It's a tough life being a shark. Time and time again, the media portrayal of sharks shows them as relentless monsters, whether through the tension of Jaws or the more absurd The Meg. Maneater looks to add some balance by casting the player as the aquatic predator, acting as the protagonist of the story rather than as the perennial heel.
Developed by studio Tripwire Interactive, Maneater leans heavily into cheesy shark movies. Unthinking and aggressive, the player consistently terrorizes animal and human alike in its quest to become an ultimate predator. Moving from bayou to coast, before moving into the deep of the sea, Maneater is a vicious and hilariously over-the-top experience.
Maneater's core premise of destruction comes in the form of an open world sandbox. The player's bull shark doesn't quite have the same depth of the characters of GTA 5, but the end result can be just as explosive. Once Maneater gets going, the promise of being an unstoppable aquatic killer is an intoxicating concept that works incredibly well.
To begin with it's quite sluggish, however. An introductory tutorial level, where the player has full control of an adult shark as it sates its appetite with unsuspecting swimmers, abruptly ends when the shark is caught and butchered by our main antagonist, Scaly Pete. This shark hunter cuts a young bull shark out of its caught mother and throws it into the bayou - but not before the pup takes Pete's hand off as swift retribution.
After that, the player takes on the role of the orphaned shark, chomping down on an assortment of unsuspecting wildlife as it grows big enough to take on larger prey. It's surprisingly slow going at this stage, strangely similar to the bizarre SNES game E.V.O.: Search For Eden, as the shark gets power-up boosts, gains levels, and stealthily hunts its prey while avoiding larger predators like alligators.
Before too long, Maneater gets into its groove. The game plays heavily on its outlandish premise, amping up what was seen in 2006's Jaws Unleashed to its logical conclusion. Along the way Maneater throws in a fair bit of comedy, framing itself as a reality TV show following shark hunters and spitballing jabs at everything from Fyre Festival through to Waterworld and Pennywise the Clown.
The core gameplay then falls into a loop that's been seen many times before in open world games. The quest for vengeance leads the shark into various parts of the city, thinning out the population of prey or predators, killing some unsuspecting civilians to gain infamy, before taking down the boss and moving onto the next area. Strangely enough, Maneater's closest structural peer is Mafia 3, albeit replacing its complex human main character for a slightly less nuanced portrayal of a furious fish.
Rather than the mob bosses or fearsome foes of other open world games, Maneater instead has two unique kinds of challenge. Each part of the city's waterways is the home of a specific apex predator that is significantly tougher than the usual enemies, such as a mako shark or an alligator, which is lured out after the player has completed enough quests within the area. Meanwhile, growing your infamy with human kills will attract the attention of named shark hunters that prove to be more difficult than the usual hunters that the player faces, with this mechanic feeling almost akin to the Cult of Cosmos assassinations in Assassin's Creed Odyssey.
Maneater does fall into the trap of becoming a collect-a-thon at times, which certainly isn't for everyone, and this adds to the sense of repetition that sometimes feels like unnecessary padding. Thankfully Maneater does a better job than most games that fall into this trap, thanks to the snippets of humor received via Chris Parnell’s great voiceover work as the host of the titular shark hunting show.
This sense of repetition is the only major negative of Maneater, as apart from that the game lives up to the promise of an unrestrained creature feature experience. Growing from a youthful shark through to a terrifying elder is satisfying, and the game's on-the-nose environmental message is portrayed with a tone that feels like a bastardized version of Captain Planet.
The best way that this is showcased is with Maneater's outrageous upgrade system, with the shark given genetic mutations that are narratively tied to the pollution that seeps through the waterworks of the game. The player can become a bone-coated horror shark that would give the characters of Deep Blue Sea nightmares, and choose upgrades that allow the shark to slow down time and release poison, or even give off lethal electric shocks.
Maneater is at its best when the player is fully upgraded, and able to wreak havoc on the general population. One of the best bonuses in the game makes the bull shark amphibious, allowing them to jump onto land for longer periods of time and partake in such wonderful moments as gatecrashing an ocean-side rave and ruining the party. Alternatively, the player could choose to take their neon death shark into the middle of an orca show, jumping into the seats and mercilessly eating the audience.
Quite simply, it's a joy to play when unleashing the true power of this ultimate predator. A lot of the time, the player will be best served by ignoring what Maneater is telling them to do and instead just deciding to ruin someone's day. When the option to jump onto land and join a beach gathering is available, or to hop into a golf course and literally eat the rich, then it's easy to lose track of the main quest.
It's these kind of moments, much like Grand Theft Auto, where Maneater shines. Hunting other aquatic creatures is all well and good - particularly with the challenge of such dangerous predators as great whites and orcas - but taking on humans is the best part of the game. In particular, fighting back against bounty hunters works extremely well, whether ramming boats until they sink, eating harpoon-wielding diving hunters whole, or jumping straight onto a boat and chowing down on the surprised hunters.
That's without saying how well-crafted other aspects of Maneater are. When it comes to its control scheme Maneater is fantastic, with an intuitive lateral feel that gets players into the groove instantly. From a sound design perspective it also shines, with muffled underwater sounds and genuinely unsettling noises for incoming attacking predators that add tension to the early game.
The world of Maneater is also great to look at. Its underwater set pieces, whether via claustrophobic, anemone-laden tunnels or vast open water areas, all look wonderful, while even the flowing of the water on the surface is very realistic. Maneater's shark protagonist's movements are also well-realized, with animations that never get tiresome over the course of the game's runtime.
Maneater is big, dumb, and wonderful. Although the game could have done with trimming some of the fat rather than squeezing out as many hours of gameplay as possible, once the player gets through its early stages it's a ridiculous and lovable open world experience that provides exactly the level of chaos that its players will crave. It might not be safe to go back in the water, but undoubtedly it's a risk that is worth taking.
Maneater is available for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One, with a Nintendo Switch release planned. Screen Rant was provided with a PC download code for the purposes of this review.
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