Do you like hurting other people? This short, yet thought-provoking question pertains to Hotline Miami more than anything else, but it fits Manhunt perfectly well. Released during the early years of the current millennium, the grim title by Rockstar Games forever changed how we perceive strong language and violence in video games.
Rockstar has always been infamous when it comes to pushing the envelope in terms of violence. Modern open world games would not be the same without Grand Theft Auto 3, and likewise, violence in video games might not be as prevalent without Manhunt. Despite resistance from society and governing bodies, it all came as a result of the developer’s relentless pursuit of expressing creativity, no matter how bare or brutal.
Running on the same RenderWare engine as the Grand Theft Auto games of that time, it had an unmistakable Rockstar look and feel to it. But instead of providing players with an exciting open-world setting to explore, Manhunt focused solely on carnage. And to this day, very few games dare to replicate its dark tone and overabundant brutality.
Honouring 15 years of Manhunt on Xbox, we’re going to look at what made the game so gruesome, as well as the numerous controversies surrounding it. And how in spite of backlash, it became another shining, bloody gem in Rockstar’s vast catalogue of titles.
Welcome to the Slaughterhouse
Carcer City: a ruthless and ungoverned urban environment existing within the same universe as cities from Grand Theft Auto games. Manhunt placed you in the role of a contradictory character, James Earl Cash: a convicted felon on death row. Rockstar seldom lets players take control of a “good guy”, but James stood out even among the worst.
Our protagonist gets a second lease of life after being saved by the mysterious Director. But his intentions are far from selfless or noble; he wants James to participate in a reality-TV-like movie. As its main star, James must traverse Carcer City, killing members of local gangs as brutally as possible. To aid him, the Director controls surveillance cameras all across the city and guides his actions to conjure a spectacle.
Characters from previous GTA games, like Claude and Tommy, were far from being exemplary citizens, but they suffered betrayal, and to a degree, you couldn’t help but feel at least some empathy towards their cause. But from the very beginning, James is already revealed as a murderer on death row and saved from it so he could only do more of the same – kill.
One might argue that the disposing of the local scum shouldn’t burden your conscience. Among which were perverts, white supremacists and corrupt members of the military: nothing to shed a tear for. However, it wasn’t so much about who James was supposed to kill, but rather how…
Don’t Just Kill Them; Butcher Them
Unlike Grand Theft Auto 3 and Vice City before it, Manhunt encouraged stealth over direct encounters. Instead of going in guns-blazing, James hid in shadows and utilised mostly handy, everyday tools: plastic bags, glass shards, nail guns, and the list goes on. There were no driving or flying segments, and no side-missions to diversify gameplay. All you had was killing, so it had to be good, and engaging. And it was.
When approaching an enemy undetected, James could execute them with the currently equipped tool. He could suffocate them with a simple plastic bag, slice their throat with a glass shard, or smash the head with a blunt weapon like a bat. Depending on how long the player held the attack button, James would perform an even gorier execution.
For example, after pulling a plastic bag over their head, he would punch it while they suffocate to death. These kills were riskier, giving enemies more time to detect James, but also granted more “points” and often prompted a significantly more ecstatic reaction from the Director.
To further enhance immersion, a USB microphone could be connected to the console. Players could take advantage of their own voice to attract the attention of and lure unsuspecting enemies. And if you, the player, so much as farted during the game, James would suffer the consequences.
Each level graded your score based on completion time and the brutality of kills. This system encouraged players to not only kill their victims, but to do so in an especially graphic manner. Largely due to its brutal nature, Manhunt received a backlash from multiple countries across the globe.
For Adult Eyes Only
In some countries, due to its controversial themes and graphic violence, Manhunt was banned. Among them were Australia and New Zealand, both of which, historically, lack leniency towards violent and sexually expressive mediums. New Zealand banned Manhunt mere weeks after its release, while it took Australia almost a year to follow suit.
In Canada, particularly the state of Ontario, Manhunt nearly met a similar fate, but managed to retains its M rating. Even more drastically, Germany banned the game in 2004 and confiscated all copies of it from retailers.
Here in the UK, the game was even briefly linked to a murder case, but its involvement was later denied by the authorities. Of course, in terms of video games, series like Grand Theft Auto are often surrounded by similar accusations, but Manhunt reached an entirely new level in that regard.
Killing Them Softly
Personally, I didn’t like Manhunt during its first half; I couldn’t understand the appeal behind killing people. And I’m in no way against violence in video games (gimme more), but it felt pointless. However, its simple yet challenging progression, and an unexpectedly good narrative, relatively quickly changed my perspective on it.
Gameplay wise, Manhunt was a radical deviation from your typical GTA games. It felt like Rockstar’s flagship franchise in some parts, and yet, was completely different in many others. This largely stemmed from the stealth mechanics, though by no means was it as in-depth as Metal Gear Solid.
Under that guise of violence, Rockstar Games concealed a surprisingly good game, with solid mechanics and story. And it did well enough commercially to warrant a sequel: Manhunt 2. Sadly, both games wouldn’t even get a chance in today’s market because of society’s overly sensitive nature.
Today, everything must be censored and downgraded to meet certain standards, of certain people. And when censorship wins, we all lose.
Alas, Manhunt is not currently available on Xbox One. If you wish to play it, then dust off your original Xbox. With Microsoft constantly expanding the Backwards Compatibility library, it may yet arrive on Xbox One during the next few years. Until then, consider experiencing it on PC or PlayStation 4.