Hitman Aims For Freedom But Misses The Mark

After Hitman: Absolution, Agent 47 is in need of another subtitle. Redemption, perhaps, or Contrition. His upcoming adventure has already made headlines thanks to its now-confirmed episodic release schedule but it also seemed to be a game made with the awareness that the previous hadn’t given fans of the series quite what they wanted. I was eager to get my hands on it after seeing a promising demo at Gamescom last year and now that I have, I’m in two minds.

Hitman [official site] contains just about everything I want from the series but all of the ingredients have become a little muddled.

Before digging into what did and didn’t work, I should mention that I don’t believe the version of the game’s opening Paris episode that I played will necessarily represent the version due to be released on March 11th altogether accurately. One of the advantages of the episodic release schedule, and live assassination updates, should be that the late January build will differ from the March 11th build, which in turn might differ from the August 2016 build. Nothing is irredeemable.

But the late January build, which I spent a few hours with at a preview event in London, felt like a game built around conflicting ideas. It is, on one level, precisely what I wanted from IO Interactive after the linearity of Hitman: Absolution. In this new game, the sandbox settings (and I played just the first, set at a Paris fashion show) allow you to go where you want and to do whatever you want when you get there. Within reason. You can’t go to the toilet, or even flush a toilet, but you can stash an unconscious model inside a cubicle.

As long as an action relates to murder or infiltration, you can probably do it. And if not, you should at least try. This Hitman, like the best of its ancestors, encourages experimentation. Reckon you might get away with dragging a policeman into a shed before his patrolling partner returns? Give it a shot – at worst, you’ll be one short loadscreen away from a restart or reloaded save. Reckon pushing that particular button might cause the lighting rig to crash down on the catwalk? Even if it doesn’t, SOMETHING is bound to happen.

One of the brilliant things about Hitman is the absurd, farcical sense of humour that sits alongside its tales of criminal bastards and political killings. You’re positively encouraged to muck about, whether that involves lobbing an axe into a waiter’s back just to watch panic ripple through the crowd around him, or searching high and low for a diuretic to slip into somebody’s cocktail so that you can take them out, silent and unseen, behind the closed door of a private loo.

All of this is present and correct in Hitman. Indeed, the game has several smart ways to encourage the worst possible behaviour in its players. First of all, there’s the Contracts mode, Absolution’s one brilliantly inventive addition. It’s a sort of real-time mission-builder, tracking the disguises you wear, the weapons you use and the targets you kill, and then creating a challenge based on all the specifics of that kill. That challenge is then stored online where others can attempt to complete it, perhaps even outdoing your original attempt by cutting down on the time taken or the collateral damage.

That makes almost every person in the game a possible target. If you want to roleplay, pretend that you’ve been sent to kill a certain chef who has been taking payments to poison the great and the good whenever they are within reach of his pepper mill. You could walk straight into the kitchen and shoot him between the eyes, but maybe you’d prefer a more poetic form of justice: a carving knife in the back, a cleaver in the skull. Or maybe there’s a way to have him eat a poisoned morsel.

The beauty of Contracts, in principle at least, is that it allows for moments of disbelief. “How the fuck did somebody manage to kill that one guy without being spotted and without using a disguise? And where did they even FIND a scalpel?” As soon as you know all of those things are possible, Hitman becomes a reverse-game of Cluedo – you will be Colonel Mustard in the Billiard Room with the Candlestick, however much effort it takes.

There are other layers running through the new sandbox areas. The most basic are the actual story-based targets, of which there are two in Paris. You can find and kill them in no time at all but thanks to the high security areas they tend to spend their time in, you’re unlikely to get to an exit in one piece if you don’t perform your hits with a little subtlety.

To that end, there are scripted events called Opportunities scattered through the level. Some of these don’t appear to relate directly to the targets while others present obvious solutions to the tight security measures in place.

