Here’s a wild video game pitch: Ecco the Dolphin meets Far Cry and Grand Theft Auto. Sound too ridiculous to ever be greenlit? Tell that to Tripwire Interactive and Blindside Interactive, developers of the upcoming Maneater, which is pretty much exactly that. At a recent hands-on event hosted by Koch Media I was able to play about an hour of Maneater and really sink my teeth in.
Maneater starts with one hell of a bait-and-switch opening. After being very quickly introduced to a local gulf with a resident shark hunter named Scaly Pete, you’re put in control of a huge, adult Bull Shark and let loose. Serving as the game’s tutorial, this area introduces you to the core skills required to live as the apex freshwater predator and gives you a steady list of objectives to complete that culminates in earning the ire of the local beachgoers. It’s not long before Scaly Pete takes notice however, and he promptly takes you out and guts you right on the boat. Realising the now-dead shark you were just playing as was pregnant, he tears the still-living baby out (yikes) and tosses it into the lake. And that’s where the game really begins.
While details on the overall story/ultimate goal of the game are still scarce, my time with Maneater gave me a decent idea of the general flow (pun intended). There seems to be a good degree of freedom around tackling the many objectives in the open world, with certain sets of tasks being rolled into ‘main’ quests that advance the story while side content provides plenty of opportunity for bonus experience and gear. That’s right, this is more than just an open world shark game, it’s a full-on SharkPG. Thanks to the aforementioned false start, your time in Maneater begins proper with your bull shark still a young’un. As you progress, finishing quests, consuming animals and humans and finding hidden loot you’ll level up, trigger age and (importantly) growth. Growing is important because the bigger you are, the more successfully you’ll be able to square up against larger animals and human vehicles. A baby shark is no match for an alligator, but a fully-grown adult will have no trouble tearing a marine patrol boat to pieces.
At this point you’re probably thinking what I thought when I first saw Maneater – water levels in games usually suck, right? Controls that suddenly have to accommodate a new axis coupled with more difficult navigation and often the pressure of limited breathability can make these sections a sore point in an otherwise great experience. Maneater, a game played entirely in the water, naturally puts more of a focus on making navigation and control as intuitive as possible, and it pays off. Your shark glides gracefully through the depths and handles beautifully with a combination of the left and right sticks (if you choose to use a controller). A subtle auto-targeting system pairs with a ‘boost’ move to quickly hone in on prey without worrying too much about position, and for everything else there’s ‘knifing’. Instantly recalling the classic visual of a shark fin cutting through the surface of the water, knifing removes that extra axis and makes quickly navigating the map a breeze. There were a couple of times in a later area where using the game’s 2D map to guide me through more vertically complex areas was painful, but I’m sure that more time with the game would allow me to make more sense of the space.
For a relatively indie/AA effort, Maneater also looks quite handsome. Each of the different environments and biomes that I had the chance to explore was unique and teeming with life, from the clear waters of the bay to the brown swamps and green, polluted rivers around a nuclear reactor. The screen effects when underwater are understated, a smart move given how much time you’ll spend down there, and even when things get murky the game’s UI and visual language do a fine job of highlighting anything of importance. The shark is the real star of the show of course, looking and animating with a fantastic balance of gorgeous realism and cartoonish menace. As it grows, it changes not only visually but audibly too, sounding meaner and more powerful when it gnashes and chomps down on prey. The Bull Shark was chosen over something like a Great White specifically because it lives in fresh water, but there’s no denying that it makes for a great playable predator, too.
Maneater is shaping up to be a surprise treat for 2020, a wave of mayhem and catharsis that’s over-the-top with tongue planted firmly in gill. After spending decent time with the game, it’s quickly shot up from curiosity to must-play and I absolutely can’t wait to see how the final game shapes up. If you only play one shark-based open world RPG this year – make sure it’s this one.