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Video Games Review: Hitman (Episode One) (PS4, 2016)

With its sixth and latest entry, Hitman will be making one particular part of the series’ fanbase very happy indeed. Hitman: Blood Money, released back in 2006, has become a perrenial fan favourite, its sandbox of inventive and improvisational gameplay proving an unbeatable formula. Developer Io Interactive returned to a more cinematic style in 2012’s Hitman Absolution but left cold those keen for more of what Blood Money offered. It seems Io have heard your plaintive cries and the result is at once beautiful and strange.

Hitman is, to me at least, a clear response to criticism of Absolution’s more scripted gameplay. I heard someone describe its first episode, Paris, as a Rube Goldberg machine that always ends in murder and the more I think about it, the more I think that’s gruesomely accurate. The Paris level is like a vast set of dominoes, strands running in multiple directions, intersecting at key points, all waiting for Agent 47 to come along and give just one of them a flick.

There is an elephant in the room with this installment, however. Hitman is releasing episodically, taking what would have been considered separate levels in previous games and turning them into monthly(? I believe? I hope?) content drops. Io Interactive’s reasons for doing this are, at this stage, unclear and have drawn a great amount of speculation among players. The body of this review won’t be dwelling too much on the why of the situation, rather I’ll stick to examining Hitman‘s first episode and what the game looks like at present, and we’ll have a quick chat about episodic structure at the end.

This first episode, set in Paris during a fashion show swamped with industry elites, is set prior to the very first game in the series. Agent 47 joins the International Contract Agency and is inducted with a series of clever tutorial missions that were featured in the closed beta we played last month. He then meets Diana, the woman who is to become his long-time handler and only friend.

Smoothing out the learning curve has always been a stumbling block for Io Interactive. With a game as involved and with as many different, intersecting systems and mechanics as this, it’s vitally important that the player be made quickly aware of 47’s abilities and limits. It’s also important they understand that the way a given NPC responds to your actions can be as important as committing the act itself. There is so much to think about at any given moment and it’s to Io Interactive’s credit that they give you the time and the tools you need to get your head around it.

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There is a pretty substantial amount of hand-holding throughout, however — the game is very excited to point out opportunities as you approach them that it sometimes gets ahead of itself and starts pointing to things you may not have encountered just yet. For this reason, I found myself going through the game’s options and turning many of the HUD elements off.  You can actually pick and choose which HUD elements and alerts you’d prefer to keep which I thought was a nice touch.

The Paris mission drops you into a spacious French mansion and its surrounding gardens, filled to bursting with guests, media, security and staff. You have a pair of targets and your sole objective is to ensure their demise. How you accomplish this task is the delicious, creamy centre of the game. The mansion is a complicated warren, and each room offers its own unique challenges: the ground floor is claustrophobic, teeming with people, deafening music and many restricted sections. As you ascend the building, the foot traffic thins out, security increases and you’ll be requiring a solid disguise to proceed. As a single level, Paris feels far larger in terms of scope and scale than anything Blood Money was able to produce last-gen. I’ve so far come across at least nine different ways I could murder just one of my two targets, including assuming the identity of a model and strutting onto the fashion show catwalk.

Hitman feels like Io Interactive finally being able to communicate ideas they had for Blood Money but weren’t quite able to realise on the hardware of the time. 47 moves through the mansions crowded hallways like a shark among much smaller fish, his immaculate suit allowing him to blend in with the revelers but his purposeful, menacing stride causing them to look him up and down. It’s in these moments that Hitman accomplishes what its predecessors could not — it all feels quite natural and true-to-life.

Io Interactive have cleverly leveraged this new sense of flow with an extra wrinkle for players to overcome. There are multiple objects strewn about the level — gear, machines, et al — that can be sabotaged in order to create a distraction or even a kill opportunity. The complication there is that you have to obtain a relevant tool that will let you tamper with a given system. In a particularly clumsy example, one of my first attempts saw me follow an extension cable outside. Finding it connected to a powerboard left lying in the middle of a puddle, I found my way to the wall socket, switched off the board and made my way back, producing a screwdriver I’d pocketed earlier. I jimmied the board, causing it to spark and electrify the puddle when the power was restored. I lured my prey into the puddle and made my escape while the crowd were trying to figure out what the hell had happened. There are plenty of other tools to pick up as well, including hammers and crowbars, things that were available in previous games but only as bludgeoning tools or for a one-time specific purpose. Here, I was made to pay attention to my surroundings, and find unconventional ways to interact with the environment to create kill opportunities.

Another new feature is a surprisingly in-depth set of challenges that would have you trawling through every level from top to bottom and completing just about every kill variation the game has. It feels very on-brand for the series, but it also felt a bit like poorly disguised sleight-of-hand. The purpose of the challenges is to extend the playtime a bit and make you feel like what you have in Hitman is, perhaps, a more complete product than it really is at this point. Completing the level and seeing its closing cutscene play out feels rather odd when you remember that you won’t be able to play the next level for at least a month. I can see the appeal of moving to an episodic structure for a game like this. The developer would have extra time to work on level design and create more interesting opportunities. The trouble is that, right now, Hitman simply doesn’t feel episodic. It just feels a bit like I’m playing a very accomplished demo — far along, but incomplete.

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There are a handful of elements that would appear to verify the game’s “not-quite-ready-for-primetime” state. The menus are all surprisingly slow to load, making simple things like saving and loading a trial of up to 40 seconds (42 being my current record — I started timing them). Everyone in the game speaks perfect, crystalline English despite this episode being set in France. There’s also a Russian general involved at one point whose wandering accent makes Dick van Dyke’s attempt at cockney in Mary Poppins seem authentic.

The final, difficult hurdle that Hitman has to leap over, at least right now, is that it isn’t much in terms of value. It’s possible to pick up the tutorial and Paris missions together for US$15 right now, and you can upgrade to the complete season for US$50 if you’re so inclined or just stick with episode-to-episode purchases. It makes the whole affair feel like a Triple-A title that has been hacked into pieces for the sake of wringing extra money out of the punters and, whether that’s what publisher Square Enix was going for or not, the whole situation is beyond weird.

Fortunately, for fans and developer alike, what we have to go on right now is fairly solid. It’s a significant wink that, a decade later, Io are working on a game that could deliver on the promises Blood Money made. With extra modes like Contracts (in which players craft custom assignments for others to complete) and Elusive targets that Io have spoken about before indicating possible event content, Hitman could eventually become the game that fans have waiting for. For now, there’s enough in the first episode to whet the appetite but it’s up to Io Interactive to deliver and keep players coming back.

Review Score: 8.0 out of 10
Highlights: Incredibly complex, satisfying mission design
Lowlights: Forced episodic structure is a risky gamble. Will it pay off?
Developer: Io Interactive
Publisher: Square Enix
Released: March 4, 2016
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows PC

Reviewed on PlayStation 4