I’ve always been a huge fan of the Hitman games. Though perhaps that’s because I regularly fantasise about infiltrating swanky establishments and murdering the rich and powerful in ironic ways while disguised as a [recently deceased] janitor. Yet, instead of being excited about upcoming sequel, simply known as Hitman, I’m rather apprehensive. Why is that, I imagine myself hearing you ask?
Well, if Blood Money was the pinnacle, then the last game in the series, Absolution, was the low point. In one game it went from superbly-crafted murder sandbox to a fairly generic story-driven stealth/actioner that had more in common with Splinter Cell. The wide-open, intricate and well thought-out maps, each a puzzle with a multitude of approaches, replaced with uninspired linear corridors divided into tiny sub-levels often with no assassination target. Whereas atmospherically, Absolution was all a little too straight-faced in a feeble attempt to be gritty, while deprived of Jesper Kyd’s fantastic combination of orchestral and electronic music that was so integral to the ambience of the earlier games (Blood Money is one of my all-time favourite game soundtracks). It’s like IO-Interactive had forgotten how to make a Hitman game.
I’m also very cynical about the episodic release structure, something made fashionable in recent times by the likes of the Telltale games and Life is Strange. The first chapter is due to go live on 11 March (PS4, Xbox One and PC) and will only include the prologue and Paris mission. There will then be, or so we’re told, a monthly release cycle through until the end of 2016, with upcoming chapters to feature missions in Italy, Morocco and Thailand (47 disguised as a lady boy?).
The initial episode can be purchased for £10.99, with subsequent chapters presumably costing around the same. Alternatively, you can pick up the “Full Experience” for £39.99 (I found a key for £30), which will apparently give you access to everything including all locations, live content (one-off targets only available for a limited real-time window), Contracts Mode (community-created challenges and by far the best feature of Absolution) and additional game updates.
So, if you want to play the game sooner rather than later, this leaves you with a big decision to make: do you gamble on committing money to unknown content but make a substantial saving in the long run; or purchase the episodes individually (at greater cost overall) once you know if they’re any good? The model is so heavily incentivised towards the “Full Experience” that it’s hard not to see this as a thinly-veiled ruse for releasing an unfinished product before time (Hitman was originally pitched as a full-release game) and taking the pressure off IO-Interactive to deliver top-notch content. Though hopefully the developer will use it an as opportunity to respond to player feedback between episodes.
Anyway, after much umming and ahhing, I took the plunge and pre-ordered in order to gain access to the closed beta, which is due to finish today (PS4 12-15 Feb; PC 19-22 Feb).
The beta included two short missions from the upcoming game’s prologue, set 20 years in the past when 47 is first being recruited by the ICA. In order to graduate to field agent our bar-coded anti-hero must pass two final tests – implausibly large-scale simulations set in an ICA facility using huge wooden sets, dozens of actors and an array of remarkably convincing dummy weapons. The first of these sees you crashing a party on a private yacht in order to take out a criminal art dealer, the second infiltrating a heavily-guarded Cuban air base – the target a famous US chess player about to defect to the Soviet Union.
Essentially free-form tutorials designed to introduce the game’s key concepts, the prologue levels play out like typical Blood Money missions. These maps are enjoyable, believable and well-designed sandboxes that provide substantial freedom for playful experimentation and offer a reasonable amount of replay value. Targets can be dispatched with all manner of goodies, silent or otherwise – from afar, up close and personal, or by carefully orchestrated “accidents”. However, shooting your way through the levels, something that was far too plausible in Absolution, is strongly discouraged by the game’s mechanics (you won’t last long). Exactly how it should be in a Hitman game.
With careful observation, planning and timing you can sneak in undetected for the ultimate stealth kill, manipulating the behaviour of NPCs by creating diversions (e.g. throwing coins) and tampering with certain objects (fire alarms, fuse boxes, drinks, etc). Alternatively, for those who don’t mind a little collateral damage, NPCs can be garotted (ssshhh, don’t struggle…) or harmlessly incapacitated (at greater risk) in order to nab their conveniently 47-sized clothes; though it’s generally a good idea to hide the poor sod afterwards in one of the large containers that never happen to be too far away. Happily, outfits work more in line with the earlier games, so no more reliance on Absolution’s finite “instinct” resource to get past one of your “peers”. Though certain characters are able to see through your disguise if you get too close, which has an appreciable logic to it.
The AI behaviour is pleasantly convincing (one of the few strengths of Absolution). Rather than shooting on sight, guards will turn you away, escort you off the premises or attempt to arrest you. And they’ll investigate any disturbances, while unusual behaviour will arouse their suspicion. If they see a weapon they’ll remove it to a safebox, whereas if a body is found everyone will be on high alert and they’ll search for anyone looking out of place. Yet, thankfully, it’s not so realistic as to make the game impossible or, indeed, joyless.
And I’m also glad to see the trademark humour has returned. I particularly enjoyed the ironic comments made by the actors, who clearly recognise you but have to play along according to their designated role in the simulation. And, if you’re a little sick in the head like me, there are some highly amusing ways to eliminate your targets.
It certainly does feel more like a Hitman game of old. However, rather disappointingly, several of Absolution’s worst elements have made an unwelcome comeback. The checkpoint system has been carried over in the form autosaves that occur at key moments. And a diluted version of the instinct mechanic is still present, allowing you to see NPCs through walls at no cost. The mini-map has also returned, providing real-time information on the movement of all nearby NPCs. In Blood Money, if you wanted to know what was going on the next room you had to rely on your eyes, ears and knowledge of character behaviour patterns. Plus the godawful QTE melee combat system looks like it’s here to stay. And sadly, while spy film-style music serves its purpose well enough, Hitman remains impoverished through the absence of Jesper Kyd’s ability to thrill, excite and control the mood.
By far my biggest criticism is of the newly implemented “opportunities” system. Hitman games have always relied upon scripted events to provide specific openings, such as a one-off wedding ceremony or opera actors coming out on stage to rehearse every five mins or so – occurencences that felt relatively organic within the context of the game world. In contrast, individual “opportunities” are highlighted for you and only triggered via proximity to certain characters or interaction with particular objects. As such, they break immersion while circumventing the processes of observation, discovery and timing. Similarly, in-game challenges provide far too detailed clues to the locations of items, disguises and possible strategies.
Overall, I’m far more optimistic than I was before playing the beta – this genuinely feels like a Hitman game. However, I am a tad concerned by what amounts to some dumbing down in comparison to Blood Money. The game spells out far too much for the player, like it doesn’t trust you to work things out for yourself as well as lowering the skill threshold. Though I’m hoping that some of this can be attributed to the prologue being a tutorial and it does seem that some of these features can be reduced/removed through gameplay options. But ultimately, with my strong distrust for the episodic format, I’m afraid that for me the jury is still out on Hitman.