It's early into Rockstar Games' newest ultra-violent action/stealth game, Manhunt 2, when our hero, Daniel Lamb, asks himself a very important question: "Am I going crazy?" Yes, Daniel, you are. You see, Daniel has recently escaped the Dixmor Hospital for the Criminally Insane and is starting to hear voices and see dead people. He's clearly a paranoid schizophrenic, and that isn't being helped by all of the guards, cops and hunters that are out looking for him (not to mention that he's going without his medications).
Although it's being billed as a murder simulator (much like the original 2003 game), Manhunt 2 is actually more of a wake-up call about mental illness. This is the story of a guy who clearly needs a doctor's intervention and some medication ... stat! Unfortunately mental illness is not nearly as scary as the idea of fighting for your life in a dark and seedy city, so in a lot of ways Manhunt 2 is significantly less scary than the original. Thankfully it still tells an interesting story, even if this game is nothing more than a reminder for you to take your medication.
In Manhunt 2 you play Daniel Lamb, a Dixmor patient who manages to escape his confinement thanks to his "friend," Leo. Together the two character set out to not only escape the hospital's personal goons, but also to uncover the secrets of something called "The Project." Throughout this lengthy adventure you will be given hints about the man you used to be, what happened to your family, who Leo is, where the two of you have gone and ultimately why you ended up in the Dixmor Hospital for the Criminally Insane. While none of this is especially scary, it does tell an interesting story full of twists, turns and a ton of ultra-violence.
Even though the game may have a stronger narrative than the original game, in practice this is pretty much the same old game we played four years ago. The game's lack of any real innovation is certainly something the critics can use against the game, but if it wasn't like the first game was the most innovative game on the block. Like your top grossing Hollywood horror movie, Manhunt was more about style and mood more than gameplay and substance. If you are one of those people who didn't like the first game then I can guarantee that you won't like this game, but if did get into the horror aspects of the original then you might enjoy this significantly less scary sequel.
If you didn't play the original Manhunt then here's a quick refresher course. In Manhunt you play a deranged man who is being hounded by that pesky voice in their ear (in this case it's your "friend" Leo). In short the object of the game is to get from one place to another without being detected. But since there are guards, federal agents, evil doctors, and policemen patrolling the area, getting from one place to another unnoticed is easier said than done. In most action games all you need to do is grab your trusty gun and run around killing enemies, but since you just broke out of the insane asylum, you find yourself completely weapon-less. And don't even think about rushing in and taking them all on in a fist fight, this isn't Streets of Rage or Final Fight.
Thankfully there are objects lying all around the level that you can use to kill those guards patrolling the area. All you need to do is hide in the shadows and sneak up behind your enemy and perform a death move. Performing these death moves is actually pretty easy, when your enemy's back is turned you will need to be close to them and hold down the "Square" button. The longer you hold that button the more gruesome the stealth kill will be. For example, you can just walk up and push the button quickly, while that will certainly kill them it won't be as graphic as if you held it down until the marker was either yellow or red. I won't lie to you, it's the stealth kills that get the most attention, I wouldn't be surprised if most of the people who bought this game picked it up exclusively to see Daniel Lamb kill people in gross and sadistic ways.
The good news is that there are tons of weapons and every single one of them (with the possible exception of the fire arms) has three different kill animations. If you played the first game then you'll probably recognize a lot of the weapons, including the crowbar, shovel, handsaw, flashlight, pen, and even a plastic bag. And believe me, that's just the tip of the iceberg. There's no shortage of weapons to use to kill your enemies. Well, actually, there IS a shortage of weapons (the items are placed few and far between), but you know what I mean.
Towards the middle the game switches from the stealth mode to more of a run and gun action game. All of a sudden you aren't relying on using a piece of wire to choke a guy, instead you have a gun and you're shooting the enemy's face off (literally). Unfortunately this play mechanic doesn't work as well as the sneaking gameplay, but it's certainly nice to have a change of pace. At first I was worried that Manhunt 2's gun mechanics would be hard to translate to the PSP, since you don't have a second analog stick to aim. Thankfully Rockstar Games found a comfortable (albeit cheap) way of getting the most out of the system. Instead of aiming your gun around to get headshots, PSP owners have to hold both the left and right shoulder buttons together and the game will automatically aim at the closest enemy's head. It's not perfect, but it's a lot more enjoyable than trying to use the set-up to manually aim.
The story is told over fifteen levels, which should take you around 12 to 15 hours to play through. Perhaps the most shocking thing for me was not the graphic murder sequences, but rather the fact that very little of the game actually takes place in the mental hospital. Perhaps it has something to do with the advertisements that came out for the game, but I halfway expected that the game would largely take place in the Dixmor Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Instead the intro level (which doubles as a training level) takes place in that location and the rest is out in the "real" world. This is actually kind of a relief, since I can see how playing most of the game in that dreary hospital might make me go insane. Not that the real world is any less dreary, but it's nice to see a variety of different locations that move the story along.
