Maneater Review – IGNMay 26, 2020
Through a few millennia of hard work and dedication Sharks have earned a name for themselves as nature’s perfect killing machines, and Maneater’s titular sea monster certainly lives up to that reputation. Roaming the Gulf of Mexico as a pissed-off bull shark with an insatiable appetite for human flesh and mutagens like a one-shark Sharknado is certainly a campy thrill. Its limitation, though, is that it’s just as single-minded as its predator protagonist: the vast, vast majority of what you’ll do in Maneater are “go here, kill X of this animal or people” objectives by way of combat that’s as deep as a puddle, broken up by some amusing exploration and gathering of collectibles. I’m not saying it should’ve made us jump through hoops like a circus seal or anything, but there simply isn’t enough gameplay variety to justify the massive amount of chomping you have to do to reach megashark status.
Our shark anti-hero has her own personal Captain Ahab in the form of a sleazy Cajun shark hunter with his own ‘Deadliest Catch’-esque reality series (also called Maneater), which serves as a framing device for the roughly 15-hour story. That said – and I don’t mean to shock you here – their rivalry and your nemesis’ gradual descent into deformity and madness doesn’t end up as an especially thought-provoking tale. This game is entirely tongue-in-cheek, of course, yet the shark hunter plays his vendetta a little too straight to be memorably goofy.The narrator (Chris Parnell of Rick & Morty and Archer fame) who follows you around with mostly made-up shark facts, however, nails it. In his role as the show’s unseen narrator, Parnell comments on whatever you’re doing and whichever fish you’re encountering. As you move from area to area he satirically lays into beachfront resort development just as hard as he ridicules the kind of messed-up person who’d hunt sharks. “Sharks are responsible for just three percent of shark hunter deaths. Alcohol and poor firearm discipline account for the rest.”
The themes at play here are a little conflicting. On the one hand we’re given good reason to love to hate the shark hunters who we mercilessly and repetitively chow down on, while on the other we’re constantly given the objective of brutally massacring innocent beachgoers by the dozen in the name of “vengeance”, thus justifying a real need for shark hunters. Except sharks don’t actually kill people very often, so there’s no reason for shark hunters and they really do suck. And yes, I am thinking too much about the messages behind a goofy game where you play as a monster shark.
You start out your shark life roaming the fresh waters of a Louisiana bayou as a young pup (we’re mercifully spared any overt Baby Shark references) and the map almost immediately starts to reveal its surprising diversity. Across eight zones we see everything from the open sea to shallow and narrow waterways, and they’re all loaded with unexpectedly interesting stuff and interconnected with sewer pipe mazes and underwater caves. There’s weird submarine scenery galore and tons of pop-culture references to find, with gags about everything from Titanic to Stephen King’s IT to publisher and co-developer Tripwire’s own games littering the shores and seabed. Even out of the water there’s a ton to see, so it’s always worth cruising around on the surface for a while in each area.
These gulf waters are teeming with wildlife, most of which is beautifully rendered and animated. Aside from the very occasional glitch these other animals are almost soothing to watch as they lazily swim around, and seeing the shape of a big predator emerge from the murk can be chilling. Larger creatures even show damage as you gnaw on them in a fight, and I have to say that a huge alligator with all four limbs bitten off is somehow significantly scarier than a regular huge alligator. It’s like a massive, toothy murder-eel.Coming across each new animal as you move across the map’s zones is great, especially since it deliberately gives little to no regard to what animals would actually be at home in the Gulf of Mexico. However, one extremely odd omission stuck out to me: dolphins are one of the few animals with a reputation for ganging up on and beating back sharks, and they somehow didn’t make the cut in Maneater. I can understand why there are no giant squid or octopus in play, as that might be technically (tentacally?) challenging, but the absence of dolphins serves no porpoise.
As neat as the animals are, their ecosystem doesn’t seem as lifelike as those in games like Far Cry or Red Dead Redemption because they – and humans – are crowded together in these waters without ever interacting with or even seeming to be aware of each other. You’ll never witness an alligator chomping on a turtle or a pod of orcas attacking seals, and the legions of shark hunters will never fire a shot at any other sharks. Aggressive sharks and whales might team up against you without noticing how unlikely their alliance is. And you can conspicuously swim right up next to a seal without it realizing that their toothy death is imminent.
Given that you spend 99% of your time submerged, it’s a shame that the water effects don’t look all that modern. If you put Maneater next to 2018’s Sea of Thieves, for instance, it’s not a favorable comparison at all: there are no waves to speak of, the surface is flat and muddy-looking, and splash effects are unimpressive even when a multi-ton megashark crashes down after leaping a hilarious 50 feet in the air to snag a pedestrian off a bridge. Underneath, it’s just hazy-looking in a way that reminds me of an older game hiding its draw-distance limitations, without a hint of the light refraction you see in nature documentaries. It’s not terrible but it’s not the least bit impressive, either – especially considering some of the framerate slowdowns we saw on PC and PS4 Pro during the more chaotic and effects-heavy battles.
Fighting underwater is pretty simple: you bite the fish before the fish bites you. This involves dodging attacks using the left, right, up, or down lunge moves (which one doesn’t seem to matter that much) then making use of the essential auto-target button to refocus the camera on the enemy who just darted past you and immediately biting them or whacking them with your tail to stun them so you can bite them more. There’s a nice sharky touch in that biting a target smaller than you (or, at least below your level) has a chance to catch them in your jaws, at which point you can make a side-to-side movement with the mouse or thumbsticks to thrash them back and forth for extra damage.
