Be careful folks, this shark bites. But did you know that out of about 500 species of sharks, only about a dozen have seemingly ever attacked humans? For all the shark movies and the stereotypes about their danger, only 36 people in the entirety of the United States ever fell victim to these toothy predators, as humans are far from their preferred prey. There’s actually far more sharks dying due to hunting and fishing than people do to shark attacks.
Georgia-based Tripwire Interactive, whose name might sound familiar due to their work on lucrative franchises like Red Orchestra and Killing Floor, wants us to turn the tide, putting us in control of a dangerous shark, attacking other fishes, turtles, seals, and even other sharks in the search of total domination of the underwater. Oh, and for this shark, human beings are most definitely on the menu. This is Maneater.
The game’s opening bite-sized tutorial serves both as means to learn the basics of the game and its controls, but also as a teaser of what’s to come a couple of hours down the line. In this prologue, we take control of a fierce adult female shark who’s seeking nutrition by eating smaller fishes, battling other predators, and showing no disdain whatsoever at the prospect of a bite or two into human flesh. This proves to be a grave mistake however, as legendary fisherman “Scaly Pete” LeBlanc captures and kills you very quickly. However, it turns out the mother shark was pregnant, and as Pete pulls the pint-sized shark out its mother (and in the process, leaving a gnarly scar) the baby-shark manages to bite off one of the sadistic Pete’s hands. No satisfaction in taking down a baby shark, round two is set for another day. Our finned protagonist wants revenge.
The player therefore takes control of this little shark. Small size, low health, not a huge threat to any creature bar the smallest fishes, with a large XP bar clearly pointing out it’s merely a level 1 creature with much growth and evolution ahead.
There’s an obvious similarity to games featuring flight here, as there’s absolute freedom underwater with no oxygen restrictions, allowing for movement in any direction; even short and amusing trips above the surface by jumping out of water aren’t out of the question, as long as the the sharks lungs allow for such a detour. Not unlike many popular Flash or mobile games of the past, the game appears to be relatively simple in structure: avoid fishes too big and strong, eat the ones that you can manage to (b)eat, and grow bigger and stronger so that you can tackle harsher opponents. From the tiniest and most innocuous fishes to more aggressive barracudas, moving up to alligators, seals and beyond. Each living organism devoured provides XP and nutrients, needed to grow bigger and to evolve various parts of the shark’s body. The developers don’t call it “shark-PG” for no good reason.
Grand Theft Jawto
The smooth freedom of movement of the underwater areas is combined with a simple but effective combat model. There’s effectively only one kind of attack, a bite (it’s a shark after all), but it can be a swift bite or a prolonged one where the opponent gets thrashed for a while as well. There’s also little sprints the player can do towards an opponent, ramming straight into them to stun them or to simply outmanoeuvre them and attack from a different direction, which can also be obtained by evasive manoeuvres conveniently placed on the X and A button, going downwards and upwards respectively. Other than these, there’s also a surprisingly effective and quite nifty hit the shark can do with his tail, enabling him to throw smaller enemies quite far away.
That’s more or less what the shark gets in the first areas, which mainly focus on more closed areas with swamps, rivers, polluted canals. These areas are small open world hubs connected together by canals or passages that only unlock if a certain story or growth criteria is met. Other than freely hunting for resources, side-activities include finding hidden treasures underwater. Some of these include hilarious references and cameos to pop culture icons like the horror book/movie IT, the famous cartoon Spongebob Squarepants and the legendary comedy show Arrested Development. There’s also collectable license plates, hidden crates that stash resources, plus side quests usually involving eating a certain amount of creatures in a specific area or defeating a particularly dangerous predator – or humans.
As suspected from the opening segment and the clue in the name, humans play a large role in the world of Maneater. Unsuspecting beach-goers, fishermen and tourists populate the waters and surroundings of the playable areas. They don’t normally pose a threat, but players can attack them anytime. The reward are fresh nutrients and the thrills of the hunt, but in this case there’s a bigger price to pay; the shark’s threat level increases, and once it hits a certain threshold, hunters will hop on their boats and try and hunt down the shark, using anything from firearms to explosives to get the job done. Not unlike in Grand Theft Auto, these waves of “enemies” are endless, so eventually our fellow shark will have to escape, a manoeuvre that tends to be rather easy given its incredible dashes and how the hunters tend to group in one small area, allowing the player to get out of their way quickly until they forget there’s a man-eating predator in the area. As the shark eliminates boats and hunters, the Infamy level also rises from 1 to a maximum of 10. At the end of each phase, a named and tougher shark hunter appears, usually on a reinforced boat and with various tricks up his or her sleeve, like a protective cage around the deck or an electric area surrounding the ship which makes direct attacks much more complicated. As the Infamy level rises, any subsequent hunter will also be substantially tougher and better armed than their predecssor, so it’s better not to provoke humans before reaching sufficient power levels through evolution and mutation.
