Hitman review impressions: Freedom of choice

Paris, je te tue

Anything for the job. That’s Agent 47’s philosophy. Need to tend bar until the target heads back to his office? Agent 47 makes a hell of a cocktail. Need to roll up your sleeves and perform emergency maintenance on a fighter jet? Agent 47 is good with a wrench. Need to strut down a catwalk during a Parisian fashion show? Agent 47’s been practicing his haughty swagger in the mirror.

A consummate professional, that man. A master assassin in platform heels.

The Day of the Jackal

Hitman’s first episode releases tomorrow, the start of an eventual year’s-worth of planned Agent 47 missions. Get ready to shave your head, don your suit, quickly change out of your suit into a less conspicuous disguise, and strangle a bunch of lowlifes. By the end of this content-dribble we’ll have six different cities to explore and presumably something like twelve story missions (six were planned for the original three-city game and I’m assuming the expansion-that’s-no-longer-an-expansion will pack a similar amount).

Hitman (2016)

This first piece is pretty small though—especially if you played the recent beta. It consists of a short opening tutorial level set on a yacht and another slightly-longer tutorial level set on a military base (both of which were in the beta) and then a larger sandbox set in Paris.

That’s it! And if you’re only looking to play through each level one time, then this first episode won’t take you very long at all. There’s maybe two hours of game so far—and that includes replaying the opening yacht tutorial, since the game explicitly asks you to do so.

But that’s the key: Hitman is meant to be replayed, and it’s what makes this episodic release schedule work.

Like everyone’s-favorite Hitman: Blood Money, this 2016 edition of Hitman focuses on experimentation. The Paris level is one massive sandbox packed with different weapons, environmental hazards, escape routes, and disguises—the tools of Agent 47’s trade.

Hitman (2016)

Now, is it Blood Money 2? No. There are compromises, because this is a game released in 2016, not 2006. Each level seems to have one really obvious ”Go Here And Do This And You’ll Win” method of assassination, like an olive branch to people who are either a) new to the series or b) just don’t want to think too hard. In Paris, for instance, the entire front of the building is festooned with a billboard of a fashion model who looks suspiciously like Agent 47. It’s immediately obvious this is the “correct” way to finish the level, insofar as it’s the most obvious.

But Hitman also caters to the perfectionist and to the Blood Money devotee. For one, you can turn off pretty much all of the help the game offers. Don’t want the game to point out important conversations? Tired of the game putting in quest markers to guide you through unique hits? It doesn’t just bury the option to disable in a menu. It literally pops up a box during the second tutorial level saying “YOU CAN TURN THESE HELPFUL POINTERS OFF.” Which I recommend.

Do so, and you’re forced to explore. Forced to find the dominoes yourself, find the weird weapons hidden in the nooks and the lengthy chains of events that lead to Hitman’s most stunning kills. In Paris I managed to miss an entire major storyline my first time through because I’d already committed to taking out the target a specific way—not to mention the myriad ways I could’ve executed the deed at the end.

Hitman (2016)

If you want an idea of Hitman’s depth (and don’t mind spoilers), dig into the menus. There’s a Challenges section that awards you points for completing certain in-game actions, and you can read through them for ideas. There are a lot, from “Dress up like a guard” to “Poison this person” to the usual master-level “Silent Assassin” challenge—and on average you can only nab two or three per run.

And that’s even before we get into the Contracts Mode. Here, you’re tasked with taking out a random civilian/guard/whatever in a specific manner, and the community can gin up its own seemingly-impossible contracts.

It’s a staggering amount of murder to fulfill, albeit on an extremely limited pool of maps for the time being. Again, these are gestures for the core Hitman fans—the ones that are still playing Blood Money a decade after its release. The ones that most need to be won over in a post- Absolution world.

Do I think the game will win back everyone? No. There are some people for whom no Hitman will ever be as good as Blood Money, and I understand. It was a product of a certain era of game development, and even at the time was weird and somewhat bold.

On the other hand, I think Hitman is about as close as we’ll get in 2016, and I’m enjoying it (so far) a lot more than Absolution.

Hitman (2016)

There are still some things that irk me. Certain actions are only triggered when the player proceeds, which is an annoyance. I sat for two minutes outside the opening yacht thinking I could snipe the target from afar, only to realize (I think) that he doesn’t move until you first walk onto the ship. On the Paris level it’s much harder to tell what’s player-triggered and what’s pre-scripted though, because there are so many moving parts. I suspect we’ll have a better idea once thousands of players run the levels repeatedly and start to categorize the NPC behavior.

AI can also be hit-or-miss at times. The Absolution disguise system has been brought back, meaning you’re only discovered by people who’d have cause to be suspicious. Thus, if you’re wearing a Security uniform on the military base you’ll have to avoid other security officers but not soldiers or mechanics.

The system works great, but there are a few cases that are a bit weird. Like, nobody stopped me from going into the attic in Paris, but once I was up there everyone who saw me was immediately suspicious. Or I poisoned a lady’s drink, the guards rushed in to find her dead on the floor and me casually standing nearby, and then they just let me walk right out the door.

Maybe they just didn’t want to confront a man in a dress.

Hitman (2016)

One last item, which I’m mad about on principle: A lot of Hitman is online-only, including some things that seem...dubious. The aforementioned Challenges, for instance. If you’re offline, you can’t see them. Why? I don’t know. I assume it’s either “Stop people from cheating” or “The devs plan to add more Challenges later,” but either way I found myself a bit frustrated when Comcast decided to put its feet up and take a smoke break last night. You can still play the game, you’re just missing most of the bells and whistles. Something to keep in mind if you have an unstable connection.

Bottom line

I was skeptical of Hitman going episodic because it seemed like a last-ditch panic button. And maybe it’ll still turn out that way! We’ve got a long way to go before Agent 47 is finished with his killing spree, and maybe every level post-Paris will turn out to be a disaster.

Let’s hope not, though. IO’s built the bones of a fantastic Hitman game—certainly the best since Blood Money (though that bar is practically nonexistent) and possibly one of the best in the whole series. Skip it for now if you’re just looking to one-and-done each level, but if you were hoping for a sandbox experience? You’ve got one.

Note: We don’t score segments of episodic releases. Look for a “real” scored review...whenever Hitman wraps up. Your guess is as good as mine.

This story, "Hitman review impressions: Freedom of choice" was originally published by PCWorld.

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