Nothing suspicious here, just a Vampire Magician with a crowbar
Hitman is the funniest game I’ve played in a while. IO Interfactive’s subtitle-free reboot of its long-running assassination franchise is, mostly, side-stepping cinematics full of S&M nuns and returning to the realm of slapstick. For an M-rated game about killing people, it has less teeth than Tom and Jerry. Its violence is cartoonish, however realistically rendered, like elaborate, imagination-augmented action figure fights.
This isn’t a new turn. In the last release, Absolution, you could still don a bright yellow chicken costume and creep around. But the new episodic release format (you can pay $60 outright at launch, but only start with the prologue/tutorial and the large Paris level) means story — at least so far — is as ignorable as ever. Which is fine. Hitman is a better toy box anyways.
Hitman (PC, Xbox One, PS4 [reviewed])
Developer: IO Interactive
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: March 11, 2016
MSRP: $14.99 (Intro Pack) + $9.99 (new locations) or $60 (Full Experience)
There’s still set-dressing for those invested in the Hitman lore. The tutorial takes place 20 years in the past as Agent 47 joins the murder police. In this prologue there are two, small training areas made up to recreate missions. A yacht sits on blue tarps in a warehouse representing water, you can see the plywood set backing on most walls. It’s a cute touch. The main event, though, is a fashion show in a Paris palace with several hundred computer-controlled characters in attendance and two separate targets to take out however you see fit.
This is a game about skulking about, choking someone out while no one is looking, taking their clothes as disguise, and dumping their body in a dumpster. A guard with an assault rifle can finish you in seconds if sufficiently suspicious. To offer direction, Hitman now offers “Opportunities,” typically as discoverable conversations you can eavesdrop on and pick up clues on how to proceed from there. Purists can turn these off. Same, too, for the super vision mode that highlights targets and objects in the environment. While the vision helps make out things in the highly detailed environments, the way point hand-holding of the starting point suggestions expose the seams in the scripting a bit too blatantly (versus letting you take even more time to figure it all out and feel good about cheesing it accordingly).
If you don’t like to make your own fun, if you just want to “beat” (or, get to the end of) a game, a single mission pack is probably not for you. On the other hand, if you’re the kind of person that wonders, “can I turn off that generator, strip the puddle-soaked electrical wires, then turn the power back on to make a death trap,” this might be for you. It’s that or leader board chasing, score attack style of play. Leveling up to 20 in “Mastery” will unlock a few new items to outfit yourself with as well as possible starting locations (pre-disguised as a waiter down in the kitchen, for instance), though it’s not enough to make me want to grind out the entire checklist of additional challenges.
What I am down with, though, is the experimentation. The physical act of playing a lot of games can be rote, second-nature like backing out of your driveway every morning. So many of them have similar controls and play the same. Hitman, on the other hand, is loaded with contextual buttons and idiosyncrasies. Also chandeliers to drop on peoples’ heads.
It is so tempting when that “Push” prompt comes up as you scurry past someone on a second floor overhang. One moment I am a focused professional killer, the next I’m a cat batting things off a table. Agent 47’s steely blue eyes and furrowed brow only add to the deadpan of it all. Casually tossing a brick at someone’s head. The slow, goofy-looking, skull-splitting fire axe animation. Walking around in the “Vampire Magician” costume replete with red velvet-lined cape and top hat. Yes it’s a murder simulator, but it has more in common with the board game Mouse Trap than your average shooter. Or Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day as you slowly learn NPC patterns and how to trigger them in order to set up the most creative kills you can come up with.
Here is where I ran into Hitman‘s biggest surprise issue: the load times on PS4 are terrible. I guess it takes a while to load a few hundred patterned AI characters in Paris to avoid Assassin’s Creed: Unity-like technical flubs, but in a game about experimentation, the load times are killer. When you ask yourself, “I wonder what happens if I pick up that axe?” and the result is getting shot down immediately, being punished with long load times (long enough to scroll through a good clutch of tweets) blows. It ruins the pacing, punishes and discourages the wacky trial and error that is Hitman‘s high point.
Even the menus are laggy as heck and, pre-launch as it is, I’ve had myself booted from the servers and lost progress in some of the additional online offerings. Contracts mode lets anyone play one of the three existing levels, commit kills in certain ways, and challenge other players to repeat (kill these two models, dressed as a Vampire Magician, with a stolen battle axe, for example). There are also IO-designed Escalation missions, which also reuse the same three maps with new targets and objectives, then add more constraints after completion. Right now the only one up is on one of the smaller maps and was pretty easy to off all five “escalations” in under 10 minutes each, but the huge Paris map will probably offer more challenging scenarios.
There are also Elusive Targets, which only show up for a few real-life hours and only offer you one chance to make the kill successfully — like a real assassination contract, basically. It’s probably the neatest idea in the bunch, but there are understandably none up ahead of launch.
Stealing a staff uniform from the locker room, dropping your gun into a wastebasket so you can let a guard frisk you before he lets you into the room of a Sheik, then knocking the Sheik out, stealing his clothes, and infiltrating a high-society sale of state secrets so you can tamper with an outdoor heater and let a woman blow herself up when she goes to grab a smoke. That’s Hitman‘s highs. But IO’s unique pricing model means an investment in future levels that might not add enough new ideas or scenarios and you’re largely relying on user content to pad out time between new areas. The PS4 menu performance and load times are a major, major drag, too, even if the game plays perfectly once you’re in. Still, the deadpan slapstick of emerging from a washroom crate like a trapdoor spider to shoot a Russian colonel in the back of the head is enough of a good time.
And what if I pushed one hit target off of the third floor balcony onto the second target standing in the first floor garden…
[This review is based on the Prologue and Paris packs provided at launch by the publisher.]