Surfacing from the depths of an energy-drink-fuelled brainstorming fever dream (presumably), Maneater, an open-world action-RPG where the main protagonist is a shark, is a bloodthirsty concept that never really sinks its teeth into its absurd premise, ultimately delivering shallow, repetitive thrills.
Using a low-rent National Geographic shark hunter reality TV show as a framing device for a reverse Moby Dick narrative, the game tutorialises the player in the ways of the dreaded ocean predator as an adult female bull shark before viciously dispensing with her in service of revealing the villain of the piece: master shark hunter, Scaly Pete. If his name doesn’t immediately conjure up images of a fearsome adversary, this is just one of the many contradictions that leave the game more middle-of-the-road than it really ought to be.
Maneater is a salty revenge tale that doesn’t necessarily have an agenda but it wisely includes enough real-world problems in its presentation to make it absolutely clear who the real villain is. Environmental storytelling documents mankind’s desecration of the seas as you glide through clouds of garbage, dart around wrecks of various sizes and avoid seeping canisters of noxious chemicals. Tripwire Interactive create horribly beautiful arenas out of sunken nuclear naval bases, flooded golf courses and undersea mountains of cargo containers, arresting scenery that echoes some of Chris Parnell’s more-hit-than-miss satirical documentary commentary.
Juxtaposing the stylish deprivation are wondrous vistas of complex coral reef structures, caves hauntingly lit by bio-luminescent undersea flora and even the water transitions from septic yellow swamp water at the game’s outset to beautiful clear blue expanses towards the end of the campaign.
While framing humans as the antagonists doesn’t necessarily absolve the player of any blame for the litany of eviscerations they will commit, the game does contextualise the player-character actions as being the lesser evil overall. In the same way that we know John Wick is a bad guy doing bad things but the people he takes out are certainly worse than him so it’s okay to root for him.
Where Maneater gets into hot water is with its main villain. Scaly Pete starts off the game with a shocking act that makes him easy to hate but, as the campaign progresses, his somewhat sympathetic motivations for shark hunting are revealed and a clumsy father-son sub-plot muddies the waters further as the developers try to make him oddly relatable. Clearly, the story isn’t the draw here but this is just one of a few areas in the game where it feels like someone behind the scenes has been trying to course-correct an extreme premise to make it more palatable for mass market. Even the menu feels like it was designed for a darker game – ominous music foreshadowing the terror in the water as beach-dwellers party unaware – and is at odds with Parnell’s quips and the often intentionally goofy docu-series cut-scenes.
THIS TIME IT’S PERSONAL
Free of any tutorial mothering (in more ways than one, rather traumatically), the player is let loose in the first of 7 distinctive graphically dense areas as a shark pup, ready to terrorise the waterways and all those who thought it was safe to go back in the water. Out of the gate, the player is able to bite, evade, tail whip, cruise at high speed and, yes, jump the shark. Early hours of gameplay are genuinely engaging as you use your right-hand thumbstick – normally relegated to camera controls in third-person – to steer around the depths with the ease of a super-sleek aquatic murder machine, testing just how far the developers will let you push the morality boat out.
The good news is that the game mostly delivers the churning, bloody, water-soaked power fantasy that thoughts of a shark game evoke. Speeding effortlessly just under the surface, iconic scythe-like dorsal cutting the break menacingly as you survey a swimming hotspot before submerging to dine on a swimmer or ten feels hugely empowering. Those humans taking to the waves in vehicles aren’t safe either as you propel yourself towards the surface at breakneck speed with a powerful flex of your muscular body, erupt out of the water like a fleshy ICBM and land impossibly on the deck to sample the local delicacies in an obvious nod to Jaws.
While both activities are satisfying without question, I challenge anyone not to giggle like a maniac on day release the first time they launch out of the sea onto a beach and munch on a sun-dried human before comically hopping back to the big drink.
Sadly, Tripwire don’t add a lot to the player’s arsenal on top of the move set unveiled at the start of the game, choosing instead to spice up the moves throughout the campaign by upgrading various parts of your shark as it grows from pup to fearsome megashark. Various upgrades (or evolutions) are unlocked either through collectible side quests, reaching a campaign milestone or disposing of a motley crew of ‘hero’ hunters.
