I was far too young for Jaws when I first watched it in the early 80s, but I became obsessed with it – and sharks in general. The fearsome, toothy killers of the deep are a perennially popular oceanic villain too; Shark Week is a thing, of course – and shark horror is essentially its own genre now, even if the majority of the shark movies made these days are ridiculous, self aware trash often built around little more than a punny title.
Maneater knows the appeal of daft, mutated giant shark movies as much as it understands that we rarely give a damn about the humans in many shark-based fiction. It’s all about seeing the horrific creature wreak havoc in and around the water, in often impossible but really badass situations.
Billing itself somewhat awkwardly as a ‘ShaRkPG’, Maneater is basically a third person, open world action RPG in which you play as a shark taking revenge on the hunter who killed your mother and, left you scarred to more easily identify you when the time comes to hunt you too. There’s a framing device here; the main story and its cutscenes are shown to be a reality TV show – called Maneater -focusing on this shark hunter – Scaly Pete – and his exploits in hunting and killing huge aquatic threats, complete with shaky, sometimes frantic footage and fake hashtags. Things get increasingly fraught as the story goes on, with Scaly Pete resorting to ever more desperate and downright dangerous – not to mention illegal and immoral – measures to rid Port Clovis of its shark problem once and for all.
Kicking off with you as a reasonably sized shark as you learn the controls, you’re soon in charge of the freshly born baby shark (no, I’m not going there and you can’t make me), working your way up to being bigger and stronger by eating the local wildlife and finding stashes of nutrients in the environment. The swimming controls are beautifully implemented; it feels absolutely brilliant to swim around the nicely detailed, well realised environments.
The visuals and sound design are fantastic; though the water’s surface is a little less reactive than you’d expect, everything underwater feels just right – and the scenery, as well as the different feel of each of the game’s seven fairly expansive areas, is also a highlight. Swimming around at night, with the brightly lit neon of the populated city beside you, is a real joy. Each area has a cove, which is your shark’s safe area – these are always vivdly coloured and beautifully lit; they really are wonderfully realised.
Sadly, the frame rate does stutter at times, even on the Xbox One X. The camera is also pretty unruly, exactly when you need it to behave – for example, when you’re being attacked from multiple directions, by threats that take significant chunks of your health away. I quite often found myself dead because the camera was misbehaving – the fact that there’s no way to lock on to a particular target (the best you can do is click the right stick to turn you towards a threat, but this doesn’t lock) is a real oversight.
Though the opening area feels like a real grind – with your pup coming up against level eight threats and above when you’re at a weedy level one – you’ll soon find that your shark levels up pretty quickly and will be able to deal with pretty much anything you come across in no time. It gives the game a weird learning curve; it starts off feeling like a real slog, but becomes a walk in the park for the most part, aside from very specific missions and/or scenarios.
The missions you undertake in each area all see you having to swim to a certain part of the ocean and eat a certain number of targets, be they specific sea creatures or humans. Sometimes these targets may be stronger types of creature – a badass alligator or hammerhead, for example. Each area has its own Apex Predator too, which you’ll need to take down.
You’ll soon be flopping awkwardly about on land for increasing amounts of time as you grow too, terrorising the local populace as you eat them from their previous safe spaces away from the water. Though understandably awkward, it becomes very amusing to go really far from the water (one evolution type will allow you to double your time on land when equipped too).
Eating humans causes your infamy level to increase; eat enough and you’ll be chased by bounty hunters – destroy enough of their boats to increase your current infamy level to maximum and you’ll trigger the boss bounty hunter at that level. These are among the trickiest enemies in the game – not because they’re especially challenging in general, but because of the aforementioned camera issues that plague the game. Surrounded by bounty hunters in boats and divers in the water below makes it next to impossible to target the ‘right’ or even the same threat repeatedly at times. It can be pretty frustrating, but you’ll sometimes survive without much of a struggle due to the fact that you can usually take them out almost accidentally – as they’re on their boats shooting at you, just like the regular hunters.
Snarky, sarcastic commentary is provided by Chris Parnell – perhaps most well known as Jerry in Rick & Morty – and he has quite a large repertoire of quips and sometimes dubious shark ‘facts’ to impart. Though this eventually becomes repetitive, the commentary is often more amusing than I would have expected and Parnell does a good job with the material.
It’s incredibly satisfying to build up your shark into a huge, terrifying killing machine. Killing the boss bounty hunters and completing sets of collectables earns you body parts with which to customise your shark – and these are both brilliant from a visual and mechanical point of view, giving your shark brilliantly twisted looks and nicely powerful new abilities. With only a few sets of these parts to collect, however, it could be argued that there’s not enough of them included – even though it’ll take you a good while to collect them all.
It’s also quite frustrating that level progress is capped at 30, especially when you’ll encounter enemies way above that – sometimes as high as level 60 – in the latter stages of the game, when you’ve arbitrarily been stuck at 30 for the last several hours of gameplay, it just feels like an annoyance.
The story progresses in an odd way too, with you requiring to ‘check in’ on Scaly Pete by swimming to a certain area at some stages of the game. It’s very easy to ignore these, but even when you don’t, what happens is often just a cutscene that takes any meaningful interaction out of your hands entirely. In one notable case, the cutscene saw an entire, massive area of the game being poisoned, yet I’d already completely cleared that area of collectables and missions by that point – which rendered the seemingly dramatic transformation of a huge part of the game completely moot.
It’d be remiss of me to not mention the bugs encountered, some of which completely broke the game and wiped the progress of save files (one of which I encountered, which led to much frustration and caused me to stop playing for a few weeks until the patch was released). Though many of these issues have been fixed now, I thought the situation was badly handled by the developers – who buried the bug document on their Twitter timeline while pinning a tweet praising the game. It felt underhanded, particularly when people were losing much of their progress after putting many hours into the game.
Even now, at the time of writing, I’m waiting for a bug to be patched in order for one of the achievements to trigger, which just didn’t happen in the middle of the game – even though subsequent achievements, including the ‘complete 100% in every area’ achievement, did pop up at the appropriate time.
Despite the issues, I had an absolute blast with Maneater. The core gameplay of swimming around, eating prey and battling with other inhabitants of the ocean – as well as landlubbing humans – is so well tuned that it never gets old. Hunting down the collectables – including plenty of landmarks that have some truly brilliant pop culture references – is another joy that I didn’t tire of. It’s only in the more story or general progression-based missions (such as some of the later bounty hunters) that I became frustrated, particularly as the camera just isn’t built to cope with more populated, busy combat scenarios.
It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s rare that I complete the entirety of a game beyond the main campaign – the unique feel of Maneater is so intoxicating and compelling that I saw it through to 100% completion. Without spoiling anything, the ending does perhaps rule out a direct sequel, but I’d certainly like to see the concept evolve in some way – especially as there’s not likely to be anything similar on the horizon any time soon.
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