Stuck in the Shallows
When it comes to expressing ideas outside the norm, video games have a distinct disadvantage compared to movies, books, or other artistic mediums. While more visual productions can conjure whatever worlds come to mind thanks to CGI and movie magic, games have to involve the player. Whether it's building out hundreds of years of civilization or fine-tuning the art of swordplay, developers have to make players feel like they're in control. Tripwire Interactive recently set out to make players feel like a shark, a well-worn film topic that only a few games have attempted in the past. The end result, entitled Maneater, accomplished this remarkably well, but the game surrounding this achievement is anything but remarkable.
How Is Playing As Maneater's Bull Shark?
From the opening moments to the closing credits, Tripwire has nailed the feeling of jetting through the ocean and eating everything in your path. Whether you're skimming the surface with your dorsal fin or diving through sewers and caves, Maneater feels smooth and satisfying. The animations as you dart around your prey and lunge at them teeth-first are DOOM-quality, as is the satisfying crunch of biting through a turtle shell at the last moment to regain your health. Even the over the top absurdity of leaping through the air at a boat and picking off hunters feels deliberate and enjoyable.
It's a great start, and I'm usually overjoyed whenever a game nails its gameplay with such precision. No matter what other flaws it may have, you can usually ignore them if you're having a good time. This should be even more the case when you're doing something novel, and Maneater certainly excels in that regard, at least to start. Every task put in front of you requires learning new skills and adapting to the unique control challenges of being an underwater creature. Sharks don't run, they lunge forward. Sharks can't shoot projectiles, so you have to engage in a deadly close-range dance with every foe. Sharks can't run around on land, so you sometimes have to flop around and hold your breath to grab an out of the way collectible.
What is Maneater's Story Like?
Sharks also can't speak, and that's one of the issues that sink the entire enterprise. For whatever reason, Tripwire decided that Maneater should be realistic, or at least more realistic than you might think. This is despite the fact that the main goal involves eating hundreds of people and tackling boats to death. The entire campaign sits on a reality TV show framing device that features a surly sailor who might as well be asking about a larger vessel and his educated son. You get occasional cutscenes and vocal lines from these characters, and the sailor sends out a whole progression of "legendary" shark hunters to murder you. However, because you're just a shark, you don't interact with any of this at all. It becomes window dressing that's easy to ignore, especially when the secondary hunters are often as simple to eat as your standard enemy.
The opposing force just doesn't match with the over the top ambitions found in the gameplay, especially when compared to the upgrade system and the in-game narration. Your female bull shark has the ability to transform into several shades of elemental monster. You can grab electrified teeth to stun foes and bulked-up bone armor to stave off their attacks. You acquire the upgrades by defeating bosses and gathering collectibles, which means that you can't play with as many tools of destruction as you like throughout most of the campaign. Still, you get plenty of customization options in the second half, especially if you're going for completion.
The entire vibe of the game gels thanks to Chris Parnell, who acts as a faceless Bastion-esque narrator quipping about every action you take. They must have recorded tons of dialogue here, as Parnell (who you may know as Jerry from Rick and Morty) didn't start repeating himself until I was heading towards the finish line. There might be some trepidation if you're not a fan of cheese, especially when his lines pair with the silly pop culture references tied to the landmarks you collect. Still, humor went a long way towards keeping me engaged throughout my playthrough. In fact, it might have been the only thing.
How is Maneater's Open World?
The biggest issue with Maneater is how it's structured. Heavily promoted as the world's first "open-world shARkPG", it's those first two worlds that cause the problem. I can see no logical reason why Maneater is an open-world game. Outside of a few visual flairs you won't see very often since you spend your time mostly underwater, each area is painfully similar. There aren't many nooks and crannies to explore, and the new enemies you find as you progress go down just as easily as the old ones. Even if you run into trouble, you respawn nearby without losing progress, so you can overcome any obstacle with just a keen sense of perseverance.
The missions are insanely repetitive, consisting of tasks like "Eat 10 of this fish," "Kill 14 humans," and "Do those first two things again!" There's none of the variety you might see in a Saints Row or even a Crackdown 3. Side quests are just repeated main quests, offering no rewards beyond XP and upgrade materials. Because of that, Maneater gives you no reason to pursue them. I found myself barrelling through the main quest, not out of a desire to finish right away, but out of a lack of other things to accomplish.
What Maneater really lacks is a mode that takes advantage of its undeniable strengths. Some sort of structured arcade mode that plops a fully upgraded fish into the waters and challenges players to eat as much as possible. Traversal challenges or underwater races to take advantage of the finely tuned swimming mechanics. Boss fights with enemies that force you to do more than dodge gunfire and headbutt a boat. Anything that has me doing something interesting with a gameplay system I desperately want to engage with more. As it stands, unless you're really into hunting down license plates and hidden crates, Maneater plays like a linear action game with the added "benefit" of travel distance between missions.
Maneater Review | Final Thoughts
Maneater is a lot of fun when it's firing on all cylinders and many players will likely find themselves enjoying the action in short bursts. It's the perfect game to chill out with between bigger projects, and it won't take too long to fully complete if you're into that sort of thing. With a few more modes or varied missions, it could have been something special, but it exists now as a simple novelty, a baseline that could become amazing with big patches or a more expansive sequel. In that way, it feels more like a PS2 classic than a 2020 release, and I guess there's some value in that kind of nostalgic throwback.
TechRaptor reviewed Maneater on Xbox One X with a copy provided by the publisher. The game is also available on PlayStation 4 and PC via Epic Games Store.
- Truly Captures Shark Gameplay
- Fun, Over The Top Upgrades
- Expansive Narration By Chris Parnell
- Empty Open World Structure
- Maddingly Repetitive Missions
- Unremarkable Boss Fights