Eating the various aquatic and human offerings inhabiting each area rewards the player with a quantity of materials, as well as replenishing health and levelling up your shark’s XP (yes, you read that correctly), that form the currency used to upgrade the shark’s fins, tail, body, head, internal organs and, of course, jaws. While certain materials are unique to particular species, there are nutrient cache side quests available in every locale – as well as collectible license plates and landmarks – that offer generous material rewards. In short, there generally isn’t a need to farm for materials which helps when the game loop is inherently grindy to begin with.
While initial biological modifications affect internal organs and offer only passive bonuses such as increased material harvesting from kills, enhanced health or superior movement capacity on dry land, three classes of physiological upgrades offer cosmetic modification on top of active and passive bonuses. The bone, shadow and bio-electric augments all of have their own particular traits (including AoE, DoT and enhanced combat damage) that can be mixed and matched with the internal upgrades to suit your preferred playstyle, even offering slight bonuses for equipping similarly themed upgrades in multiple slots.
These external shark upgrades are one of the areas that Tripwire really nails, not necessarily in terms of the maths as some of the bonuses feel a little piecemeal, but the visual style of them is aggressively exaggerated in the extreme, really transforming the shark into a truly monstrous predator that puts the likes of Bruce (both the Jaws and Finding Nemo iterations) to shame.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter how obscenely evil looking (and trust me, a 20-foot shark sporting glowing red eyes, scars that would make Freddy Kruger wince and bristling with jagged-as-fuck bone armour is pretty evil looking) or high-levelled your shark is, they will still be attacked (read as ‘irritated’) by level 1 minnows throughout the game which seems unrealistic, regardless of the liberties the developers have taken with the source material. Like other aspects of Maneater, the upgrade system is a good enough idea that feels undercooked.
Which segues us nicely into the combat. The meat of Maneater, if you will.
Sharks are quite literally defined by their physical prowess and savagery – it’s what scares the hell out of us humans – and any shark-based game needs to master combat, selling the idea that players are piloting an engine expressly created for swimming and eating. Maneater looks the part early on, with simple but effective movement controls coupled with the ability to play with your food, but what is initially a fun experience is worn thin over a 12-15 hour campaign that sees you dispatching enemies pretty much the same way at its climax as you did way back when you were a tiddler.
Civilian humans and passive wildlife are easy to devour, essentially just floating first aid and material caches. Swimming close enough to one automatically targets them, while pulling right trigger starts the snacking process. As with any kind of auto-targeting system, it’s not perfect and can get frustrating when the combat area is busy but it largely works once you compensate for the lunge accompanied with your shark bite.
Of course, those underwater predators brazen enough to attack you are another matter entirely as they are less likely to conveniently cower in terror (the tourist AI is really basic). They are also aggressive to a man/fish/amphibian, making learning how to dodge them early on not only a smart practice but an art all to itself.
When combat inevitably ensues, it devolves into a messy, button/trigger mashing affair that isn’t helped by the camera (especially in enclosed spaces like sewers or pipes), despite a short-lived camera enemy lock-on that has clearly been devised for this purpose. Early encounters may prove particularly annoying as most – if not, all – enemies have a powerful rush attack that will knock your shark back and open it up to a quick second attack or two if it connects.
That being said, in almost all cases said rush attack is actually the key to mastering combat. Once you have the timing down on tapping that evade button, your attacker will usually be vulnerable after a missed charge leaving them open to counter-attack. Now, you may have to rinse-and-repeat that pattern a few times or more against higher-level enemies but once you have that pattern down you won’t need to change it for the rest of the game. And, hey, if you get into difficulty, swim away (your shark is the fastest critter around), chow down on some fish and come back for round two.
While the combat is entirely solid, even satisfying when you are getting to grips with it, it quickly becomes the cost of doing business in a game where it should be the highlight. Personally, I found myself wanting something more akin to Arkham or Mordor, a contextual combat system that offered alternative moves and gruesome executions the further your character progresses. Even some sort of light stealth mechanic that would utilise the shark’s surface cruising ability to a degree more than simply scouting would add variety.
