Hitman [official site] lands tomorrow. Agent 47's first stop, as he prepares to take in a whole World of Assassination, is Paris. Review code landed yesterday but I'd already played this initial sandbox episode at a preview event and walked away disappointed. Would more time to explore alleviate my concerns or bring them into sharper focus? Here's wot I think.
With tempered expectations – it's not Blood Money and maybe that's OK – I've enjoyed playing with Paris much more. My complaints about the AI behaviour and restrictive level design haven't disintegrated, but I've managed to spend twelve mostly happy hours eliminating targets, creating contracts and making a fool of myself.
Accept the limitations of what's possible and there's plenty of fun to be had. The level is a vast space that contains pockets of tighter intrigue but nothing as beautifully constructed as Blood Money's A New Life or Silent Assassin's Invitation To The Party. While some might see the sheer scale of the place as a positive, I think that the smaller Prologue missions show that the social stealth and puzzles of Hitman often work better when a level works like a compact machine.
I described the level design as 'restrictive' in that previous paragraph and, weirdly, it's the increased scale that serves to restrict my playstyle. I'm less inclined to experiment knowing that I've spent ten or fifteen minutes moving everyone into position so that I can carry out my plans. It's possible to save the game at any time, which allows you to avoid the tedium of repeating preparations, but saving and reloading whenever something goes wrong doesn't feel quite right either.
In short, I've found the feel and intent of the game to be almost precisely what I want from Hitman but I find the design of this specific level to be a poor display case.
And that brings us to the episodic release schedule. Paris contains more than you might expect but less than you'd want in an ideal world. You can create or attempt Contracts created by others, targeting any NPC in the level, and you can play handcrafted assassinations called Escalation Contracts, which gradually become more difficult as you progress.
That last mode is brilliant, teasing out the complexity of the design in a way that the sandbox approach sometimes misses. It's important to realise that killing the 'Story' targets in Paris is the way that your exploration of the level begins, not the way that it ends. The hunt for fresh targets - picked either because they're standing next to an environmental hazard or because they'll help you to fulfill one of the many challenges that allow you to level up and unlock new gear and starting locations in the game's one nod to progression – is the core of the game, and the reason that one level might be enough to keep you occupied until the next one arrives.
However, by holding up the Paris level as a multi-faceted playpen that can – and MUST – support multiple playthroughs and a wide range of targets, IO expose its flaws. More on those flaws in my preview and later. First, I need to talk about and swiftly dismiss the story. I didn't think there'd be much of a story and was hoping that there'd be no links between the episodes at all. I was wrong.
Suddenly, as you kill those first targets, you feel the wire around your throat. There's a bloody over-arching plot and it already looks like a right load of bollocks. The warning signs are there in the prologue, when hitman-handler extraordinaire Diane enacts some kind of subtle coup at the Agency. When the chap in charge sets an unreasonably difficult training challenge, based on one of his own field missions, in the hopes of catching 47 out, Diane guides her charge through the scenario, ensuring he improves on the historical record.
Is it a sly bit of one-upmanship or something more sinister? We're told that the prologue missions contain simulated violence but when I sent one target soaring into the sky on a rocket-powered ejection seat, it all seemed very real. Either that or it's a very expensive simulation with the potential to expose the secret facility in which training takes place. If you're trying to keep a low profile, it's probably best not to propel people miles into the air as if they were fireworks or flares.
The implication, I think, is that 47 and Diane have been a bit naughty, killing the actor who is playing the part of the target to show that they can do an assassination for real while they're supposed to be doing a fake one. I'm not entirely sure though – their actions don't appear to have any consequences and I might be reading too much into a single line of text that seemed to tell me more about what was happening than the entirely predictable cutscenes.
As you might expect from a Hitman game, every time the backstory and lore take centre stage, they're a distraction from the skillful and/or comedic improvisation that is the foundation of the series' greatest moments.
This new Hitman does contain such moments. Plenty of them. The scale of the Paris level, and the necessity of repeating actions and enduring scripted conversations and movements, means that the gaps between those moments are longer than I'd like them to be. The moments when the clockwork of the level grinds into place, shuffling NPCs from one place to another, are more obvious than in a tightly constructed space like Blood Money's A New Life.
All of that said, when your mastery of the level has increased to the point where you can choose a starting position that puts you in the thick of the action, disguised, it's entirely possible to create more intimate contracts. Start as a waiter, mopping a corner of the kitchen, and attempt to poison that one snooty guest you've taken against. Or perhaps roleplay as a member of the fashion show crew, a stylist who wants nothing more than to use his scissors to take a little more off the top than is strictly necessary.
As in Absolution, once you've carried out a hit, you can upload the results and let other players take a shot/swing/stab at the scenario you created. People will undoubtedly craft magnificent contracts that require careful manipulation of the AI and the level structure to perfect the art of murder, while others will create the kind of compact and playful scenarios described above. Paris can support both but I still don't think it's a particularly good showcase for the episodic model – it's densely packed but the actual design of the building and grounds is too neatly divided into high and low security layers. Boxes within boxes, all focused on one large building. I'd prefer a city block, with various businesses and institutions, each with their own character and set of rules.
That's the crux of my complaints – the level design. For all of its size and the density of the crowds that inhabit it, the Paris Fashion Show is a single entity. There are various groups and individuals to interfere with and exploit, but they're often tied to Opportunities that must be triggered rather than let loose within the level to muddy the waters.
You can switch off the clues and pointers that direct you through the sequence of events necessary to trigger each stage of an Opportunity if you like. I'd hoped the Opportunities would involve Rube Goldberg chain reactions but their design - reliant on either overhearing the same drawn-out conversations over and over again until the next stage triggers, or simply following pointers on the map – is more like an RPG quest. Go here, listen in, go over there, talk to that NPC, pick up this object, kill the target.
The Opportunities aren't integral to the working of the level but their construction calls back to my concern about the design of the area itself. There are plenty of things to do and plenty of people to interact with, but the reactions to each action you perform rarely satisfy when they overlap. Yes, you'll be able to trigger an alarm that causes a guard to leave his post and have him find an explosive when he goes to the source of the problem, and then you'll be able to set the explosive off as he investigates, but too often the AI falls back into 'business as usual' mode even when the bodies are piling up on every side.
I've forgiven earlier Hitman games for similar behaviour in the past. The combination of the unconvincing behaviours and this sprawling, densely packed level, which requires a great deal of occasionally tedious setup to spring a particular plan, makes me less forgiving. On top of that, I've experienced serious technical issues.
I'm running the game on medium settings, having seen my computer struggle on anything higher, but still experience severe slowdown whenever large groups of NPCs react to a gunshot or a body falling in their midst. It's a brief slowdown but the framerate drops to 0 before recovering. I'm also seeing frequent crashes to desktop that don't always seem to be triggered by anything in particular. Sometimes I'm about to kill a target, sometimes I'm just stealing someone's clothes in a toilet. Alec is checking to see if he experiences anything similar - PCs being what they are, this might be an isolated problem.
Edit: Alec hasn't experienced any crashes, playing on a Radeon 7970. There are new Hitman-specific AMD drivers.
With all of that said, technical issues aside, it's a relief to be playing a Hitman game that is built around the idea of social stealth. The execution may be flawed but it's aiming in the right direction and the disguise system, which now tips you off when a particularly canny NPC is able to look past your clothes and see the face of a stranger, is as good as it's ever been.
If the next episode has a stronger architectural design, it might well erase many of my criticisms. I'd thought the piecemeal model might work to IO's advantage, allowing them to refine and reflect between releases, but we won't know for sure until we can see the whole picture.
Hitman is out tomorrow on Windows.