Ever since it was announced earlier this year, Manhunt 2 has courted controversy. Creating a sequel to one of the most gruesome, dark and unique stealth action titles ever made could easily be seen as a beacon for watch groups to decry video game violence. For fans, the subject was much simpler: Could the title match or surpass the mechanics that made the first title work so well? With the earlier ratings issue that delayed the title well behind it, Rockstar London and Rockstar Games have finally released Manhunt 2 for the PS2, PSP and Wii. But while the first title truly blazed new ground on the console, the sequel isn't nearly as good as the original.
The original Manhunt was practically a commentary on entertainment, with the premise being a highlight on the most extreme form of personal amusement: one man struggling for survival with a sadistic director capturing his every move for a series of snuff films. The sequel doesn't attempt to build upon the story of James Earl Cash or the death of Starkweather, or lay down any connections to the previous title. Instead, it approaches a completely new subject matter, which appears slightly influenced by The Manchurian Candidate as well as fellow titles like The Suffering. While I won't give away any plot spoilers, the story covers everything from mind control and personality manipulation to secret medical projects, mental flashbacks and internal behavioral struggles.
The game immediately starts with a flashing montage of action at the Dixmor Insane Asylum. This is obviously a place that's gone horribly wrong, with doctors and orderlies preferring to beat the patients rather than treat them and their mental issues. Of course, this treatment can only go so far before karma retributively strikes back, and one dark night, a power outage strikes the asylum, resulting in the release of the inmates. The staff and administration is quickly overrun as the inmates seek their revenge against their caretakers, with chaos striking every hallway and cell. Without explaining any further backstory or introductions, you're suddenly introduced to the two main characters, Daniel Lamb and Leo Kasper. While this initial meeting is somewhat disorienting, it's rather apparent that this is intentional to fit with the situation Danny and Leo find themselves in, and adds to the atmosphere of the first level.
I say first level, because you don't remain on the grounds of the asylum for very long. In fact, the asylum is much more of a training stage, where you learn most of the game's mechanics, such as learning the ins and outs of the radar system, alert status of possible enemies and stealth kills. Stealth is still by far the most important facet of the game, since your characters aren't tanks or fully capable of holding their own in a one on one fight. As a result, you'll need to stick to the shadows and time your attacks on your targets when they don't expect it, splitting up packs of enemies and preying on the unsuspecting as soon as possible. Much of this is handled through the use of sound, either by throwing objects to draw someone's attention to a location so you can strike with their back turned, or using a USB headset to make noises to draw them from their friends.
However, in the first game, a player could distract some enemies and immediately head into the shadows for safety. That's not nearly as easy to pull off in Manhunt 2, thanks to the introduction of quick time events that are triggered by searching hunters in your general vicinity. Depending on how hard the hunters are looking for you, you will find a combination of buttons that will pop up on the screen that you'll need to input quickly to avoid detection. If you fail, you'll immediately get pulled out of the shadows by the enemy, and you can expect a fierce throttling. If you succeed, however, they'll be completely oblivious to your presence, and you can potentially go about eliminating them in a number of ways.
Again, like the first game, players can finish off enemies along three separate levels based on how long you wait to strike. You can pull off a Hasty kill if you want to quickly eliminate a hunter that's close to you, but if you wait even longer, you can trigger Violent or even Gruesome kills. As you go up in the level of attack, the triggered animation for each lasts a bit longer, so some of the Gruesome kills will easily last for more than five seconds, while Hasty kills are sometimes over in one or two. However, you are no longer restricted to using your weapons to kill hunters. In Manhunt 2, you can take out enemies with environmental kills, setting them on fire, smashing them with manhole covers or closing them into iron maidens. You can even perform leaping kills from heights upon hunters below you, frequently bashing their skulls in on the landing. Finally, as players eventually gain access to firearms, players can now perform gun executions on enemies.
Of course, for a title that focuses so much attention on eliminating people, you'd expect the targets of your murderous rage to be somewhat hideous as an aid to justify your extreme aggression. None of the gangs from the previous title make an appearance in this game, so players will need to become accustomed to a whole new group of enemies, each with their own visual look and approach to hunting you down. For instance, the Pervs, a group of bikers that like to hang out near a sex club, prefer brute strength and roaming around their territory, while the Bloodhounds are Southern mercenaries with hoods and masks (not too dissimilar from the War Dogs from the original game) that tend to move in pairs to track your movements. What's more, these gangs will frequently have a few tricks up their sleeves, turning around or doubling back suddenly to force you to adjust your timing on your attacks or distraction noises to avoid giving yourself away. Some will even have flashlights, which they'll sweep across shadowy areas in an attempt to isolate your location.
