Don’t worry! This review wasn’t censored.
In a way, Manhunt 2 is quite a sadomasochist’s game. At times, it makes you feel overwhelmingly powerful, as you stab your foes with syringes, light them on fire, behead them with axes, knock them down with baseball bats, hang them with ropes, and mash them into a chamber of spikes. At other times, the game degrades you to a simple slave of its frustratingly constraining controls and gameplay mechanics. The sense of being in control of what’s happening on screen might suddenly change into a realisation that the game is controlling you.
You start out in a mental hospital gone mad – more so than usual. Patients, who have escaped their cells, run amuck, murdering not only the staff but also fellow inmates. You take the role of one of these patients, Danny Lamb, in his quest to escape the hospital and uncover the truth about his past. Snippets of this truth are gradually presented throughout the game, primarily through Danny’s sudden flashbacks. They reveal details about The Project, a disturbing mental program, whose development Danny himself was involved in. The story isn’t particularly deep, but it’s well-written enough for you to remain curious throughout.
Rather than the story, it is the constant sense of tension, the sense of doom looming behind every corner, the sense of absurd, exaggerated, and omnipresent violence that make Manhunt 2 interesting. Almost every character you meet has extremely vicious thoughts in mind. They don’t just want you dead either – some want to see you suffer horribly first. As a player, you feel genuinely scared when spotted, as every enemy is potentially lethal. Especially if two or more are approaching, you better run away to seek the shadows. If the enemy – unsure of your exact whereabouts – then seeks out the area you’re in, you might have to literally sit completely still to remain unnoticed. It is a nerve-wracking moment, because the game cleverly detects even the slightest movement of your Wii Remote.
You’ll spend most of your time in the shadows. Like in the Splinter Cell series, the enemies have a distinct and rather unrealistic inability to locate you here. Even if they’ve just chased you around, they might completely stop their search within seconds after you run into a dark area. Despite these AI issues, the stealth mechanics in Manhunt 2 actually work rather well. You wait patiently, as you note a guard’s movement pattern and perhaps opt to draw his attention to a specific point by throwing a brick. When he turns his back, you sneak up on him quietly and execute him with a weapon in hand. Each weapon has three levels of executions that vary in brutality and the amount of time they take to charge up, so if you feel particularly bold, you can hold on for a few seconds to unleash a devastating action sequence filled with extra amounts of gore.
While these sequences are fairly satisfying to pull off, since they often represent your reward for several minutes of sneaking, they could have been much better implemented. First of all, it’s a shame that Rockstar felt compelled to visually filter the executions beyond recognition. This decision partially neuters the otherwise uncompromisingly brutal presentation of the game. With all the static, blur effects, shaken camera movements, and crazy color schemes, it’s sometimes impossible to see what exactly is going on. Some great sound effects help you imagine the scene, but a clearer visual presentation would have made these executions more satisfying to pull off.
The use of motion controls in these sequences is also problematic. During the sequences, big icons prompt you to carry out certain simple movements with the Nunchuk and Wii Remote. These icons take you somewhat out of the experience and demand your attention to such a degree that you tend to miss out on what little actually does get revealed on the screen.
It can be difficult to spot how exactly your movements correspond to the action on-screen – especially when they sometimes don’t register properly. This happens during execution sequences as well as regular combat. Here, swinging the Wii Remote and Nunchuk translates into hits with your right and left arm respectively, and holding them up in front of you blocks incoming attacks. While conceptually neat, this control method lacks precision and simply gets tiresome after a while.
The act of shooting with a gun is also imprecise, despite taking advantage of the aiming functionality of the Wii Remote. The so-called bounding box, which determines how far off to the screen you have to point until your view is changed, is so big that it slows down your turning speed to frustrating degrees. Even worse, when aiming at enemies on rooftops, for instance, you need to hold two buttons while aiming and then shoot with a third button. Don’t ask why.
Graphically, Manhunt 2 performs much better artistically than technically. With low contrast and dark color schemes, the gritty tone transcends every environment beautifully – from the sadistic sex clubs with half-naked sex slaves to bloody torture chambers with electric chairs and muscular, smiley-mask-wearing men with baseball bats. The atmosphere generated through the art direction is impressively thick throughout. With that said, characters look disappointingly basic and blocky, textures appear blurry and low-res, and the animations generally lack smoothness. Particularly, the transition from one movement to another comes off as rather unconvincing.
When you add camera issues to the mediocre graphics and unreliable controls, you end up with a final package that is somewhat disappointing. In order to like Manhunt 2, you have to not only enjoy the absurdly violent tone that never fades away in the game, but also put up with quite a large number of control and gameplay-related issues. Suffice it to say, it was the latter requirement that I had trouble with.