Platforms: PC, Xbox One and PS4
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: IO Interactive
Publisher: Square Enix
Review code supplied free of charge for review purposes
Note: Sorry for the delay in this review folks. It was ready to come out days ago, but I caught a terrible sickness bug and couldn’t even make it out of bed.
Agent 47 returns in controversial fashion as Square Enix implement a bold episodic plan for one of their biggest licenses, something which we’ll discuss later in this review. But for now we have a taster of what is to come, enough to get a handle on whether IO have managed to bring their iconic character back into the favor of gamers after Absolution, a title that I personally really enjoyed but is often cited as being much weaker than fan-favorite Blood Money. Simply titled Hitman this fresh approach to selling a triple A game could be seen as a soft reboot of sorts, one that could potentially be the herald of big changes within the industry if its business model succeeds. There’s a lot riding on this, then, so is it any good?
Placing this new Hitman game within the series timeline it is both sequel and prequel, taking place some 20-years in the past and after the events of Absolution. We open with a scene from 20-years ago, showing Agent 47 first coming to the agency and meeting Diana Burnwood, his handler. This time period is used for the two tutorial levels that put 47 through his paces before we then jump to what we can only assume is present day, where Agent 47 has been tasked with assassinating two high value targets during a fashion show in Paris that takes place within a huge ornate palace, a sprawling complex made up of three floors and a basement level, each crammed with rooms and corridors waiting to be explored, plus gardens. Unsurprisingly for the first episode the plot is kept minimal, but we’re given glimpses of where it’s heading, including our potential big bad villain of the piece. The writing doesn’t really impress so far, delivering a dry slice of narrative that very clearly was never intended to be delivered in episodic form, but the quality of the cinematics and the excellent voice was superb.
The tutorials do a perfectly acceptable job of guiding you through the basics of stealth, garroting fools, subduing, dragging corpses, disguises and all the other essential skills needed to become a proficient killer. What becomes immediately noticeable, aside from the clearly improved visuals, is that this new Hitman retains the more fluid movement and controls of Absolution, with a few small tweaks that smoothen it even further. Agent 47 still moves like a robot, a slight stiffness in his movements, but that’s thematically accurate. It sells the idea that he’s a mechanical killer, largely unfeeling and all business.
Once you make it to the Paris mission it’s business as usual for Hitman veterans; you’re given two targets to kill amidst a huge fashion show taking place in a palace, and free reign to eliminate them as you see fit, be that through subtle methods, perhaps being careful to only kill the targets and hide the bodies, or more destructive tactics, although these will leave you with a worse post mission rating. After all, any idiot can shoot someone in the face with a silenced pistol and then do a runner out the gate, but it’s far more satisfying to move in plain sight and drown the target in a toilet, like a true professional. It’s all about learning your victim’s habits so that you can find the perfect time to strike, perhaps by posing as a bartender or ensuring that a reporter has the equipment needed to get her interview so the target will be in the right place for you make a move. Before long you’ll have memorised both target’s typical routine and scoured most of the level, which is where the game becomes really fun because armed with this powerful knowledge you can’t resist mucking about just to see what will happen when all the lovely mechanics start crashing into each other.
Core to this experience is the disguise system which has been heavily retweaked since Absolution to remove a lot of the frustrating ambiguity. Now when you kill or knock out a victim and steal their clothes a white dot above an NPC’s head represents that they will be able to see through your disguise if you get too close. This also links into the type of disguise you take; there’s a lot of stage crew and so they don’t know everybody’s face and won’t typically be able to see through the costume, whereas in other cases you’ll have to be more careful. Pick the right victim wearing the right costume and you can move much more freely through the palace, sidling past security like you don’t have a care in the world. It’s strangely empowering, especially if you steal a security guard’s clothes and can wear an assault rifle in full view of everyone. It’s a much more obviously gamey mechanic than Absolution’s method, but frankly I’ll take the tradeoff as this system is much more enjoyable, and you can always deactivate the white dots in the options if you want for a more immersive experience
Opportunities are the other big change, moments that present themselves to the player, typically via eavesdropping on a conversation, which can lead to interesting ways of killing the targets. When you encounter an opportunity you can choose to track it with a tap of a key, the game presenting you with a trail to follow so that you can piece it together like some sort of join-the-dot murder, or you can opt to take the more organic approach and figure it out on your own like the skilled assassin you’re supposed to be. It’s honestly best to turn this element off entirely through the options as the game literally takes you through each opportunity step-by-step, which isn’t much fun compared to working it all out yourself. It’s these opportunities that make up the bulk of the assassination methods, and there’s genuinely a lot of them packed into the level to discover. On my very first play through I subdued a fashion model called Kruger, stole his phone and outfit, arranged a meeting with my target, took to the catwalk to fulfill my fashion obligations, sidled through security without a hitch and then proceeded to poison the victim before hiding her in a cupboard and making my fabulous getaway. Other options include dropping massive lighting rigs, mixing poisoned cocktails, drowning people in toilets, setting off fireworks to lure the targets out before sniping them, explosive cameras, infiltrating a billionaires auction and even luring the targets to their underground safehouse where you’ve already deployed an explosive device. The only real reason to turn the opportunities element of the UI back on is just to see if there was any you missed.