Unfortunately, some of these new tactics also wind up being the downfall for the enemy AI, as it can sometimes manifest itself in extremely stupid ways. For instance, some enemies will run in place or rapidly turn back and forth from one location while not paying attention to any actions that you make. It can be somewhat distracting to realize that in an attempt to demonstrate erratic searching behavior, the AI itself will simply break down, rendering that hunter useless. The same can be said about enemies with flashlights, who will sometimes abandon using these items during their alert and suspicion states. For example, on one stage, I was spotted by an officer, who called other cops with flashlights and gave chase. As I led them across the level for a number of seconds, I quickly darted into an open shed and pressed my back against a wall. For some reason, not only did a majority of them eventually run up and state their confusion as to where I happened to have gone, but they didn't even check the shed with their flashlights, which would seem to be the most obvious place for me to have gone. It's pretty disappointing when the hunting aspect of the game breaks down with so simple a tactic.
That actually brings me to a serious point, which is that you don't have the same sense of malice or risk that you had from the first title. In the original Manhunt, you felt a palpable sense of danger around possibly every single corner, and it was one of those situations where you needed to beware of each step you made, because there wasn't always a shadow that you could step into. In Manhunt 2, not only can you create your own shadows by breaking some lights, you can even avoid detection and kills thanks to ambient noise from machines or loud music. As a result, you never really get the sense that you are one second from being descended upon by three or more deranged or perverted thugs amped on adrenaline and drugs that want to pound you into the ground simply because that's how they get their kicks. You have more of a sense of being able to move freely across each environment, picking and choosing when you'll eliminate each enemy at will. What's more, you don't have that fear that the gangs will find you, because the AI just doesn't feel nearly as relentless or as dangerous.
Then again, part of that could also owe to the story itself, which feels somewhat disjointed and scattered throughout the entire title. Obviously, part of this was done to help capitalize on the sanity angle, but it feels trite and paper thin, especially because it's been done much better in other games or movies. Since you don't feel the same kill or be killed pressure hanging over you as you did in the original title, it's pretty easy to lose touch with each character, simply finding yourself killing enemies so you can get to the next area and repeat the same actions all over again. What's more, it's also pretty easy to predict much of what happens in the title, and yet even still you walk away from the game with questions, such as whether or not The Project that imprisoned Danny and Leo will still be a significant threat to them or other people at the end of the title, regardless of which ending you receive. Then again, since it's pretty easy to kill enemies, you don't necessarily feel that either one will face too much danger in the future.
This is especially true once you gain access to firearms. Like the original, you have to wait for a while before you acquire guns like pistols, machine guns and sniper rifles in the game. However, once you acquire these items, it can be easy to go and blast your way through your opponents, especially the ones that stand still while you're shooting them. While the game does a decent job of varying up their placement, and even spawns some thugs behind you on certain stages to give you a challenging firefight on some levels, the strength of these weapons is incredibly overpowering. Plus, for some reason, many of the enemies with these guns are horrible shots. While you might get tagged if you charge someone with a shotgun, it's pretty easy to shoot your way through enemies with crossbows, pistols and other firearms if you use basic sense and are quick on the trigger.
There are two other issues that do arise with the title, and they're small, but do have some impact on the title. The first is that Danny and Leo can move somewhat stiffly through their environments, particularly when you leap out to kill someone and attempt to reset yourself in the shadows to call another enemy over. Turning for them can frequently feel like driving a tank, and it doesn't feel as fluid as it could. As a result, you may find yourself making movements back to the shadows as the stealth kill animation is playing out so you have a head start as soon as the animation ends.
Speaking of the animations, it's somewhat disappointing to see the kills as censored as they are in this game. The first title was spectacular because of its brutality and its over the top nature. When you have a character that walks around with a pig's head on and his genitals hanging out on top of the bloody or violent kills, you've got something that is literally ground breaking. Manhunt 2 doesn't get nearly as over the top. No character is like Piggsy, and every kill, from a Hasty strike to a harsh environmental kill, has its color bleached out, akin to "The Punisher" game that came out a few years ago. Even worse, the camera shifts on and off of the action so much that it doesn't even feel as though you're harshly killing enemies. In this manner, the facet that made the title stand out feels somewhat neutered in its presentation.
What hasn't suffered, however, is the visual presentation of the title, which is just as striking as the original. From the dingy, havoc filled walls of the insane asylum to the dirty sex club level, the environments feature an impressive level of realism. What's very cool is that the game keeps a visual aspect that ties into the sanity premise behind the game, as weapons and healing pills vibrate and shake, making you sometimes question whether or not the items are actually there or if they're made up in Danny and Leo's mind. This is definitely contrasted with the visual style of the various hunter "gangs" as well; while you won't find anything as striking as someone wearing a smiley face holding a bloody baseball bat, you will find a range of people wearing leather masks, clad in leather or suits, or running around in military fatigues.
The audio is just as good, whether it's from you making noise to distract enemies or hearing voices coming through your headset as you move through the environment. The voice acting is very good, and there really isn't a poorly delivered line. While the kills may have been censored, the language hasn't, so you'll hear a lot of cursing and coarse language mixed with a number of humorous lines and other comments to make a great dialogue track. Sound effects, obviously, are good - that includes everything from breaking glass to chopping heads off with axes. It's an excellent ambient environment that's built across the title.
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