Ahh 2001, the year I said goodbye. Goodbye to my first proper job, goodbye to WCW Wrestling and goodbye to the golden years of Sega Park. 2001 was also the year we officially said goodbye to the Dreamcast (truth be told, most people never even said hello) but I stuck with it until finally completing Shenmue 2. But just before that final hurrah, another European exclusive was beaming through my early 1980's black & white TV. That game, of course, was Amuze's Headhunter! And was it the Metal Gear Solid killer some described it as? No idea.....I've hardly played Kojima's seminal works but I can say Headhunter is a great mix of action, story and cinema, and worthy of a place in your collection.
The game introduces itself with a set of "Pravda" style news bulletins, presented by the patronising duo of Bill Waverley and Kate Gloss. From these segments you can deduce the totalitarian nature of Headhunter's world. Law enforcement has been completely privatised and is now run by the ACN (Anti Crime Network), convicted criminals are monitored with memory chips and their bail bonds are listed on the stock exchange. Also conventional firearms are outlawed and replaced with “ENP” weapons that kill their victim but leave vital organs undamaged. Yes, internal body parts are now the most prized asset in this dark and sinister future!
You play the part of Jack Wade who wakes up imprisoned in a laboratory with no idea how he got there. In true kick-ass fashion, Jack manages to break free but collapses soon after and ends up in hospital. While receiving treatment, he learns that the president of the ACN has been murdered, apparently by "Don Fulci" head of the criminal Syndicate group. Jack is then visited by his old boss Chief Hawke who tells Jack he was the top crime fighter at the ACN but now he's fired for life for reasons unknown. Hawke recommends he makes a living as an independent "Headhunter". Angela Stern, daughter of the murdered ACN president then appears and makes him an offer to capture Don Fulci in exchange for a big payout. Suffering from amnesia and facing big bills for hospital treatment, Jack accepts her offer........along with the use of her motorbike for transport!
Your job is to guide Jack through various missions in order to track down Don Fulci and also to find out what happened to Jack himself. Firstly you need to gain a Headhunter licence by visiting the LEILA centre, a Virtual Reality simulator used for training crime fighters. But before you can access LEILA you need to gain enough skill points by riding the motorcycle at high speeds without crashing. Once inside LEILA, you earn and upgrade your Headhunter licence by completing a variety of tasks; motorcycle riding, stealth, shootout and escape. There are 4 licenses to earn and each gives you access to various weaponry and classified documents. Once you get your respective licence, it's off to kick some Syndicate butt!!
All action games need their fair share of kick-ass weapons and Headhunter is no exception. You start out with a basic ENP Stimulator Automatic and stun gun and work your way up to shotguns, machine guns and even a heat-seeking rocket launcher! But it's not all aim and shoot: there's also grenades and proximity mines that can be used to take out multiple foes and decoy shells to distract/attract enemies by noise. One of my favourite tactics is to stun a bad guy, and then plant a mine right beside them for a friendly alarm call!
The most important part of any action game are the controls and thankfully Headhunter has got this almost spot-on. Played in third person perspective, Jack's movement is nice and loose and very easy to control with the analogue stick. There's no stiff Resident Evil style controls here! A handy lock-on target system make gun battles a lot of fun and a stealthy wall mode allows you to peak around corners remaining unseen. In a nod to Metal Gear Solid, you can even sneak up behind an opponent and break their neck...always immensely satisfying! All in all, Amuze have done a excellent job and can be very proud of their work here. The only real niggle is the occasional camera issue when coming out of wall mode but it's impact on gameplay is minimal.
Each mission has its fair share of criminals and terrorists to take out along with a boss battle at the end. In terms of A.I, the enemy will attack if they see you and reinforcements will often arrive if you decide to fight them head on. Therefore a mixture of firepower and stealth is required to successful complete your mission so it's up to you to decide what methods work best for you. As well as gun fights and breaking necks, Jack sometimes needs to solve some puzzles in order to progress. Again if you've played Resident Evil you know what to expect although Headhunter is a little easier; it's really just a case of searching each area and making sure you pick up every item. The boss battles themselves aren't overly difficult although some thought is required for victory....you cannot just charge in with all guns blazing! Missions take place in a variety of scenarios including a warehouse, shopping centre..even a ship at sea! These scenery changes help keep things fresh and allowed Amuze to add some nice graphical and gameplay touches throughout Headhunter's world.
