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Manhunt 2
Score: 88%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar Games
Media: UMD/1
Players: 1
Genre: Stealth/ Survival Horror/ Fighting

Graphics & Sound:
Nothing like a little controversy to spur sales, eh? Manhunt 2 ranked in the Top 10 for sales in its first week across several platforms, which might surprise people that have written it off as an ultraviolent simulation of societal ills. In fact, it is a simulation of something much worse, putting the player in the head of a deranged killer released from an experimental facility and looking for answers at any price. It's doubtful that Rockstar consulted many crazies while putting this together, but I wouldn't be shocked if it turned out they actually did their research on what the eyes of a crazy person might be seeing.

The visuals are similar to what a cheap videocamera would pick up, with lots of noise and poor contrast, faded colors, and shaking constantly. This alone makes for a disconcerting environment to play through. There are virtually no on-screen indicators to get in the way of the action or lower the sense of being involved in the action. The sound design isn't always as polished as we'd like to have in a tightly-wrought tactical espionage-style game, meaning that it is hard sometimes to tell where sounds originate and how things around you are moving. A radar readout helps to illustrate what direction enemies are facing and in what direction they are headed to help you see around blind corners and plot attacks. Other objectives show up in different colors on the radar. There is great work with both audio and video for the cut-scenes in Manhunt 2. The story is told in lots of little snippets that might break up the action in less capable hands, but actually serve to raise the level of suspense and horror. During play, you'll find enemies wandering around talking to each other or one character talking to himself on occasion. The banter is witty, but not especially deep or original. The little touches aimed at producing a scary, ominous setting are right on target. Nothing in this PSP version represents groundbreaking audio/visual design, but that isn't important as long as the game plays well.

And play well it does. Manhunt 2 plays like a combination of Metal Gear and Resident Evil - all the gore of RE plus the sneaking of MG. If that doesn't sound like fun to you and you were expecting more of a run-and-gun adventure, you'll be sorely disappointed. This protagonist is not much of a He-Man. He's spooky in a resourceful, "I'll kill you with a pen a la Linda Hamilton in that Terminator movie," way more than he's intimidating as an action hero. Daniel Lamb and his escapee buddy are actually kind of pitiful, a bit like The Plague Dogs in human form. Adams' book is actually a pretty good point for comparison since it features two miserable canine rejects from a testing facility that escape and try to evade danger while finding answers to their past. Like the dogs, the people in Manhunt 2 are capable of some violent acts and aren't always in control of their faculties. Lamb commits atrocities and then becomes sick as if he's shocked to be watching himself perform the act. The violence is stylized, but not enough to avoid some pretty sickening imagery. This is not a game for kids, this is not a game for kids, this is not a game for kids.

Did I mention that this was rated "M" for Mature? No parent in his or her right mind should let their child play Manhunt 2 until the child is heading off to college. The comparison to draw from a more popular medium is the film series, Saw. No doubt there are parents that allowed their high-school age children to see these movies, but it doesn't seem right from where I'm sitting. Saw, Hostel, and other similar movies are on a thin line between portraying violence and glorifying violence. Sitting in a theater observing incredibly violent acts as a form of entertainment is not likely to be everyone's cup of tea, but at least as adults we choose what to watch with a well-informed, adult perspective. Children without proper perspective are likely to watch violent movies, listen to music about violence, read violent literature or comics, and play violent games like Manhunt 2. The lack of perspective is dangerous because it may mean that a child's ability to maintain disbelief is not well developed. Enough violent images are imparted through the nightly news but there is something more infectious and powerful about controlling the action in Manhunt 2. As an adult pastime, it is actually very entertaining.

Manhunt 2 features two escaped members of a hospital that is connected to "The Project." This connection smacks of foul play and something twisted is going on when a smart, successful individual like Daniel Lamb can end up as the bloody killer depicted in the game. Playing as Lamb, you'll become party to his violence, helping him act out some pretty twisted executions. It's not important to list these. After you've seen a guy slashed up into little pieces with a shard of broken glass a few times, it isn't incredibly different to see other forms of murder. The challenge comes from using the objects in the environment and the shadows to surprise enemies. Catching them off guard and sneaking up behind them gives Lamb the opportunity to kill them in one of several ways. The press that Manhunt 2 is earning comes from some of the more gruesome ways to off an enemy. There isn't just random killing, though. Lamb and his partner have different agendas, but Lamb is in charge initially and determined to find out what happened to land him in the psych-ward from which he recently escaped. The story unravels slowly, but is pretty compelling; I won't spoil it for ya...

The earlier comparison with a few games that aren't exactly action front-and-center should tell you that you'll need your wits about you if you hope to beat Manhunt 2. Trying to fight more than one enemy at a time is usually suicide. Hiding and ambushing is the name of the game. It comes down to timing and selecting the right sequence of actions. There are some weapons just scattered through each level and there are places where the environment itself is dangerous and can be used to your advantage. Knowing how to maximize these elements, how to conserve weapons, and how to effectively take out enemies without the element of surprise is important. Lamb isn't a great fighter, but he can go the distance one-on-one, especially if he starts carrying some serious heat like an axe or cattle prod. There is a good auto-save system that is tied to checkpoints along the way as you move through each chapter. Completing a chapter prompts a big save, but the smaller checkpoints pop up frequently and help alleviate frustration. As you play further into the game, it is more rare that you'll just blow through enemy challenges. All along the way it is nice that you can restart a short chapter in order to get the sequence of execution just right.

Game Mechanics:
You'd be a bit of a ghoul to catalog all the weapons that are found in Manhunt 2 and describe their uses. Suffice it to say that the control scheme is simple and transfers from object to object. Attacking is attacking and doesn't require much finesse. When you have a weapon equipped and you lock onto an enemy, two things will happen. If that enemy sees you, he'll come running and engage immediately. This type of "fair fight" is often fatal for your character. Meds are scattered around the levels, but not often enough that you can be careless about your sneaking. If you sneak up on an enemy and use the attack-lock control, you'll see a change in the targeting and a thudding heartbeat. At least our boy isn't a complete psychopath since he gets excited about things... When you trigger an attack, you'll see one of several cut-away sequences that showcase the killing. Depending on how long you held the button before you attacked, you will see a different style of execution. In one it might be just banging the enemy on the head with a stick and in another, it might be smashing the head and then banging it repeatedly into the ground. Little touches differentiate the killing sequences and really make for a grisly objective. The player is forced to think about a competitive mode that rewards good performance by showing more and more shocking death sequences. It is just part of the experience but it also makes for good fodder in communities, schools, or churches that are freaked out by the behavior of some kids and want answers.

The game offers good training through examples in context. The first time you approach something with which you can interact or a special area in the game, you are reminded through a cut-scene or bit of text with hints. The manual is strictly window-dressing, so you'll need the in-game tutorial feature very much. The final word on Manhunt 2 is that it is fun to play if you like gory games and if you like serious content. There isn't much replay value unless you really are determined to see all the grisly cut-scenes. It isn't a game that will last in the history books as an especially meaningful entry in gaming history, mostly because the audience for it must be pretty damn niche. All the same, it sold well in its first week and may continue to do well in subsequent weeks. Like every edgy Rockstar release, I have a crapload of respect for their insistence on artistic freedom and mature content. Nobody is doing it as well as Rockstar and you have to love the creativity that goes into making such an off-the-wall title as Manhunt 2. Pick up a copy this weekend as a rental and tell me it doesn't stick in your head...

-Fridtjof, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Paddock

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