Manhunt (video game)

Developer(s) Rockstar North
Publisher(s) Rockstar Games
Distributor(s) Take-Two Interactive
Director(s) Christian Cantamessa
Producer(s) Andy Hay
Designer(s) Christian Cantamessa
Programmer(s) John Whyte
Artist(s) Andy Hay
Writer(s) Alan Davidson
James Worrall
Christian Cantamessa
Series Manhunt
Engine RenderWare
Platform(s) PlayStation 2, Microsoft Windows, Xbox
Release date(s)

PlayStation 2

  • NA: November 18, 2003
  • EU: November 21, 2003

Windows & Xbox

  • NA: April 20, 2004
  • EU: April 23, 2004
Genre(s) Stealth, survival horror
Mode(s) Single-player

Manhunt is a stealth-based survival horror video game developed by Rockstar North and published by Rockstar Games. It was originally released for the PlayStation 2 on November 18, 2003, and for Microsoft Windows and Xbox on April 20, 2004. The game was also re-released through the PlayStation Network for the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 in 2013 and 2016, respectively. Players control James Earl Cash (voiced by Stephen Wilfong), a death row prisoner forced to participate in a series of snuff films for an underground director, former film producer Lionel Starkweather (Brian Cox).

The game received positive reviews by critics, with particular praise directed at its dark tone and violent nature. The game also received great controversy, due to the level of graphic violence in the game. It was banned in several countries, and implicated in a murder by the UK media, although this implication was later rejected by the police and courts. The game won several accolades, and spawned the sequel Manhunt 2 in 2007. As of March 2008, the series has collectively sold 1.7 million copies.


An execution in Manhunt, in which James Cash suffocates a hunter with a plastic bag.

Manhunt is a stealth-based psychological horror game played from a third-person perspective. The game consists of twenty levels, called "scenes", as well as four unlockable bonus scenes.[1] Players survive the scenes by dispatching enemy gang members, occasionally with firearms, but primarily by stealthily executing them.[2] At the end of each scene, players are graded based on their performance, and awarded one to five stars. Unlockable content becomes available only when the player achieves three or more stars on a certain number of levels. On normal difficulty (called "Fetish"), players can earn only four stars; one is awarded for completing the scene under a certain amount of time, and one to three stars are awarded based on the brutality of the executions carried out during the scene. On hard difficulty (called "Hardcore"), players are graded out of five stars; one for speed, one to three for brutality and one for simply completing the scene. To gain the maximum number of stars, a set number of brutal executions must be carried out over the course of each scene; face-to-face fighting does not award stars.[2]

In order to carry out executions, players must approach a hunter from behind, undetected. To facilitate this, each scene is full of "dark spots" (shadows where the player can hide). Enemies cannot see into the shadows (unless they see the player actually entering the area). A standard technique in the game is to hide in the shadows and tap a wall to attract the attention of a nearby hunter. When the hunter has examined the area and is moving away, players can emerge from the shadows behind them, and execute them.[3] The game has three levels of execution, with each level progressively more violent and graphic than the last: "hasty" executions are quick and not very bloody, "violent" are considerably more gory, and "gruesome" are over-the-top blood-soaked murders. Players are entirely in control of which level they use; once players have locked onto an enemy, the lock-on reticule changes color over time to indicate the three levels: white, yellow and red.[4][5]

Over the course of the game, players can use a wide variety of weapons, including plastic bags, baseball bats, crowbars and a variety of bladed items. Later in the game, firearms become available (which cannot be used for executions). Should players take damage, their health depletes; health can be restored through the use of painkillers, which are available throughout each scene.[3] Players also have a stamina meter which depletes as they sprint, but automatically replenishes when remaining stationary.[2] Manhunt also makes use of the PlayStation 2's optional USB Microphone and the Xbox Live microphone feature on the Xbox in their respective versions of the game. When such a device is connected, players can use the sound of their own voice to distract in-game enemies. This adds an extra element to the stealth aspect of the game, as players must refrain from making noises such as coughing as these sounds too can attract the attention of any nearby hunters.[2]


In 2003 in Carcer City, the story opens with a news anchor (Kate Miller) reporting on James Earl Cash (Stephen Wilfong), a death row prisoner recently executed by a lethal injection. In reality however, Cash awakens to hear a voice coming from an earpiece, revealing his lethal injection was only a sedative. The voice, who refers to himself as "The Director", promises Cash his freedom, but only if Cash follows his instructions. He must move through an abandoned section of the city being patrolled by a gang called "The Hoods", murdering them as he goes, all being filmed by CCTV. Cash successfully dispatches the Hoods, but despite the Director's promise of freedom, he is beaten and thrown into the back of a van by a group of private security experts called "The Cerberus".

