I was very much ready to hate the new Hitman game.
The popular assassinate-’em-up drew the attention of the gaming media when it announced earlier this year, after many, many delays, that it was going episodic. Rather than releasing the game in full off the bat, the developers planned to release the game level by level, allowing players to buy either the complete experience – essentially the promise of more levels in the future – or each level individually, but at an increased cost.
To be perfectly honest, this struck me as a last-ditch attempt to make money from something that was draining a lot of time and resources. It was early access without the early access brand. Release something unfinished for full, or close to full, price and expect people to put up with the shoddiness of it. It’s a little like a hedge fund, in a way; give us your money, and we promise to give you something out of it eventually. It seemed morally suspicious and, more worryingly, confirmation of the final breath of the beloved Hitman franchise.
But all of my suspicions were wrong. Well, most of them at any rate.
Hitman is incredibly good. And I don’t say that lightly.
In Hitman, for those who aren’t aware of the series, you play as the socially inept Agent 47, and the goal is simple. A lovely British lady says, “Here is someone to kill,” and you go and kill them using whatever means you can find. It would be very, very easy to label Hitman as an action/adventure romp, but more than anything it’s a puzzle game. You assess the situation, look at it both up close and from a distance, and work out precisely what combination of unique dress-ups and ludicrous weapons you need to complete it without being seen or heard.
At time of writing, there are three levels, plus a surprisingly long prologue/half-tutorial. The screenshots in the review will all be of Sapienza, the game’s second full level, which I was playing for the first time as part of this review.
To start with, Hitman is absolutely gorgeous. In all seriousness, every time I boot into the game (the loading times of which are remarkably short) I get freshly blown away by how stunning the environments are. There is so much detail in every little corner, and the worlds feel remarkably unique and alive. The levels also feel very well divided; in Sapienza in particular, I found myself moving from busy city street to quiet mountain path to the sewer system without even noticing the border between the different areas. The level design flows and exploring the world, arguably the core mechanic of the game, feels so much more rewarding because of it.
Speaking of exploring, ten minutes after starting my second attempt at playing the game for review (after the first attempt lead to the game crashing for some, unknown reason) I found the perfect perch from which to assassinate one of my targets. In the planning stage – the menu you get before you begin the level – you can choose which items to take with you, and even arrange for some to be left inconspicuously in pre-set areas. The item I picked for this level? A sniper rifle.
So, I found my point of assassination, and I knew my method. Now to find my weapon of choice. And, more difficultly, get it back to this vantage point without being seen.
I returned to the exploration and began breaking into random buildings. I found a few useful items: a screwdriver, a flip knife, and a bust of an Italian noble’s head which I quickly shoved into my Tardis-sized pockets. I also managed to find my costume for what I hoped would be the rest of the mission:
I was a hippy assassin now. Things couldn’t be going better.
This is where another of Hitman’s believable world features comes into play. When you steal people’s clothes off of their unconscious bodies to disguise yourself to get into certain areas, NPCs in the world will often comment on what you’re wearing or who you’re trying to impersonate. As I walked along a narrow side alley in the idyllic coastal town, I heard frequent remarks of, “What a throwback from the 60s”, or, “Keep to your ideals, man!”
Unfortunately, this interaction with the NPCs does draw on one downside of the game. Everyone is American. And when in Italy, it can be a little jarring to hear all of the gelato sellers talking to you as though they’re from the Midwest.
After much running around and breaking into people’s houses and shops, I finally stumbled upon my safe house. I’m sure there’s a better way of locating the building other than breaking into every door that looks even remotely openable, but alas, I could not find it. My sniper rifle was waiting for me inside, and it was much bigger than I was expecting it to be.
Now, unlike most of the other weapons or items in the game, the sniper rifle could not be squeezed into my uncomfortably large hippy shorts. Instead, it had to be strapped to my back. This added an extra problem into the equation that I hadn’t thought of: people don’t expect an innocent hippy (ignore the spliff mixed in with all the guns and lock picks I had shoved into my pockets) to be running around town with a massive sniper rifle on his back. Therefore, everyone in town was instantly suspicious of me, and rightly so.
And thus we come to Hitman’s stealth aspect. Luckily, it’s straightforward. As someone who’s not the biggest fan of hide-or-die games, I was worried that Hitman would be a bit too stealthy for my liking. But other than keeping out of people’s line of sight, and running really fast if they do see you, it’s actually surprisingly easy to stay out of people’s way. Characters will also remember what you’re wearing, so if you do find yourself in a pickle, a quick change of clothes could earn you many fewer stares from those oh-so suspicious law-enforcement people.
So, after picking myself up an explosive golf-ball (yes, I’m serious), a change of clothes is exactly what I went looking for.
And, apparently, in this shirt, no one gives a damn that I’m carrying a weapon around.
A quick (though still moderately careful) jaunt back to the spot I’d found earlier, throwing a couple of coins to distract guards on the way, and I was just in time for my target to take a walk on her balcony.
Now, Hitman isn’t without its flaws. In particular, it does still smack a little of the “early access feel”. The people can glitch out, especially when trying to move unconscious NPCs around, and the world is full of unnecessary invisible walls, limiting the paths to some areas to pre-planned routes. Even the game’s primary feature, disguise, is a little lacking in that you can’t steal everyone’s clothes. I wanna collect them all, goddammit!
In all seriousness, though, it is very annoying to come across a unique NPC who looks like they should be de-robeable, only to knock them out with a flying hammer and just be able to drag around their fully clothed, limp body until someone finds and shoots you. You know, if I were writing about anything other than video games, I would probably be investigated…
The game also features online DRM (also known as the spawn of Satan), which demands you be connected to the internet or be unable to play the game. I, after around six hours with the game, haven’t experienced any issues with the Hitman servers, but I’m also yet to play the game at the same time as a new level is released, and I imagine constant server failures will be rife around then.
I would say that the slow-release format is limiting, but the developers have added so much content and re-playability to each level that I can’t ever see the need to wait around for a new level to be released. Each level has upwards of twenty challenges to complete, things to find, stuff to unlock, and because of the variety of paths and choices you can make, going back and playing levels still feels fresh after multiple runs. As well as the “story mode” missions – being given two targets and sometimes a side goal – there is also a contracts mode, which allows you to pick almost any NPC in the world to assassinate, and just lets you get on with it.
Yes. Yes, it very much is.
If you like the genre, the puzzley shoot-’em-up, then absolutely buy it now. If you’re a little unsure, I would recommend waiting until more, or all, of the levels are released: to be fair, we have no idea whether the rest of the game is going to match up to the standard already set. And if hiding in cupboards sounds like the worst thing you can do in video games, it’s probably best to look for something else.