If you’re a Hitman fan, the road to the Hitman of 2016 has certainly proved uneven. The journey of the balding barcoded assassin from 2012’s Hitman Absolution to this latest game has been one fraught with changes in development, shifts in focus and the nagging feeling that a bunch of lunatics somewhere at Square-Enix HQ might have decided that Hitman: Absolution is the path that the long-running series should be following. Thankfully, while this latest Hitman does crib a little from its predecessor, it certainly adheres far closer to the DNA of earlier instalments, providing a timely reminder of just what a full-fat Hitman title looks like to both franchise newcomers and veterans who have been awaiting such a return to form.
Though the Hitman beta itself only takes place across the game’s tutorial levels, thus rendering it impossible to get any sort of definitive vibe as to the broader robustness of its reinvention, there is still enough on display to reassure us as to the grand potential that lay in store. There’s definitely a bit of the old Blood Money about this latest Hitman; the return of the coins to be used as distractionary measures and the sheer difficulty of coming out of a firefight in one piece will provide a rude awakening to those who are new to the franchise and have only known the cover shooter excesses of Hitman: Absolution.
Indeed, quite unlike Hitman: Absolution, this newest Hitman title doesn’t allow you to play fast and loose with the game’s third-person shooting mechanics. Any attempt to try and turn the game into some sort of pseudo Max Payne affair will result in Agent 47 being put down extremely quickly and with the sort of prejudice that will make you question ever pulling a trigger again. Hitman 2016 then, makes the player respect each and every round that is dispensed from their chamber and so what you actually end up with is an Agent 47 that feels more like Agent 47 and not like The Punisher, which is how it should have been all along really, with nary a gun-toting, latex-covered commando nun in sight.
At this point, the only real influence that Hitman: Absolution seems to exert over the design of this year’s game is in the reemployment of the extra-sensory instinct system. Here, the instinct system allows Agent 47 to see through walls in order to pick out key targets and such but it feels far less on the nose than it did before; the interface pared back to seemingly only show items and persons of interest rather than the entire itinerary of their patrol route as in the previous game.
Of course, a Hitman game wouldn’t be a Hitman game without a little bit of fancy dress and so disguises make their return in slightly more developed, though satisfying form. Disguises can be found within reasonable places in the environment, such as in bunks, closets and such, but more obviously they may also be found on the individuals wearing them who may then be incapacitated and robbed of their threads. As ever, you can opt to take folks out non-lethally or lethally, though some lethal executions (such as drowning someone in their own vomit) do occasionally prove too good to pass up, deftly appeasing the karma devil sat on your left (or right) shoulder.
The disguise system also brings with it some welcome new sophistications. While disguised, certain folks who are wearing the same clothes as you will be able to see through your ruse if they look directly at Agent 47, especially if they’ve not long been acquainted with the chap that you’ve stolen the clothes from. Luckily, you can avoid such prying eyes by making yourself busy, as you feign the vocation whatever it is your disguised persona is supposed to do in order to divert suspicion. It’s a well-conceived mechanic that makes wearing a disguise feel much more like Agent 47 is properly imitating a role, rather than just walking about like a glorified keycard.
Elsewhere, a tiered system for these disguises is in place too. So for example, while a dock worker outfit might get you onto the lower decks of a socialite-stuffed yacht, you’ll need something a little more upmarket, such as a crew member’s uniform for instance, in order to proceed further and get closer to your mark.
While the Hitman games have certainly differed from one another over the years, the one aspect of the franchise that they’ve consistently embraced is the variety of ways in which you can kill your target. From good ol’ fashioned garrotting and silent headshots, through to poisoning their food and drink and dropping excessively heavy objects on their noggins, there is absolutely no shortage of ways to get the job done in this newest Hitman.
Feeding into the great freedom that Agent 47 has to do away with his targets are the emergent opportunities that are stuffed into each stage. You see, eavesdropping on some NPC folks can yield precious nuggets of information that can lead to a particularly satisfying kill. In one example, our chrome-domed assassin has to murder a target within the confines of a heavily guarded hangar and by listening to the engineers stood outside, we discover that the plane within the structure is overdue a safety protocol test.
After masquerading as an engineer (using a cup of poisoned coffee to obtain the necessary threads) and then enabling the ejector seat, the not-so-poor mark can then be escorted into the seat of craft while Agent 47 reads out the safety protocol that culminates with the target being blown into the sky via an ejector seat while everybody around stares upward, brilliantly agape. If this is the sort of ingenuity that the new Hitman promises, then Hitman fans everywhere will be in for a sizable treat indeed.
The downside to the new opportunities system though, is that it does all feel a little contrived at this point, as if everything in the world has been fashioned with enabling Agent 47’s mission to be accomplished in various ways, rather than being a living and breathing place first of all. Still, such criticism holds little heft ultimately given the deliberately restrictive training scenarios of the beta, but in the finished product it will be interesting to see if the developer has been able to parlay those opportunities into something that feels truly organic within a believable world, rather than making each level into an Agent 47 themed playground.
It’s also refreshing to discover that Hitman hasn’t lost the series dark slapstick humor. Picking up a wrench (or similarly weighted item) and then throwing it right at the face of someone who you want to rob of their clothes triggers a hilariously OTT animation as the object bounces off their skull and they fall to the ground stiff as a board. Elsewhere, folks whom you have disrobed but haven’t sent to their maker, wake up and start running about the place in an underwear-only panicked state, all the while their counterparts hilariously ridicule them.
Visually, the Hitman beta is certainly impressive whilst also being quietly spectacular. The deft lighting, shadowing, larger environments and more detailed character models all showcase the sort of demonstrable improvement over its last-gen predecessor that one might expect some four years on. Nevertheless, despite not looking earth-shatteringly gorgeous, this latest Hitman still has visual flair to spare, so fans need not worry about any sort of downgrade in this regard.
As always, visual fidelity was never the problem with IO’s Hitman titles, but as of late, the developer had a real problem seemingly remembering just what made the franchise so unique to begin with. If this morsel is any indication of the calibre we can expect going forward then fans of the series need worry not as IO Interactive appear to be unerringly on target here – this is the best Hitman has looked in years.