There's a line in Jaws, delivered by marine biologist Hooper. He's the guy called in to assess the shark problem following the discovery of a gruesome set of remains on the beach. He's a by-the-book kind of guy, interested in getting to the bottom of what's going on and with little apparent interest in serving the political and economic agenda of Mayor Vaughn - who's desperate for the whole situation to go away one way or another, so the people living on the island can get on with making their summer dollars. He says this:
"Mr. Vaughn, what we are dealing with here is a perfect engine, an eating machine. It's really a miracle of evolution. All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks, and that's all."
I always thought that he was describing a pretty blissful existence, even as a kid. And now Maneater is here to give us a taste of what some of that life is like - specifically the 'swim' and 'eat' parts. It's exactly as fun as I hoped it would be.
Maneater is, I think, the first game that's really provided this opportunity. You play as a bull shark pup - torn from your mother following her death at the hands of a local fisherman. That fisherman is star of a reality TV show (the titular "Maneater" and the game is framed through that lens. The aim of the game is ultimately reap your revenge - you swim, you eat, and you grow and evolve. As you grow and evolve you can swim faster and eat bigger and nastier things. It's a pretty standard gameplay loop, and it mimics the simplicity of a shark's life. Eat enough people, and shark hunters will be called in - armed to the teeth with harpoons and guns. Eat enough of them, and a boss shark hunter will appear - ready to drop upgrades on consumption. The controls feel wonderful, and have more in common with those of a flight simulator than probably anything else. The shark moves along like a ripple of sullen menace, capable of sudden bursts of acceleration, athletic breaches of the surface, and tearing fish (and people) apart in mere moments. Later on, you'll learn an evade movement that will cause the shark to spin like a bullet in the water, and how to grab food and thrash it submission by shaking it. In those moments, blood fogs the water - it's gloriously gory and over the top.
It's all plain sailing and good news then? Almost - but not quite. The single biggest complaint that can really be leveled at Maneater relates to the mission structure. The game's a collector's paradise - with landmarks, registration plates, various stashes and other bits and pieces all to be found and retrieved across the massive map. The missions though generally rely on a "go here, kill X of Y" structure - where Y might refer to a particular type of fish, turtles, or even people. It gets to feel formulaic fast - and yet for me almost didn't matter. The game's main trick - one of becoming an almost indestructible apex predator hell-bent on consuming everything in its path - is a trick that is enough fun to carry it along from start to finish. Scything through the water then leaping onto the deck of a boat and eating everything onboard simply doesn't get old.
While the game is only very loosely in touch with reality when it comes to shark biology and evolution, there is something going on in Maneater that seems surprisingly clever and subtle when considered in the context of the core gameplay. It seems to me that the game is to some extent holding up a mirror to those of us that are playing it. It's dressed up in an accessible and 'non-political' way, with the narrator delivering lines of scathing wit and accuracy in a tone that implies a wink and a grin as if we're all in on the joke... but the "joke" isn't really a joke at all.
There's an environmental moral to this game - we're playing as an agent of Mother Nature's revenge, taking it all out on a species that injured our character and has ruined most of the underwater environment that the game takes place in. As a player, we're an unwitting participant in this unless we're playing attention. I'm sure most of the people playing the game will be laughing at murdering all the fat rich people without ever considering that they're actually the butt of the joke. It reminds me in that way of Beavis & Butthead - a 90's animation show nominally about a pair of metalhead teenagers who sat on a couch laughing at their own stupid jokes, in which the real joke was that by sitting and watching it and laughing, the viewer was becoming the characters. That same meta-narrative is at play here, and it's something I absolutely was NOT expecting from trailers and the early stages of the game. It's far cleverer than it feels like it has any right to be. Although as an ageing Gen-X'er, there is a certain pleasure to be found in consuming digital versions of overweight boomers on their golf courses and yachts.
Maneater, then, is by no means perfect - yet I'm having a lot of fun with it in spite of its obvious flaws. It's got that solid 7/10 feel. It's something new in a predictable landscape though - and for me that's a big part of my attraction to it. That being new and unusual is a big part of its appeal, and it's the kind of thing that we should be encouraging by picking it up and playing it. It dares to do something new and put itself out on a limb. It doesn't quite measure up to its promise - but I'll give it a lot of credit for trying. It's definitely worth checking out.