What Happened?: Headhunter was supposed to come out at the tail end of the Dreamcast’s life. It still did – in Europe. Its US cancellation was a big enough deal for IGN’s Dreamcast channel to review the import, meaning it was as important to them as Shenmue 2. Eventually Americans got a chance to play it on the PS2.
The Game: Allow me to get bold and assertive for a minute. 1998 was the beginning of a new little period in which a flurry of Important Games were released. They reinvented series, changed genres, and refined 3d game design. It ended with the release of Halo in 2001. It isn’t that innovation or good games ended there, its just that, six years later, we’re still copying Halo’s formula. Where we once only had Metal Gear Solid for stealth and Medal of Honor for WW2 shooters, we now have countless games in each genre. We rebuilt some franchises, and then franchised the fuck out of the rest. We still have fresh ideas, but thanks to the “’98 era” a lot of genres are practically laid out for us.
Headhunter came out towards the end of this era, when a lot of ideas were still floating around, and developers could get away with slapping a bunch together in hopes of creating the Next Big Thing. The game was often called a “Metal Gear Solid Killer”, back when we thought a few similar ideas meant that two games were fierce rivals, but this is too basic a description. True, it does feature stealth, radar, Codec, and VR training simulators. None of it quite works as well as MGS though, and if anything Headhunter is more of a “poor man’s MGS”. Of course, it is also the following –
A “poor man’s Code Veronica”
A “poor man’s Midtown Madness”
A “poor man’s Deus Ex”
It even had Shenmue QTEs back when only Shenmue was actually using them.
Despite not being particularly bold, Headhunter combines a mess of ideas that shouldn’t work, but somehow they do. This is probably due to the fact that the implementation is fairly sound; the stealth combat is simplistic, but you always know what you’re getting. The same can be said for the bike controls. It may try to reign in many ideas from other games, but it does so with the utmost attention to detail, so that nothing works incorrectly. This is a compliment rather than an insult – we have all seen games try to imitate something else, only to turn out sloppy or unbalanced. It even looks good for an early PS2 game, which means it looks fantastic for a late Dreamcast game. There is some worksmanship in Headhunter and I can admire that.
There is also a whole lot of snarkiness. Headhunter gets the Deus Ex comparison because it tries to create a near future dystopia through its story and setting. Deus Ex was serious and conservative, creating its world via classic conspiracy theories and philosophy. Headhunter goes for a more joking, less timeless approach in hopes of hitting closer to home. Via deliberately cheesy fake newscasts as cutscenes, the game shows a world where everything is privatized, natural food is a black market item, and criminals are harvested for their organs. It comments on such things as Elian Gonzales and the Florida Recount. The only traditional themes it seems to borrow from is a little bit from Huxley. None of the social commentary is quite as powerful as what Deus Ex has, but I wouldn’t expect that from a game in which an early screenshot featured boxes for “NOSY” electronics printed in Sony’s famous font.
Yet Headhunter isn’t a complete joke. Some of its ideas have actually come to life. Its Anti Crime Network is an eerie parallel to Homeland Security, before said Department was ever announced. Its commentary on business and government is hardly far off. While the overarching plot is both predictable and a little too close to Resident Evil, Headhunter’s laugh out loud approach to social commentary is at least a little unsettling when you realize how true it sometimes is. At the very least it beats the “corporations control everything” set up for dozens of schlock games.
Did We Miss Out: Yes we did. By 2007’s standards, Headhunter is too simplistic, too generic, and too short to be worthy of praise. But this seems due to the fact that the formula it uses has been done time and again in the last six years. Back when it was fresh, I imagine this would have been at least a good game, and probably would have impressed in a few areas (the sound and voice acting alone are a cut above 2001 standards). Don’t bother with it now, unless you can assemble a time machine.