This week on Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Maneater.
Uh-oh, here she comes. Watch out, boys; she'll chew you up. There, now you've got that song stuck in your head, too; you're fucking welcome. So, do you want another masterclass in giving your opinion away in the very first sentence? Here goes: "Maneater is a concept that feels like it could've worked."
It's a game where you play as a shark that has a beef with humanity, which it has chosen to process by turning humanity into beef, as it were. Tons of potential in the concept of playing as one of the stealthy assassins of the deep; I picture a game that's the diametric opposite of the Batman: Arkham predator missions in that you're picking your targets from below rather than above, eyeing the legs of oblivious swimmers like they're a baby mobile covered in chicken drumsticks before luring away select targets and eating them one by one to avoid panicking the rest or attracting the fish police. That's... not what Maneater is; Maneater is a game in which you, as a shark, beach yourself and then lollop around a sandbank like a space hopper full of custard, chowing down on screaming ambulatory kebab after screaming ambulatory kebab, who are so utterly helpless to stop you, they might as well douse themselves in garlic sauce and get it over with.
I think the developers were banking on the spectacle of a shark biting a dude in half somehow never getting old, and granted, watching someone's son or daughter's hopes and dreams for their existence vanish in a screaming cloud of gore and teeth is fucking hilarious, but as the core activity of a six-hour open world game? After a while, I need more context. Who is this random fat person paddling across the surface like a blob of cum in a municipal pool? Do they regret their choices in life? Are they swimming in the sea because the day had finally come to turn things around and get some exercise? That might add some poignancy to my reducing them to my morning protein smoothie, but no, it's just another copy-pasted human silhouette to add to the body count.
About the only person with any character beyond a terrified scream cut off by the sound of someone sitting on a plate of nachos is the main villain around whom the plot revolves, a shark hunter who killed our shark mum - who was, in fairness, being a real dick at the time - and to whom we give the full Captain Ahab treatment, gradually trimming down his limbs like a fucking human bonsai tree until he's reduced to an insane, hate-ridden shell of a man. And honestly, I felt bad for the guy, mainly because his boss fights were so fucking easy and solved much the way I solved most of the challenges in the game: by pointing my shark at it, pressing "Forward" and "Attack", and then holding onto the controller for dear life. By the end, it was just sad; I was feeling like this shark hunter who gets another bit of himself chewed off every time he fights a shark probably missed his calling as literally anything other than a shark hunter. Come on, dude; this isn't funny anymore.
And speaking of things that aren't funny, the tragic element of the story clashes somewhat with the general tone of the game as a goofy comedy strung together by a faintly smug narration by that bloke who plays the dad on Rick and Morty, which I assume is why all the mission names are puns. There's this mission where you have to go into a cave, right, and the mission is named, brace yourself, "Third Cave Feminism"; I mean, I think the shark is established to be female, but she eats just as many women as men, so really, they just took a random phrase with with a word in it that rhymes with "cave". And that's not a joke; that's the smear on a bedsheet that a joke left behind when it died.
But let's get back to the gameplay challenge, or lack of same. Progression in Maneater is kind of World of Warcraft-y, where you complete grindy quests to eat ten of such-and-such to increase our level and move on to the next area, but at least in World of Warcraft, the things you're killing arbitrary numbers of would show some token unwillingness to be murdered; these quests either have you eat completely harmless prey fish that are just nonchalantly floating there in a big mass like the free buffet at a dieters' convention and with about the same life expectancy, or eat certain numbers of humans, which human society will naturally frown upon, but you can freely eat about six or seven of the buggers before your threat level raises enough to summon the fish police. And even then, if they shoot you dead, your quest progress isn't reset, so you just respawn, come straight back, and inhale four more dudes unmolested.
About the only time things get interesting are when you have to fight other large oceanic predators - in this game called "Maneater", no less, but "Other Shark Eater" probably didn't scan so well - because that's actually got a bit of skill and nuance to it. Can't just press "Forward" and "Attack" on these assholes, 'cos they'll press "Forward" and "Attack" at you straight back; you have to be smarter, keep your distance, dodge their lunges, and then close in to nosh on their undefended buttholes.
This is probably the highlight of the game, although it is slightly annoying that you can't permanently lock the camera onto your target, 'cos when you're chasing each other around a three-dimensional space, keeping track of where they are is like trying to have oral sex in the tumble dryer, but whatever; the game's so lacking for challenge everywhere else, I ain't gonna complain about the strand of pubic hair on its one successfully-iced cupcake. Actually, even the apex predator fights get a lot easier as you go, when the environments advance from cramped swamps and inland lakes to clear ocean where you can see what you're doing, and when you've figured out the "dodge and nosh butthole" strategy and discovered through trial and error what the fuck the game is even asking you to do when the "bite down and shake" quick-time event comes up.
Overall, Maneater is a game that starts out boring and easy and gets easier and more boring; you gain abilities and buffs by acquiring and swapping out different body parts - which doesn't even try to make sense in context - and once I had the teeth that restored health when I bit things, it was all over. Newsflash: I'm a fucking shark; my flippers can't hold up IKEA assembly instructions, so biting is the only thing I do all day. Suddenly, the fish police can't reduce my health faster than I can get it back, but they still infinitely respawn, so my encounters with them only ended when I got bored of mashing "Forward" and "Attack". If you want to be charitable - and I mean really charitable, like "massively profitable corporation two weeks before tax season" charitable - you might say Maneater is offering a power fantasy, in which you, the unstoppable all-powerful apex predator, glide unchallenged through the deep, and all those self-important little swimmers up above live only by the grace of your satisfied tum-tum.
That being the case, I wish someone would explain this to the fucking barracudas, and every other low-level predator that keeps wanting to start shit no matter how large and horrifying I get. Look, the health and XP I get from eating you are a pittance at this point; just go home and jerk off and yell at your barracuda wife if you want to feel better. I am swimming away to try to be the bigger man; not that I need to try, 'cos I'm the size of a fucking bus. Actually, there is an unlock that makes weaker enemies non-hostile, but this, game designers, is the sort of thing you shouldn't have to unlock because it's common fucking sense! It's like needing to unlock the ability to wipe both ways.
- Goes well with chips: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Why don't we kill any dolphins in Maneater? That might have earned it another half star, fuck those squeaky assholes who think they're all that
- We're going to need a bigger vocabulary