Amuze and Sega's creation finally arrives in North America. And it's good stealth action and something more.
Headhunter was one of the last titles released for Dreamcast, and also one of the very best games on the system. Because of the premature death of the Dreamcast, the title was released only in Japan and Europe - a great loss for the North American videogamers. And it's a strange destiny for a game that's so deepened into the American culture and atmosphere.
Headhunter was given the role of "Metal Gear Solid killer". The first Metal Gear Solid introduced a new way to play games, and it seemed that Amuze, the developers of Headhunter, were taking many of the premises behind Kojima's creation, bringing them to a new level. After all, it's the same story behind Splinter Cell, the exclusive game for Xbox (at least for this year), considered by many the "Metal Gear Solid 2 killer", but it's also the story behind dozens of titles in the history of videogames.
There is no doubt that Sega and Amuze's creation takes inspiration from Metal Gear Solid. It's impossible to deny that, considering the attention given to stealth action, the VR missions, the importance of boss battles, and many other details. But considering this game just in comparison with Metal Gear Solid would be unfair. Headhunter has its own personality, and as far as action-adventure games go, it's an addictive gaming experience.
The game takes place in the very next future, in Southern California. A hot place to live, especially in a world where crime has gone out of control. As an answer to the power of gangs and other criminal organizations, the government has slowly taken control over any aspect of social life, also using the power of media over the masses. The criminals are used as cavies for sub-cranial implants that should be able to regulate their behaviour or they are forced to "donate" their body parts and organs to the citizens who need them.
A special organization, the Anti Crime Network, is one of the strongest weapons in the hand of the government to fight crime. Jack Wade was one of the most skilled ACN's Headhunter, but something went wrong.
At the beginning of the adventure, Jack manages to escape from what seems a scientific laboratory, where he was probably subjected to some kind of experiment. He has lost his memory and just to make things worst, ACN blacklisted him, and his Headhunter licenses were revoked. The founder of the Anti Crime Network, Christopher Stern, was murdered, and Jack was the last person who saw him - before the killer. Angel Stern, the daughter of Cristopher Stern, hires Jack to find her father's killers, a quest that could lead Jack to find the path to regain his lost memories. Stern's death and Jack's lost memory - there are chances the two events are parts of the same plan.
Headhunter plays like a mix of games like Metal Gear Solid, Siphon Filter with a bunch of puzzles that seems to come directly from a Resident Evil game, and a strange motorcycle driving section added to make the whole experience more varied.
In fact, the game can be divided into two alternating gameplay moments: third-person action adventure, and the sections in which you drive your motorcycle. Actually, the motorcycle doesn't add much substance to the game. Basically, Jack uses it just to go from place A to place B in the game. That's all, really. Jack can't dismount the motorcycle, there are no persons walking in the streets, just a bunch of cars going around and overall, the outside environments are really dull and seem deprived of any sign of life. Just to make things more clear, we can say that the motorcycle sections work exactly like the world map in a classic RPG: they are just used to navigate from one location to the following one in the game world.
Anyhow, the motorcycle is also the only way to earn skill points, needed to have access to the Headhunter Tests. In fact, Jack has lost his Headhunter licenses, which can be obtained if you have a sufficient amount of skill points and if you successfully complete the Headhunter Tests. These are sets of increasingly difficult VR missions. There are four levels of Headhunter licenses (C, B, A, AAA) and each gives access to new weapons and new areas of the city. Unfortunately, riding the motorcycle to earn skill points can get frustrating. The X button is used to accelerate and Square is the brake button; if you want to earn skill points you have to accelerate as much as you can, without crashing against cars, walls and other objects in the environments. While all this could sound like an arcade section into an adventure game, the truth is that the motorcycle is at first not that easy to handle. Things get better later in the game, but you'll need time to have full control over your bike, and you'll be wondering if that was really what you were expecting from a 3D adventure game.
But maybe I gave too space of this review to Jack's bike. After all, it's really a secondary part of the gameplay, something that is easily overshadowed by the quality of the solid action experience that the game is able to convey.
Jack Wade could be the younger brother of Solid Snake. He is a skilled guy and Amuze worked to give the player good control over his actions, even if Headhunter lacks the refinements of the control and camera system of other action games. Controls are, in part, pretty straightforward. You move Jack with the left analog stick; circle is used for rolling and can be used in combination with the left analog stick for side rolling. The L1 button is used to crouch, while the R1 button draws your weapon and X is the fire button. Directly from Metal Gear Solid, in Headhunter you can flatten against a wall. Anyhow, things are handled differently. You press the Triangle button and Jack immediately flattens against a wall; once flattened, he will be able to peek around the corner, while pressing the R1 button he will jump out of the corner, ready to take a shot. Releasing the R1 button, he will come back behind the corner, unless you press again the Triangle button. It's a really amusing move to do, and it's also useful to kill enemies with ease.
Headhunter doesn't offer the player the possibility to aim in first person, so you can't aim at different parts of your enemies' body. All is handled by the auto aim function which requires you to press the Square button to cycle among the available targets. Unfortunately, the auto-aim function is not that responsive and it doesn't always choose as a default target the most dangerous enemy. For example, when jumping out of a corner to take a shot, the auto aim function points by default the first target in Jack's trajectory instead of the closest one. I found myself firing at a farther enemy while there was another one right behind the corner who was hitting me in the head. Sure, you can always press the Square button to cycle to the nearest target, but you'll inevitably take a couple of shots that with a more refined auto aim function you could have easily avoided. Anyhow, little by little, you get accustomed to these limits, thanks to movements like side rolling and crouching which help you avoiding the enemy fire. Before starting the game, you can play a bunch of training missions; they are very simple, but good enough to start enjoying the game from the very beginning.
Exploring the indoor environments in Headhunter is an exciting experience. The places you visit are always extremely detailed, well designed and realistic. They give the player enough freedom to choose between different strategies: you can move stealthily or try to kill any living being that you encounter. The camera doesn't help in critical situations, because it seems to be unable to frame the action from the best possible angle. The Square button can be used to center the camera behind your character, and it's a button you'll be pressing continuously. Fortunately, the problems with the camera are minimized by a nifty radar that works like the one in Metal Gear Solid. Enemies are displayed as arrows, so you can follow easily their movements before jumping out of a corner. Jack has his own ways to move without being detected by the guards. He can crouch, hide in the shadows, launch decoy shells to lure enemies away. And if you decide to fight and kill the enemies, you can't just go around and start shooting. You have always to use a good dose of strategy, and this proves the depth of the game; in certain situations you can make good use of special weapons like proximity mines, and finding a good advantage point is the right choice if you don't want to get killed.
The AI of the enemies is not impressive. They are most of the times too slow, not responsive enough to situations in which one would be immediately spotted in real life. There are also boss battles in the game - overall there are six battles against four different bosses - and with the exception of the first one, they are all challenging and brilliantly realized: a bit of brain work is required to save your skin against the big bad guys you'll have to face in Headhunter.
Puzzles are another element in the mix; they are similar to the ones featured in the Resident Evil series, maybe just a bit trickier, but they never get difficult or frustrating. Like Lara in Tomb Raider, Jack can also moves crates around rooms to solve simple puzzles that most of the times really don't make any sense - anyhow, have crates-based puzzles ever made any sense at all?
Overall, Headhunter delivers an extremely rich gaming experience. It may lack refinements, but its gameplay stands out of the crowd of the many action games currently on the shelves. Stealth action, strategy, pure action, boss battles - these are all strong points of the game. And all is powered by a deep story and a game world that is sadly believable. The game also feature a nice in-game database which gives you access to information on criminals, weapons, the story of the ACN and much more.