Reviewed on: Playstation 4. Copy supplied by publisher.
As a fan of the Hitman series, one who’s played every entry so far, including the first, PC-only title, I’ve seen IO Interactive’s flagship series evolve over the years in ways both good, and bad. What started out life as an unapologetically challenging and unique game quickly established a formula of stealthy killing and methodical problem solving – a formula that soon became synonymous with the series. As the iterations passed by, however, this changed, as IO struggled to keep the Hitman franchise pure, and we saw it drift into the typical triple-A production line, designed by committee and determined to tick as many boxes as possible. Whilst never bad, the games were watered down, and the original challenge gave way to a hunger for mainstream attention.
A game that once gave you an open level that left you to your own devices, forcing you to use your own initiative and inventiveness eventually succumbed to the hand-holding, tutorial-laden design-ethic, as well as demonstrating a need to shove in more action, and Hollywood style production. As I said, it was always enjoyable, and the Hitman games have always been decent, but for fans of the hardcore challenge, more recent release have been lacking. Well, that may be about to change, if you want it to, that is.
In what’s become a current trend of confusing sequel names, the latest game in the series is simply called Hitman. There’s no number or subtitle, and this isn’t a reboot. The story, however, does take in Agent 47’s past, showing us his time training at the ICA, and how he met Diana, his long-time handler. It quickly mentions elements from previous games, all the way back to the first, so if you’re new to the series, prepare to be a little confused.
Right away, and before you even get to the game’s main menu, you’re taken through a few training missions. These serve to introduce the game’s open formula, and highlight the freedom you have when going about your deadly business. It’s here where I was pleasantly surprised, as the game quickly started to feel much more like the earlier instalment to me, with more of an emphasis of freedom, problem solving, and experimentation. The first mission hand-holds you, sure, but the next repeats the first, basically challenging you to do what you like, and it’s great.
Even in this relatively simple mission there are a host of opportunities, and many different elements, from choosing how you infiltrate the mission area and how you locate and observe the target, to how you choose to take them out and escape. You can go for the simple bullet to the brain, or you can try a more inventive approach, such as using poison, or disguising yourself as a trusted ally. The training highlights the game’s main elements of disguise, observation, and planning, all of which are the major focus here. Rest assured, although you can simply go in guns blazing, if you do you’re missing the point, and to be honest, Hitman isn’t the game for you. Stick to your favourite FPS instead.
What this game wants is thought, and a careful approach to each hit. It rewards players who explore and pay attention to details. Simply eavesdropping on characters can present new avenues of action, ones you’d otherwise totally miss. This is a big strength of the game which makes it feel much more like an old-school title, but only if you take certain steps.
You see, one feature of the game I categorically dislike is the new ‘opportunity’ system. Contrary to what I’ve said already, this system is about as hand-holding as you can get, to the point where it removes any and all challenge. Using this, the game highlights and waypoints specific areas of interest, effectively guiding you along a linear path to certain methods of assassination. So, if you listen to a conversation and find out about a specific unique style of hit, you can simply follow the waypoints to do so. No thought or exploration needed.
Now, this may be great for new players, or those that simply find the game too difficult without such aids, but for Hitman veterans, it’s awful, and removes the game’s main highlight – the open challenge.
Luckily, this can be toned down, or turned off entirely, and this is something I’d highly recommend anyone who wants a challenge does right away. Sure, having no guidance does cause issues, as the game removes any and all help, so you can stumble upon a computer, or other useful item, activate it, and then wonder why you did, and what effect it had. This can be because you’ve found an element that’s actually half way through a possible tactic, and you’ve missed earlier steps, leading to confusion, but I still find this a better way to play the game, and if anything, it encourages repeated attempts to carry out hits in different ways.
The use of disguises is much improved here, however, even more so than earlier instalments of the series. Now, you’re pretty much hidden when wearing a disguise, and can wander freely. People who can detect your disguise, such as managers or high ranking foes are denoted with a dot above their head. It sounds like it makes things too easy, but it actually works, and leaves you free to problem solve instead of worrying about being discovered all the time. Still, if you prefer, this can be turned off too. In fact, should you so wish, you an pretty much turn off all aids, making the game as hardcore as you like, and that’s great.
