Sunday, November 04, 2007

Red Drago- er, Manhunt 2: Worth the Controversy?

And yes, that's my 10 seconds in photoshop. All hail me.

Anyone who knows me to any degree knows - or could certainly guess, at least - that I love the Rockstar North game MANHUNT the way that most heterosexual men love boobs covered in baby oil just barely contained by a tiny bikini. We know we're being stupid and uncouth slobs, but we really don't care. Manhunt was a game that allowed the player to live out their greatest slasher movie and Columbine fantasy from the comfort of their own La-Z-Boy and no potential legal rammifications for cutting off a guy's head with a machete. The story was minimal, the lead a more or less blank avatar, every murder captured on a video camera for the hungry snuff video market, you're egged on constantly by Brian Cox, who - incidentally - played Hannibal Lecter in the "original" Michael Mann film based on Red Dragon, Manhunter (and Cox's cursing and obvious masturbating here is far more memorable than anything he did there, I have to say). Featuring every insane set of villains they could think up - including white power rednecks, satanic Mexican gangsters, trigger happy weekend warriors, blood thirsty cops, smiley face wearing mental patients, and even a giant fat naked guy with a pig's head and a chainsaw - dropping new weapons you could execute them with in graphic detail, the game seemed dead set on offending every player imaginable and snowballing controversy.

The funny thing was, it really didn't at home. I mean sure, it got banned in Australia, but so did Reservoir Dogs: The Game. It was also brought up in some teenage murder trial in the UK where they found the game in the killer's room and the parents went zomg teh game iz ebil!, but that lasted all of a week before the lawyers went "uh... no.", which is a refreshing change of pace considering the United Kingdom was the country that started the Video Nasties witch hunt some 20+ years ago. The BBFC said that they had rated the game 18 and stood by it - the kid wasn't 18 so they did their job. New Zeland made it the very first video game to be banned there, and even Ontario (!) decided that the game would be given a film rating rather than a game rating to legally restrict sales to players 18+. It was also banned in Germany... but so is Anthropophagous, The Evil Dead, and the Unrated version of Saw III, so being banned in Germany is the equivalent of being banned from Salt Lake City. Even Night of the Living Dead was banned until a year or two ago, and now it has a ridiculously high FSK16 rating. So really, who gives a piss.

Manhunt came out in 2003. I rented it a couple times, bought it when the price dropped to $20, and still consider it a personal favorite. So when it was announced that Manhunt 2 was set for a 2007 release, I was stoked as all hell. Teaser looked promising, implying a more character driven story and surreal setting. Everything looked like it was going well and set for a July release... and then it was banned in the UK and Ireland, and given an AO rating in the USA by the ESRB, which had previously been reserved for pornographic self-help computer encyclopedias. Take Two panicked, and delayed the game's release until Halloween, editing the game for resubmission. After some deliberation, it was approved with an M rating in the US, but was still refused by the BBFC.

So what's the big deal, really? The first game included the player sneaking up behind people with baseball bats and literally popping his opponents heads like grapes on a fuzzy analog video camera footage... how much worse could this follow-up be? The answer is, unsurprisingly, not particularly so. The kills are no gorier than they used to be - you can't tear anyone in half, or skull fuck your opponents, or anything like that - but they are meaner, and I guess that was the whole problem. Originally the crowbar was used to impale or crack somebody's skull open... now it's used to impale them once, spin them around, and then stab them repeatedly as they hit the floor. Similarly, you can decapitate enemies than then use their heads (POST humorously) like hand puppets to get past retinal scanners or get into "secret" areas. You can even use firearms to execute your opponents, making them deepthroat the barrel before you pull the trigger, or shooting out their kneecap and then pistol whipping them into submission. There's even fun with a gasoline can, making the single most frustrating stage (well, okay, second most) level in the original game fun and exciting for the first time ever in the sequel. I hated stamping around with the gas can in the graveyard, but when I get to light Rent a Cop's on fire, s'all good baby.

Before I explain what all the hubub is about, take a look at the original AO version for yourself:

Looks like there's a leaked PAL version of the game for PS2 which was indeed uncensored, and while I'm going to have to be satisfied with my retail PS2 version for a while yet. The even more heavily (or so I'm told: the words "blur filter" are flung about pretty regularly) Wii version sounds extra-fun, since to execute people you have to use the Wiimote like a stabbing knife or a swinging night stick. Sadly, those who have actually played the Wii version say that they spend more time looking at the "jiggle your stick!" icon than the actual killing, so perhaps this is all a mixed blessing and I'm better off not buying the one gaming system who's marketing is built around the gamer flailing around like a 'tard. Though I guess at least all that aerobic Nunchuck Strangling would tame my man-boobs into submission.

