A Quick Look At Headhunter

You are Jack Wade. You were once the ACN's top Headhunter, rounding up the most fearsome criminals on the mean streets of near-future California and bringing organised crime to its knees. However, something went horribly wrong. Waking up in an operating theatre with no memory of who you are or how you got there, you break out of the restraints and hazily escape from the mysterious facility before collapsing in an alleyway.

Once again being brought around in a hospital, you learn of your past glories as the most feared Headhunter around - a type of government funded bounty hunter - the death of your boss and the rise of crime in your absence. You're an angry man with a beard, you want answers, and you want your memory back...but first you need to re-enrol as a freelance Headhunter, get your license, your gun and your motorbike. Somebody will pay for this, but who and why? That's down to you, Wade.
Headhunter is one of the oddest games on the Dreamcast. I don't mean that in a derogatory way - I mean it from a totally bemused standpoint. That's because it is easily one of the best titles ever released for Sega's machine, but due to the incredibly late launch in November 2001 Headhunter was only given a PAL release. It sits squarely amongst games like Evil Twin and Stunt GP that were fantastic games in their own right, but for mainly financial reasons never made the leap across the pond to the United States or Japan.

Amuze, the Sweden-based developer of Headhunter only ever made two games - Headhunter (and the later PlayStation 2 port) and the PlayStation 2/Xbox sequel Headhunter: Redemption - but it's clear from the quality seeping from every pore of Jack Wade's adventure that the development team had a real grasp of the Dreamcast hardware.

Everything about this game just exudes class; from the excellent visuals, to the well-scripted cut scenes to the outstanding musical score composed by none other than Richard 'MSR' Jacques himself (at Abbey Road Studios, no less), everything about Headhunter is epic. And, as stated, due to the exceedingly late release Headhunter represented something of a last hurrah for the Dreamcast...which actually adds a tinge of sadness to the whole affair. If a game of this quality appeared just as the console was getting into its stride, then who knows quite where future Dreamcast games could have gone in terms of visuals and storytelling? There's so much to shout about with Headhunter and hopefully this article will allow those who never got the chance to sample its delights to learn of a game that is rarely mentioned, even though it's one of the Dreamcast's finest AAA releases.
Headhunter is a 3D, semi-free roaming action-adventure with stealth and puzzle elements. On top of this, it has definite science fiction overtones with a near-future setting. The game proper is interspersed with newsflash FMV sequences that not only progress the story by reporting on events that your were responsible for, but also do a great job of building a better picture of the overall world in which the game is set. While looking similar to the present day, a fascist regime controls the government and the media is heavily censored. Sinister firms peddle their genetically modified foods and drinks and the public lap them up, and biotech firms advertise enhancements for the human body akin to those seen in Deus Ex.

Big business rules everything, and the biggest and baddest of these big businesses is the ACN - the Anti-Crime Network. In this vision of the future, criminals are apprehended by ACN Headhunters and their organs are removed as punishment and donated to law-abiding citizens to prolong their law-abiding lives. As an ACN Headhunter, Jack Wade is the top dog, but then he goes missing and the criminal underworld is the key suspect. On top of this, the ACN founder is murdered at his desk. Now it's up to you to find out just what the hell is going on, get your identity back and turn up the heat on the criminals running the show from behind the scenes.
You start the game with no memory and all of your licenses revoked, so you need to regain your Headhunter status by completing various virtual reality training missions through a system called LEILA. LEILA - the Law Enforcement Intelligence and License Approval unit - is where you need to go in order to enrol on the various courses and you are given certain tasks to complete within a time limit. These are mainly based on stealth and shooting but are occasionally driving based (more on this later), and once you complete all of the tasks in a certain stream you are given access to a new licence and the weaponry that comes with that level of clearance.

The LEILA missions can be a bit of a pain and are very reminiscent of the Metal Gear Solid VR missions, but they need to be completed in order to unlock higher licenses and weapons to progress the main story. The main game is very much a cops and robbers style yarn, with Jack Wade apprehending various criminals and gathering information about why he was kidnapped, who wiped his memory (and why) and who killed the head of the ACN. You travel around the city on a motorbike, and while these free-roam sections aren't especially interesting by today's standards, back in 2001 they were something of a novelty.
There are plenty of different districts of the fictional city to explore and there's a lot of traffic driving around but on the whole the environment isn't especially rich in detail. However, as a way to space out the main points of interest and missions, the motorbike bits are perfectly fine (and were pretty impressive back in the day). That said, I'm not a huge fan of the way the bike handles - it's a little bit twitchy on the steering front and is only too happy to pop a wheelie if you just open the throttle from a standstill. As an actual motorcyclist I know that just opening the throttle from a standstill will have similar repercussions in reality, but the bike in Headhunter is a bit liberal with the torque...and where's the helmet Jack? Safety should come first me laddo, even if you're a Headhunter. Anyway, road safety concerns aside, the main meat of Headhunter is played from a third person perspective and sees you controlling Wade in some truly amazing 3D environments; taking cover and engaging in firefights with enemies, collecting health packs, operating doors and solving puzzles.

