Manhunter: New York

Manhunter: New York
Game Name: Manhunter: New York
Platforms: DOS
Publisher(s): Sierra On-Line
Developer(s): Evryware
Genre(s): Adventure
Release Date: 1988

I should first note than Manhunter has nothing to do with Michael Mann’s 1986 film that introduced Dr. Hannibal Lecter to the cinema. Instead, this game introduces giant alien eyeballs that have enslaved the human race. A bit of a difference, I know, but both could be considered investigative thrillers. The similarities end there, as one is quite good, and the other is fairly frustrating. I think you can guess which is which.

The game sticks you into the slums of New York with the other various, hooded rabble remaining in the city. You’re distinct in that you’re a “Manhunter” – a human in charge of tracking human criminals. You’re a cross between a bounty hunter and a police detective, and the age-old tale of “cop versus bad guy” is made somewhat more interesting with the inclusion of advanced surveillance and cataloguing technology. Your alien benefactors are spying on every single person in New York, and they’ve thoughtfully given you the keys. You really don’t even need the alien invaders; this could have easily broken out as a 1984 kind of tale, and possibly been a little less silly in the process. But aside from the whole “floating eyeballs from outer space” deal, the game has a very dystopian, Orwellian atmosphere, and the use of real New York landmarks gives the environment a sense of credibility. It’s a shame that the game is brought down by a serious identity crisis throughout its run.

ime to fire up the MAD and see which unsuspecting human freedom fighter I'm going to fuck over today. I, for one, welcome our new eyeball overlords!

Most of the backstory is found in the manual, and it is mostly a “man-on-the-street” view of the changes that occurred when the aliens invaded. It does a bit to explain the odd state of society that you see in the game, like the brown monk robes and such, but certainly doesn’t answer enough, like why certain humans look like deformed trolls. It also intentionally does not answer the money question of why you were chosen to become a Manhunter, or why you accepted. The story itself is that you don’t know why; making you either a very willing participant, or suggesting some kind of coercive alien techniques that aren’t referenced anywhere in the game. Aside from being watched at every turn and suffering under a regime where speaking is a capital offense, the other humans don’t seem to have it that bad. There are bars and nightclubs, free access to parks, and even Coney Island is up and running with boardwalk games. There’s nothing to suggest Manhunters get specific special treatment that would make such a position desireable, and nothing about your character to suggest you’re particularly suited for it.

Your promotion to Manhunter is also not a mystery that gets unraveled as the game goes on. The game simply dodges any attempt to explain you, your past, or your present situation. This is probably an attempt you let you play “you.” But the game is a standard linear adventure where you can’t do anything but play the role of the character on the screen, and it doesn’t help you fit into the role of a traitor to your race who apparently sold out for a nicer apartment and some minor degree of freedom. Or maybe you just thought tracking down rebellious humans and ratting them out to a certain death “sounded like fun.”

I would also like to know how many men you are expected to have hunted by this point, because it would help explain the turn of events toward the end. It would appear that your character naively believes the aliens are a benevolent force at the beginning, then discovers a horrible truth that makes you cast away your man-hunting ways by the end, but you’re never really given information either way. I never saw anything in the game to suggest the aliens were anything less that an invading force of oppressors from space-hell. And there’s nothing particularly shocking to really get you worked up and ready to fight back against them, except for your not-so-surprising discovery that the offer of a “transfer to Chicago” is a euphemism for “hot ‘n spicy death.”

Your main tracking report for the day. I hope you could watch this all day, because you pretty much will.

That leaves the gameplay as the last bastion of hope for this title, and like the plot, it starts off relatively strong. You have no weapons or capture tools, so your job is strictly to investigate and tattle names back to your Orb superiors for appropriate handling. Your primary field tool is a wireless laptop computer called a MAD, which must have looked like a James Bond gadget in 1988. It’s connected to the alien supercomputer, and allows you access to overhead surveillance scanners and a database of every person on Earth. Some semblance of logic comes into play here, and you are limited in fairly understandable ways. The need for a brilliant space-fairing race to recruit local Manhunters is even reasonably explained. Every remaining human has been outfitted with a radio transmitter tag which only broadcasts their location, not their identity (explained by “trouble” the Orbs are having with the system). You can’t simply fire up your scanners and follow anyone you like – their movements are only recorded when they’ve done something worthy of the Orbs’ ire. It’s then your responsibility to follow the target’s recorded movement patterns and see where they’ve been, who they’ve met with, and where they might be hiding now.

The game chapters are divided by days. Each day begins with a rude awakening from your alien commander (who, despite the ability of flight, still has to take the noisy elevator). Something unpleasant will have happened overnight, and the Orbs expect you to track down and report the name of the suspect by the end of the day. At the beginning of the game, for example, you’re informed that there has been an explosion at a hospital in Manhattan. You then switch on the MAD and watch overhead footage of the culprit planting the bomb, dinking around in a blown-open room, and then fleeing. You can follow any target’s path across New York until you lose the signal inside jammed areas, or if they disappear underground.

Again, your suspects won’t have names yet, so your job will be to watch the tracking tape and investigate the places that they patronized for clues. So if you watch the suspect go to a church and stop at a table in the corner for a few minutes, you can then travel to that church in “real life,” go to that table, and see what’s so interesting about it. If the suspect meets up with another person, you can turn the tracker on that person to see where they head off to and if they could be involved. You’re able to replay that day’s footage as many times as you like to track different targets and refresh your memory of their movement patterns if needed. You’re not timed, and the day only ends when you’ve found the requisite clues and information for that day. Your MAD will beep, order you to type in the name of your suspect, and then you’ll be off to bed to rest up for another day of ratting out your fellow New Yorkers.

"I wish... I'd finished... Larry 2....gaaahhhh..."

