Critics were doubtlessly in a quandary when 2006’s Jaw Unleashed landed for review. The vastly belated movie tie-in came from a publisher with an iffy track record (Majesco), had no pre-launch hype, and was far removed from the PS2’s typical fare. Despite all this, it was a fun diversion. What’s a journalist to do? Give it 4/10 and throw it out to sea, of course.
Jaw Unleashed eventually went on to achieve cult status. It even boasts a modest 7.6 Metacritic user score these days. Tripwire’s Maneater is a spiritual successor of sorts, albeit a lot more contemporary. It’s a halfway house between a typical European RPG and a Ubisoft open-world game, with both main story and side quests, a levelling up system, upgradable abilities, and a long list of collectables. It’s on a far smaller scale, however – make good use of the map, and it’s possible to mop up quests, collectables and visit points of interest in quick succession.
Similarly to a Ubisoft adventure, there’s a degree of busywork too, mostly in the form of unique landmarks to discover. These are both fun and varied, ranging from misadventurous crime scenes to failed art projects. Some have an amusing story attached – the game’s humour draws on mankind’s stupidity and self-destructive nature, making it surprisingly satirical. Adding to this, the whole shebang is presented in the style of a wildlife documentary, complete with Chris Parnell – of Archer and Rick & Morty fame – providing narration.
GTA provides another source of inspiration, albeit loosely – after going on a murderous rampage, gun-toting hunters will arrive on the scene. If you manage to elude their grasp, they’ll spread out and search for your whereabouts, only giving up if you remain hidden or flee the area. Leaping out of the water and snatching hapless human mid-air, dragging them to depths below, is one of the more satisfying combat mechanics.
The plot is intertwined with the game’s structure. It’s a story of revenge, entailing a new-born shark working their way through the hunter hierarchy to find the bearded brute who slaughtered their mother. Starting out as a preadolescent, most quests are centred around eating, which in turn forces nutrient-rich, and XP boosting, apex predators out of hiding. Upon achieving a milestone experience level the shark grows exponentially – going from a teen to an elder – which allows you to tear down barriers to access new areas. While this does call for some grinding, returning to past areas – now able to snag collectables once unreachable – can be compelling.
Several locations feature, each notably different from the last. Over the course of the adventure, you’ll go from murky pea-green swamps rife with crocodiles and catfish to a heavily polluted city shoreline with a seabed coated in trash. A posh estate offers clear water and plenty of humans to snack on thanks to the presence of a beach-side golf course, eventually taking our mega mammal out to the vast ocean. Each area has its own hub too, in which it’s possible to evolve and upgrade, improving strength with newfound bioelectric abilities. These safe zones are always visually appealing, often filled with glowing coral and other sea life.
While Maneater unquestionably has a fun and inviting premise, backed by some glorious ultra-violence, some areas suffer from the limitations that premise naturally brings. The combat is sketchy, limited to just a few attacks. The ability to flip ‘n flop on the surface for a few seconds, biting and chomping while crowds scream, helps to induce some variety to combat – and is essential for completing many quests – but its clear Tripwire was stuck for ideas when it came to different means of killing.
Worse still, the lock-on ability is broken. Or to be more exact, it’s non-existent – rather than fix the camera on an enemy, it simply focuses on the closest predator for a few seconds. Occasionally you’re prompted to jiggle the analogue sticks to bite or escape; sequences that last mere seconds, giving no indication of whether you were successful. These may have worked better as up close and personal QTEs, adding extra gratification.
It’s the repetition between mission objectives that’s the biggest killer of enthusiasm. Clearly, the team was once again faced with challenges here due to the game’s underwater nature, but we never expected to be tasked with near-identical objectives several times in a row. Every location tasks you with killing ten human adversaries numerous times over. Sometimes they’ll be in sightseeing in boats; sometimes they’ll be sunbathing on a beach. Regardless, the outcome is identical. Perhaps we should be grateful Tripwire didn’t bloat the experience with tedious checkpoint races.
It was always a given that a shark-based RPG would have a few shortcomings, ergo the developers would have certain challenges to overcome. Despite a premise some would consider a novelty, the team clearly believed in the project from the outset through to completion, ultimately delivering a fun but flawed experience – one that’s helped immensely by being delivered by with a rare air of confidence and surprisingly slick visuals.
No, you won’t be playing it a month from now (cue a Shark Week pun) but that’s part of its appeal. It’s a smaller scale open-world affair; a mere drop in the ocean when compared to its peers. As long as you aren’t expecting something deep, you’ll find just enough to sink your teeth into. We’re glad offbeat games such as this are starting to become more frequent. It took almost an entire console generation, but the tide has finally turned.