Maneater Review Screenshots
Once you get the hang of the timing, though, it’s usually not very challenging unless you’re up against multiple big animals in a confined space, especially since your bull shark can outrun pretty much anything in the water and can regain health by snacking on nearby small prey. In other words, if you bite off more than you can chew you can bail and then return to the fight, over and over again if necessary, to whittle down bigger fish. I died a handful of times learning my limits but after that it was rare that I went belly-up.
I wouldn’t call combat bad, since it does have its moments, but it definitely suffers from a lack of variety and balance over a 15-hour playthrough. Even after you develop into a massive, mutated megashark your options for dealing with the leviathans of the deep are very similar to those you had when you were just a pup tangling with crocs in the shallows.
Early on I felt like an underdog, but once I crossed over into the adult phase the balance swung drastically in my favor. My first encounter with a great white shark was a colossal letdown – by doing what felt like a natural amount of side activities on my way there I was already a couple of levels above it, which meant the “emperor of the sea” was a complete pushover for my bull. A few other predators were like this even when they had a level advantage – especially once I got some bio-electric bodyparts that essentially turned me into a giant electric eel and let me stun as I attacked. That ability had several boss-level fish – buffed-up “apex predator” versions of a zone’s meanest beast – go down with barely a fight. And yet there were a few, like my first encounter with an orca, that made me work for it with moves like literally slapping me out of the water with its tail.
What changes things up, at least a little bit, is when you come up to the surface to eat some man. You’re frequently given objectives that involve consuming five to 12 people, and once you exhaust the supply of hapless swimmers, pedal-boaters, and inflatable raft occupants your only option is to hold your breath and launch yourself onto land to chase them down. It’s admittedly hilarious to flop around like… well, like a giant angry fish out of water as you move from one beachgoer to the next to devour them. Since they don’t actually run from you (let’s assume they’re paralyzed with fear rather than having terrible AI) it’s as if every power pellet that Pac-Man swallowed screamed in terror before being shredded into a shower of blood and gore.One of the biggest payoffs is when you get the Amphibious upgrade that lets you spend a lot more time out of the water chomping on human snacks and hunting down collectibles. But of course, once you’ve done that a few dozen times with little variation to make each one memorable, it does become a chore – aside from that one time you get to eat a whole rave.
That kind of behavior will – after you chow down on four or five people – bring the shark hunters out after you. Fighting boats full of drunken idiots by leaping out of the water and grabbing them one by one is funny at first but gets a little tedious quickly, even when you earn and start using variations like tossing a victim into the air and whacking them back at their friends with your tail instead of simply gulping them down. Even once I’d gained access to higher-level attacks like ramming and spins and the boats got a bit bigger, I’d have killed for a friggin’ laser beam attached to my forehead. (If that’s an unlockable, I never found it.)
But no, in order to unlock the mutations you need to buff up your shark you have to keep killing shark hunters by the literal boatload. I’d estimate I killed many hundreds of them – maybe even a thousand, all told. While it seems overwhelming at first to dodge their constant barrage of lock-on attacks that pierce the water with ease, with just a few upgrades to my health and armor I was basically ignoring their gunfire and smashing their boats to fiberglass splinters without doing whatever it is that sharks do instead of sweating. Even when these goons start tossing explosives into the water it doesn’t make much difference – if you were holding still long enough for bombs to be a threat you were probably going to get shot to death anyway.
These fights went on long enough that I became numb to them, but there’s a reason to do it: every time you sink enough boats to increase your infamy level another notch, a named shark hunter comes after you, and killing them gives you access to a new upgrade. Hunters get a short Borderlands-style introduction cinematic that’s almost enough to establish their personalities (maybe if they had actual voices that would’ve done it?) but almost none of them have any distinctive weaponry or boats or anything to make their fights stand out. As a result, half of the time I didn’t even notice I’d killed one instead of another nameless grunt until the reward screen popped up. They could’ve used some bigger boats.One interesting thing about the shark hunters is that, unlike GTA’s star system, Maneater’s infamy level is persistent – while the narrator will mock them for their short attention spans and obvious desire to rush to get a cheap beer after work when they give up looking for you after you dive into a tunnel or simply outrun them, they won’t forget how many of their comrades you’ve eaten and will pick up with the same level of force the next time you make trouble. That’s a more believable and higher-stakes system than the conventional one, and at some point I’d like to see it put to use with a variety of responding enemy teams that makes it feel more meaningful.
Growth also seems a bit stunted. It felt like I spent at least as much time in the first two levels of my shark’s life (pup and teen) as I did in the latter three (adult, elder, and mega), which was a drag because of how limited you are in those early stages in the abilities you have access to – I was several hours in before I ate my first human. And while certain hunting mission targets adjust to your level, most animals don’t, which means that until you unlock one specific upgrade (which I got almost dead last) you’ll be constantly harassed by suicidal low-level predators like barracudas or muskies.
You’d expect combat variety to come from how you equip yourself, but Maneater’s upgrades never radically change how you fight. There are only three sets – bone, bio-electric, and shadow – and they really boil down to being best for fighting boats, best for killing animals, and best for killing large groups, respectfully. (I never actually got any shadow items because they require you to collect all of the collectables in an area, which is not how I like to spend my time – but our wikis team is extremely efficient at it.) You can, of course, mix and match your jaws, head, dorsal fin, body, and tail as you please, and the resulting Franken-Shark (correction: Franken-Shark’s Monster) looks kind of awesome, but considering you just have to fast-travel to one of your safe-haven grottos to swap out parts at will there’s not much of a decision to be made other than which set to dump upgrade points into first. Since those are incremental stat upgrades, like going from a 5% thrashing damage increase to 10%, they’re not all that interesting either.