Rockstar Games
The premise is promising: You play a guy trying to battle his way out of a mental hospital filled with violent and sexually disturbed sociopaths. Unfortunately, that's about as deep as it gets in "Manhunt 2."
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 11/1/2007 8:23:49 PM ET 2007-11-02T00:23:49

Rockstar’s violent and sexually explicit “Manhunt 2” has been making headlines for months. The game was banned outright in the U.K. and Ireland. The ESRB, which originally slapped it with an Adults Only rating, was only persuaded to downgrade to a retail-ready Mature after significant changes, such as placing filters over scenes of graphic executions, which are the hallmark of the "Manhunt" series.

But now that the game is out on shelves, all gamers want to know is this: Is “Manhunt 2” interesting to play?

Unfortunately, no. "Manhunt 2" stumbles because the narrative isn't nearly as compelling as the first game's grisly snuff film storyline and it treads very familiar ground compared to other stealth games, such as Ubisoft's "Splinter Cell" series.

At the beginning of the game, protagonist Danny Lamb wakes up in a grimy basement cell at a mental hospital that makes Danvers look like Disneyland. This facility houses some of the most violent and sexually disturbed sociopaths ever pulled off the streets. But there's something nefarious going on here, called the Pickman Project. Once Lamb escapes the hospital, he must then reclaim a series of memories which hint that, at one time, he might have been on the other side of the bars.

The chief hook in the "Manhunt" games is the use of extreme ultra-violence as both the carrot and the stick. Rockstar purposefully traded in shocking degrees of depravity in 2003's original game, in which you were the star of a snuff film egged on by an unseen director. (The director was deliciously voiced by actor Brian Cox who played Hannibal Lecter in the original "Manhunter" movie.) In that game, players used the shadows to sneak up on other degenerates and perform executions that played out on-screen. These executions were shocking, brutal, but pivotal to the theme of the game: Are you really so comfortable engaging in this degree of violence?

"Manhunt 2" doesn't look back, charging forward with equal amounts of hardcore violence and what the game box refers to as "strong sexual content."  Who knows, "Manhunt 2" might have made it past the ratings board the first time if Rockstar had excised some of the S&M stuff, which feels more look-at-me showy than important to the actual game.

When the narrative stumbles, the game's flaws are even more glaring, such as completely erratic enemy intelligence, sometimes-clumsy controls, and repetitive trial-and-error game play. Screw up an execution and the game either resorts to basic combat or forces you to try again. And again.

"Manhunt 2" launched on both the PlayStation 2 and PlayStation Portable on Oct. 31, but the Nintendo Wii edition of the game earns the most notice.

Never mind that next to "Resident Evil 4," this is easily the most violent game ever released on a Nintendo console. What makes the Wii version so notable is the use of the Wii Remote and nunchuk attachment as substitutes for the in-game weapons. Instead of simply pressing a button to bring a syringe down on the neck of an orderly at the mental institution, players swing the Wii Remote down to mimic the action. It offers a decidedly higher level of immersion than the other editions of "Manhunt 2," and perhaps uncomfortably so, but it also makes it worth a rental just to see what all the fuss is about.

"Manhunt" got away with murder because of its chilling and prescient plot. Without an engaging storyline to justify the sensationalistic violence, "Manhunt 2" is reduced to just a series of thrill kills — and even those have been severely edited to earn the retail-friendly M rating. If you must see the capper to the "Manhunt 2" controversy, try it as a rental. However, lower your expectations — just like Lamb lowers a crowbar to snuff out wave after wave of depraved sickos.

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