Cash is then told by the Director that he reneged on their original deal and that he has more to do before the night is out. Cash is subsequently taken to various locations around the city and forced to face off against a series of increasingly dangerous gangs. First, he is pitted against a group of white nationalists and Neo-Nazis in a scrap yard. Then, he faces a gang of a former military turned mercenaries called "The Wardogs" in an abandoned zoo. Here Cash has to save members of his own family who have been kidnapped by the Wardogs and are being used as bait to lure him out. Following this, he fights a gang of Satanic Latino occultists and perverted pedophiles called "The Innocentz" in a derelict shopping center.

During this conflict, Cash discovers that the Director had his family killed despite his promise to let them go. After watching their deaths on a TV set up for him by the Director, Cash vows revenge as the Director coldly tells him "I'm all the family you need, now." After again facing the Innocentz in a graveyard and abandoned factory, Cash is forced to face off, in what is supposed to be the final scene of the film, against a gang of schizophrenic, sociopaths called "The Smileys" who have taken over an insane asylum. Here, Cash unexpectedly survives, killing the Smileys (including their leader dressed in a rabbit costume) and escaping the asylum after killing several Cerberus. As such, the Director deploys the remaining Wardogs, led by the vicious Ramirez (Chris McKinney), to hunt Cash down and kill him; from this point on, the Director no longer communicates to Cash.

As Cash escapes the asylum and enters an abandoned apartment complex, he is caught by Ramirez and the Wardogs, who decide to play a little game of cat and mouse; Cash manages to kill the gang and Ramirez before backup arrives. Upon fleeing the area, the journalist reporting on Cash suddenly arrives in her car and rescues him. She explains that the Director is actually Lionel Starkweather, a former film producer from Los Santos, who was popular in the 90s, but was forced to leave the industry due to a "scandal." The reporter has been putting together evidence about Starkweather's snuff movies for months, and now she has enough to expose him. First, however, she needs to retrieve some of this evidence from her apartment. Meanwhile, Starkweather orders the chief of the Carcer City Police Department, Gary Schaffer, to bring both Cash and the journalist to him, blackmailing him that he will expose his corruption to the Liberty City Supreme Court if he does not comply.

Protecting her from the police, Cash takes the journalist safely to her apartment, and from there, heads off to deal with Starkweather personally. Killing off several police officers, Cash then evades the SWAT teams, before making his way through a train yard, only to be cornered by more police and SWAT. They begin to beat him, and just as they're about to execute him, they are suddenly ambushed and killed by the Cerberus, who recapture Cash and bring him to Starkweather's mansion. There, they are about to kill Cash, but Piggsy - a mentally disturbed, chainsaw-wielding psychopath, who wears a pig's head as a mask and was normally kept chained up in Starkweather's attic - breaks free. This distraction allows Cash to work his way through the garden and mansion, killing members of the Cerberus along the way. He finally reaches the upper levels of the mansion, where he and Piggsy stalk one another. Cash triumphs after luring Piggsy onto a grate that collapses under his weight. After using Piggsy's chainsaw to hack his way through the last of the Cerberus, Cash finally confronts Starkweather in his office. Upon disemboweling him with the chainsaw, Starkweather pleads with Cash to spare him by saying "Cash, I made you!", but Cash thrusts the chainsaw into his face, killing and impaling him.

Later, the media and the police arrive at the mansion, with the journalist exposing Starkweather's snuff ring and police complicity, and Schaffer is arrested for corruption and brought on trial in Liberty City for his actions. Cash, however, is nowhere to be found.