At its best Manhunt 2's locations are a perfect metaphor for the chaos and perversion that is Daniel's mind. One of the best levels involves you breaking into a nightclub that just so happens to have rooms set up for patrons who want to get their rocks off by killing and mutilating innocent victims. If that sounds familiar then it should, because what I described is basically the Eli Roth movie Hostel. Other inspired locations include a TV studio and a porno theater (which is showing a movie that is far more extreme than anything in that San Andreas "Hot Coffee" mod). Unfortunately not all of the levels are as consistent as the ones I described; there are a number of levels that feel phoned in (especially towards the end).
But what about that eight-hundred pound gorilla in the room? Let's just put all of our cards on the table and be completely honest about the reason that most people have heard of this game. Thanks to the ESRB misadventure, Manhunt 2 has come down from an AO (adults only) rating to your standard M (mature) rating. To do this Rockstar Games had to remove some of the most graphic elements from the game (such as a brutal castration sequence) and put some "stylish" blur effects over the actual stealth kills. I personally have mixed feelings about this, but when it comes right down to it none of these changes would have altered my score any. Manhunt 2 is not fun because of the death kills (even though they are the most satisfying part of the game); it's the atmosphere and story that should keep you playing the game.
But because everybody is going to want to know just how edited this game is, perhaps I should spend a few minutes addressing most people's concerns. There's no getting around the fact that this game has been edited (maybe not neutered, but certainly edited), when you go to perform a kill the game adds a strange filter over the screen that makes it a little harder to see exactly what's going on. Don't get me wrong, you can still make out what is happening, but you will see some static interference, weird red outlines, and some very chaotic camera work. For some people this effect will ruin the experience, but the filter does fit the tone of the game and it never looks as out of place as you might expect going in. Still, it's a shame that Rockstar Games wasn't allowed to release a version that let you choose which way you saw the game, I'm definitely not a fan of the ratings board telling developers what they can and cannot do.
Getting past the extreme amount of violence (which is admittedly difficult to do), Manhunt 2 has a solid control scheme that generally doesn't get in the way. This is not a fast-action kind of game; instead it's a slow plodding experience where you sneak from one shadowy area to another. Because of this the gameplay is understandably slow, but it definitely gets the job done. Pretty much every one of the buttons has a use in this game, and only the two shoulder buttons have more than one application (you can use them to strafe back and forth or if you push them together they will aim your weapon at the closest enemy). There are times when it would be nice to have more control over your character, but you're playing an inmate at an insane asylum that has been off his medication for some time now ... control is a fleeting thing to begin with.
Like the control, the graphics in Manhunt 2 feel a little dated by today's standards. On one hand this game doesn't look any worse than the original Manhunt, but at the same time it certainly doesn't look any better. Of course, I'm not really sure that how the game looks is really all that important to the actual effect. After all, this is the game that has these weird interference lines moving up over the screen at all times (giving off the impression that's it's a crummy old VHS tape or part of a surveillance video). The graphics get the job done, but don't expect this to compete with some of the better looking PSP games on the market.
While the graphics may not impress, the game's audio certainly will. Manhunt 2 doesn't have a lot of music, but the understated soundtrack definitely gets you in the mood to kill. Better still are the sound effects, especially when it comes to you walking across different surfaces and interacting with the background. I also enjoyed the voice acting, which sounds like it came straight out of one of those Saw movies. One could certainly argue that the dialog is campy and there are a few too many four-letter words, but that seems to be the vibe they are going for so I can't fault them for having a successful script. I ended up playing the entire game with my headphones on, something I almost never do when going through my PSP games.
The truth is that you probably don't need a two-thousand word review to tell you whether or not Manhunt 2 is your thing, you should already know if the game is your cup of tea. If you enjoyed the original game and don't mind the non-stop gruesome killings, then this game is right up your alley. If you don't care for the "torture porn" genre of movie making and get a bit squeamish at the idea of sneaking up behind enemies and sticking a pen in their neck, then chances are you should avoid this game at all costs. But then again, if you are the type of person that doesn't like that ultra-violent nature of the Manhunt series then you probably didn't read this review. If you did manage to make it to the end of this review then I suggest you check it out, you're clearly the kind of sadistic gamer that will enjoy cutting somebody's head off and using it to get into a private club.
Manhunt 2 isn't a very good looking game, it hasn't innovated at all since the first game, and there are no scares to be had in this game. But who cares? The game is full of atmosphere, has a compelling story and is more violent than just about anything else on the market. If you enjoyed the first game then you should definitely check this one out, but I must warn you - this game is not for everybody.