According to Jacques-Yves Cousteau, the best way to observe a fish is to become a fish. No statement has rung truer for any game than this when it comes to Maneater, Tripwire Interactive’s immersive, open-world shark-based action-RPG (or shaRkPG, as they so fondly call it). The development team behind the Killing Floor franchise wants to put you in the fins of the ocean’s hungriest predator as you hunt prey, fight off bounty-hunters, and evolve to become the deadliest catch that ever roamed the waterways.
I recently had an opportunity to go hands-on with the first hour of the game. Going in I expected an hour of swimming and chomping up fish and wreaking havoc on boats and swimmers. I mean, I got that, but what I also got was a far deeper and diverse experience than I expected.
Since this is an RPG, Maneater follows a gripping story of man-versus-shark. Framed as a reality show along the lines of The Deadliest Catch meets Dog The Bounty Hunter, the “show” (aptly called “Maneaters”) follows the exploits of master shark hunter, Scaley Pete, who roams the seaways in search of the sharks that terrorize the waters, and the player shark as it swims through its life. The melodious voice of Chris Parnell (Rick and Morty‘s Jerry Smith and Archer‘s Cyril Figgis) narrates their adventures — a handy way to deal with the fact that sharks can’t talk.
After years of eluding his ruthless clutches, Scaley Pete finally catches his shark nemesis, who Pete discovers is pregnant. The infant shark brutally ripped from its now-deceased mother, is released back into the wild, but not before leaving Pete with a reminder that it will indeed be back for revenge. With this first scene, the depth of character development and story that Tripwire has created for the game becomes apparent, showing players that each side has their own motivations and challenges that must be dealt with as the game progresses.
To back up a tad, players begin the game playing as the fully-grown mother shark as they explore the sewers beneath a beach resort. Here, we get a sense of the mechanics and skills available in the game as the tutorial teaches us how to swim, chomp, ram, dash, brach out of the water, and use more advanced skills such as Tail Whip, which stuns your target, and Whip Shot, which grabs your target and turns it into a damaging projectile. Right out of the gate, you feel fast and powerful — exactly the way you want to feel in the role of a shark. As the story moves forward, the player takes on a new role as the pup shark. Speed, attach power, size, and skill level are all reset and the player must spend the rest of the game developing their tech tree, growing their shark through its youth, teens, adult, and elder phases, and evolving them to become the ultimate underwater predator.
In order to grow their shark, players must eat other sea creatures, battle other apex predators, bounty hunters, and explore to unlock new areas in order to gain the nutrients and unlockable skills and evolutions needed to build-out their tech tree. Your relative size is a major factor throughout the game: while players are able to attack anything that is present in their current area, it is not always wise to go after anything larger than the shark itself. Certain areas are also blocked off until the shark is large enough to enter them.
Although the game follows a linear story, there is a clear emphasis on tailoring the gameplay experience to the player. Even at the start, you have the option of hanging around familiar waters and eating until you have enough nutrients to level up, then moving on and exploring the waters, keeping a look-out for secret areas to unlock, and new enemies to defeat and consume. As you explore, players will uncover quests and missions to accomplish, each gifting rewards of new skills, evolutions and nutrients upon their completion. While I found that there were not as many quests to uncover in the early part of the game as I would like at this point in development, there was more than enough to do, and at no point did I feel any monotony while I played.
Throughout Maneater, players will explore seven different regions that include a Seaworld-inspire area, swampland bayous off the gulf coast, deep ocean, polluted industrial areas, and resort beaches. Each area follows a day/night cycle which introduces diversity in the enemies you encounter. Players will also encounter an Apex Predator in each region over which they will have to vie for supremacy. Defeating the Apex predator of each region will net players high-level rewards, evolutions, and nutrients and ensure their dominance over their domain, and bring on interactions with Scaley Pete.
Playing as a shark, of course, you will want to terrorize some humans, and there will be plenty of opportunities to do so in Maneater. From hunting oblivious swimmers to beaching yourself to attack sunbathers on land, to tense shark-hunter boat fights, combat is visceral and engaging. During battles with boats, even the low-level ones, I found that I needed to tailor my attacks, balancing the times I breached the surface to take a bite out of the crew with evasion in order to survive. Going into any battle, whether it is against a larger sea creature or boat, requires keen observation — simply swimming headfirst into battle rarely resulted in a favourable outcome.
As your threat level from attacking humans grows, more and more hunter boats will be dispatched, leading to some terrifying fights that require strategy and planning. Defeat enough boats and special bounty hunters will appear for thrilling battles. Defeating them will net players special rewards and nutrients, and call forth stronger and stronger enemies.
While there are many realistic elements to the game, there are plenty of over-the-top features that make Maneater fun to play. The tech tree, which branches out allowing players the choice of following a direct path, or diverging to unlock abilities that suit their playstyle, focuses on Body Evolutions, which optimize the body of the shark, and Organ Evolutions which focus on the internal stats of the player shark. Players can equip three Organ Evolutions, which build internal stats such as improved attack power, speed, defence, speed, or increased nutrient gain or sonar distance, or entirely new abilities, such as the ability to breathe out of water. At the end of each body evolution path, lies a super evolution, such as the Bone Evolution, Bioelectric Evolution, and Shadow Evolution. Bone evolution provides high defence and ramming power, Bio-electric evolution allows powerful electric currents, akin to those of an electric eel, to emit from your shark, causing devastating AOE damage, and Shadow evolutions allow you to suck the life out of your enemies. All body evolutions, including the super evolutions, can be mixed and matched in the different body regions (head, torso, tail) of your shark, resulting in deadly ability combinations like vampiric-electro-bone sharks.
Even in the limited time I had to play Maneater, I enjoyed the experience and was anxious to play (and eat) more. I look forward to its May 22 release this year (on PC via the Epic Game Store, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, with a release date for Nintendo Switch will be announced later this year), and cant wait to dive in again.