Those security measures are both to protect the fashion show that is the public face of the event you’re trying to infiltrate, and to hide any evidence of the secretive auctions happening on the upper levels. Turns out a fashion show packed with VIPs is the perfect cover for a meeting of dictators and arms dealers.

The best Opportunity I discovered – as did at least 90% of the people present at the preview event – involved disguising myself as the world’s premier male model. You see a huge banner with a picture of his face front and centre as soon as the level loads, and wouldn’t you know he’s a fellow bald man? Some NPCs will comment on 47’s similarity to the moody techno-goth star as he passes and that should clue you in to the possibility of shenanigans.

The model is hanging around at the rear gardens, near a helipad. He’s in the middle of a solo photoshoot and I disrupted that simply by standing in front of the lady with the camera, then crouching and spinning around on my haunches. She left in a hurry, unsure that all the tech and talent in the world would allow her to capture such a beautiful spectacle, and my doppelganger wandered away, looking sad.

He was looking out at the Seine when I choked him into unconsciousness. I stole his clothes and his mobile phone and then tried to hide him in a bush but accidentally dumped him into the river instead. Murder most foul. There was no time for regret though – I was just glad I’d taken the clothes before I dropped him into the water.

From there, you can visit most areas without causing a stir and can even have a stylist apply some makeup to your chrome dome. You can even head out onto the runway and make 47 strut and pose.

All of that is very enjoyable but it’s also fairly tightly scripted. The main players will always be in certain locations at certain times, and time tends to tick over when you undertake an opportunity and move the unseen clock forward rather than advancing of its own volition. As soon as I realised that the Opportunities seemed less like ways to nudge the simulations that drive the game and more like ways to circumvent those simulations, they began to seem like miniature missions within the level rather than methods to exploit an existing scenario. Triggering certain interactions, many of which lead to drawn-out monologues or movements from one side of the map to another, shuffles the pieces into place so that you can exploit new routes and possibilities.

During the play session, I repeated a couple of Opportunities several times, trying to perfect them. It’s not all that difficult to confuse the game by approaching these scripted events in ways that work against that scripting. On one playthrough, I dumped the body of one of the primary targets onto the catwalk during the fashion show. The corpse fell from above but the people below didn’t react.

Worse, the other target then received a phone call – which only occurred when I was within earshot rather than as the death was reported – telling him that his partner had been killed. He refused to believe the report but said he’d wrap up the show and clear the building just to be safe. And out he walked, onto the catwalk, addressing the crowd, walking right across the body of the person he refused to believe was dead.

I don’t want a perfect Hitman game – and by ‘perfect’, I mean a game with perfectly functioning AI and other systemic devices. To provide the freedom that is essential to the game’s structure, a Hitman game will almost certainly have weird, rough edges where systems overlap uncomfortably. My concern regarding the Paris sandbox is that it doesn’t have an intricate enough design to accommodate those rough edges.

The design of the level is essentially a smaller box within a larger box. The show and the auction are taking place within a building that is itself on an isolated island in the river. The complexity mostly comes from the security permissions of each area, and the careful placement of suspicious NPCs, who will see through disguises if they’re familiar with the people who should be wearing them.

All of the systems that drive the detection behaviours work well, as do the stealth and cover systems. In fact, my complaints about the actual flow of the game all arise from the overlap of those systems and the triggers seeded through Opportunities. Too often, the scripting seemed to override what passes for normal human behaviour in Hitman’s world, and events triggered by an Opportunity would take priority over reactions to other oddities in the world.

There are brilliant emergent behaviours to observe, the most enjoyable being when one type of NPC reacts differently to an action you’ve already performed elsewhere. Different guards have different responses to certain events, which can lead to brilliant disasters as you assume you know what will happen when you knock over the first domino but end up caught in an unexpected chain reaction.

The fact that the (very complex) basics work so well is the reason it seems such a shame that some of the scripted reactions overshadow and overturn the core of the simulation. Finding the Opportunities felt satisfying during the first encounter, but after that I felt like I was playing in a sandbox that was already littered with somebody else’s half-finished castles.

