Rockstar Games’ Hot Coffee scandal is something of a classic debate among myself and some of the staff writers. Long before that in the summer of 2005, I waged war against two good friends (and even better gamers) about the topic. We spent the last hour and a half of work arguing about who to blame and what it means, the debate continuing into the Walmart parking lot and only ending when we stepped into our cars.
The last point of discussion was a desperate attempt of a younger (and much more idealistic) me to fight for the future of gaming. I claimed that Rockstar could have used both the Hot Coffee mini game and the fiasco itself to prove just how unfairly harsh critics of the gaming industry are compared to other media outlets. They could have pushed for a more tasteful look at sex scenes in games, or stood up for the industry when no one wanted to. Instead, they acted like a bunch of scared teenagers after pulling a prank (or pissing off a tiger). My friends said that their only job was to make money, not change the world. I felt that it could not hurt to try, especially considering the scandal cost Take Two quite a bit of scratch.
This has been the way Rockstar has operated for so long. Their people (at least in their North and Leeds studios) are incredibly talented individuals who could do some amazing things if they wanted to. Sometimes they actually do, but it always seems to be tarnished in some way or another. Grand Theft Auto 3 was an amazing piece of technology, and they mucked it up by taking on more and more story and RPG-stats, rather than furthering the wild, arcade style gameplay that the series does so well. They are also adept at stirring trouble; Hot Coffee aside, I remember an anecdote from EGM’s Dan Hsu about a Rockstar employee who insulted him at a media event after some less than glamorous words about the developer.
And then there is Manhunt 2. The game was brutally punished and beaten by politicians and “concerned” individuals, despite all clues pointing to the game being no more gruesome than something like Saw or Hostel. There were bans, a hiatus, and eventually a censored release. To say the treatment of the game was unfair is an understatement, yet I feel once again that Rockstar shares some of the blame. The original Manhunt got some attention, but was released as is. The second game comes out, and while the content is not really worse a shitstorm falls upon it, and I cannot help but think that if Rockstar didn’t cause so much trouble in the past, the attention would have died out and Manhunt 2 would have been released as is. Instead that will only be a wish.
I also wonder if during the hiatus in development, Rockstar decided to use the remaining budget on hookers and blow. Manhunt 2 made me think, but it is perhaps the shittiest, most poorly constructed game to ever do so.
There is so little to say about Manhunt 2. The graphics are atrocious. Since the game was developed for the PSP, it seems Rockstar used this as the baseline for all three consoles. I am accustomed to seeing Wii games up ported from the PS2, but this is an embarrassment to both home consoles. Weapon models look like they are competing with those in Goldeneye, and you can see the polygons making up a character’s torso. At the very least they could have given us a stable framerate, but even that is wishful thinking.
The original Manhunt had a relatively clever story to back up its gore. Bad people killing other bad people to make a snuff film is a fairly interesting framework for such strong violence. The sequel’s plot is uncomfortably similar to the one found in the game Second Sight, right down to the protagonist being a bald and glasses wearing scientist who later changes into street clothes. The game’s big twist is ripped whole hog from Fight Club, and if you can’t figure it out by the game’s first cutscene you might not be old or mature enough to play this. Manhunt 2 is as phoned in story wise as can be; a game where you can call the “twists” before they happen.
Most Wii games that come from the PS2 have done admirable jobs of translating controls to the Wii-mote. Manhunt 2’s layout is symmetrical, and that is about all it can claim. Three quarters of the d-pad are used for movement, wall sticking is too touchy, and the motion controlled executions require a certain precision and finesse in order to work optimally. Thank goodness that gun controls are almost impossible to screw up on this console, or I wouldn’t have bothered (there is more gunplay in this game than you would think).
So where is the genius? It doesn’t exist, just some good ideas that should be in a better game. Since your character walks by default and enemies are not superhuman, stealth kills are painless (though if they do find you they can be very brutal). Some subtle lighting effects and a film grain graphics filter can make the levels look better than they actually are. The camera also goes into a “shaky cam” style in certain contexts. This trick helped make Gears of War feel like raw footage on the battlefield a la Saving Private Ryan, and in Manhunt 2 it works well to convey the sense that you are playing as a psychotic serial killer who is not only crazy but panicked. If this looked even slightly better we would have had a highly atmospheric and immersive game.
The greatest accomplishment comes from the sound design. Enemies have an monstrous amount of dialogue that they spout when looking for or chasing you. Rarely would I hear the same thing twice, and it was not only well acted, but they gave even these common enemies loads of personality. As murderous as your character may be, your foes are also scum of the earth, people who will tell you they mean to help but intend to snuff you out. Others have no qualms in letting you know how tough they are, and they will back it up. They will call you stupid for trying to hide from them in plain sight, and will call for backup. This is a simple case of fine execution, and while it is dampened by how stupid the enemies can be, it is still a powerful way of making me hate those who were after me.
And with that hate, I started to plan my attacks. How would I kill this scumbag? The stun baton allows you to stick it in their mouths and electrocute them as they let out the game’s most blood curdling screams of pain. Maybe that guy over there is a drunk; I’ll use the liquor bottle on him. And of course I could just take three or so foes out by jumping at them with a power saw from above, cutting off their heads as they try to get up. Never before have I given much thought to how to kill someone. But Manhunt 2 is not a game where speed is often of the essence. I could do whatever I wanted, but never did I act without thinking of the proper method of murder.
Murder. That is exactly what Manhunt 2 sports. That isn’t different from other games out there, but never before have I given it this kind of thought. Like the protagonist of the game, I questioned my actions, but the game egged both of us. It was in self defense. They deserved it. I had no choice. But I often had choices. I could have run past many guards with no hassle. Instead I killed them all. That doctor over there cowering in the corner? I blew his head off with a shotgun, just in case he decided to spring an alarm. Of course the game was not smart enough to do this.
Manhunt 2 is a mediocre game, yet it still had enough power to make me play the killer when I could have gone for the pacifist. I once had a conversation with videolamer writer Don about the shocking scenes of violence in Call of Duty 2. Manhunt 2 is exactly along those lines. What is scary isn’t that I was immersed in this game. No, the scary thing is that few people who played this same experience probably felt like I did. Instead they all must have thought that this was the coolest shit ever. Snuffing people out is so fucking cool.
I will defend Rockstar’s right to make this kind of content, and for people to play that content if they so choose. But the way our community reacts to it just doesn’t seem healthy. Not when a game this crummy can still be so potent.