It’s a wealth of options for one level to have, and that doesn’t even include just generally dicking about, like trying to figure out if you can sneak a battleaxe you found up to the top floor for a cool assassination. Hint; you can. It bodes well for the future of the game. Should each new mission offer the same amount of assassination methods the replay value will be very strong indeed. The tools you can begin a mission with, though, are currently very limited, with even the classic twin Silverballer pistols not making an appearance. It’ll be interesting to see if we get access to more varied equipment in later installments. For now completing the varied Challenges the game offers up as an incentive to replay the level grants a few bonuses to choose from in the planning stage, namely you can Agency caches stashed around the level that contain things like a sniper rifle, or you can opt to start the mission undercover, perhaps as a member of the kitchen staff or as a makeup artist behind the scene. Speaking of those challenges they do provide some good impetus to get the player to return and try new things, pushing for better scores or cool moments.
Aside from that the developers attempt a few other things to foster even more replay value. Contracts are the first, returning from Absolution so that players can enter the level, kill anyone they want using any weapon and disguise, and then challenge other players to do the same thing. It’s a neat diversion and with such an open level crammed with NPCs and things to use there should be plenty of scope for picking out fun targets, but ultimately remains very limited in what you can actually do with it. It also sometimes doesn’t pick up on what you’re doing, and thus a series of accidents will be interpreted as players being able to use any weapon they desire. Despite these problems, though, Contracts remain very enjoyable and just like Absolution the community seems to be having a blast with them.
The other option is Escalation mode which can be played on any of the three existing levels. What Escalation mode does is task you with taking down a target while introducing interesting variables into the formula, and if you beat the first stage of difficulty then you unlock the next one, and so on until you reach the fifth and final challenge. You might find you have 90-seconds to hide bodies, or can’t subdue anyone but the target. Each level of difficulty adds more and more complications to your goal, which in turn pulls you out of your comfort zone to try new things and play more aggressively.
But that’s not all because there’s also Elusive Targets, people who will enter a level and only be available to kill for a limited time. You’ll get one chance and one chance only to take them out, meaning if you fudge it all up and end up in a messy firefight then you can’t just hit restart and aim for that perfect execution. Sadly no Elusive Target was put into play while writing this review, so naturally I can’t say much about it yet, except that it sounds pretty cool on paper. Whether it’ll be enough to get you to fire the game back up again is the big question, though.
Knocking aside the gameplay for a moment I have to mention just how alive and detailed the Paris level feels. It’s populated by hundreds of NPCs, and while they certainly don’t all have their own little routines they do just enough to make the mansion feel alive, many commenting on you as you pass by or just get in their way, like the TV crew who get kind of pissed off when you insist on blocking their shot or the security guard who casually mentions what a good job you’ve done on the stage, believing you to be one of the stage crew.