The finished retail version of the game got an M rating at the cost of, among other things, a nasty red flash appearing over every single execution the game has to offer. Here's an example, including a comparison with the first game to show how ridiculous all of this bullshit is:

Whatever the case, it looks like a little Code Breaker USB dongling can take the red blurries away, but that's only half the problem. Apart from all that nonsense (which honestly is visually interesting and psychologically upsetting, even if it's just a cheap "hide the squirting blood" tactic) we have the big change: virtually all of the actual mutilation in the game is gone. So, despite the fact that you get a katana, you can't chop heads off with it. No, seriously. How can you not decapitate people with a katana in a game like this?! Hedge clippers, shovels, circular saws, pretty much everything except for the medium-level fire axe - almost pictured above - kill no longer chop heads off, but the fact that you literally can with one attack and can't from another is just, well, dumb. Also, you can blow heads off with any of the standard firearms, but the cattle prod no longer blows up heads. Yeah, that makes sense. I'll point out that despite the game literally requiring you to decapitate people to move forward, you'll now have to do it after the individual is already dead. How is mutilating the body after the fact less offensive? Perhaps my favorite Manhunt weapon of all - the trusty crowbar - is stripped of its' ability to literally rip the faces off of your opponents after you bury it in their gray matter and have to yank it out of their skull. Despite one of the new features of the game being executions using objects around you - the stage that's a literal Hostel joke has a total of 3 in a row if you're slick, and admit it, you want to bash a perverts head in using the top of a toilet while he drains the lizard as much as the next guy - but mysteriously, the fuse box kill is absent from the final game and was replaced with a noose-winch from a later stage. (There may be more environmental kills missing. Having beaten the game on Insane mode means I had no radar pointing out where they were, meaning it was basically up to luck for me to find them.) Probably the biggest disappointment here is the lack of pliers based fun. Sure, you can still bask people's face in with them, but as we're introduced to them in the game by seeing a guy's nose get clipped off with them I can't help but be let down knowing damned well that I was once going to be allowed to snip off noses of my own. They got even worse though... have you seen HOSTEL PART II yet? Me either, but... If not, do so and you'll see exactly where I'm going with this. Trust me, you'll know. I wonder if, as the ESRB played through the whole thing, that was the straw that literally broke the grumpy censorship cow's back.

Up until now the ESRB has never really had the draconian power to tell a studio to edit a game "or else". No other videogame has ever been threatened with an AO rating that wasn't basically a sexual how-to of somekind, apart from GTA: SAN ANDREAS, who's "Hot Coffee" mod is so infamous I refuse to explain it here, and the sole instance of a "Director's Cut" videogame in the form of FAHRENHEIT/INDIGO PROPHECY in which the interactive sex was supposedly not as graphic as some R-rated movies but was originally deleted anyway for an M rating. In the case of the former, it was re-released as a "second edition" with the Hot Coffee scene removed entirely (instead of just requiring a game hacking device and a spare afternoon to bust open), and in the case of the latter it was only available as a downloadable version on the Windows platform, since all 3 console manufacturers currently doing their thing refuse to allow AO rated games to be released for their systems. (Hilariously, Fahrenheit was released unedited with a 15 rating by the BBFC, an R16 by the OFLC, and a 16 by the USK in the UK, Australia, and Germany respectively.) In short, if Manhunt 2 ever has a PC release and Rockstar is willing to take any flack they'd get from it, we can theoretically have an AO rated director's cut... otherwise, the best we can do is remove the red blur from the Day of the Dead shovel decapitation and then shake our heads as the head stays firmly attached to the bastards shoulders after we watched our hero clearly snap the neck and twist it off like a bottle cap.

I'm continuing research to see if I can legitly force a PAL PS2 game to play on an NTSC system that's been fux0red with via a flip top console case and a copy of SwapMagic. If so, the uncensored BETA copy that was completed before the AO rating will soon be added to my collection the way controversial titles were always meant to be added: on hastily burned media with the title scribbled on by a sharpie. I'd say "Take THAT, Society!" much like that Wal*Mart toilet I took a piss in a few days ago, but having already bought the silly thing I guess it's all an empty gesture.

So, here's the real question: is it any good?

