Maneater, for better or worse, is a very arcadey old-fashioned open-world game in which you play as a shark out for revenge on the Cajun sharkhunter who killed your shark parent. In doing so, you’ll eat your way from baby bull shark (do-do-do-do) to a prehistoric megashark. Along the way, you will acquire evolutionary upgrades that let you corkscrew spin into boats or shock your prey to have a better window of attack. Like many other open-world games, Maneater grows repetitive, and its silly premise and style wear thin. While it is fun in short doses, you may not want to sink your teeth into this one for the long haul.
The setting of Maneater is a crude collage of the American south and gulf stream resorts. The game is open-world, but has distinctly separated zones. You start off in the swamps of the bayou, and later visit the canals of a luxury country club and golf course, a Caribbean hotel resort, and the depths of the Gulf Stream. The somewhat thin story is told from the lens of a cameraman shooting a reality show of the Cajun sharkhunters, but this doesn’t carry over to the gameplay. I expected some of the gameplay to have you do things like perform stunts for the camera or encounter the camera crew or something silly, but there are no set pieces to be had in the game. The cutscenes and gameplay are completely separate. There is a narrator that cracks jokes whenever you find hidden items — boxes full of powerups, license plates, and special location markers — or finish a mission, among other things. However, the writing is sub-par and at times surprisingly mean-spirited. The crosshairs are aimed multiple times at poor Americans. There are jokes making fun of alcoholics, “meth heads” and the homeless. There is a mission called “Hunting for Hobos,” where you have to go to an island and just kill the homeless. During another segment, the narrator explains the difference between a “hobo,” and his son, who is just a bum. There seems to be a palpable anger towards not just oil companies and the rich — though that is in the game — but to vulnerable poor people as well and the American south at large. Then again, there are also jokes at the expense of libertarians and references to Michael Moore, so it was all sort of a muddle in terms of figuring out the game’s point of view. At the end, the narrator even says to not read into whether this game was about environmentalism — just enjoy watching the shark eating people. Perhaps that is the best way to enjoy the game. The game does give you the option to turn the narrator off, so you can avoid this aspect of Maneater. However, it makes me wonder why they decided to bother including said material or setting the game in a location the writers only seem to have bile for.
Visually, the game is a mixed bag. The shark looks great and animates well, and some of the evolutions look fantastic. Likewise, there is a gorgeous glowing effect when you dodge with a bioluminescent body. The coral areas are inviting and beautiful. There isn’t a huge variety of underwater species, but they all animate well. Some of the bigger predators like sharks and orcas have bits of their bodies deteriorate as you bite them; a gruesome but immersive effect. The early swampier levels feel muddy and uninspired, but once the game opens up and injects some colour and fun locations, it feels more inviting. The human NPC’s repeat frequently and scream last-gen in terms of their level of detail. When you eat a human, they’ll disappear quickly and it doesn’t really feel properly brutal or cathartic, for a game called Maneater. If you’re going to go campy, then go for it! There should be limbs flying. The humans all behave the same when you approach the beach, and might all just run in the same direction with the same animation. It’s jarring. Humans and fish clip through items frequently. I beat two boss fights because the animal got stuck on geometry and could no longer avoid my deadly attacks. Every sewer and cave area is identical to the other. Technically, the game sputters and chugs way more often than it should. There is an attack you get later, where you can corkscrew through the air to move faster and also ram into boats. It is absolutely crucial to fighting boats at higher levels, and it also happens to be the most fun and the quickest way to traverse the world. Every single time you activate it the game becomes framey and seizes up. Some of the hidden locations and artifacts on the bottom of the ocean are fun and charming locales.
The shark controls like the Banshee from Halo, where you move with the left analog stick and aim the vehicle around with the right analog stick, while boosting with the shoulder buttons. A few attacks can be performed, like a tail whip — which is fairly useless for combat, but a blast to throw humans around with — a dodge, a bite, and a special move depending on your equipped evolution that can boost a number of things. The problem with the game’s underwater combat is a familiar story for people who have played any number of irritating water levels. You’re controlling a character in a 3-D space while having to simultaneously spin the camera around. You’ll be attacked from aggressors behind and to the sides of you, and fighting to reposition the camera to see what’s going on. After attacking an enemy or swimming past them, you must do the same. It’s clunky and awkward, and the game’s lock-on feature isn’t very helpful. Maneater sometimes has loading screens in between zones, and sometimes you’ll be in a battle on the border of a zone and you’ll get locked into a screen in the middle of the animal battle.
In terms of Maneater’s structure, you’ll be playing the same missions over and over again and fighting bounty hunters on boats until you get to the end of the game. To power up your shark, you must keep eating more and more meat, but there isn’t really much of a strategy to any of it. Early on, you learn to dodge when being attacked and to avoid more powerful creatures, but nothing really evolves out of Maneater’s systems. The missions range from killing ten of one creature to killing one extremely powered up predator. Bosses all behave largely the same as regular enemies. Also, one strangely lacking feature of the game is that it doesn’t have a mini-map. You can only set one waypoint at a time, so you must beat a mission and open the menu and select another waypoint after you beat that mission. It’s just an unnecessary hassle that could have been fixed. The most fun parts of the game are when you’re chomping unsuspecting vacationers on golf courses or in the streets of the suburbs, flopping along the roads and creating a bloodbath. It is goofy and unrealistic, but very satisfying and hilarious. I wish Maneater had leaned more into these areas, but there are tons of invisible walls on land, and nothing is destructible. These areas were where the game really could have flexed its creative chops, and it feels like a missed opportunity.
Maneater can be a stress-relieving and hilarious experience, but mostly because of how idiosyncratic and surreal it is to control a shark for an entire game. The actual experience of playing it grows dim and repetitive, and its crass sense of humour grates on the nerves more than enlivens them. Maneater rarely rises above mediocre, and at its worst, made me wonder whether we’ve really come that far since Jaws Unleashed.
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