A big toothy grin.

Maneater is an open-world action game presented as a reality show about a vengeful shark, narrated by SNL and Archer’s Chris Parnell. Somehow, that’s not the strangest part of it. This Tripwire-developed passion project has you chomping your way through several underwater ecosystems, growing and evolving as you go, allowing you to enter harsher waters, all while terrorising the surface world on the hunt for your meaty end-goal. It’s basically F**ko the Dolphin.

In a hands-off demo at E3, my first impression is that Maneater looks far nicer than expected, an oversaturated city casting harsh neon light over a polluted bay as a single fin pokes out of the swell. My second impression is that the shark that fin’s attached to has just grabbed a nearby swimmer in its teeth, breached 20 feet out of the water and whipped the remaining half of the still-screaming man into a concrete bridge strut with a bloody pop. I’m giggling despite myself.

This seems to be Maneater’s stock-in-trade: balancing horror movie shock with out-and-out silliness. Take the way your shark can swim onto shore to attack unsuspecting beachgoers (each of the game’s seven regions asks you to freak out the human population enough to proceed). The initial attack is grim, as mingled screams of fear and pain ring out – and then you see your shark flopping about like, well, a fish out of water, to position itself for another bite. It’s as funny as it is gross, a balancing act that tends to work throughout most of my demo.

Interacting With Maneater’s World

But this isn’t a Goat Simulator weirdness-for-weirdness’-sake situation. Your base interaction with the world is almost always teeth-based, but that seems to be applied in several ways. On the lowest level, eating other animals has your shark procedurally grow with every meal, passing through five distinct stages of life (“adult” is the third, so things will presumably become ridiculous by the endgame). Everything you eat offers one of four nutrients – from the humble “protein” to the slightly more outlandish “Mutagen X” – which act as a set of currencies for upgrades.

Yes, there’s an upgrade system for a shark. Well, more accurately, an evolution system. Those earned points can be spent on less-than-natural growth spurts, offering your beast the likes of bone armour, Catfish-like electronics disruptor whiskers, or just huge metal teeth (I’m a big fan of the ‘Jaws’ double-reference there). Tripwire shows us concept art of how these are applied more like an RPG’s various pieces of armour than a skin, seemingly allowing for you to mix and match your own custom monster of the deep.

All of that work is going towards completing a main story quest. Our moist anti-hero was disfigured as a pup by a hunter, Scaly Pete, and your journey is in service of exacting terrible revenge upon him. Somehow, a TV show called Sharkhunters vs. Maneaters has picked up on that rivalry, which accounts for Chris Parnell’s unexpected new role. It’s a neat way to sidestep a silent protagonist, with Parnell’s delivery pitched somewhere between a Bastion-style narrator and GTA radio host (including the occasionally iffy jokes you might expect with that). Time will tell if that shtick wears thin, but my demo had him pop up to make specific comments about specific events, rather than chattering constantly like a FIFA commentator, which should help keep things fresh.

Staying Busy in Maneater

As you’d hope from a game that tears chunks from the open world genre, there’s a lot more to keep you busy than the core story. Hidden locations and side missions are sprinkled through the seas, and the world will react to you, too – there’s a Wanted system of sorts, with bounty hunters popping up to take you down after too much naughty business. In a nice touch, the lead hunters are named characters, offering you extra rewards for munching them. They’re also not part of an infinite supply – you’re actively encouraged to work your way up to the equivalent of a 5-star wanted level, eating hunters and smashing their boats until there’s simply no one left to stop you.

It’s not just humans who’ll come after you. Each region includes an apex predator who, after you’ve eaten enough of their traditional prey, will see you as a more viable food source. I see a giant, sewer-dwelling alligator in action, but I’m told we’ll see an enraged albino sperm whale by the end of the journey – the sheer scale that implies has me very interested in seeing where Maneater goes.

So yes, it’s a very odd concept, in several respects – the set-up, the story, the upgrades, the tone. But the oddest thing might be just how good this strange little idea already looks.

Joe Skrebels is IGN’s UK Deputy Editor, and he’d like to point out that you can use half-eaten swordfish as javelins in this game. Follow him on Twitter.

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