More or less, yes. While I acknowledge that the censorship does affect the enjoyment somewhat (it's more for the fact that kills just don't make sense anymore than it is me jerking off to the sight of poorly rendered neck stumps), I still don't mind that I spent $30 on it. The enemies, ranging from bondage gear wearing perverts to masked Hitman knockoffs and rednecks with crossbows all bear the same sick sense of humor that made the original game so much fun, and while the snuff video motif is still here (the screen is constantly full of chroma noise and tape rolls) the meat of the story has to do with a man who, upon escaping a mental institution with a sneering creep who comes and goes at random, tries to piece his life back together. All he knows for sure is that "The Project" took his life away, and now it's time for a little payback... sadly, they're well connected and none too fond of traitors, so it'll take our slightly less generic avatar every trick he's got to decapitate SM weirdo's and then use their heads as sock puppets to get into Members Only areas of porno theater so he can have an epic shotgun battle on the private stage. The whole game feels less panicked and linear than the first, with a healthy dose of skeezy pervs dives, disturbing hidden videos to hypnotic children's TV shows, twitching veterinarian projects, sticky assasinations, and a consistently refreshing combination of sniping, John Woo wannabe' gunplay without the slow motion doves, and the real reason we played these games, the shadow hiding and large sharp object plunging. The fighting system has improved dramatically (read: it doesn't suck cocks this times), you now have to push buttons to keep quiet in the shadows, the environmental kills keep the game fresh and exciting, and while the game isn't nearly long enough - at only 16 scenes and no bonus content of any kind, I'd have been pissed if it were $35 - the fact that your level of hardcore killing and heartlessness will lead you to one of two very different endings is a nice touch. I won't give away exactly why there are two, but if you're paying attention and if you've ever seen a certain David Finscher film it should be pretty damn easy to decipher less than half way through. It's not a big deal though, as you're allowed to play the "other" ending as soon as you finish the game and want to replay a scene. (Huh... cool?) Graphics are about on par with all of Rockstar's games, which means they're functional but not zomg osom. Frankly, should we care on a title like this? If I wanted photo realistic CG I'd watch Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, but if I wanted to have fun I'd play the game no matter how dated it looks. The story is a little simple - and as I said, too goddamn short! - but it gets the job done, flinging us from one unpleasant situation to another until the only place left to run is the hero's mind... and even that's anything but pleasant.

While some extra bonus scenes or even some concept art would have been really appreciated, Manhunt 2 was made for people who liked the first game, and while effectively more of the same it'll please those who liked it the first go'round. If the chance to play out your Michael Meyers or Henry Lee Lucas dreams while cutting up racist slobs with shards of glass and shooting SWAT team members with assault rifles didn't win you over the first time, I don't think they'll get you with this one either, but if you're into this stuff anyway amazingly retarded censorship aside it's pretty solid. Had the game not had it's nose clipped off it's face with pliers, it'd likely go down as one of the most interesting "hot button" titles the media has ever bothered to pick up on from gaming circles, and compared to shit like Fright Night and Mortal Kombat 3, this one is actually, y'know, fun. I did beat the game in about 3 days, so if you can snag this one from Blockbuster on that $10 for a week for 2 games deal they do every other week you might find you're good with that and not want to spend the whole shebag. I can't stress that this game is too damned short enough, and hopefully the controversy will make this game popular enough that we'll get Manhunt 3 before 2010. And that it'll have at least 20 scenes plus 4 bonus scenes like the original game did.

Anyway, that's literally my video game quota for the year, unless my wife surprises the hell out of me during X-mas or she and I join forces for Guitar Hero 3, a title that my not owning makes me sad at a very fundamental level. Frustratingly as I play demo's for even that none too graphics intensive game do I see the folly of not owning a PS3 or a 360 for all the insanity it could bring ($60 for Assassin's Creed? Hell no. Rent it for $6? Now we're getting somewhere...), but as the former only has 2 games worth farting at and the latter is made quite sticky by drooling fanboi's who think Master Chief is Jesus Christ and would require another $100 to get online via that stupid wireless modem I'm already paying for plus another $60 to play games online, I feel that I can just tell both Next Gen systems to fuck themselves for at least another year. Sadly, as Jericho* is on both of these gameboxes my interest has certainly been piqued, and with one having Gears of War and Blue Dragon, the other having Lair and Final Fantasy 13 (someday), it's going to be a tough call. Mercifully (?) as I don't have anywhere near the $400 to invest in either console - forget software, controllers, networking doo-dads and everything else I'd need on top of that - this is all speculative grumbling rather than me seeking advice or considering which kidney to sell, Lefty or Right-Right, to make said dreams happen.

*If I were smart I'd put this scary as all hell PC to the test and buy it for that... but with the way I suck up space for DVD images and random stupid downloads I literally would probably need to buy a second HDD just to install it. More RAM would be good, too. Also, how good is an ATI All In Wonder at gaming? Guess there's only one way to find out...