Oh boy. We've heard all about Manhunt 2, haven't we? From its rejection by the British Board of Film Classification (twice) to its recent, albeit neutered release in North America, this game's certainly been through the ringer.
At the time of typing, this highly controversial sequel hasn't even received an official release date in Europe and continues to be banned in Britain. But is a UK release even necessary?
"Like a lamb to the slaughter," shouts a revolver-wielding thug to Dr Danny Lamb, the anti-hero of Manhunt 2. The obvious play on words aptly represents not just the game's cheeky tone, but its ability to draw you into the dark recesses of its murderous tale. You take on the role of Danny in the moments following his escape from Dixmor Hospital. Accompanied by longtime companion Leo Kasper, you must rediscover your character's sanity while avoiding the reach of a consortium of maniac scientists known as The Project.
The path to good mental health is paved with bodies. Pursuing Danny's past and uncovering how he lost his mind in the first place involves an inordinate amount of killing, much of which is committed in the most gruesome manner. The tempo varies across the game's 15 chapters from deliberate stealth to outright gun-slinging, but the emphasis lies in sneaking up on your victims and dispatching them without a trace.
Stealth involves either hiding in clearly delineated shadows or snapping to flat surfaces to avoid being seen. Keeping quiet is also important to avoid being caught. Walking, which is done by pressing slightly on the analog nub, enables you to slowly move between the darkness or creep up to a victim from behind. In the circumstance that an enemy becomes aware of your presence, a button-pressing mini-game pops up, enabling you to hold Danny's breath and stand motionless to avoid detection.
Woefully undeveloped, the stealth mechanics are far behind contemporary standards. Perhaps if enemies were smarter, these elements wouldn't seem so overly-simplified. As long as you're standing in a shadow, an opponent can walk right up to the shadow's edge and look Danny straight in the face without being alarmed. If you are spotted, simply run to another shadow out of the enemy's field of view and wait for their guard to go back down. This lack of sophistication prevents Manhunt 2 from being a compelling stealth-based game.
The motivation behind the covertness lies in the desire to trigger 'executions'. Targeting a person from behind and pressing the Square button with a weapon equipped results in an execution. Three styles of these can be committed with each weapon depending on how long you hold down Square. Naturally, the longer you hold it down, the gorier the result. But if that's not enough for you, complementing weapon executions are environmental kills specific to each level. For instance, a light fuse box can be improperly used as a receptacle for an enemy's head.
Executions are the centerpiece of Manhunt 2, which is why the game is so controversial. Cutting off a man's head with pruning shears or buzzing him in half with a cordless saw is undeniably disturbing. That's the point. Unfortunately, it's a point that doesn't get made due to censorship. Manhunt 2 suffers under arbitrary and rather unsubstantiated restrictions on expression. Ugly colour-distorting effects do more than just cover up these heinous acts, though. These absurd filters mar the game's presentation and quiet its intended affect.
What remains, then, is a shell of a game, a series of filtered sequences taped together by means of puerile dialogue. The taunts uttered by those hunting Danny sound as though they were written by a group of 11-year-olds. "I'm gonna make you lick my boots, newbie!", for instance, seems hardly in context when lives are on the line. Faced with a psychotic murderer lurking in the shadows, something more along the lines of "#*[email protected]!" seems more likely. You'll hear plenty of that too, actually, but even that is written into the script in such a way that is depressingly childish.
Not everything in Manhunt 2 is disappointing, though. In fact, the presentation is remarkably good even if there are technical problems. The level of detail in the characters and environments isn't necessarily better than other games (incidentally, the shots above are taken from the PS2 version because Rockstar has hardly been forthcoming with PSP images), yet the stylish use of colour, lighting, and grainy filters makes this title a distinct visual affair.
Of course, the distortion masking executions does ruin things. And equally disastrous are frequent stalls while data is loaded from the UMD. Oh, not to mention the occasion fatal crash.
Among myriad reasons, which include technical issues, unseemly censorship, and plain-flavoured stealth, the main basis for avoiding Manhunt 2 is that it simply isn't fun. Even if the black hand of censorship hadn't destroyed the statement this game was hoping to make, it wouldn't have managed to deliver an enjoyable – or at least engrossing – experience.
That's because, uncensored, Manhunt 2 still suffers from a lack of polish and rather uninspired gameplay. Throw in the slate of censored elements and this barely stands on its own, crippled by ugly filters and omissions. Instead of a compelling mature game, Rockstar's latest controversy ends up as a boyish experiment with interactive violence.
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