That’s where the ingenuity, and by no coincidence, the interesting parts of the game end. Your “real world” investigations consist primarily of taking copious notes of every detail you come across, in the hopes that they may be used in practical terms later that day. You’ll learn of an underground resistance movement throughout the game, which means that every landscape, hand gesture, sequence of events, and even the layout of an arcade game maze may have some meaning in a puzzle later on. Expectedly, most of the game becomes more about finding this resistance and less about the men you’re meant to hunt. Most of them turn up dead anyway, and in particularly gruesome ways. You see, you’ll also have a serial killer to deal with, though his actual involvement in the events and current “political situation” is vague to say the least. He doesn’t offer much to the plot, except another fresh and icky corpse, and some weird standoffs toward the end. And fresh and icky they will be, in a surprising level of gore for an 80s Sierra adventure.

Which leads to part of the identity crisis I spoke of in the opening paragraph. Manhunter is one of Sierra’s darkest games, and certainly the darkest for the time it was released. Alien enslavers are worlds apart from Mixed Up Mother Goose and the adventures of Sir Graham, after all. The body count here is also high, bloody, and detailed in frequent close-ups. It comes as a bit of confusion then, that the old Sierra style humor is still present in nearly full force. Resistance messages are in silly children’s rhymes. Patrons at a bar will spin you around over their heads before tossing you to the ground, where you’ll collapse in a puddle Loony Tunes-style. Your character literally stops at one point to do a “raise the roof” victory dance, and is then joined unnamed backup dancers as they “Walk Like an Egyptian.” The three Murrys (the designers), even appear after your death like Jim Walls did in Police Quest, and offer a quip about your last method of death. It all seems out of place in a plot that is midnight black, with no story elements to support the juvenile giggles. You’ll go from finding bloated corpses with tongues hanging out, to falling down a pit and having your heart-adorned boxers revealed, in 3.2 seconds. It has all the uncomfortable, frowny effect of a Jerry Lewis cameo in Seven.

The second point of confusion is the copious arcade sequences that block your investigation. You’ll enter a bar and be forced to throw knives between a bartender’s hand before you can continue. You’ll have to break into a nightclub by leaping and ducking guns, knives, and bombs thrown by gangbangers in an alley. You’ll have to sort your way through a minefield where you have about fifteen directions per screen you can take. A sort of Donkey Kong Jr. clone and the final ship sequence are so needlessly difficult that they make you wonder if the game even wants you to beat it. All of these cannot be skipped. Many times I could literally feel myself getting an aneurism, and my constant referral to the designers as “those motherfuckers” didn’t help either. I’ve heard a lot of lamentations in general regarding the inclusion of arcade sequences in adventure games, and this title offers a great example of how not to make them fit.

The nicest thing that can be said about the minigames is that you’re allowed to repeat each from the beginning without penalty. But if you’re still having trouble beating it on the 20th try, you’re not going to feel any better at the 50th. There’s absolutely no reason to hold up the entire adventure while you make the player perform some unsolicited, arbitrary test of reflexes.

The game has some novelty, as it is credited with being Sierra’s first “point and click” adventure. It was too early for the proliferation of mice however, so the pointing and clicking is done with the sluggish arrow keys and enter. It also departs from the typical third-person adventures and drops you into a first person view for the majority of the game, only breaking for cinematic shots or to view some crime performed on your person. This has a few interesting effects; the most obvious being an attempt to pull you into the world. Seeing recognizable New York landmarks in various states of disrepair with “your own eyes” does help to bring home the post-apocalyptic feel. It’s also an excuse to draw less, and incur undue mental duress with the inclusion of first-person mazes. I don’t know if you’ve ever had the… err… joy of wandering through a hedge maze, but that’s the basic idea here. The trick of course is that every turn and doorway is totally identical, because they were only drawn once and reused. Even with a map, I had no shortage of trouble following where I was.

Which is pretty much the case for every building in the game.

Graphics run on a hacked version of Sierra’s old AGI interpreter, and do their job without much finesse. They’re on par with the visuals in LSL or Space Quest 1, with about the same level of detail. The inclusion of recognizable buildings cast against a gloomy, red sky is a great touch though, and helps sell the morose mood of silent, deformed humans shuffling through the winds of dirty, boarded streets. It wouldn’t have worked the same way if you were the unknown inhabitants of the planet Arcturis or somesuch, and you wouldn’t have the impression of being surrounded by the shadows of something lost and worth fighting for. It also brings a certain future noir danger of creeping through dirty urban alleys with the constant threat of being jumped by your mark at every turn. Or maybe that’s just me over-inflating the atmosphere of the game. Even if you just look at the screen and don’t see past the 16-color graphics, there’s no denying that the story doesn’t take advantage of its setting and potential.

So there it is; one of Sierra’s most unique titles, that actually plays as a fairly boring and standard detective game. The MAD device is a pretty neat piece of kit, and tracking suspects from a kind of overseer view is an interesting twist. However, the actual investigation that occurs when you arrive on the scene is painfully simplistic (“click” on the only item in the scene that can be examined further), overly complicated, (play this silly minigame over and over until you get it right, and only then may you continue), or just plain tedious (navigate this featureless maze, and make sure to collect all twelve keycards along the way). And I still, after having just finished the game, do not understand what the main villain’s deal is. I guess like the ending suggests, I’ll just have to find out in Manhunter 2: San Francisco. Meet me there if you like, but avoid New York in the meantime.


The Good

Interesting atmosphere and potential. The MAD scanner is a great twist on the standard investigation game, and its interplay with the game’s “real” locations is well done.

The Bad

Dark and childish in the same game, for no good reason. Investigations are far too basic, so they’re supplemented by taxing arcade and maze sequences.

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