Hitman season is upon us; with the newest installment coming out soon, it should come to no surprise that we start seeing games pop up that look suspiciously close in concept to this famous series. Alekhine's Gun does anything but hide that inspiration, most noticeable by your immediate access to the most iconic weapon of all, the garrote. But is this potential homage worth your time?
From storytelling to gameplay, Alekhine's Gun struck me as a mixed bag at first. You play as Agent Semyon Alekhine, a KGB Colonel who eventually finds himself to be a spy for the CIA. The story takes place before and during the John F. Kennedy era. In fact, all of the later story ties into his assassination. The story is being told with narrated stills that move around a little to imply movement or emotion. But first, you are pitted in a fortress occupied by Nazi Germans. In this level, you are taught your basic set of skills. Starting with using your garrote for silent takedowns, to using the outfit of a recently killed enemy to disguise yourself.
It is at this aspect already that you can see the lack of polish this game repeatedly suffers from. If you wear a disguise that grants you access to the area you are in, NPCs will still gaze at you, spouting the same old "Hunh?" remark while rubbing their chin. During this process, a suspicion meter fills very slowly. In fact, that very animation slows them down so much, you can simply walk behind them and garrote them as though you were a murderous ghost.
The AI in general isn't very impressive to begin with. If a body is spotted, everyone will simply gather around with drawn weapon and cause your suspicion meter to fill much faster if you are near. And they seem to do so indefinitely. Furthermore, enter a restricted area and any guards who spot you will get right up in your face with raised handpalm, saying with the same dull voice-over that you don't belong there. This stood out for me once I realized that it largely was the same voice actor for all the lines in the same language throughout all these varying levels, with subtitles almost never matching what was being said.
When talking about the level design, I find myself conflicted. To me, Hitman: Absolution failed to bring back the gigantic levels that you had to navigate through, opting instead for a multi-part system where a level was broken up in parts with each part having objectives in them. Alekhine's Gun at first glance honors the old Hitman level design, with vast levels that range from Nazi-occupied streets with a giant secret science lab underneath, to a large jungle that you need to penetrate to reach your target. In between these levels are some smaller ones that still look like impressive set pieces.
But that illusion shatters when you realize that, while the style is reminiscent of Hitman: Blood Money, the attention to detail is only superficial. The levels visually look rich, but lack any interaction beyond the few that are needed to stealthily complete the level. This is worsened by the fact that there usually is only one or two ways to complete a level "silently." Most of the time the levels are a linear challenge to climb your way up from disguise to disguise until you have the clearance to enter a room where you need to perform a task or assassination. Poison sometimes varies up the methods of assassination, but in most cases your target will have a routine that puts him somewhere solitary for a moment. I miss that freedom, that option to choose my approach or improvise with newly discovered opportunities. In most cases, I feel like I am treading the path the developer explicitly set out for me.
Not to mention I've encountered a few embarrassing bugs, such as one where the elevator doors decide to not play along and stay on the floor I left from, allowing me to see the floor despawn objects as I depart from it. In fact, bugs plague the game ferociously, with one in particular involving changing the game's resolution. If I change the resolution from its 1280x720 default or change into windowed mode, I am met with an immediate crash. And crashes aren't uncommon either, as I've had countless random crashes while doing simple mundane things, such as picking up a body. I could never replicate these crashes, which makes narrowing down a cause even harder.
What about the gameplay itself? Well, for starters, before every mission (save for one) you can equip up to six items. Commonly it's a good idea to have your garrote among them, leaving the rest up to your preference. There are a few weapons unlocked, but some require unlocking using a point currency. You earn this currency by completing missions, with skillful play earning you more at the end. This brings a specific problem to the surface. You start out with a few pistols, but none of them are silenced. Meaning that are you forced to resort to a garrote-centered playstyle until you've saved up enough points for a silencer for the one pistol you have that can actually use a silencer. This feels very limiting, with the level design being no help to avert that feeling either.
In-game you walk at a slow pace, with running serving to quickly make yourself seem suspicious. The pace you walk seems exceptionally sluggish though, and takes getting used to combined with the clumsiest of interaction methods I've ever seen. Most interaction happens on one of three buttons, which means that many actions get piled together if there happen to be bodies nearby. This is fixed by holding the button and selecting what interaction you want, but doesn't seem to be the case when you have an option to take cover. Infuriatingly enough, every wall or small obstruction seems to count as cover, and the same button also handles opening or closing a door. Meaning that you are required to stand in almost the perfect position if you want to close a door for committing a murder away from peeping eyes, lest you instead awkwardly start hugging the wall and become mocked by your target.
And murder you shall, because you are apparently the best spy the KGB has, meaning you have access to a familiar sounding skill called Instinct. Unlike in Hitman: Absolution, Instinct in this game serves to give visible NPCs a glow, show their direction on a big circle on your screen, and a minimap showing only nearby enemies and their vision cones. Activating it while in disguise does nothing to help you slip by enemies, unlike the aforementioned game, but does help you with aiming for a headshot. All in all, the feature feels somewhat under powered, but still useful.
One gameplay aspect I must give credit for is the lock picking. From time to time you are required to lockpick a door or crack a safe. The lockpick interface tasks you with matching several shapes with their reverse (see image below for clarification) while cracking the safe has you twisting the knobs with vision on the mechanic inside, requiring you to line up the dials perfectly. Later on you'll also have to deal with a basic version of memory where you need to match up pairs of the same icon in an interface that kind of looks like you are messing with print plates.
Unlike the rest of the game, these mechanics looks very polished and interesting, and I'm only the sadder for it that it's criminally underrepresented in the game. And if you get caught? Well, all you get is a pat on your shoulder and a wag of the finger by some guard. Silly Semyon.
The gunplay remains a sore point. The aiming reticule obscures a lot of what I need to see to properly aim, in particular for lining up headshots on long distance, and the gunfire doesn't feel nor sound impressive. Most of the time I was better off with trying to line up the perfect shot while staying hidden, and then fleeing before anyone spotted me.
Speaking of sound, the voice acting itself came across as very amateurish at best. The recording seemed off, with subtle echoes signifying that there must not have been a dedicated recording booth for this. But the voice actors themselves didn't come across as very convincing, even though I could tell that these people tried their hardest to sound the part they were playing in.
In the end, I feel that Alekhine's Gun tried to be an homage to a very successful series, but fails at grasping the essence of what makes a good Hitman game. The Hitman series is successful for a reason. I started playing it since Hitman: Contracts, often replaying them. I always felt that the Hitman games were always met with polish and meticulous level building that was always ready to surprise. Hitman is a difficult series to outdo or even properly grasp in a different game with a different setting and era.
Maximum Games has published games before, both for PC and the Xbox 360. This seems to be their first project that they've actually made in-house. The story, the voice actors, the gameplay—all of it shows that the good intent was there, but skill was painfully lacking. Alekhine's Gun does not feel like a game that wants to cash in on the hype surrounding the new Hitman game, but shows the painful lack of experience that Maximum Games has for a game like this. Although it releasing exactly one hour after Hitman, at time of writing, definitely won't work in its favor.
Alekhine's Gun is a game of good intent that in the end falls short on making its gameplay truly enjoyable. The state it's currently in is too poor to overlook, and with Hitman releasing almost right on top of it means that it might not stand a chance. That's sad, because I believe if Maximum Games took the time (years, if need be) to gain more experience, chisel out a more stable engine and improve the voice acting while fleshing out the levels, Alekhine's Gun could have been something beautiful. But as it stands, I simply find it not to be.
Alekhine's Gun was reviewed on PC using a Steam key provided by the developer.