Watch out boy, she’ll chew you up!
With the immortal words of Hall and Oates ringing in the air, the time has finally come for me to get my hands on one of my most anticipated games of the year, Maneater. Coming from Tripwire Interactive, Maneater promises lots of fin-based fun as we assume the role of a female bull shark on a mission. But how does it feel to be a shark? Is eating people as much fun as Hannibal Lecter would have us believe?
First off, the story: every good shark needs a decent backstory and in Maneater it follows a shark fisherman named Scaly Pete, who lives deep in the Bayou. He is being shadowed for a reality TV series – Maneaters vs Sharkhunters. Now, ol’ Pete is not a very nice man, and ends up catching our mother, killing her before ripping us, as a baby shark, from her body. He then proceeds to slash the defenseless baby shark with a knife before throwing it overboard, so he could recognise it when they meet again. See what I mean about not being a nice guy? Still, we give him something to remember us by – no spoilers – before escaping into the Bayou and into the game proper.
Maneater plays out as a third person action adventure kind of experience, with the camera being situated behind the shark for most of the action. You can spin the camera around, which is useful for spotting predators, and in our weakened state we are certainly easy prey for pretty much anything that swims. In just the first area there are muskellunge and alligators that all fancy a little tasty shark snack, so avoiding those while catching enough smaller prey to keep us healthy is a real challenge. Luckily, as we eat we grow, and level up as well. Now, the world of Maneater is split into seven distinct sections, ranging from the shallow, polluted waters of the Bayou right up to the deep, open ocean of the Gulf, with a little bit of everything in between included for good measure. Each area has a set of missions associated with it, alongside collectibles to find and, well, collect, and eventually Apex Predators to hunt and kill.
So, that’s the setup, but what is Maneater actually like? Well, in a word, great. In several words – bloody brilliant, and it’s been well worth the wait!
The graphics are, with the exception of the odd glitch that is looking very likely to be patched out, superb, and the water effects are really, really good, right up there with some of the best I’ve seen. The size of the world that our little shark inhabits is very impressive too; the sheer amount of things to do is equally jaw-dropping. In some ways the entire Maneater experience reminds me of a map from an Assassin’s Creed game, with markers all over, pointing out the tasty points, things to locate and people to eat. Think of Assassin’s Creed and take it underwater, and you’ll get somewhere near. The audio is equally good, with piteous screams from your victims, and the narrator of the TV series always ready to drop some witty quips as you either eat a person or get killed.
The gameplay is silky smooth as well, with the animation of our shark being a wonder to behold. She swims absolutely beautifully, gliding through the water like a lean, mean, eating machine; the way her tail beats as she moves is absolutely bang on. It’s an utter pleasure to become one with this beast and that is translated in the combat too, something that is very satisfying to use, coming across as a three-dimensional game of cat and mouse – or shark and prey as it should be, I guess. It is here where each protagonist tries to position themselves in a place to get a decisive chomp in, ensuring that fights can become quite tactical. And in the latter stages of the game, some of the creatures you have to fight include orcas and sperm whales, and as you can imagine they take some killing, even if you have ranked your shark up to the Mega tier by then. A top tip is that if a fight isn’t going your way, swim away, back off, eat some innocent passing fish or turtles to recover health, then dive back into the fight. Without a word of a lie, one sperm whale took me nearly 20 minutes to take down doing this. Of course, he was situated as a level 55 foe, with me topped out at 30.
Luckily, we don’t only need to rely on the gifts that mother nature gave us in our fight. As our shark grows, it can mutate to give an extra edge. This explains why – at least in my eyes – the bull shark has become the hero of this game, rather than, say, a great white. You see, bulls aren’t the biggest of sharks, although they do have a reputation for attacking people. Jeremy Wade even made the bull shark the subject of one of his River Monsters programs, and pulled a shark out of a freshwater river, miles from the sea. It is this which proves how hardy a creature the bull truly is. However, as we find the objects that we need to collect, like licence plates and local beauty spots, the mutations that are available to us become bigger and better. The first mutation, or evolution, that can initially become unlocked is that of sonar. Who needs Flipper? Sonar does what you’d expect, highlighting prey and collectibles on the screen so you can track them down.