ShARK: Survival Evolved
There’s one important catch in the turbulent waters of the game’s fictional world. Nearby production facilities and factories don’t care a whole lot about climate change or the pollution of the environment surrounding them, which means they’ll gladly dump their toxic waste into the canals, the lakes or the sea. This allows predators to showcase unnatural mutations, on which Maneater builds an entire RPG-esque model onto. Completing the various objectives, the player collects sets of upgrades for the various body parts of the shark, from the jaws all the way to the body and fins. With variants like a bone structure that allows the player much higher resistance towards damage or a shadow form that concentrates on evasive actions, throughout the game the shark starts having more and more surreal looks. These “loot” elements can then be upgraded with the resources accumulated from eating other creatures. There’s also a set of extra DNA mutations not impacting the looks, that allow further bonuses and customisations on the play-style – like longer resistance out of water or higher nutrient gains from eating.
With a total of 30 levels and various stages of growth from baby shark (doo doo doo doo doo doo doo) through to teen, adult and elder variants, Maneater offers a character evolution that feels truly satisfying, both in terms of looks and effective combat possibilities. In many games, the look of the protagonist doesn’t change a whole lot throughout an RPG-like evolution, but their loot and invisible stats will mean that whereas they initially could barely take down a chicken, by the end of the game they’ll be destroying mythical beasts with their eyes closed. The progress in Deep Silver’s title is far more satisfying, as the adventure starts with a little shark that can barely muscle through barracudas, and ends with it a behemoth that eats seals whole and thrashes through a great white in a matter of seconds, taking the fight against whales and orcas as well. And the bigger size and agility means that areas that would seem gigantic and slow to traverse at first can now be swum through or jumped over with ease.
Completing the various missions in an area, each zone will offer a ferocious apex predator to hunt down, a creature that is vastly more powerful than anything else in those same waters. An oversized alligator, a mutated mako shark, an enormous sperm whale – beating these is a challenge, but nothing stops the player from moving away, eating some smaller creatures to gain back health, and get back to the battle with the HP restored, while the apex is still limping. There’s also a cutscene at the end of each zone that moves the story forward. This is definitely one of the funniest parts of the entire game, because it’s presented in a reality show/mockumentary style that constantly makes fun of the local shark hunters, humanity and its pollution as a whole, also calling out the tropes and clichés of actual television programs with a similar formula. Players follow the turbulent relationship between Scaly Pete and his son, and subsequently the various phases of the prolonged battle between Pete and the shark. This narration, which also accompanies feeding, exploring and battling phases, is done by no other than Chris Parnell, one of the most recognized comedians in his years on Saturday Night Live, also known for his roles in the Anchorman movies and for voicing Jerry in the animated show Rick and Morty. His deep yet ironic voice fits this narrative style perfectly, and adds an extra veil of comedic social commentary to the game.
From a technical standpoint, Maneater is a slightly more mixed bag. Animals’ assets are very solid and feel just right in the powerful Unreal Engine 4, while human models leave a bit to be desired. Light effects that change constantly with a day/night cycle and brilliantly designed underwater areas create a very enjoyable general look, though some faulty collisions and invisible barriers break the immersion a little bit. We also encountered frequent frame drops in more chaotic moments even on Xbox One X, and getting the game into unexpected scenarios resulted in a series of crashes, which in one case cost us a whole Infamy level of progress. All in all, the game’s AA presentation shows its strengths and weaknesses alike: the game’s general look is more than satisfying, but various technical hiccups and inconsistent graphics don’t allow the game to truly compete with more spectacular titles. This is especially noticeable given the developers’ choice to go for a relatively realistic look that inevitably highlights the shortcomings as opposed to a more cartoonish or stylised approach.
Bite Night Champion
As the shark becomes bigger and stronger with its mutations getting wackier by the hour, the scale of the battles also drastically increases, with the final area in the sea even offering missions where players will be facing several sharks at the same time, and of course the bombastic final confrontation against Scaly Pete and his army of hunters. This power trip manages to keep a good rhythm throughout the game as progress is quick, missions are short, the humor is constantly present and the relatively repetitive gameplay doesn’t bore as the end credits don’t roll after too many hours. Unlike many other open world games in fact, Maneater can easily be completed in about 10 hours, with a 100% completion that sits below 20 hours as well. Given the scope, the ambitions and the technical background of the title, it feels like just the right amount of content, and twice as much filler and identical missions would have definitely felt forced. It may not compete with 100+ hours colossi like Assassin’s Creed Origins or Persona 5 Royal, but Maneater plays by its strengths, offering a unique concept, a compelling game-play loop, a satisfying sense of evolution and a humour that is absolutely on-point.
Maneater might not tick everyone’s boxes, but it most assuredly sunk it’s teeth into me.
For what it is and what it wants to be, Maneater is an infectiously fun open world title that follows familiar grounds in terms of design, presenting a unique gameplay loop however that will satisfy fans of these legendary predators.