Rockstar North’s 2003 stealth classic Manhunt is notorious for being one of the most violent games ever made, boasting disturbing visuals, gameplay, art, story and atmosphere. Nothing in the game was lighthearted in the slightest. It was, essentially, SAW before SAW.
Being from an era of many prominent stealth games, Manhunt had to stand out in a few ways. Firstly, it’s execution system played into the overpowered violence by having each weapon offer three distinct methods of murder, ranging from violent to holy shit did you see that. It had a focus on melee combat but also offered plenty of firearms which felt appropriately powerful and visceral. The premise of the game is unique even today, where the protagonist has to film a big snuff movie for a sadistic director in the slums of a slummy city. So superslums, I guess.
One neat aspect the game differed from other stealth titles was in distracting the enemies. Sure Metal Gear Solid, Splinter Cell, Thief, and a whole bunch of others also had ways to do it, but it was simply just an extra gameplay mechanic in those titles. There was rarely any need to, say, throw an empty magazine across the room or sound off a device in the next room over when you could simply sneak up on your prey and knock them out quickly.
Manhunt was special in having a dedicated button to have Cash, the protagonist, whistle out to distract enemies. It really was crucial to get through the game, as the level design sometimes requires you to draw enemies around corners one at a time. Consequently, what made Manhunt stand out was the importance of sound. Most of the game is quiet and without music, and your radar keeps track of how loud your character is. Hence the whistle – a loud and audible means of distraction that requires no resources and had a limited range.
There was another side to this mechanic that most people have forgotten about and, perhaps, probably never knew about unless they followed the game right up until release. If you had the PlayStation 2 or Xbox headset plugged in, you could use your own voice to call out to and distract enemies. And it wasn’t ever capped at a certain volume either. It registered your breath, your grunts, your moans and your shouts. There was no maximum volume either. If you yelled, every enemy around would hear. If you whispered, only someone very close to you would hear. Using the microphone added a whole different level of immersion to the game that you can’t actually find in anywhere else. The Sly Cooper games did something similar, but it only really registered shouts.
It wasn’t perfect – the registered volume was often questionable since it was a cheap, driverless Logitech headset the PlayStation 2 used, and it often did make the game harder to play, but it was a very cool feature nonetheless.
Interestingly, the new Splinter Cell: Blacklist game seeks to be using a similar mechanic to Manhunt, though I don’t think they realize it. In the demonstration video above, we see the player use their voice to call out to enemies to gain their attention, a feature that seems to be Kinect only. I asked the official Splinter Cell Twitter account and they didn’t have a straight confirmation either way but didn’t seem to think anything but Kinect would work. And that’s unfortunate, really. Manhunt’s use of the headset was nothing short of inspired for a stealth game. Putting aside notions on what the Splinter Cell series has turned into, it seems like a waste to step into Manhunt’s unique mechanic so half-heartedly and limit it to an expensive device when a simple headset would actually be exponentially more effective.
It’s a shame that not even Manhunt 2 included this feature. With a little refinement, the voice gameplay could have added quite a bit to gaming. Voice in general seems to have been a lost cause after the previous generation, when we had games like SOCOM: US Navy Seals, Lifeline, and even Tom Clancy’s EndWar (which came out in 2008). They tried to push voice gaming in a new direction and failed to make any impact past their initial splash. At least Splinter Cell: Blacklist seems to be bringing it back, even if only in a superficial way to try and appeal to Kinect owners. It might just be a long while before any game ever picks up the importance of voice in video games to blend the player into the game world as effortlessly as Manhunt did.
I’d love to say that Manhunt was a game ahead of its time but, as it stands, it will be a forgotten classic whose innovations and unique features might just end up lost or bastardized for the sake of adding another bulletpoint to the back of the box.