Another source of evolutions comes from the Bounty Hunters who will try and kill you. As you eat people and generally cause a nuisance, your threat meter will rise. When it reaches a certain level, shark hunters are dispatched to try and settle you down, usually by application of some form of firearm. As the hunters appear, you have two choices: either swim away and wait for the heat to subside, or take the fight to them. You can snatch hunters right off the deck of their boats, can attack the boats directly and sink them, and even leap out of the water and land on the boat, crashing and thrashing your way through the hull. Kill enough hunters and wreck enough boats and a Bounty Hunter will appear – a boss of the wave of hunters if you will. Killing and eating these guys – just as an aside, the Bounty Hunters are the only named characters in the game – generally gives you a new evolution, and these are vital if you are going to survive.
Evolutions deserve a paragraph to themselves, as they completely change the way the shark you control not only looks but also how it behaves. It’s great to see that each section of the shark is capable of being evolved too – the teeth, the head, the body, the fins, the tail and the organs can all be tweaked in whatever way you fancy. It’s worth mentioning that evolutions can only be applied to the shark in various grottos though, and these work as the shark’s home from home, its sanctuary if you will. But these evolutions are extremely deep, with a personal favourite being the Bio-Electric set, which basically turns the shark into an electro-killing machine. This gives abilities such as a lightning dodge, where the shark briefly transforms into a bolt of lightning when he dodges, damaging and stunning anything in the area. Each body part gives a different benefit, depending on what you choose, and the ability to mix and match evolutions is also present and correct. For instance, I have utilised a full Bio-Electric set except for the tail, which instead has a Shadow set on. The Shadow evolutions involve poison, and on a tail whip attack this fires a ball of poison at your prey, making them easier to kill. Other sets include the likes of the Bone set, which basically encases the shark in armour and makes its attacks a lot more powerful, especially with regards to its head ram attack.
The organs are another mixed bunch, with traits that allow you to stay out of water longer or to increase your ability to digest certain types of food, increasing the health you receive for eating prey, for instance. Each evolution can also be levelled up, and by the time you work into the latter stages of the game you will be powered up to the max, living the live of a shark that looks utterly alien, as the Bio-Electric fins look almost like horns sprouting from the shark’s back as their level increases. As these levels increase, so do the effects that they have, as well as just visual changes, and it’s this depth of customisation that helps lift Maneater into a great game. It’s sold as a ShaRkPG, and Tripwire have utterly nailed this.
Now we come to the bit of the review where I complain a little, and with Maneater it’ll be a fairly short section. In fact, the only thing that could really improve things in a big way would be the inclusion of a lock-on mechanic, so you can lock your attacks to the creature you’re trying to fight. For fast moving enemies like the mako sharks (not that kind of Mako, Final Fantasy fans!), trying to keep the camera on them is very tricky indeed, and it goes double for the marlin and swordfish. Quite often you are left chomping at nothing, or worse still chasing a passing turtle while the mako is busy biting your tail off. You do learn to adapt, but it can be frustrating early on. Once you’re a Mega shark, the rest of your sharky brethren can be dispatched in one attack, but early on it’s hard. Fighting boats is another area that would benefit from lock on, as quite often you’ll be biting lumps out of some poor sucker’s hull and the target will shift, leaving you chomping at nothing, and then being filled full of holes. Again, with practice you’ll fast become the terror of the high seas, but it is hard to master.
So, a conclusion then. Maneater on Xbox One is bloody brilliant. It’s a massive game with a lot to do and a huge amount of content to discover – the locations or beauty spots are usually wittily scripted, and have quite a few nods to popular culture as well, making them entertaining asides. What’s more, there is a good story of revenge to follow. Swimming around, looking for trouble, exploring networks of tunnels, killing Bounty Hunters… you can always find something to do with Maneater. And then spending time to discover an Apex Predator’s weak point, or discovering the best way to kill the Bounty Hunters, gives the action an almost Dark Souls flavour, as mistakes are punished harshly. With the addition of a lock-on mechanic, I think this would be a full score kind of game, but it is just that little bit harder than it needs to be.
The takeaway from this though is that you just have to play Maneater. It is that good.