Screenshots via Steam
"Kill this dumb fuck." That's what's written on the wall. Next to it stands a lone gang member, his back to you, coughing, hacking and swearing to himself. In your hand is a blue plastic bag.
You likely know all about the controversy, how it's been banned in New Zealand, confiscated in Germany, and blamed for a murder in the UK. You've heard rumours that it can only be sold in a paper bag. But you don't care. You wanted to play in the dirt. And now it's time to get dirty. Kill this dumb fuck.
I adore 2003's Manhunt by GTA developers Rockstar North, first released on the PlayStation 2 and just made available for the PS4. When I first played it, at the age of 13, I adored it because it terrified adults. It felt truly dangerous, a video game capable of unnerving not just my parents, but also teachers, newspaper reporters, and politicians. The white supremacists' dialogue was over my head, as was the game's sleazy antagonist Lionel Starkweather ("you're really getting me off"). But Manhunt was powerful. Simply by owning it, I could make the entire adult world worry that my mind was being warped.
Now an adult myself, I love Manhunt because it's daft, funny, and crass. Only a 13-year-old boy—and a hysterical media—could take it seriously. In one mission you're chasing a guy dressed in a bunny suit. In another, a dead body, filled with gas from decomposition, suddenly sits up and moans. Manhunt is the lowest of the low brow, a wretched little game that beckons you, irresistibly, to roll around in its mud.
Even the "hardcore" moments put a smile on my face. Those neo-Nazis are a joy to bludgeon—kicking to death a racist, in a junkyard, is as encapsulating a snapshot of Manhunt you could ask for. And when you chop the final boss's arms off and he falls to his death, then walk into Starkweather's office and cut him open with a chainsaw, like a sack of grain. It's the perfect end to the party.
2007's Manhunt 2 wasn't bad, but it ended on a weird, introspective note, a literal psychological battle between the good and evil sides of the playable characters' personalities. That kind of hand wringing would creep steadily further into games. I admire and enjoy contrary, original approaches to violence, but when Lara Croft, the star of Tomb Raider, proclaims "I hate tombs," or Spec Ops: The Line tries to make players feel guilty after forcing them to kill dozens of civilians, it seems as if game-makers are trying to have their cake and eat it; to relish violence, as always, but then act all concerned and prissy. It's inauthentic, and neurotic.
Manhunt is pure sleaze. But in the end, when there's no catharsis, no moralizing, just a swift gory sequence to cap everything off, you can see that it's honest. And honesty is a virtue that Rockstar unfortunately, for me at least, has long since lost.
Or maybe never had. I'd be curious to know: Did the makers of Manhunt really think they were creating something shocking, something near the knuckle? "Kill this dumb fuck" is a deliciously blunt opening prompt, and the multiple angle kill-cams, capturing from the perfect vantage point—every single time—the moment a guy's head pops open or his blood gushes out, suggest Rockstar reveled in Manhunt's violence as much as I do.
But then there's that interview with Jeff Williams, a former Rockstar staffer, where he describes the team feeling "icky" about Manhunt, and almost staging a "mutiny." I get the impression that the supremacist bad guys and later the escaped lunatics are genuinely meant to scare and shock. I've described Rockstar in the past as like a teenager who thinks he's a bad boy because he's grown a little mustache and smoked his first joint, and I wonder, when playing Manhunt, whether it really was meant to be as preposterous and joyful as I like to think.
Rockstar's possible MO, especially with the Grand Theft Auto series, is to act like it's pushing boundaries while in fact rehashing old ideas to whip up empty controversy. I like Manhunt because, for the most part, it seems eager and bereft of consternation. If I discovered the team behind it really was neurotic, it'd lessen the game's reckless, wanton appeal.
But that's not to say I enjoy nihilism, or that Manhunt is—or ought to be—nihilistic. Manhunt is wretched and fecal, but by painstaking design. Whatever doomy worldview one might extract from its constant, bloody violence certainly isn't present in its high standards of production. Rarely will you play a game with such rich sound work. Every weapon, melee or projectile, clatters and thumps with absolute clarity—lord knows what went into getting the plastic bag kills to sound how they do.
The levels are largely dark, industrial waste grounds, but each one has clearly been redrafted time and again to facilitate stealth. Starkweather's mansion in particular is the perfect playground, ebbing and flowing between corridors designed for sneaking and larger spaces made for shootouts.
The soundtrack is suitably frightening, providing ominous low hums while you're stalking, panicky synth when you're being hunted, and the game is deliberately paced. When in the later levels Manhunt leans out of stealth-'em-up and into third-person shooter, it feels exactly right. You learn the tools, you build your confidence, you lose patience with Starkweather, and you go on the offensive.
At times you're put up against too many bad guys—the body count in later missions undercuts the game's opening stages, where just one enemy can spell your demise—but generally Manhunt is proof that Rockstar, contrary to reputation, does its best work on linear experiences. For me, Max Payne 3 is the studio's greatest game; The Warriors, perhaps because it's a film tie-in, is its forgotten gem. Bleak and spurning though Manhunt might seem, it's focused, and singularly intended, in a way I'd love to see Rockstar pursue more fervently. Open-world games have grown so tired. It's evident when you play Manhunt exactly what Rockstar is capable of.
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