp, and swam away having eaten something like two hundred full sized humans.
Fights with wildlife are less fun. Alligators in particular, as I've alluded, are the bane of your existence in the early game, where you are still a small shark. But I kind of liked that, as it added at least some variation in play as you tried to sneak past them and eat smaller fish under their noses. It was like the ghostly outline of a semi-realistic shark simulator that I really wish I could play.
The other thing in Maneater that really made me long for it to be something else was its environment design, which is intermittently stellar. The underwater landscapes are superbly detailed, with tangled fallen trees, vegetation, reed beds and murk evoking real settings, and more polluted urban waterways feeling genuinely apocalyptic in their profusion of rubbish in the water column. The lighting effects, particularly at sundown, are gorgeous, and the shark - as one would hope - is fantastically modelled, with the same bulbous, surging strength as the real deal. Even the music, at times, is way better than it had to be, with orchestral swells when you reach the upgrade hubs called "grottoes", and the classic anxiety celloes when there's danger afoot.
And that's the end of everything good I have to say about Maneater.
The big thing is, it really didn't need to be an open world game. The plot, such as it is, is extremely quick to work through - probably five hours if you monster it, but probably longer in practice, for the sheer amount of time you'll spend buggering around trying to get around impassable barriers to reach waypoints on the map. And it's only the length it is through egregious padding. There's only a handful of actual “story” missions, stretched out with endless “kill [x] number of [wildlife]” side quests, which have no narrative purpose and feel like dreaded chores the instant the initial thrill of the premise starts to fade.
To be fair, I don’t blame the level designers, as what did they really have to work with? The story - a shark killed a man’s dad, so he killed a shark, and now the shark’s daughter is trying to kill the man - could literally be written on a cigarette packet, and when all your main character can do is slam into things while roaring, there's not too much room for invention.
And yes, thanks in part to the underwater nature of it all, the classic open world map-'n'-markers system is persistently annoying to navigate. Most of the game's main areas are inland waterways with barriers and stretches of land separating the pools and channels where the action takes place, and I spent probably 40% of my play time wandering around trying to find ways round things. Often, I'd be slaughtered by an alligator or another shark and have to start fresh from the nearest grotto, and your shark spins so easily that it’s hard to match map orientation with where you’re actually pointing.
It really makes me lament the idea that games that would otherwise be cheap and cheerful should be spun out into big, open world extravaganzas in order to provide more value. But it's not that easy! GTA is GTA because there's so much to do in it. If all you could do was eat other pedestrians, it would be a phenomenal novelty, but it would soon lose its shine. And that's Maneater: a fifteen quid game, with twenty quid’s worth of dull side quests forced into it. In fact, honestly, it feels like a mobile game at times (called something like "Big Shark Eat And Destroy", with nineteen different eight second adverts on YouTube) which has been cut up and resewn into the shape of an Ubisoft icon-chaser.
If you truly, truly love the game's central toolkit for fish-themed genocide, it might keep you engrossed through to the end. But in truth, I can't imagine even the frattiest of all boys, the Platonic ideal of the bruh, the most spring-break motherfucker imaginable, still hooting the word “sick!” through a haze of bong smoke beyond the game’s third hour.
And I can't finish talking about Maneater without talking about the way it portrays sharks. And again, to avoid me saying the same things twice, you should read my preview as that's basically what it was about. I actually think it would be fine if Maneater took a completely boneheaded, cartoonish, "sharks are savage monsters" angle, and leaned into it so hard it became obvious that they weren't serious. But given the story's framing device, which is a reality show with one camera team following shark hunter "Scaly Pete" (for cutscenes), and another following a shark with smarmy, discovery-channel narration (for the main game), it gets a lot more confusing, and a lot worse.
I get the feeling Tripwire tried to take a "both sides" approach, by interspersing the constant barrage of narration about how psychotic, dangerous and killing-obsessed sharks are with the occasional educational fact, or limp disclaimer that sharks don't usually act like the protagonist, which is "doing it for revenge". There's also weirdly out-of-place, clumsy environmentalist statements thrown in from time to time, which fall just as flat. This is all ineffective; mixing truth in with the bullshit only gives the bullshit the flavour of authenticity.
If the game wants to titillate with the ridiculous idea that sharks have nothing better to do than seek and destroy humans (in reality, they couldn't give a shit about us for the most part), then fine, it should go ahead and do that. But to try and mitigate it as cursorily as it does, is like someone crossing their fingers behind their back while lying, or a medieval warlord buying indulgences from the church to get a get-out-of-hell-free card after a massacre. The overwhelming impression is that the game doesn't really know what it's trying to say, and can't convincingly pass the mess off as satire. So it would probably be best off saying nothing.
The quality of the writing itself was fine, and genuinely made me smile in places. I just think it's a tricky subject to wade into without a coherent plan for what should be said. And I know "it's just a game," etc., but when sharks are as perilously threatened as they are, and one of the big reasons is that people think of them as a threat to be annihilated, it's just a bit depressing to see the idea celebrated. And whatever might be claimed about the game's writing undermining that, I'm sorry, but that's what it does. Maybe I'd care less if Maneater was fun enough overall to earn a pass. But as you’ve hopefully gathered by now, it’s not.