Manhunter: New York
First posted on 21 August 2000. Last updated on 09 August 2009.
About a year after Sierra On-Line establishes itself a firm ground in the computer gaming industry, it decides to take a chance with a new development team. The end result of this effort is Manhunter: New York. I can still remember flipping through the company's game catalog at 8 years old and seeing the advertisement for this game. The Manhunter series has been an experimental project headed by Dave, Barry, and Dee Dee Murray. In fact, the series stands as the last and only adventure series to be produced by the Murray trios, for reasons which soon become obvious in this article.
In the year 2002, the Orbs, an alien race composed of enormous eyeballs, has invaded the planet Earth. More specifically, the aliens have invaded New York, rendering it a hollowed out shell of the city it once has been. Exactly 2 years later, you play a Manhunter with no particular place or identity in society. You have no family, no friends, and no personal life. As a Manhunter, your only job is to track down human criminals and bring them to justice (hence the sinister job tile).
If it sounds like my description of the story is lacking, then you are starting to see why I speak badly of this game. Believe it or not, this is the whole story! Of course, a few extra bits are brought about with subtlety throughout the game and in the manual. For instance, all humans are required to wear cloaks, the atmosphere has been altered to make life more hospitable for the Orbs, and there appears to be an Orb resistance. The problem is that as the game develops there is only a hint of a plot, but nothing more.
This game is released during a time when Sierra On-Line's repertoire of games is pretty homogenous, having released only several "Quest" series and the Leisure Suit Larry series. The game is produced using the formidable AGI (Adventure Game Interpreter) engine. It stands as proof that the engine is really flexible, being able to be adapted to create something of a primitive hybrid of Myst and Return to Zork. Although the AGI engine is not the first to introduce a point and click interface (that honor belongs to LucasArts' SCUMM (Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion) engine), the first person perspective implemented here is innovative and ahead of its time. Unfortunately, the graphics and puzzles scare away any point the game may have received for being so innovative. Even with AGI's 160x120 resolution considered, the graphics seem very poor. Compared with its other AGI contemporaries, it becomes obvious that the screens definitely lack the skills of adequately talented artists. Many screens are much too bare, and others are just crudely drawn.
Your task as a Manhunter is assisted through the MAD terminal, a portable communication device which allows you to track the movement of suspects throughout New York. The places they visit become accessible on the Travel Map. Both the MAD device and the Travel Map may be accessed with a simple key press, so moving about the city is very easy. The use of an overhead map in the game dissolves the possibility of having red herrings, since each location must involve at least one important step in finishing the game.
The point and click interface in this game is manageable, although the lack of mouse support renders it a bit cumbersome. This is not the fault of the designers, however, since the mouse is neither supported by AGI nor a popular piece of hardware in that era.
Mixed with the adventure aspect of the game are many arcade sequences. In general, arcade sequences can be either delightful little additions or just plain frustrating. Unfortunately, the sequences in this game all fall into the latter category. The worst part is that they are numerous in number and, much like the inane puzzle sequences, they are poorly tied into the plot. Luckily, you can save and restore in the middle of playing them (which is almost a necessity).
Probably the biggest flaws of gameplay are its puzzles. They range from unbelievably easy to inconspicuously difficult, with almost nothing in between. Unlike other games from Sierra On-Line which, with their text parsers, allow a nice variety of commands and responses, the puzzles in this game are sickeningly linear. Furthermore, what makes the gameplay worst is the way each room has very little at all to interact with. Most rooms have only a single object or direction, and most objects collected are not even used by the end. When you finally encounter a puzzle that requires the inventory, it is almost impossible to solve because you have been accustomed to thinking in a linear fashion that does not include inventory puzzles. It is akin to a poor Myst clone where the majority of the puzzles are just sliders that have very little to do with the plot at all. Finally, death is nearly a guarantee around every corner. The authors have kindly saved us from headaches by offering an "undo" after each death, but this whole experience is still annoying and made ludicrous through poor design.
Perhaps intentional or simply by accident, the game manages to create quite an oppressive atmosphere, despite the shoddy graphics, thin plot, and annoying puzzles. Seeing civilization as it is known having been reduced to tatters has an interesting effect on my psyche. In fact, the game has a good Orwellian quality. The places it allows you to explore are unpredictable and the creatures you meet are fun to watch, and I recommend the game just for that.
Unfortunately, there are simply no attractive qualities in this game that can overshadow its weakness created by the nonexistent plot. From the very beginning when people start dying, very little is said about them or what they are after. It is obvious that there is a resistance against the Orbs. However, beyond a few eye signals, cryptic (yet childishly simple) symbols, and scrawled notes, the game lacks the deep literary substances usually associated with alien oppression science fictions. Later into the game we discover a villain named Phil Cook who has been doing the killing, but it is not made clear why he is doing it, where he comes from, or why the Orbs are having me track him down. He may as well be called the "Ambiguous Villain" and have a big "AV" tattooed on his chest. Beyond that, there is simply no character development. You begin the game by tracking clues to an explosion at a hospital, eventually stumble upon the trail of a serial killer, and at the end you are leading the resistance against the Orbs. Yet, neither has your character ever voiced a single opinion about these events nor has any other game character become seriously involved within the plot. Instead, each character is usually attached to a particular location where they are found, never to be seen again anywhere else in the game.
Much more can be said about the overwhelming disaster created by so many of the game's poor designs in this game, but I shall spare the reader a novella. Not surprisingly, the Manhunter series is often regarded as Sierra On-Line's forgotten adventure series. A strange bit about this game is the way all these negatives collide with the few positives to create a very enigmatic game. It is not just a "plain" bad game. There is something about this game that sets it apart, enough for me to recommend it to others. I doubt anyone can play the game twice in a row, but it still demands to be played. If anything, simply play this game to experience an enigma—a game that is bad, yet interesting, with something in between that evades definition.