There are two further classes of enemy in Maneater – the hunters and the apex predators – and they are two clear missed opportunities that could have added gameplay variety.
THIS WAS NO BOATING ACCIDENT
While Scaly Pete is your ultimate nemesis, he only appears during story beats. The hero hunters are the Dirty Dozen of shark stalkers, a rogue’s gallery you need to take down as your notoriety increases. Feasting on the local populace will increase your threat level (which is persistent across all areas, in a seldom seen and welcome addition), eventually warranting patrol boats of hunters with weapons, armed scuba divers and even depth charges.
Combat with hunters is different to fighting other animals in so much as they can lock on to you with ranged weapons but they can be dealt with in the same way: tap the evade button and then close on their boat and turn it into matchsticks while they try to reacquire you. As your threat level hits a new rank, one of ten hero hunters will inevitably show up to join the fray.
Although undeniably pretty, Maneater’s below the waterline aesthetics are largely photo-realistic and (I assume) accurate. On the surface and dry land it adopts a Sunset Overdrive feel of cartoonish excess that is nowhere better exemplified than with the hunters and apex predators, who are each given a WWE-style intro when encountered. While fun and lively, this is really the only thing that distinguishes them from the regular variety of opponent they have so clearly been re-skinned from.
More often than not, you will gobble up a hero hunter quite unaware of their importance because they really aren’t distinct in any way. They don’t have any unique weapons, vehicles, weak points or even individual dialogue, and this makes them about as much of a challenge as the stock hunters. Odd, when you consider that there is a whole section of the menu dedicated to them, complete with bios and portraits.
The apex predators are sadly just as lacklustre and easy to kill, themselves just cannibalised versions of whatever the anti-shark predator is in a given area. At least the apex predators are mission objectives so, unlike the hero hunters, you are focused on them but again they don’t have any distinguishing features or mechanics that differentiate them from the herd, let alone offering varied gameplay to challenge the player.
This may well be the first time that it has been said of a single-player campaign game, but Maneater is crying out for a PVP mode. Perhaps an asynchronous hunters-versus-shark mode or just a balls-out deathmatch between different types of shark would add some more breadth to the game.
Maneater is a ridiculous concept for a game and that’s absolutely fine. The gaming community was utterly enraptured by a game in which a goose behaves like an asshole to people not so many months ago, but Tripwire hasn’t doubled down on what makes this idea unique and, more frustratingly, they haven’t had fun with it.
Apex predators are torn to pieces, their bloody remains wolfed down like a dessert but humans disappear in a splash of blood with nothing but a greasy slick on the water to mark their passing? I realise that’s a horrific sentence but there’s something wrong when Gears of War (sorry, Gears) offers up more gibs than a shark game.
Maneater has clear tonal problems. It wants to swim in the same waters as the likes of GTA: a dark, bloody satire that dominates water cooler chat with its knowing ultra-violence. But at times it feels like the developers are trying to aim for a lower age certificate or just trying to avoid being banned outright, angling for that impossible balance of ‘just the right amount of violence and gore’.
If that was the only problem with Maneater – that it treads too safe a line for a game about a man-eating shark – then I would argue that it defies logic to make a game like that but at least it plays well.
The bigger problem is that Tripwire have not observed today’s open world game standards, turning in a game that looks nice and plays reasonably well but demands the player perform the same tasks ad nauseum with little in the way of variation over a campaign that becomes a chore when dogged by repetition.
The biomes in Maneater are quite varied and enjoyable to explore, knifing through the depths with ease, but in the end result they are all the same: attractive backdrops for the same kill and fetch quests. Seven times over the player will be asked to collect the same three sets of collectibles, hunt down random enemies, cull a certain number of fish and murder a specific number of humans. That may be an odd criticism for a game about a biological eating machine but if you can’t make the eating fun, what’s the point of the game?
I have joked with friends that Maneater is Assassin’s Creed with sharks. It’s a simplification and it always gets a laugh but it gets the idea across. It’s a shame that the final product doesn’t live up to the fun of the elevator pitch.