When a shark hunting fanatic captures and kills your mother, an infant shark is released into the local bayou to survive and, ultimately, take revenge upon an unsuspecting world in Tripwire’s race to the top of the food chain — Maneater.
Maneater could clearly have gone either way in its presentation; a full on, visceral and almost certain to be censored simulation reminiscent of the kind of snuff like material presented by mid nineties gorefest Manhunt or a completely tongue in cheek approach; with an almost fourth wall breaking awareness of its own ridiculous premise and concepts. Thankfully it takes the latter route which becomes one of its greatest strengths.
The world of Maneater is presented in a way similar to that in which Saints Row parodies Grand Theft Auto. It’s almost a caricature which accentuates its key points in order to keep the player entertained. The shark’s endless appetite and the resulting exponential growth attached to it are the underlying premise which drives the entire story. Scaly Pete, your mother’s murderer is specifically looking for a mega-shark, which ironically ended his own father’s life years before and Maneater kindly provides the ways and means through which your tiny chomper can achieve that status before a final fateful showdown with your nemesis.
Delivered through the lens of a fictional wildlife documentary on Shark Hunters and the trials and tribulations of our razor toothed menace, the narrator takes every opportunity to either add context to your actions as you progress or to simply overlay witty quips and statements about your activities in general or those you interact with. Thankfully the voice over dialogue is ample enough to support you all the way through the entire story rather than bore you tears with the same handful of lines repeated ad nauseum.
In order to take revenge, your shark must fundamentally “Dirty Bulk” by eating whatever it can in order to gain the necessary strength and mass to meet the final showdown. From the starting bayou through to the final stretch, everything you consume is classified as one (or more) of four key elements which can be used to upgrade various abilities in up to 5 tiers of improvement. The higher the tier, the better the reward. If an upgrade needs Fats/Oils then you better get eating passive fish like Mackerel, if you need proteins then something like a Mahi Mahi is going to do better for you.
These upgrades start out as things you might expect a shark to hone, like its senses or its echolocation sonar ability. Shortly thereafter someone in the development team had one too many margaritas and suddenly the shark’s insatiable appetite and it’s willingness to eat absolutely anything leads to some sort of mutation and the special abilities start to manifest. Specifically named evolutions in Maneater, evolutions appear similar to special set pieces. Whilst they can be mixed and matched, equipping one set throughout all the available slots rewards the shark with additional benefits.
Each set has a specific usage which makes certain activities within Maneater much easier and whilst you can get by without them, it is much more fun to utilise them the majority of the time. After all, who wants a vanilla great white shark when you can have a bone encrusted bullet resistant great white with bio electric teeth and the ability to leave poison clouds in the water when evading other predators…. I’m sold.
Maneater’s protagonist, the bull shark, is really well designed and animated. The way it moves through the water and the way in which its body contorts and shifts when evading, it just feels natural. This carries true for most of the submerged cast of characters whether it’s the crocodiles, alligators, mako sharks or an orca in the gulf. Above the water though it’s a pretty simplistic affair, the attention to detail on the two legged lunch is pretty sparse, its unsurprising though given most are on screen for less than a few seconds before being devoured.
Rather than simply leave you to your own devices Maneater locks each new area of its fictional american county behind a number of mission based barriers and encounters. These range from culling the local indiginous aquatic population to revenge missions against the humans. These are then supplemented in each area by a number of nutrient caches to be found and other collectables. Once you reach a preset completion percentage based on a collection of these factors, you have the opportunity to check in on Scaly Pete and progress the story into the next region. Like many other games of its ilk, most collectables are locked off behind ability gates requiring a certain skill to unlock requiring some backtracking for those looking for 100% completion.
With the shark and its sandbox looking and playing great, the mission structure and activities are where Maneater hits a bit of a wall. Whilst the scenery continues to evolve from low tide, swampy bayou and eventually out to the open ocean just off the Gulf Coast; the missions supporting the main story and the side missions don’t. By the time you hit the third area the mission targets may change slightly from a barracuda to a mako but the dynamics are the same, swim to location, eat target, repeat. Even the infamous bounty hunter encounters don’t really change and if the exploration elements of the storm drains, ponds, canals and waterways interlinking the various areas wasn’t as intricate and interesting as it is I could see many players getting bored quickly and that’s a crying shame. With a more complex set of story missions supplemented by the games already interesting cast of characters Maneater could have easily swum with the best.
Whilst the animations of the shark are good the implementation of the combat system leaves a lot to be desired. Combat against smaller passive enemies using a few bites and a tailwhip feel like some sort of power fantasy delivered by powerful jaws and flesh rending teeth. The same can’t be said for anything aggressive. Firstly the camera is a nightmare and coupled with the tight corridor like navigations of the smaller areas mixed with the lunging snapping bites most predatory enemies deploy you can spend a lot of time spinning around in circles.
Maneater looks and feels great, it has a prime opportunity to open a new franchise with a niche idea which is rare in today’s recycled annual churn. The basics are all there and the tongue in cheek approach works great, it doesn’t remove the ultra violence of the sharks activities but it alters the tone somewhat to be more acceptable to a wider audience. With some further depth to the missions it would certainly achieve apex predator status.