VIDEO: The trailer for Manhunt 2
“Murder simulators.” That’s the term notorious anti-games crusader Jack Thompson coined to describe any game in which one character kills another. Thompson’s bleats have met with the derision they deserve in the gaming community, and the culture at large, but he scored a minor victory last summer when Rockstar Games’ Manhunt 2 missed its target release date. Several retailers refused to carry it, because it had been tagged with the dreaded “Adults Only” rating. The reason? Well, Manhunt 2is a murder simulator.
Although it purports to be a stealth action game, Manhunt’s raison d’être is the “execution scene,” wherein your character sneaks up behind unsuspecting prey and slaughters them with an array of low-tech weaponry including power saws, pliers, and plastic bags. Most weapons offer three different levels of brutality; it all depends on how patient — and how sadistic — you’re feeling. Begin an execution right away and you’ll merely swat down your victim. Spend a few seconds building up the execution meter, on the other hand, and the result is decapitation, disembowelment, or worse.
The violence itself is not the problem. In fact, as graphic as the descriptions sound, Rockstar was forced to blur the cinematic execution scenes in order to garner the more acceptable “Mature” rating. You can barely make out what’s happening. What is disturbing is that the execution scenes serve no purpose other than to shock and titillate. The option of committing crimes in Grand Theft Auto comes with a satisfying risk/reward dynamic: mugging pedestrians may net you some cash, but it also draws the attention of the police. In Manhunt, there’s no reason to go for the most brutal executions other than for the thrill of it. Worse, despite a feeble last-minute attempt at giving your character a sympathetic backstory, there’s never a doubt that you’re playing the aggressor. You’re committing these barbarous acts because that’s the way to advance to the next level. Morally ambiguous is one thing; immoral is another.
It might be easier to stomach Manhunt’s spiritual ugliness if it were any fun to play. For the most part, it’s a by-the-numbers stealth game that requires you to stand motionless in shadows for minutes on end before creeping out to dispatch your foes. Poor enemy AI and bizarre glitches keep this process from achieving an iota of tension. At one point, my character stood against a wall watching his quarry take one step forward, then back, then forward again, for several minutes. Finally, I had to make him dart out into the open just to break through the glitch. Yet that was still more fun than when Manhunt 2 decided, late in the game, to ditch the stealth component and become one of the most inept shooters ever made. Most games pick one thing and do it well; this game does several things badly.
The real issue about Manhunt 2 has nothing to do with the First Amendment and free speech. It has to do with whether gamers can be duped into supporting pure trash. Whether they’re willing to hold video games to the lowest standards of taste. Whether they’re so eager to stick a thumb in the eye of the world’s Jack Thompsons that they’ll cast their lot with the developers of a game that treats them with just as much contempt as he does. Make no mistake, anyone who buys this game to support free speech is only guaranteeing further cynical, contrived, and, above all, crappy games. Of course Rockstar has the right to make Manhunt 2. Consumers should exercise their right not to buy it.