Graphically the game is very good although it's not going to give Shenmue or Soul Calibur any worries. Headhunter is a very grey and dark coloured world but this is appropriate considering its background. The game runs smoothly with the occasional slowdown on some motorbike sections and during "busy" parts of the game but overall the frame rate holds up nicely....important in any action game. The character models are well done and this can be appreciated more if the game is running in VGA on an old style CRT monitor. Sadly there is "draw in" of city buildings during the motorcycle sections and some graphical glitches during cut scenes but overall Headhunter is a good showcase for the Dreamcast's power. The standout visual moment has to be the rain physics during the first boss battle...very well done indeed!
The orchestral music score by Richard Jacques & The London Session Orchestra is absolutely superb and Richard rightfully deserves the praise he received for it. Unlike his work on Metropolis Street Racer that divided opinion, there can be no doubt that Headhunter stands as a defining moment in his career (although ironically a track from MSR makes an appearance in the first mission). Atmospheric, dramatic, melancholy....each tune fits the mood of the game perfectly. Dominic Gibbs who previously worked on James Bond films was also drafted in alongside Richard as Sound Editor and his influence shows. It's little wonder the soundtrack was later officially released on CD. Secondly the story and the accompanying cut-scenes are top notch; voice acting and dialogue is excellent throughout (although one cut-scene does spoil it near the very end) and you can tell Amuze put a lot of effort into making Headhunter a very cinematic experience. The newscasters Bill Waverley and Kate Gloss are played very well by their respective actors and displays that sinister smarm you expect from news channels controlled by repressive regimes. Bill Waverley's expressions are hilarious and the innuendo exchanges between the newscasters is very funny indeed..."you know Bill, I always keep a Stimulator by my bedside!"
Special mention too for the chain-smoking old battleaxe at LEILA's reception....was that an actress or did Amuze just record a conversation with a UK government helpline?!
But its the general storyline itself that makes Headhunter stand out. For me it's a satire on US bounty hunters and how far people are willing to sacrifice their liberty to regimes that promise them safety in return. Although in production long before the events of 9/11, Headhunter was worrying relevant in the following years and with all the current drama surrounding the PRISM scandal, it still is today. Even its emphasis on vital organs can be found in aspects of real life and the X-Must energy drink commercial..well Amuze must have had a time machine! Every cut scene, news broadcast and even each document you pick up on each mission...they all add to the experience and really make you want to help Jack discover the truth about himself. Even the loading screens (of which there are plenty) have sinister adverts on display while you wait......another great touch that immerses you in Headhunter's world. It comes as no surprise that an former X-Files scriptwriter, Philip Lawrence was involved in the making of Headhunter. The story is full of twists and turns throughout and although things become a little far fetched in the end, it's done with such class and style you'll forgive this exaggeration. I know the whole “Total Recall” thing has been done to death now so if you've played a similar game recently, a bit of “cooling off time” before tackling Headhunter would be a sensible idea.
Sadly not everything is perfect in Headhunter and it's mainly down to the motorcycle sections. The fact you need to race around the city at speed to gain skills points for LEILA is ridiculous and really lets the game down. You have these very well crafted cities with cars on the road and lots of little areas that be explored by bike if you feel like it but here's the problem: there's no incentive for doing so. It would have been so much better to have Jack earn skill points for doing courier-type deliveries from one location to other. This would have allowed players to experience these levels in a lot more detail and make the Headhunter world feel even more compelling. The final confrontation with a rival "Headhunter" towards the end is a colossal disappointment; it should have been a epic battle but its nothing more than a crude QTE that's over in seconds! Also you would think the developers would quieten Jack down with some sort of tiptoe feature before breaking a neck - you can hear his footsteps coming a mile off! Some people may also be put off by the sheer number of loading screens that occur so patience is definitely a virtue! Finally there are quite a few crash bugs in Headhunter as the game was rushed near to release so I recommend you save in the game often to avoid a "controller-breaking" moment.
Headhunter is a fairly short, linear title that can be completed in around 6-10 hours and apart from a slightly harder version of the game (that's very bugged), there's little incentive to play again although the game really does its job the first time around. It's unfortunate Headhunter was only ever released in Europe for DC, but considering Sega had discontinued the console and was already releasing titles on other systems by then, perhaps it's understandable. I doubt the game sold well in Europe anyway...I haven't been able to find any sales numbers so far!
All in all, Headhunter is a great game for any Dreamcast owner and one I'd highly recommended. It may be short but it's certainly very sweet! Anyone for an X-MUST? Final Score: 8/10