Aside from commenting on your disguise in passing, though, the AI has a lot of work to do as there’s a considerable amount of variables Hitman’s Paris sandbox, and terrible artificial intelligence can really damage a stealth game. For the most part it’s quite solid, but is prone to the typical bouts of stupidity that we’ve all come to expect from the genre, like failing to react believable to a few dead bodies or not noticing absent comrades. I even lit a guard on fire at one point and he carried on like nothing was happening. Dude was hardcore. I threw a coin at another guard’s face and he merrily wandered off to see where it had landed, at which point I happily chucked a hammer at him. I did not yell, “it’s hammer time!” I swear. There’s other stupidity to be found, like how the bodyguard of my target failed to grow suspicious of the fact that his boss went into the bathroom and seemingly just vanished. The bald gentlemen who came out clearly had nothing to with it. In fact, after standing in the bathroom for a minute look somewhat perplexed, and never once thinking to check the cupboard which probably had blood leaking out if by now, he then ambled off and began doing lazy circuits of the palace. What a totally useless bodyguard. These are glaring issues, but ultimately the AI seems to be on par with most stealth titles out there, so if you can put up with their moments of dippiness then everything will be fine here.
One change to the formula that will likely be divisive is how targets go about their routines, or more specifically how they sometimes don’t. In the past your presence in the level didn’t matter; targets would go about their business as the developers intended. In this new Hitman you act as a trigger for certain events, especially scripted conversations. You nudge the simulation along, essentially, and while that’s fine for the first few play throughs it can become a touch annoying later on. Sometimes being able to push events along can be helpful for your plans, but when you’re tailing a target and listening to the same conversations for the nth time it can be a bit annoying. It’s an understandable design choice that puts story ahead of the mechanics, yet that doesn’t stop me from wishing that the target would just shut up sometimes.
Moving on performance is tricky for me to talk about since the newest AMD 16.3 drivers caused the game to crash upon starting a level, so I had to roll them back to an older version, meaning I didn’t see any of the benefits from AMD’s optimizations. However, even with these older drivers the game seemed to perform well, though framerate drops occurred in certain areas. Overall I was left fairly impressed with how smoothly the game seemed to be running, and by how good it looks. It’s not as detailed or crisp as many other titles on the market but it’s a fair trade-off considering the amount of NPCs it packs into the level
There’s also the thorny issue of how the game likes to have an online connection. Despite what you might have hear one isn’t actually required to play the game; you can fire it up in offline mode and stab people in the face with screwdrivers all you like. However, should you lose connection during a mission you’ll be booted out, and furthermore online and offline saves are entirely separate, so if you do lose Internet connection you can’t just continue from where you left out. It’s bloody annoying, is what it is.
Ultimately whether this first episode is really worth your time depends on the type of gamer you are. Back when I was but a wee lad running around and causing mayhem I could play a videogame forever, eeking out as much fun as was absolutely possible because money was short and I’d be lucky to get a few new games a year, and that’s exactly what must be done here. If you can’t see yourself replaying the level more than two or three times then it’s probably best to just wait for the full release. However, if you’re like me or spent countless hours running around in Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes then you can get a surprising amount of playtime out of this. I’m sitting at about 8-hours while writing this, and feel like I’ve just about gotten to the point where I’m done.
Perhaps the best way of approaching this is almost as a method of testing the murky waters of an episodic Hitman, a glimpse at what’s to come, although of course nobody can guarantee this level of quality going forward. Still, we can hope for the best as at the very least the episode nature of the game gives IO Interactive time to make changes based on feedback. Really their decision to split the game up is a fascinating one, the discussion of which could probably fill up a sizable article by itself. However, it does feel like they’ve shot themselves in the foot as this first episode doesn’t feel like an episode. There’s no self-contained story arc and the ending doesn’t leave you on a nice cliffhanger, waiting for the next one. In this regard they could do with taking a good long look at Telltale’s episodic series. Only having a three levels also feels like a mistake. Originally the intro pack was supposed to over several other locations as well, and it’s a shame that these were stripped out.
But as always price and content and that price to content ratio are subjective, dangerous things. I’m here to talk about whether the game is good, and all that money malarkey can be left up to you and your bank account. So the good news is that this feels like a fine return to form for the Hitman series so far. Even playing through the tutorials levels is surprisingly enjoyable as you can muck around with the mechanics, but they are nothing compared to The Showstopper, the Paris level which impresses with its varied methods of death. Is it on par with the beloved Blood Money? Tough to call at this early stage, but this is certainly a big step up from the much more restrictive Hitman Absolution. With another six locations yet to come this year, and hopefully more than just a meagre one level for each, there’s still plenty of room for this to become something disappointing, but right now this has the potential to be the greatest game in the series and I enjoyed the hell out of small slice of it.