Rockstar North began development of Manhunt in the mid-early nineties, building the game with the RenderWare engine that had been used for the Grand Theft Auto titles.[6] In September 2003, GamesMaster published a preview of Manhunt, commenting "[Rockstar North has] scraped its imagination to further twist the way games are made in the future and delivers a chiseled, no-apologies assault on gaming standards. [...] it possesses a warped subtlety that questions game reality... It creates a barren, harsh, violent experience and then punctures it with something trippy and darkly comic..."[7]

Many more news outlets, including magazines and websites such as GameSpy, GameSpot and IGN, all previewed Manhunt from late 2003 to early 2004,[8] when the game was released on ps2, Microsoft Windows and Xbox. Rockstar also released exclusive merchandise, limited editions and pre-order bonuses such as official soundtracks, a Piggsy figure, and a handheld voice changer.[9] During the release of the first game, a former Rockstar employee admitted that the game almost caused a mutiny in the company, saying that the team had "already weathered plenty of controversy over GTA III and Vice City—we were no strangers to it—but Manhunt felt different. With GTA, we always had the excuse that the gameplay was untethered—you never had to hurt anybody that wasn't a "bad guy" in one of the missions. You could play completely ethically if you wanted, and the game was parody anyway, so lighten up".[10] The game became available through the PlayStation Network for the PlayStation 3 on May 14, 2013,[11] and for the PlayStation 4 on March 22, 2016.[12]


Aggregate score
Metacritic(PS2) 76/100[13]
(PC) 75/100[14]
(Xbox) 74/100[15]
Review scores
Game Informer9.25/10[17]

Manhunt received generally favorable reviews. Metacritic calculated an average score of 76/100 based on 47 reviews for the PlayStation 2 version,[13] 75/100 based on 28 reviews for the Windows version,[14] and 74/100 based on 37 reviews for the Xbox version.[15] As of March 26, 2008, the Manhunt series has sold 1.7 million copies worldwide.[18] At the 7th Annual Interactive Achievement Awards, the game was nominated for "Console Action Adventure Game of the Year".[19] In 2010, it was included in 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die,[20] and listed at #85 in IGN's "Top 100 PlayStation 2 Games".[21]

The game's dark nihilistic tone and violent nature was singled out by many critics as representing something unique in the world of video gaming. GameSpot concluded that, "like it or not, the game pushes the envelope of video game violence and shows you countless scenes of wholly uncensored, heavily stylized carnage."[3] Game Informer praised the game's audacity and competent technical capabilities, stating "it's a frightening premise that places gamers in a psychological impasse. The crimes that you commit are unspeakable, yet the gameplay that leads to these horrendous acts is so polished and fierce that it's thrilling."[17] IGN complimented the game's overall challenge, calling it a "solid, deep experience for seasoned gamers pining for some hardcore, challenging games."[1] Watchmojo listed the game at #6 in its "Top 10 Rockstar Games", calling it the publisher's "most controversial game to date" while adding that "if you’ve got the stomach for it, the tense stealth experience is really exhilarating from start to finish."[22]

The Chicago Tribune was especially complimentary of the game, arguing that it marked a significant moment in video gaming history;

Manhunt is easily the most violent game ever made. It will likely be dismissed by many as a disgusting murder simulator with no reason to exist. But Manhunt also is the Clockwork Orange of video games, holding your eyes open so as to not miss a single splatter -- asking you, is this really what you enjoy watching? Had Manhunt been poorly made, using the snuff film angle as a cheap gimmick, the game would have been shameful and exploitative. What elevates it to a grotesque, chilling work of art is both presentation and game play. Manhunt is solid as a game; it's engaging to use stealth as you creep through the streets of this wicked city, using your smarts to avoid death, while dishing out much of your own. It's Ubisoft's Splinter Cell meets the cult Faces of Death videos [...] If Manhunt succeeds at retail, it will say more about America's fascination with violence than any political discourse or social debate. That makes Manhunt the most important video game of the last five years.[23]

The game received some criticism. Certain gameplay elements, such as the shooting mechanics, were called "frustrating" by Eurogamer, who claimed that "more than half the time the targeting reticule refuses to acknowledge an oncoming enemy until they're virtually in front of you." GameSpot concurred, noting that the "AI is much worse in the more action-oriented levels."[3] said that one quickly became "tired of [the] violence [...] AI quirks [and] repetitive level design."[4]


The controversy surrounding the game stems primarily from the graphic manner in which the player executes enemies. In 2007, former Rockstar employee Jeff Williams revealed that even the game's staff were somewhat uncomfortable about the level of violence; "there was almost a mutiny at the company over that game".[24] Williams explained that the game "just made us all feel icky. It was all about the violence, and it was realistic violence. We all knew there was no way we could explain away that game. There was no way to rationalize it. We were crossing a line."[25]