I mentioned Metal Gear Solid earlier and it's clear to see the influences in Headhunter. Not only with the stealth-based gameplay and the cover shooting mechanics, but also in things like the Casio communicator scenes where other characters will dial in to Jack with hints and mission objectives. It's all a bit too similar to the Codex sections from Metal Gear Solid, but as the old saying goes: imitation is the best form of flattery. Indeed, according to this 2004 interview with Eurogamer, Headhunter creative director John Kroknes took lots of inspiration from the 1980s output of Hollywood director Paul Verhoeven when creating Headhunter, and this is clear to see.
Labelling Headhunter as a Metal Gear Solid clone isn't especially fair (or true) though, as anyone who has played the game will attest that it is so much more than a stealth-based shooter. The sheer number of puzzles is bewildering and the similarities to stuff like Resident Evil is apparent from the off. You need to pick up objects from within the environment and examine them for clues, you need to read documents in order to get codes for doors and locked boxes, and you need to move boxes and climb on them in order to collect items such as grenades and health packs.

Headhunter isn't just an homage to the best 80s action films, it's also an homage to the best puzzle games and it really isn't afraid to show it. On top of this, the cut scenes (while looking a bit ropey by modern standards) are full of wry humour and on more than one occasion I found myself smirking at interactions between Jack and other characters, if only because of their outrageous tongue-in-cheek cheese factor. Jack Wade could quite easily be a character played by Kurt Russell or Chuck Norris, and the ease with which he belittles his main headhunting rival Hank Redwood borders on the comedic at times.
Sometimes, Headhunter gets a little irksome due to the difficulty level and Jack's inability to take much damage (and his aiming is terrible), but this is easily offset by the way in which any really tough firefight can be won with a little bit of cunning and cover firing; and most of the puzzles, while occasionally taxing, are fairly logical in design. The game controls about as well as you could expect a game without dual analogue controls to, although at first the number of actions and manoeuvres at Jack's disposal can seem a little overwhelming - not least when you're being fired at from multiple angles. However, once learned you'll find yourself ducking behind boxes and popping out to take shots, rolling to safety and setting proximity mines as if you were a natural born commando.
Visually, Headhunter is easily one of the best looking games on the Dreamcast. The open world sections aren't overly impressive when compared to other open worlds seen in stuff like Crazy Taxi et al, but it's when you enter the interiors that everything takes on a whole new level of detail. While the camera sometimes fixes into the corner of a room or location to give a Resident Evil or Silent Hill style view, the environments are all modelled in 3D and you can still activate the 'over the shoulder' camera no matter where you are. Some of these scenes look pre-rendered such are their quality but it's when you realise that you can still switch to an over the shoulder view that you realise everything is fully rendered with polygons. Quite simply, Headhunter looks stunning. The lighting, the incidental effects (rats scurrying around, dust motes dancing in light beams, the real time shadows and reflections) are fantastic.
My favourite part of the early game is the rooftop boss battle, with rain pouring and lightning crackling across the sky. Jack and his adversary are sopping wet, with rain bouncing off them and real time refections glistening in the puddles. It looks positively stunning and you have to remind yourself that you're looking at a Dreamcast game. Equally impressive is the musical score. Handled by Richard Jaques - the same genius behind the Metropolis Street Racer soundtrack (and countless other Sega soundtracks), the orchestral score in Headhunter is nothing short of filmic in its scope and bombast. From slow tension building arrangements to full on action sequences, everything in Headhunter - everything - sounds utterly fantastic. It's just a crime that Dreamcast owners in Japan and the US never really got the chance to appreciate either the visual or aural delights of Amuze's stellar action game.
You can probably tell that I really like Headhunter - and you'd be right. It does get very tough as you progress (don't even mention the boss fight in the bank!), but it's worth persevering with. The game is split across two disks and is chock full of over the top cut scenes, parody advertising for in-game products and 'so bad they're good' news broadcasts. The story is great, the voice acting is perfect and the graphics, control and sound are all top drawer. If you don't live in a PAL territory and you're looking for something new to play on your Dreamcast, I would highly recommend Headhunter. Not only is it a brilliant, brilliant adventure, but it also represents a glimpse at just how amazing late-era Dreamcast games could get.


Father Krishna said...

Excellent review of this excellent game! If you're a Dreamcast owner who has never played this, get a copy now. I did find the PS2 sequel underwhelming however.

DCGX said...

This game is great on the Dreamcast, if a little hindered by the lack of a second analog stick. The Dreamcast didn't see many games like this. Redemption was disappointing. I barely made it through the first section before I lost interest.

FlorreW said...

Headhunter is one of the games to dreamcast i have played through several times , and i enjoyed it every time. As you are saying , the visuals are stunning and the controls are spot on (at least in my point of view)

RJAY63 said...

I bought Headhunter on release and have completed it several times. It's a good game for the system and highly recommended! I understand Headhunter was meant to have online motorcycle racing or something similar, but I doubt it would have added much to the experience. You may be interested in a comparison I did between the Dreamcast and PS2 port from an old review: http://dreamcast-talk.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=5635

ShiningSkies said...

Great article! Absolutely love Headhunter and you're right about it taking examples from MGS, but being a direct clone. That's one of the things that annoyed me about some reviews back in the day, they compared it directly to MGS and while it definitely borrows/steals some things from the game, I felt it to be a very different and more defined experience, grounded in reality, but with a hint of sci-fi (whereas MGS was balls-out mental at times).

Great stuff!

Felipe Guerrero said...

I'm actually playing Headhunter right now and I totally feel like a kid again. It's absolutely fantastic and alot of fun to play!

Jonny H said...

I've just today completed Headhunter on the Dreamcast, having got stuck on the "race across the city defusing bombs" section of the game as a kid.

I really enjoyed the news broadcasts and some of the VR missions (especially the time challenges on the motorbike, a vehicle that felt a bit underused in the game) but I didn't enjoy how the plot went all 'Resident Evil' in the final third.

Still, a very enjoyable game. I'm glad to have finally completed it after a gap of nearly 19 years!