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.
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.