Oct 29, 2007
It's been dogged by months of controversy, moral outrage, an outright ban in the UK and speculation that it might never come out at all, but Manhunt 2 is finally here. It's been through a few changes since we first saw it, but the basic premise of this stealth-horror adventure - hiding in the shadows and doing extremely nasty things to extremely nasty people - remains intact, as does its creepy storyline about escaped mental patients pursued by a shadowy, quasi-governmental research project. What has changed, however, is sure to upset gorehounds, or at the very least leave a bad taste in their mouths the next time they think about the ESRB.
The first Manhunt was schlocky, but it wasn't squeamish about gore; its stealth "executions" were the pinnacle of PS2-era gruesomeness, with unflinching depictions of face-stabbing, eye-gouging and dismemberment. Manhunt 2 was set to be even more brutal before the censors caught a whiff of it, and the game's final cut makes a weird compromise: most of the executions (save the few that got toned down) are just as brutal as originally envisioned, but now there's a weird camera filter that prevents you from seeing all the details.
It's sort of like watching the game while invisible thumbs press into your eyeballs; you can get a good idea of what's going on, but the discoloration and static make it impossible to make out anything clearly. You can tell, for example, that you're pulling a bonesaw through a masked killer's head, and you can hear his screams and the gooey splatter noises, but you can't see the blood or any clear detail.
So what's the point of playing a game about gore when you can't see the gore? Thankfully, there's more to Manhunt 2 than just slicing off limbs with a radial saw (and besides, the game's still plenty gory - you're free to admire your gruesome handiwork after the fact, and shooting someone in the face will make it explode in a chunky, uncensored fountain of red). The game has a darkly fascinating story to tell, and it turns out there's a surprisingly fun stealth game lurking underneath all the horror. One that is definitely, absolutely, undeniably not for kids.
As you work your way through the tragic story of amnesiac scientist-turned-mental patient Dr. Daniel Lamb, you'll lurk through seedy, mostly linear environments that include a decrepit porn theater, a burnt-out (and possibly haunted) house, an underground sex club that's actually a front for something far more sinister and - perhaps most surprisingly - a relatively peaceful suburban neighborhood patrolled by assloads of cops. Your survival depends on sticking to shadowy patches that keep you hidden from the maniacal hunters hired to murder you. In order to make the way safe, you'll frequently have to murder them back, and the best way to do this is to hide somewhere dark, make some noise to lure them over (either by tapping on the wall or throwing an object), sneak up behind them and execute them with whatever makeshift weapons you can find.
There's an excellent variety of these, ranging from pens and chunks of broken glass to axes, crowbars and M-16s. You'll also be able to use environmental hazards in your executions, such as open manholes, industrial machinery and puddles of gasoline you poured yourself; just lure a hunter next to one, attack when the targeting cursor turns red and you'll have a disfigured corpse to contend with instead of a live hunter.
The longer you can sneak behind your intended victim, the more brutal the execution; a quick kill might entail just a few stabs, while a more elaborate one involves you straddling an enemy while jamming a syringe into his eye socket. Just be careful not to wait so long that they turn around and see you while you charge up your brutality, or you'll have to clumsily fight them and whatever other hunters are nearby.
When the game begins, this might seem a little too simple, and you'll quickly fall into a pattern of hiding in the dark, banging on the wall and ambushing the first hunter dumb enough to turn his back on the big patch of shadow he knows you're hiding in. (Hunters almost never enter shadowy areas, although they will occasionally peer into them - at which point a quick minigame will determine whether or not they see you.) Things get a lot more complicated when hunters start roaming in packs, however; making noise will frequently lure them all over at once, and killing one without being seen by the others isn't easy. You'll also be frustrated by nasty surprises like automatic security lights (triggered by any movement faster than a slow crawl) and hard-to-see gravel surfaces that can give away your position in a second.
Trouble starts to set in with the first flashback stage. Set six years before the main storyline, the flashbacks put you in control of Leo Kasper, another asylum escapee who sticks with Daniel throughout the game and goads him into all the horrific acts he commits. These parts are problematic for a number of reasons; they're a distraction from the central storyline, Leo is thoroughly unlikable and they introduce gunplay, which means stealth gets tossed out the window for a little while and replaced with duck-and-cover, head-bursting shootouts. Although you can perform messy stealth-kills with guns, it's next to impossible to use them in a stealthy manner for long; the second they're fired, all the goons will come running and you'll have a full-scale firefight on your hands.
Some later levels ignore stealth almost entirely, forcing you to repeatedly run out into the open and take down multiple baddies with an Uzi or a shotgun. These sequences are more repetitive and a lot less stylish than stealth-killing, and they feel like cheating after you've spent so much of the game lurking out of sight, waiting for the right moment to strike. What's more, they're just not as much fun, especially not when compared to brilliant stages like Sexual Deviants, a trap-filled secret torture club that's a straight-up homage to the Hostel films. (Especially on the Wii version, where the clientele wear smart black suits and animal masks that, for whatever reason, don't appear on the PS2 or PSP.)
In fact, for every fun, gore-filled stretch of Manhunt 2, it seems like there's a lengthy, relatively joyless run through a punishing gauntlet of enemies that are next to impossible to stay hidden from. It's disappointing, but ultimately worth it to get back to the meat of the game; it's just too bad that it all leads up to an endgame that trades the raw, pants-shitting terror of the first Manhunt's final level for something more dreamlike and symbolic - and frustrating, and tedious, and gun-filled.
Flaws aside, the game is more or less identical across all three platforms, although the Wii version - in addition to its unique controls - is more generous about giving players cool weapons to play around with, and features a few small, stylistic differences, such as the Hostel-inspired torture-goons. The PS2 version, meanwhile, features lock-on aiming, less-interactive executions and headset support, with that last one enabling you to verbally harass hunters and listen more clearly to Leo's murderous advice.
Unfortunately, there's also no direct camera control, which was apparently a deliberate design choice meant to keep you from being able to keep tabs on your pursuers by means other than the onscreen radar. That's not a problem on the PSP version, however, since no second analog stick means no feeling jilted when you can't use it. That said, Manhunt 2 actually translates to the handheld remarkably well, and is easily one of the best-looking, best-playing things on the system right now.
Despite its dull parts and infuriating censorship issues, Manhunt 2 is overall a pretty satisfying experience - especially if you can convince yourself that the edited executions are somehow made more shocking by leaving the details up to your imagination. It's hardly the pinnacle of stealth games - the enemies are dumb, and there's not much to do aside from sneaking and killing - but if you're in the mood for something creepy and horrific that'll leave you feeling a little dirty, Manhunt 2's still-shocking murders and eerie, is-it-real-or-am-I-just-insane storyline won't disappoint.