The violence in the game drew the attention of U.S. Representative Joe Baca, who was the sponsor of a legislation to fine those who sell adult-themed games to players younger than 17. Baca said of Manhunt, "it's telling kids how to kill someone, and it uses vicious, sadistic and cruel methods to kill."[26] The media was also drawn into the debate. For example, The Globe and Mail wrote "Manhunt is a venal disconnect for the genre. There's no challenge, just assembly-line, ritualistic slaughter. It's less a video game and more a weapon of personal destruction. This is about stacking bodies. Perhaps the scariest fact of all: Manhunt is so user-friendly that any sharp 12-year-old could navigate through the entire game in one sitting."[27]

Toronto Star writer Ben Rayner, however, praised the relevance of the game, defending its violence and graphic nature as very much a product of its time, and condemning calls to have it banned;

As entertainment and cultural artifact, Manhunt is totally disturbing. But so is the evening news, the "I'll eat anything for money" lunacy of Fear Factor and the unfettered, misanthropic gunplay of Bad Boys II, so I will defend until my last breath Rockstar's right to sell this stuff to me and anyone else who wants it. Do I think games such as these could have dire psychological consequences, particularly for young people? As always, I remain agnostic on the matter. Who knows, really? The debate will never be resolved. The American military obviously thinks there's something there: The troubling new TV ad campaign for the U.S. reserves lures potential young soldiers with tales of adventure accompanied by blatant, video-game-styled animation. And, curiously, no one has complained about or tried to ban SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs, in which stealth and killing figure even more heavily than in Manhunt.[28]

The murder of Stefan Pakeerah

The controversy surrounding Manhunt reached a peak on July 28, 2004, when the game was linked to the murder of 14-year-old Stefan Pakeerah by his 17-year-old friend Warren Leblanc in Leicestershire, England. Initial media reports claimed that police had found a copy of the game in Leblanc's bedroom, which police had seized as evidence, and Giselle Pakeerah, the victim's mother, stated "I think that I heard some of Warren's friends say that he was obsessed by this game. To quote from the website that promotes it, it calls it a psychological experience, not a game, and it encourages brutal killing. If he was obsessed by it, it could well be that the boundaries for him became quite hazy."[29] Stefan's father, Patrick, added "they were playing a game called Manhunt. The way Warren committed the murder this is how the game is set out, killing people using weapons like hammers and knives. There is some connection between the game and what he has done."[29] Patrick continued "The object of Manhunt is not just to go out and kill people. It's a point-scoring game where you increase your score depending on how violent the killing is. That explains why Stefan's murder was as horrific as it was. If these games influence kids to go out and kill, then we do not want them in the shops."[30] A spokesman for the Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers' Association (ELSPA) responded to the accusations by stating "We sympathize enormously with the family and parents of Stefan Pakeerah. However, we reject any suggestion or association between the tragic events and the sale of the video game Manhunt. The game in question is classified 18 by the British Board of Film Classification and therefore its copies should not be in the possession of a minor. Simply being in someone's possession does not and should not lead to the conclusion that a game is responsible for these tragic events."[31]

During the subsequent media coverage, the game was removed from shelves by some vendors, including both UK and international branches of Game and Dixons. Rockstar responded to this move by stating, "we have always appreciated Dixons as a retail partner, and we fully respect their actions. We are naturally very surprised and disappointed that any retailer would choose to pull any game [...] We reject any suggestion or association between the tragic events and the sale of Manhunt." Rockstar also reiterated that the game was intended for adults only; "Rockstar Games is a leading publisher of interactive entertainment geared towards mature audiences, and [it] markets its games responsibly, targeting advertising and marketing only to adult consumers ages 18 and older."[32] As the media speculated that the game could be banned completely, there was a "significantly increased" demand for it both from retailers and on Internet auction sites.[33] Giselle Pakeerah responded to this by saying "it doesn't really come as surprise, they say no publicity is bad publicity. But I must say I'm saddened and disappointed. The content of this game is contemptible. It's a societal hazard and my concern is to get it off the shelves as there's enough violence in society already."[34]

Shortly after the murder, later-disbarred American attorney Jack Thompson, who has campaigned against violence in video games, claimed that he had written to Rockstar after the game was released, warning them that the nature of the game could inspire copycat killings; "I wrote warning them that somebody was going to copycat the Manhunt game and kill somebody. We have had dozens of killings in the U.S. by children who had played these types of games. This is not an isolated incident. These types of games are basically murder simulators. There are people being killed over here almost on a daily basis".[35] Soon thereafter, the Pakeerah family hired Thompson with the aim of suing Sony and Rockstar for £50 million in a wrongful death claim.[36]

