FBT is unleashed.
For years, the best free-roaming shark RPG was Jaws Unleashed. It was also the only free-roaming shark RPG. It was also terrible. Like, Jaws The Revenge terrible. But now we finally have, as developer TripWire calls it, the “ShaRkPG” we deserve… That pun is Jaws Unleashed level bad. Please don’t let Maneater be Jaws Unleashed bad.
The film crew of “Maneaters vs. Sharkhunters”, one of those men v nature reality shows, is following famed Shark-racist “Scaly Pete” LeBlanc. After capturing a Bull shark and returning to the bayou to gut it, he discovers she was carrying a pup, which he scars and throws back - but the feisty whippersnapper takes his hand with it. Trapped in the toxic waste filled shallows, the shark grows and escapes into the tourist area where it terrorises the locals, decimates the local fish population and enters into a battle of wits with Scaly.
Let me get this out of the way. Yes, it’s very reminiscent of Jaws Unleashed. But whereas the shark in Jaws Unleashed seemed to have a complicated plan to expose corruption in Amity, this is actually a solid shark-sim. The shark doesn’t have a goal beyond looking for lunch; its natural sharky actions draw Scaly into epic battles instead. But, on-point shark behaviours aside, Maneater is insane. It’s a sly, in-jokey comedy game that’s beyond jawsome fun; it’s the most amount of free-roam fun I’ve had this year.
What really elevates it is the show commentary. The narrator, a parody of those excitable Discovery Channel presenters, comments on our behaviour, explains away some of our more out-there escapades, makes it seem less ridiculous. A little less. He’s voiced by Chris Parnell, but it could’ve been that ‘it was aliens’ guy from Ancient Aliens. He’s full of pithy commentary on humans’ general contempt for marine life, making you feel fine about eating people, in-between pointing out mistakes in the game world and questioning how realistic this is. He also acts as a sort-of mission guide and keeps things hilariously moving forward.
Marine Biologists might be annoyed playing this. You have a tail whip attack (even the narrator points out Bull sharks don’t do this, Threshers do) and you have ‘sonar’ which real sharks don’t have. All the incredible senses sharks possess – smelling blood, sensing electric charges, feeling vibrations? Nope, they go for bat sonar. But then, this isn’t a steather; you’re a Bull shark, the DGAF of the species; I mean, there’s some living in a golf course lake in Australia (where else).
You do get into the mindset of a shark, least as much as we learnt from Shark Week, masterfully gliding through the water like a boss – you feel shark-like as you prepare to charge someone on an inflatable or pick them off a boat. And just to really piss off the shark purists, you can upgrade to a bony exoskeleton or skin that generates electric shocks – you can change different body parts to evolve your shark, and while it makes your Bull a little less believable, you need it. You’re not the only unfriendly thing in the ocean.
Like a GTA game, the more people you chomp through the more alerts go up, attracting shark hunters who use laser-guided weapons that can penetrate water, dynamite, send divers to chase you. It becomes a feeding frenzy trying to survive; you can just take off and hide, but what kind of Bulls***k is that? If you manage to get to full alert, a local legend will join the hunt and besting them gets you a nifty upgrade. A nice touch is those legends aren’t any stronger than the others, sinking their boat or picking them off the deck is as easy as taking out any other – that is, mostly by luck.
Has to be said, while Bull sharks are known for having absolutely no chill, playing as one is rarely tactical. It's button mashing all the way. When surrounded by boats and guns it’s just click everything, fling the shark about and hope for the best. It’s frustrating that the hunters seem to know exactly where you are, so even if you dive into the depths then try to swim up and ram, they’re sniping you at 20 fathoms. You never really gain the upper fin. But that’s okay, go chomp a mackerel and get back into the fight.
Of course, it’s not just humans that are after you. As you leave the Bayou for tourist areas and eventually the open ocean, each area has a rival. Alligators, Barracudas, other shark species, and a lot of the animals behave fairly convincingly – gators ambush you, seals will dodge, Marlin spear you, Makos are agile, but no matter how big you are, anything predatory will attack - even as a fully evolved lvl30 Mega, lvl1 upstarts will take a bite.
Each region also has an Apex predator, which take a beating. My shark developed a new attack posture, called run away, find a sewer pipe, and lure the apex in where it’ll get stuck then chomp away. Hey, Bull sharks swim up rivers, they’re always disrespecting the rules.
In each area you need to do stuff to unlock a Scaly face-off, and those can seem repetitive, but no more than any other free-roamer asking you to take over a region. But it never stops being tons of fun and there’s usually some nice threat like taking out a pod of seals can draw in White Sharks. It’s not like Jaws Unleashed where the shark swims through a submerged factory and finds a Giant Squid knocking about. It’s insane, not unbelievable. Kinda.
The side missions might seem rinse and repeat too, but the seabed is so well done. It’s like any other landlocked open world, you just head off to see what mayhem you can cause. I spend hours just fishing about, chasing squid, watching as shoals of fish scatter, pestering schools of Hammerheads, attacking a passing catamaran, trying to beach onto an ocean liner, the usual stuff. It’s equally fun to skulk around the everglades, or the city waterfront ruining BBQs and sinking yachts. It’s peaceful in the water, apart from me.
You can go looking for collectibles and find points of interest which are often jokey references; IT, Banksy, Arrested Development, Cthulhu, Demolition Man, SpongeBob … so many jokes; one Apex is a misbehaving Seaworld Orca with a tipped fin … too soon, Maneater, still not over Blackfish.
As Scaly and Shark’s duel becomes more personal, there is a case for us actually being the bad guy here. Although it’s a comedy game, the final standoff is poignant; Scaly and Shark are two apex predators, and the shark’s upgrades are kinda reflected in the body-part replacements Scaly gets after our encounters … but ultimately, it’s sheer lunacy and that’s what we’re here for.
It wants us to have fun; I played for 15 hours and it was only in the final few that I noticed repetition in the narrator’s comments. There’s a ton of work gone into what, on the surface, seems like a simple game. It’s nonsense, but good nonsense in the vein of Blood Dragon or Saint’s Row. Maneater does everything it can to let you in on the joke, but also gives you a great shark experience. That’s a thin line to swim but it does it perfectly.
I only have two complaints, beyond its fairly short run time; there’s no Game Plus mode where I can really go Megalodon on the hunters, and, for the first time ever, I wished there were an Online Multiplayer. Yes there’s Depth, but Maneater would be GTAV Online under the Sea. They have to do that.
Maneater is free-roamer of the year. Ignore the critics whinging it’s repetitive or a one-joke game. It is, but that just makes it so much fun; what do you think a shark does? Swim, and eat, and make little sharks. And that's it. And a romance subplot is the only thing missing from Maneater, which I’m surprised at actually. They could have gotten away with it. Dive in, it’s safe to go back in the water.
Read our Jaws Unleashed review here;