Retrospective: Headhunter

Uh oh, Christmas is inevitably a time for misty-eyed nostalgia isn’t it? Oh well – at least its the perfect time to look back 18 years to the festivities of 2001, back to the first time I played Headhunter on the Sega Dreamcast.

The back-half of the year 2001 was an awkward time for the Dreamcast. We’d known for nine months that the machine was well and truly on the way out, but this knowledge had been tempered by the arrival of a number of quality original titles like Sonic Adventure 2 and fantastic ports such as Unreal Tournament from the PC and Crazy Taxi 2 from the arcade. The Dreamcast didn’t exactly feel like a platform that was dying.

However, by December it was clear that time was running out: multiplayer games were arriving in Europe with all of their expensive multiplayer features removed, while a number of the titles we received didn’t make it to Japan or the US at all. One of these EU-exclusive titles was sitting under my Christmas tree in 2001. Released only the previous month, Headhunter was one of the most ambitious games to appear on Sega’s final hardware platform.

Though probably classed as something like a ‘stealth adventure’, Head Hunter is so shamelessly derivative we can pin it down further as a title that borrows the stealth action from Metal Gear Solid and appends it to the awkward camera angles and fetch puzzles of Resident Evil.

Headhunter and Metal Gear Solid comparisons
“homage” sounds better than “blatant theft” doesn’t it?

I know that might seem like unfair and lazy writing, but there are so many lifted gameplay devices the comparisons are very difficult to avoid: Not only does hero Jack Wade communicate to others via static screens that are more than a little reminiscent of the Metal Gear Codec, but he’s also forced to hone his skills in an virtual reality environment that..well… isn’t unlike a certain Metal Gear spin-off game Konami released for the PS1.

If its such a derivative title, why are we bothering with it? For one, back in 2001 Headhunter felt like a land mark title. On the soundtrack front, it was one of the the first to feature a live orchestra and definitely the first to be recorded at Abbey Road Studios in London. Though hardly the first game to feature FMV, Headhunter’s combination of live actors and richly detailed CGI led to the creation of a world that felt more richly defined than most of its contemporaries – A factor helped by having Jack ride between locations through a relatively open-world Los Angeles.

Headhunter Motorbike riding
The motorbike riding was amazing at the time, but presented the perennial issue of a large, empty world.

The story – which sees our futuristic bounty hunter escape from a strange facility only to wake up in hospital without his memory – felt sufficiently epic at the time and also holds up quite well to. It’s not as well written or acted as it probably would be today, but it definitely works well as the basis for a sci-fi conspiracy thriller. Paul Verhoeven-style newscasts and adverts also do a good job of both establishing and pillorying the authoritarianism world of Head Hunter and its obsession with bio technology.

Most crucially, however, the gameplay still holds up. The AI might not be up to much by modern standards, but its still reasonably satisfying to successfully use a decoy shell to pull a guard off his patrol so you can sneak up and break his neck. The facilities Jack has to infiltrate are also about the right size to. Though there are a fair few key/lock puzzles to solve, you always feel like you’re making progress towards recovering another bit of Jack’s memory and unmasking the sinister ‘Don Fulci.’

Headhunter - using a box to solve a puzzle
Resi fans will feel right at home.

Indeed, aside from the near-inevitable some control issue, for me the only real missteps are the boss fights and the motorbike riding. The former feel a bit too static and out of place, the latter doesn’t really have a useful place in the game. Though developers Amuze resolved this to an extent by making motorbike riding imperative to unlocking further levels of Jack’s virtual reality training stages, this feels a little forced: Apparently the head hunting authorities don’t care about Jack single-handedly taking down an entire biker gang, what they want to see from him is half an hour of prating about like a 16 year old who’s just been gifted a 50cc moped.

headhunter hiding behind cover
The tried-and-tested cover/shoot mechanic worked well enough.

Overall then, Headhunter remains a surprisingly fun and playable game. Though today the 2-disk title might not quite be the ground-shattering epic it intended to be back in 2001, it remains an enjoyable game that highlights just how much more the prematurely abandoned Dreamcast had left to give. Having finished it again just the other day, I’d say its definitely a game that Dreamcast fans should give a second look.