However, on the same day that Thompson was hired, the police officially denied any link between the game and the murder, citing drug-related robbery as the motive and revealing that the game had been found in Pakeerah's bedroom, not Leblanc's, as originally reported in the media.[37][38][39] According to a spokesperson for Leicestershire Constabulary, "the video game was not found in Warren Leblanc's room, it was found in Stefan Pakeerah's room. Leicestershire Constabulary stands by its response that police investigations did not uncover any connections to the video game, the motive for the incident was robbery."[38] The presiding judge also placed sole responsibility with Leblanc in his summing up, after sentencing him to life.[39] The Pakeerahs' case against Sony and Rockstar was dropped soon thereafter.[40]

Three years later, in the build-up to the release of Manhunt 2, the controversy re-ignited. Two days after announcing the game, which was set for release in July, Take-Two Interactive (Rockstar's parent company) issued a statement which read, in part: "We are aware that in direct contradiction to all available evidence, certain individuals continue to link the original Manhunt title to the Warren Leblanc case in 2004. The transcript of the court case makes it quite clear what really happened. At sentencing the Judge, defense, prosecution and Leicester police all emphasized that Manhunt played no part in the case."[41] Later that day, however, Patrick and Giselle Pakeerah condemned the decision to release a sequel, and insisted that Manhunt was a factor in their son's murder. Upon the announcement of the sequel, Patrick stated "I'm very disappointed. This is rubbing salt into the wounds in the month we will be marking the anniversary of Stefan's death. I'm very surprised they are doing this after all that has happened and all the publicity." Giselle added "It is an insult to my son's memory that they have announced this game in the month we will be marking this anniversary. These game moguls are making a lot of money out of games which are morally indecent. Why do they have to pump more violence into society?" Leicester East MP Keith Vaz supported the Pakeerahs, claiming he was "astonished" that Rockstar were making a sequel; "It is contempt for those who are trying very hard to ensure something is done to control the violent nature of these games."[42]

Several weeks later, Jack Thompson vowed to have Manhunt 2 banned, claiming that the police were incorrect in asserting the game had belonged to Pakeerah, and that Take-Two were lying about the incident:

[I] have been asked by individuals in the United Kingdom to help stop the distribution of Take-Two/Rockstar's hyperviolent video game Manhunt 2 in that country due out this summer. The game will feature stealth murder and torture. The last version allowed suffocation of victims with plastic bags. The original Manhunt was responsible for the bludgeoning death of a British youth by his friend who obsessively played the game. The killer used a hammer just as in the game he played. Take-Two/Rockstar, anticipating the firestorm of criticism with the release of the murder simulator sequel, is lying to the public on both sides of the pond in stating this week that the game had nothing to do with the murder.[40]

His efforts to have Manhunt 2 banned were unsuccessful.[43]

In New Zealand, the game was banned on December 11, 2003,[44][45] with possession deemed an offence.[46] Bill Hastings, the Chief Censor, stated "it's a game where the only thing you do is kill everybody you see [...] You have to at least acquiesce in these murders and possibly tolerate, or even move towards enjoying them, which is injurious to the public good."[47] The game was similarly "refused classification" in Australia on September 28, 2004 by the Classification Review Board, despite having already been on sale for almost a year at the time with the classification of MA15+ (restricted to ages 15 and over).[48]

In Canada, following a meeting in Toronto on December 22, 2003 between Hastings and officials from the Ontario Ministry of Consumer and Business Services, Manhunt became the first computer game in Ontario to be classified as a film and was restricted to adults on February 3, 2004. Apart from Ontario, however, Manhunt had little or no classification problems elsewhere in North America. The British Columbia Film Classification Office reviewed the game after the controversy in Ontario and deemed the Mature rating by the ESRB to be appropriate.[49] In Germany, the Amtsgericht in Munich confiscated all versions of Manhunt on July 19, 2004 for violation of § 131 StGB ("representation of violence"). According to the court, the game portrays the killing of humans as fun. They also said it glorified vigilantism, which they considered harmful.[50]


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  27. Andrew Ryan (March 6, 2004). "Belly up to the slaughter buffet". The Globe and Mail. Retrieved 2012-11-08.
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  44. "Banning of Manhunt". OFLC. Archived from the original on October 1, 2006. Retrieved 2007-02-27.
  45. Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993, 131
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  49. Volker Briegleb. "Brutalo-Spiel bundesweit beschlagnahmt". Retrieved 2007-04-21.
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