The original murder simulator is going to be back soon. The latest installment of Hitman, the sixth major entry into this unique and quirky series, is scheduled to arrive next month, and Darkstation recently had an opportunity to play through the beta for the game. The beta offered a tutorial level and then a freeform assassination level on an airbase to give everyone a feel for what the game will have to offer.
The Hitman series has been an interesting one. You play as Agent, 47, a huge bald guy with a bar code on the back of his head who can improvise assassinations and wear disguises. Agent 47 can bludgeon somebody to death with a golf club, smother him with a pillow, or gun him down with an AK-47 in the middle of a huge crowd. He can also pose as a security guard, or pass himself off as a Japanese sushi chef (and nobody seems to notice that the chef is a big white bald man with a bar code on his neck). Io Interactive, the series developer, has always put a lot of effort into each game, taking their time to make each one different while addressing the flaws of the previous entries. The results have been mixed, as every game has been distinctly different from its previous entry. Hitman has flirted with greatness, but it seems like every game in the series has been just broken enough to spoil part of the experience. Despite their flaws though, a few of the games in the series have attracted a hardcore, dedicated following. The most polarizing of the series was 2012’s Hitman: Absolution, which radically revamped the formula, ruining many of the features that have made it so special in the eyes of many of its fans. The question with this new game is – will it win those fans back?
If you were disappointed by Hitman: Absolution, then you will be pleased to hear that the new Hitman at least looks like a return to form with regards to level design. Gone are the checkpoints and the small, linear levels separated by loading zones. The larger, freeform, single zone levels have returned, and so has the ability to save your game whenever you want (the beta did not give any indication, however, that these saves would be limited on higher difficulty levels). If the beta levels are any indication, Hitman will also offer you more clever and silent assassination options than any of the previous games. The first level, alone, has at least a half dozen ways to approach it that don’t involve killing any innocents or security guards -- options like melee weapons that you can pick up and booby traps that you can set.
Some of the design decisions that went into this game should be well received by the fans, but there are just as many decisions that I foresee as being divisive. One of the features that hardcore fans did not like in Hitman: Absolution was the addition of an “Instinct Mode”, which allowed you to see enemies through walls and briefly avoid detection. This feature is making regular appearances in stealth-oriented titles nowadays like the Batman Arkham series and The Last of Us. If you did not like this feature in the last game, then you should probably make your peace with it now, because it is still in the new game and, if anything, has been given more power. In Hitman: Absolution, you had an Instinct Meter that would get used up and the game was relatively stingy with refilling it. In this game, you can’t avoid detection with Instinct, but you can use it an unlimited amount. You can essentially walk through the entire level looking through the walls to see where your target and the guards are. I don’t mind this change very much though because, like Hitman: Absolution, the disguises are limited in their usefulness. If you are wearing a uniform, anyone else wearing that uniform will quickly bust you if you get into their cone of vision. By far my biggest complaint about Absolution was the neutering of the disguises, and I am disappointed that this game is sticking with the same approach. With that said, I am glad that the game makes up for it with a stronger Instinct mode. Stealth games are at their worst when you insta-fail a mission because you round a corner and walk right into a guard. This series is at its best when you can complete levels without firing a shot. This game looks like it will make it easier to stay concealed than Hitman: Absolution, and that is a good thing.
Another feature of this game that is bound to draw some controversy is the amount of guidance and hints that the game gives you in finding alternate ways to assassinate your target. An in-game achievement system tells you straight up what many of them are (e.g. using rat poison on somebody’s drink). In addition, you can stumble upon other ways of killing your target by eaves dropping on a conversation, which is a new feature for this series. In the air base level, for example, you can listen in on two mechanics talking about the safety features of a fighter jet. The game then prompts you to track this assassination method as an optional “objective”. If you accept, then the game adds an objective marker to the screen, guiding you through the crucial steps in the process. I enjoyed the end result of that level, but I also felt a little cheated out of the experience by not having cleverly figured it out for myself. To its credit though, it appears that the game will have difficulty options for minimizing hints or turning them off completely.
As a PS4 launch adopter, I have been eagerly awaiting a game that will finally signal the arrival of the 8th generation of game consoles. If the beta is any indication, Hitman will not be that watershed title. Technologically speaking, it doesn’t look much better than Absolution. I thought that Absolution was an incredible looking game on the PC, but I didn’t feel any sense of awe or beauty from this one -- at least not yet. To be fair, I played the beta on the PS4, so it is not a strict apples-to-apples comparison, but I was holding out hope for something to knock my socks off. Hitman is not an ugly game by far and there is still some time to polish it up before release, but you probably shouldn’t expect it to be a next gen killer app.
It is hard to judge this beta, because it is a beta, but then again, the game is scheduled to come out next month. Unless this build is an old one, it is hard to see a lot of major revamps to the game before it comes out. There are a few other issues that the beta presents that I am hoping will be addressed. The biggest issue is how little reaction the NPCs have to the major events that you cause in the game. If they see you kill somebody, they might run to a guard to get some help, but for some other events they will just stand around like nothing happened. For instance, I played the tutorial level twice, killing the target once with a silent shot to the head, and one other time by staging an accident. Both times, the NPCs barely reacted, and then they completely forgot about it and went about their business. Shouldn’t there be a mass panic if a VIP gets shot in the head on the deck of a yacht? Another time, I pulled a fire alarm and rather than causing a mass stampede, I don’t think that anyone even noticed. Another issue that I had with the game is that unlike the previous entries, everyone was speaking in perfect English instead of their native languages. Hopefully, it is just placeholder voice acting. I have always loved the feel of authenticity that the Hitman games get from hearing Russian in Russia or heaving Spanish in South America.
This preview may come across as overly negative, but I did enjoy my time with the beta. When this series gets it right, it gives you a feeling that no other series can offer – that feeling of delight when you quietly escape a level, leaving behind exactly one corpse. The beta gave me the Hitman feeling stronger Absolution. Each time I completed my objective, I felt like letting out an evil chuckle as I rubbed my palms together. The return to the less linear, more open levels and the huge variety of options for taking out the targets in the game look like they will be a big strength. The devil, naturally, will be in the details. Will every level have that kind of variety? Will it seem contrived? Will the hints be too overbearing and obvious? Will the new save system be too generous? How many levels will there be and how much value will you get for your $60? If the March 11 release date is to be believed, these questions will be answered soon.