It’s entirely possible that the next month of development will iron out some of these issues. The build we played wasn’t ready for primetime, with fairly frequent crashes (I and a few others played on PC; I can’t comment on the console build) and a few objects that didn’t act as expected. Even if it’s functioning as expected, I’m not convinced the Paris level is the best way to welcome a new Hitman game into the world.

The scale is there but in building something so large and busy, IO might have lost the clockwork intricacy of their greatest designs. I was glad to be away from the corridors and cutscenes of Absolution, but I almost appreciated the self-contained missions of the prologue more than the vast and vague expanse of that Paris mission.

It’s entirely possible that I simply need more time to learn the ropes, of course, and that IO themselves will perfect these dense sandboxes by the second or third episodic release. I enjoyed what I played and I look forward to playing more but it’ll take further experiments with the map and its inhabitants to convince me that 47 is back on track.

Hitman’s first episode is out March 11th.

26 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Cooper says:

    It’s like they realised everything that made the earlier games great and added them to the game, but didn;t realise that the reason we didn’t like the last game wasn’t just because what made the old games great was missing, but because the script heavy approach is actually completely at odds with it…

    That disconnect between the scripted parts and the systematic parts made me cringe.

    Hitman was at its best when you weren’t the centre of the system but rather the outsider coming in and picking it apart, exploting it, turning the system against itself.

    By making key parts of the system reliant upon Agent 47 not only do they remove that feeling, they clearly present near impossible to surmount design issues.

    Even just simple things like that phone call happenning whether you were there or not…

    • JamesPatton says:

      Sounds about right. Hitman has always had scripted sequences – “If I set off the alarm the target will go to the panic room; if I approach the target with the chef outfit he will ask for some food” and so on – but they were small puzzle pieces that worked within (rather than against) the larger system. It sounds like they wanted to add more colour to the world but in so doing ended up working against it.

  2. Ducce says:

    I really don’t envy I/O Interactives job – There’s something about Hitman reviews and opinions, I can’t really put my finger on it, and neither can the reviewer or the opinion-er, usually.

    I understand that there is critique, I really do. Be it mechanics, level sizes, ambience or AI. But it often seems it comes down to either asking for a direct copy of Blood Money or plain out asking I/O for magic.
    Maybe it is that special mood that only the music from Jesper Kyd could produce?

    Anyway…

  3. Bronxsta says:

    The comments regarding scripted events seems a bit weird IMO. Hitman levels have always revolved around scripted patterns that you can take advantage of and infiltrate, which made the games more stealth-puzzlers.

    The opera house where the actors would practice, then take a break, go to their rooms, etc. The hillbilly wedding where the ceremony would happen later. The casino where the meeting between your targets would happen later. And so on

    The scripted behaviors is what it made it possible to time your tactics and set up accidents.

    • Sin Vega says:

      They have, but those scripted bits weren’t waiting around for you. Some of them would repeat on a long loop, sure, but they went ahead regardless of what you were doing, and on some levels by waiting around too long you could end up with all the targets hiding in a room somewhere, with no choice but to get in there and shoot them.

      Plus, if you screwed around with the script too much, it’d crash down and everyone would abandon it, usually raising the alarm.

      • JamesPatton says:

        Yes. The scripts added small vignettes and opportunities to the games, but they were already part of the world by virtue of playing regardless of whether you were there or not. Part of the thrill was realising, after six playthroughs, “Wait, what if I *impersonated that opera singer that I’ve been working around for the last hour?*”

        I think that’s key to the Hitman formula: the whole point is that you observe the situation and insinuate yourself into it. If the scripts start to work against a basic rule like “panic if you see a corpse” or if they only trigger when you’re there, the illusion of cleverness is lost because you’re putting 47 on rails. Rails of your choosing, maybe, but still.

