hile I question whether a work of art as unique and brilliant as Manhunt really demanded a sequel, I’ve been curious to see what Rockstar had in store for us with Manhunt 2, even more so after the game was delayed and re-cut after it received the dreaded “Adults Only” rating from the ESRB. If you’re worried that this altered, now M-rated version of the game has somehow adulterated the explicit violence that is Manhunt’s calling card, rest easy. Manhunt 2 is every bit as grim and brutal as the first. Unfortunately, it’s not nearly as gripping, and, more worryingly, I’m not sure if it still has anything to say about gaming’s culture of violence.
For better or worse, this version of Manhunt is much more story-driven. Where the first one was a primal game of survival, this time we follow the saga of Daniel Lamb, a neuroscientist who allowed himself to be a test subject in an experimental research study. The result was that Daniel lost his family, his career, his memory, and almost all his sanity. After happenstance allows him and fellow inmate Leo to escape from an insane asylum, they go on a mission to unravel their tangled past.
For the most part, it’s an interesting story, but it doesn’t pack the queasy punch that the first did. Whereas Manhunt thrust you into the role of a cold-blooded killer, Daniel is essentially a good man forced into violence by circumstances – in other words, like most other video game characters. While there are some brilliant moments, particularly the last level where Daniel quite literally lays his demons to rest, the sum effect is one of a much more conventional gaming experience. It doesn’t help that the plot “twist” revealed at the end is copied wholesale from a well-known movie. Despite my misgivings, the writing, as is typical of Rockstar’s games, is top-notch, and Daniel and the rest of the characters do come off the screen as very real and human. It’s a testament to this quality that I was really driven to see the tale out to its end.
Getting there is another matter, as the gameplay oscillates between brilliant and frustrating on a minute-by-minute basis. You can definitely see some improvements, like the cool environmental executions, which let you use found objects like toilets, gas cans, and phones in certain instances. It’s generally a little less linear as well, allowing you more ways to progress through a level. However, all this can’t disguise the fact that this is a five-year-old game design. The enemy AI and control are both wildly erratic, and I’ll never understand Rockstar’s stubborn resistance to giving players camera control on the right analog stick. Waiting for the right moment to make your vicious strike is still engaging, but the years since the release of Manhunt have made us used to gameplay that’s light-years more polished and hassle free than what’s in Manhunt 2. In addition, I think guns were introduced too early in the game and are far too prevalent, making this feel less like a stealth game than an extremely gory action flick.
For those of us that loved the original, Manhunt 2 is a trip that’s worth taking, even if it’s not nearly as memorable or enjoyable. While I applaud the series for it’s uncompromising take on morality and violence, it’s hard not to notice that recent titles like Mass Effect and BioShock have covered similar territory in a more mature – and much more enjoyable – fashion.