There are some other modern concessions I actually like, such as the various optional goals in each mission you can achieve. As well as fuelling the completionist in you, and increasing your rating, these diversions often help reveal possible tactics, in a good way and not overly forceful, like the aforementioned waypoint system. They encourage experimentation and exploration, and do so well.
The pre-mission setup is also decent, and allows you to pick your gear and even place smuggled items within a mission area. More of these are unlocked as you play, and it adds to replayability even more, as you’ll developer ideas for new strategies after a mission’s completion, and find new smuggled items may help open up new routes and new tactics.
In game it’s Hitman, pure and simple. Third person exploration and killing, with plenty of stealth and trial and error. It looks good, runs smoothly, and is solid. As I said, I found the actual game to be a lot more like the older games in the series, and this is a very good thing in my opinion. The game can be very tricky, especially during some of the more intricate assassination methods, but it’s always fun. What isn’t fun, however, is the online implementation, and bare bones delivery.
I’ve not focused on the whole episodic nature of the game so far as I wanted to focus on the actual gameplay itself, which is great, but there’s no denying Square’s hiccups here. For one, Hitman simply isn’t a game that suits episodic content. Unlike such titles as Telltale’s The Walking Dead, or other titles like Life Is Strange, which are totally story dependant, and feel much more like an actual TV show, Hitman is a proper game. Getting to the end of a mission and then having to wait weeks for another just hurts the game and the whole experience. You simply wish to carry on with the next mission, and instead you’re left wanting.
And let’s face it, as interesting as the series is, Hitman is hardly up to Telltale standards of story, and there’s not enough here to keep you hooked in terms of narrative. Carving up the game is a crazy decision if you ask me, and I would personally prefer the game to be delayed until it’s fully ready, then launched as a single title instead. If you feel the same way, I’d strongly suggest you wait for the inevitable complete edition of the game, as this won’t satiate you.
This lack of content is a huge problem in my opinion. Even as an episodic title there’s a distinct lack of actual game here. All in all there are three training missions (two of which are the same), and an actual hit. Yes, the main hit is large in scale, very open, and contains a lot of possible approaches and optional goals, but it’s not much to go on, with barely any substantial story to get you invested. The additional escalation challenges are decent, but use the same maps. You can also create and share new missions, but these also use the same mission areas. So, your enjoyment of the package will heavily depend on your desire to replay the same missions over and over with slightly different goals. If this doesn’t appeal, neither will the game. I should note, the time-limited Elusive Target missions, where you have one chance to make a hit weren’t available during my time with the game.
Lack of content aside, the server stability is another major concern. Just like Square’s other recent title, Just Cause 3, the game is plagued with server issues. I’ve lost count of how many times I was unceremoniously dumped back to the game’s main menu due to a server connection issue, forced to repeat a section from the last save point. It’s annoying, and totally unreasonable. Hitman isn’t a game that needs to be online at all times, and forcing it to be when you can’t keep your servers operational and reliable is woeful. The load times are also bad, with even menus taking a stupidly long time to load. This includes the in-game menu where you access your map. In fact, it takes so long to load up, I chose to forgo the use of the game’s main map and did without it. I just couldn’t be bothered waiting for them menu to load up.
Despite the issues, which are admittedly major, I did enjoy this début episode of Hitman, but I just can’t shake the feeling of disappointment. Technical and design issues aside, the core game is genuine, quality Hitman, but there’s just not enough here, and the episodic nature, for me, ruins the experience.
If it was released as a full game with plenty of content (which I hope is the case when all parts are available), and without the overbearing online nature, this could be a very good game. As it stands, it’s a flimsy release that depends on future content that could vary wildly in quality, all the time shackled with always online connotations. For this reason, I can’t recommend it unless you’re a big fans of the series, and even then, you should probably wait for it to be complete.
Pros: Returns to the openness of prior games. Rewards creative thinking and exploration. Unlocks encourage re-playability.
Cons: Episodic structure leaves you wanting. Always online connection unnecessary and unstable. New waypoint features are too hand-holding.