        I don’t envy IO either, and I appreciate the difficulty of updating and meeting the standards of a game that’s, what, 10 years old? (Especially since the earlier Hitman games – the first game and Hitman 2 especially – were brilliant in theory and a biiiiit ropey in practice, but everyone looks on them with rose-tinted glasses.) But that’s kind of the point: these are games unlike any other, and we really *really* want them to get it right because *nobody else is doing this*.

        • Sin Vega says:

          Yeah, I think IO have their work cut out, and obviously I can’t tell, but it actually sounds quite promising to me. The sort of experimental structure they’re going for with the ongoing episodes is new and therefore suspicious and probably evil, but it could work out really well. I’m oddly reluctant to even admit it, but Hitman seems like an ideal series to try it with.

          • Emeraude says:

            I personally loathe the model, but if it is one of those few games I could see benefit from it.

          • Sinjun says:

            I don’t get what’s evil about it. They clearly wanted to finish the entire thing last year and probably never wanted to do an episodic release, but now they’re in a position where they need to get something out the door to generate some money so they’re releasing it piecemeal as they complete each level.

        • LionsPhil says:

          Yeah, I don’t get why they made these “a thing” with capital-O Opportunities. Taking the place of the male model is pure Contracts/Blood Money. There are plenty of missions where you can impersonate waiters, and sure enough script triggers will wait for you to be in place to hand you food/drinks to carry around, but they are just saving you some wait-time for a schedule the NPC you are replacing followed.

  4. Vandelay says:

    This doesn’t sound a complete write off yet. I don’t have problem with scripting happening and that scripting can be as intricate as it wants, as long as the game will allow and react to me going off script. It sounds as if it is the “react” bit that isn’t there yet. The scripting sounds like it can be ditched halfway through, but that is when things fall apart.

    That sounds fixable to me and I’m sure they will be working on those aspects. I can’t really believe they will be shipping a Hitman game where dead bodies are ignored!

    Time frame seems a bit tight, but it might well be that the build shown was a few months old.

  5. Premium User Badge

    alison says:

    It’s really interesting to me that some of you guys like the Hitman sandbox. I bought Blood Money during the Steam Christmas sale to see what all the fuss was about; it was my first Hitman game. I absolutely loved that for perhaps the first time ever in gaming, there was a realistic world with tons of people in it and not just 10 guys in a warehouse somewhere. But i hated the trial-and-error gameplay where i would get killed over and over and have to start again to try figure out how to solve it. I ended up playing it with a walkthrough, which was still fun, but it felt like i was undermining the concept somehow.

    I think, basically, i disliked the fact that it was a Rogue-like and not an adventure game. I am not a fan of corridor shooters or “cinematic” FPS games like Half-Life or Bioshock, but i guess i was hoping for something more along the lines of Deus Ex, where you can solve a problem in multiple ways, but you aren’t forced to walk through 10 minutes of garbage time when your plan fails. It sounds like i might be the exact target customer of the much-maligned Absolution. Obviously it isn’t very “real life” to not die when you accidentally pull out a syringe due to the shitty controls, but for me i prefer a game that is a little more forgiving of failure.

    Hitman was the first game that made me question the value of realism in games. I love Counter-Strike’s one hit and you’re dead, but there you only have a couple minutes of garbage time where you learn by watching other people play, not a freakin whole level of going through the motions. In Hitman it was awesome that the NPCs reacted immediately and violently to my failure, but i wasn’t so keen on having to restart because of it. For this reason Far Cry 2 is still my king of stealth games, because you can save anywhere, and if the bad guys see you, you are almost certainly fucked, but at least you can reload and try something different.

    • manny says:

      I think an ingame guide/mission info, would be of great benefit. That way you can study the blueprints, memorize faces, and plan out strategies ahead of time before the mission. Having a plan a, b, c and d.

      Cause I too hate the trial and error of the gameplay. Plus it’s more realistic, no hitman goes into a mission without alot of intelligence. Jason Bourne excepted.

