Any time a new Hitman [official site] game rolls around, I need to know the answer to one question: can I royally screw basically everything up and get away with it? Not for me the Silent Assassin, but more a series of pratfalls, murders performed inadvertently in plain sight, panicked costume changes and awkward scuffles, inevitably culminating in a desperate sprint to the exit with a chain of armed and extremely angry guards pursuing me. So I am delighted to discover that the new Hitman game supports this kind of rolling disaster.
I even managed to complete a mission which began with me choking a man unconscious in front of roughly 200 people who I somehow hadn't realised were watching me.
I thought I was doing so well throttling him out of sight of the two security guards nearby. I didn't think to look up as well as behind me, which meant I missed the dozens of horrified party-goers on a yacht who witnessed every second of my awful deed. As the chorus of screaming began, I ducked out of sight behind a crate, changed into the downed man's clothes, strolled off into the belly of the yacht and never looked back. STEALTH.
Hitman is a game which, to play it 'well', requires patience and observation. I am not particularly skilled at either of those things, and yet am endlessly drawn towards stealth games, which makes for some damned ugly scenes. Particularly with Hitman: Blood Money, I felt this play style, if one can call it that without laughing, was supported. Sure, all the tools and opportunities required to perform precision-clean runs were there, but so too were the tools and opportunities to wrestle madcap victory from the jaws of clumsy defeat.
The question in a good Hitman game, for me, is not "how do I get in and out without being spotted?" but rather "what do I do when am inevitably spotted, usually crouched over an unconscious man in his underwear?" If the answer is "start shooting and don't stop until either I or everyone else in the level is dead", then for my (blood) money, it's not A Proper Hitman game.
This was one of the main reason I didn't feel good about the previous Hitman game, Absolution. It was just that little bit too prescriptive, too little flex between silent perfection and bloodbath. Truer, perhaps, to what we might call the reality of Agent 47, but I missed the messy farce of somersaulting through window after window and change outfits five times in as many minutes in order to try and beat the mission without resorting to gunplay. I suppose, when a game like this becomes something of a comedy, I feel my ineptitude becomes a valid way to play: cocking up is worthwhile when the results are a desperate, ridiculous scrabble to get away with it.
I'm delighted to discover that the new Hitman supports this. I've been going wrong at every turn, as is my wont, and been able to carry on with a mission for quite some time following each boo-boo. Granted, sometimes it inexorably results in being shot to death, but happily Hitman isn't anything like as supportive of gunning every enemy down as the last one was, thereby forcing me to go have another go at figuring out a lateral-thinking solution rather than just bludgeoning my way through and never again returning to that mission.
It's not quite a return to series highpoint Blood Money, and nor should it be. For one thing, guards seem significantly sharper, and attempts to lure just one away from a pack in order to steal his shirt and hat rarely work, thereby forcing me to work harder for my new outfit. For another, the vast crowds of Absolution, by far and away its strongest feature, make a return, and create some delectable choke points on the map. They can also be an asset when things go wrong; if I manage to pull off a quickie costume change before the next guard finds me, I can slip away through the horde, too obscured by the mass of bodies to be singled out.
It's all about the costumes, for me. Shedding outfits that have caused suspicion (or worse) like Chris Christie shedding ideologies, inevitably stumbling into someone who knows full well I'm not One Of Them around every corner then having to thump him to sleep, deposit his body crudely in a semi-darkened corner because I can't find any man-size chests nearby, then sloping off and do it all over again. Hitman for me is about that happening time and again: chains of disasters, each one feeling as though it must surely, surely spell doom, but somehow coming out the end of it.
It's a mixture of wits (ironically) and exploitation that sees me through: learning the game's systems but also learning the loopholes in them, those little gaps in its logic which cause enemy NPCs to miss or forget certain wrongdoings. Hitman is much tighter than earlier games in that regard, but familiar tricks - e.g. getting just out of sight of someone who was about to draw their gun, successfully hiding in a cupboard that anyone with an eighth of a brain would know full well I was inside - can still pay off. It wouldn't be Hitman without them, as far as I'm concerned.
Hitman feels so much closer to Blood Money, although the humour is more muted. It's got the huge levels and the seemingly vast spread of possible ways to take down a target, both clinical and clumsy, and, for now at least, I'm having plenty of those 'ah!' moments as I spy something I hadn't tried after the fact (i.e. after I've just frantically clubbed my target to death with a wrench then tried to hide his body in the toilet).
Reasons to go back, in other words, which I didn't experience with Absolution: there I just ground through the levels, hoping that the next one would feel more edifying. Some of them were, but enough to feel that I was in a genuine sandbox. At least, not one with avenues to explore when all hell broke loose.
Whether Hitman can keep on giving me that, whether it can support its own episodic model enough to make me want to repeatedly return to the same crimes and explore new permutations, I don't yet know. There will come a point where the same costumes and the same closets lose their lustre, I'm sure.
For now, I'm just happy that I get to poke things and see what happens without having to immediately reach for my gun if it turns out to have been the wrong thing at the wrong time. I don't care about ratings and unlocks: I just want to keep going when I get it wrong. 47 wouldn't approve, perhaps, but though I'm him, he's not me.
Hitman's first episode is out tomorrow for Windows. Our review is here.