      • silentdan says:

        It’s been too long since you’ve seen Groundhog Day. Watch it again, then savescum your way through a Blood Money level. You’ll get it. :)

  6. C0llic says:

    Hmm uncertain on this at the moment, but I still have some hope. Things like dropping a body not being reacted to are very problematic.

    The Hitman games have always been heavily scripted, but they were routines that happened around you, and you had to time your intervention and/or exploitation of them. If they are as tied to 47 as the article suggests, it’s just not going to feel right.

  7. racccoon says:

    I hope it is back on track, as I so love hitman games. Well, most of them..:)

  8. caff says:

    I’m sceptical. The episodic approach smacks of uncertainty/publisher interference. I’m really not happy about that and will most likely wait to see the final verdict once it’s considered a complete game.

    • Sinjun says:

      The episodic complaints are so overblown. The reality is pretty simple, they just didn’t have time to finish the game and had to get something out the door to generate some revenue. It’s basically a non-issue, and if people really need to experience the “full” story beginning to end in one sitting they can wait till the end of the year.

    • Premium User Badge

      DelrueOfDetroit says:

      This is a game series that can definitely benefit from an episodic release. Giving you a limited number of missions means you can spend a lot more time on a single setting without feeling obligated to move onto the next.

      Similar to how Ground Zeroes worked. It only takes a couple hours to complete the game but by replaying the mission or the side ops you get a much better appreciation for the world than you would had you just moved onto the next level. This of course all depends on the quality of the game so we will have to wait and see.

  9. Simbosan says:

    Episodic means one of two things.

    1. You play the episodes as they come out. Congratulations, you have bought a game with leading screens that take months, if they ever load at all. EP3 anyone? There is no legal commitment to finishing so companies have carte blanche to never complete the game

    2. Never buy till all episodes are out. This is my choice. Developer gets lousy sales figures and maybe can’t afford to finish.

    Make finished game,sell finished game, simplest.

    • freedomispopular says:

      It’s not like you’re paying full price for an incomplete game. You’re paying partial price for a partial game, and when it’s just missions you’re buying, it’s not like it makes a difference whether it’s “complete” or not. Hitman’s better off not trying to shoehorn a story in there anyway.

  10. neofit says:

    You keep repeating that the game “encourages experimentation”. How exactly does this work? Have they finally implemented a proper save system, with save-anywhere, reload where saved and multiple save slots? IIRC the franchise was all about not being able to save during a mission, which is the farthest one can go from “encouraging experimentation”. Games like the Thiefs, Dishonored, Styx, etc, do encourage experimentation. The no-save tardfests only discourage that, with all the time they make you waste between “experiments”. They got away with their save “system” for so long, I don’t suppose they have changed anything in this installment, did they?

  11. Sinjun says:

    Sounds basically perfect to me. All the promotion for this has been hitting the exact right note for me, and I’m a die-hard fan. Bought the very first game when it first released and have done the same for every subsequent game, one of my favorite gaming franchises of all time next to Deus Ex, Half-Life, Silent Hill, and Doom.

  12. Premium User Badge

    DelrueOfDetroit says:

    “After Hitman: Absolution, Agent 47 is in need of another subtitle. Redemption, perhaps, or Contrition.”

    Hitman: Hitmanner
    Hitman: Havana Nights (After being sent to Cuba to take out a salsa dancing instructor, Agent 47 unable to pull the trigger learns his true calling is dance and learns how to love along the way)
    Hitman: Prepare To Hit Men
    Hitman: Going His Own Way (Agent 47 swears off female targets but spends most of his time on Reddit complaining about them)

  13. poliovaccine says:

    It’s just that you shouldn’t be able to dump a body in front of people and not have them notice. At least play it up like they think it’s part of the show or something if you feel the need to preserve your scripted sequence so badly.

    But while other Hitman games had those set pieces, you could totally cock em up, and seeing the entire scripted sequence was often your reward for pursuing the tidiest possible kill, tho it could be naturally interrupted at any point.

    People should notice dead bodies in any game, flat out. But especially in Hitman, goddamn.