Hitman has finally hit stores! Or has it? As you may have learned by now, the newest installment in the Hitman series is currently episodic. Early adopters were rewarded with access to an early Beta a while ago, and owners of the Intro Pack or the Full Experience now have access to the actual first level, namely Paris. Some might argue that this is a glorified Early Access title, but at the end of the day a review serves to answer one question. Is it worth your time?
Let's begin with the tutorial levels, which served as the aforementioned Beta before release. This part of the story takes place 20 years ago. Diana meets longtime Hitman protagonist Agent 47, and together they go through three training missions to test the capabilities of our infamous bald-headed assassin, with Diana as his 'handler'. Quickly enough, you are introduced first to the disguise mechanics, and then taught to blend in, avoiding particular NPCs that are capable of seeing through your disguise. As you go through the two tests (of which the first is repeated as a Freeform training) you will learn that flexibility in disguises is key to having access to every area you need to be in.
Tests passed, and you are cleared for field duty. A cutscene appears, summarizing 47's rich history as a professional assassin throughout the many years and games with impressive detail. Then, it's on to Paris. Two targets, Viktor Novikov and Dalia Margolis. A fashion mogul and a retired supermodel that secretly double as the ringleaders of IAGO, a spy ring that sells valuable secrets for global elites. In other words, a couple that play for the big bucks.
It all looks very smooth. The Planning section even has a section for starting location, with the only one unlocked by default being the main entrance. So I enter, looking in my spiffiest tuxedo and showing my invitation. I even see a camera crew talking about the goings on, which I've found fun to interrupt by just standing in between them. I turn to make my way inside and... Connection to the servers lost.
About time I started talking about the game mechanically and its issues, right? Well, the always-online DRM is most certainly a factor right now. In fact, if the servers have even the slightest hiccup and you disconnect, you are sent to the main menu after a notice has informed you of said server trouble. You won't have access to any saves made online and reportedly a big part of planning is also said to be removed, including the starting location, if you are in offline mode. That's a good way to quickly get a black mark on what was looking like a very impressive game.
I won't digress further on it beyond this paragraph, but I do want to make perfectly clear that such a thing is not acceptable in this shape or form. I've played single player games before that had online-DRM, but most of them had the courtesy to not yank you out of the game or actively hamper a significant portion of the game for this service. As far as I am concerned, the only online-DRM that is acceptable is the one that is effectively invisible and you never notice at the worst of moments. Not everyone has a stable connection, especially people in regions where internet service is abysmal. Customers like these will actively be disadvantaged in their enjoyment of this product. Not something I imagine Square Enix would like highlighted.
With that out of the way, let's move on towards the mechanics of the game. Once you arrive at the entrance, you are proverbially 'set loose'. The only guides you have are your objectives/targets on the minimap and any opportunities that have been revealed to you along with a relevant location. New players intent on staying stealthy will now learn that stalking and learning their prey's movements are par for the course. Viktor walks along a set path that passes by various crowds (in some cases with many twins in them), with a few one-time deviations. Follow him or simply explore, and you will discover tools with which you can kill. Ranging from a knife to almost any chandelier found capable of being dropped down. Through this I learned that the Paris Fashion Show was effectively a playground, just as I liked it in Blood Money and earlier Hitman titles.
In previous games (let's politely forget Absolution for a moment), there was always a vast amount of approaches towards achieving your goals, or at least reaching them. While that remains the same in this game, every level (including the Free Form training level) now has a vast array of challenges that will inspire you to seek out various methods and approaches. In a way this slightly diminishes the enjoyment of figuring out these things for yourself, but they don't seem strong enough as spoilers to completely ruin the fun. They simply mark out the possibilities, something we'd have been more grateful for in years past where engine limitations meant players were uncertain if a particular 'exotic' approach could actually mechanically work.
What about the level itself? Truth is, it's not as big as I'd hope, but big enough to have fun in. You're not roaming an entire city or a gigantic hotel, but there is certainly no lack for complexity. Guards are stationed everywhere and NPCs have routines of their own that may or may not interact with your targets, depending on who they are. Every room looks rich, and almost always has a handful of interactive elements, access to which are often dependent on your disguise. Waiters can interact with tables, kitchen staff will have access to a mop to stay 'hidden' or let you poison food inconspicuously. In fact, if you are in a guard disguise and stand still for long enough, 47 will start posing like a regular guard to blend in even better. All of these aspects make stalking your prey only that much more effective, and losing track of them is nigh-on impossible while using your Instinct.
Instinct makes a return. As far as I know, it's no longer a limited resource that regenerates depending on difficulty, but simply serves to show silhouettes of everyone near through the walls, with a red one signifying your target. I've also found that, while time slows down, it no longer helps you blend in with your disguise. That part is now simply handled by avoiding specific NPCs that are marked out with a white dot above their head. These switch out as per what disguise you are wearing, but are more related to sensible context than simple outfit hierarchy. Kitchen Staff know that model staff don't belong in the kitchen, but wearing the outfit of a targets bodyguard may also prove difficult when the target knows specifically what people are in charge of protecting them. I like how Hitman has moved away from the basic mechanic of outfit hierarchy, and made it more complex through sensible context.
To top off the attention of detail, David Bateson reprises his role as the voice for 47. Much like 47's demeanour, he doesn't talk much, but when he does he sounds absolutely convincing. Combined with the many other voice actors that give life to the many NPCs littered around the levels, their level of preserving immersion is astounding. The first three levels before Paris are supposedly 'simulated' but it feels like the involved NPCs are acting their heart out. To the point where one of the two talking mechanics in the first level will eventually ask in a whisper while seeing you "is that the guy?" only to be shushed off. Nice attention to detail.
Voices play an important role, as many opportunities come from overhearing conversations between characters. Opportunities are specific conditions that 47 can complete that will open up a new approach or method of murder, some of which are very spectacular.
One of the features I'm happy to see return is the Contracts system. Introduced in Absolution, contracts allows you to roam around the level and assign any NPC you want as a target and consequently eliminate them as you see fit. Once you escape the level, you can then assign parameters to it that you adhered to, such as weapon or outfit. Once done, you can create this as a contract for others to play, or play theirs and see if you can do better.
However, as evidenced by the tutorial for Contracts, there are now two types of contracts. Playful Assassin and Skilled Assassin. Skilled Assassination typically require skillful execution of target assassination while remaining undetected and without the body being found. Playful Assassin instead focuses on the more messy, if not entertaining, method of killing. These can involve explosions to quite possibly anything you can think of, the more outrageous the better, with the tutorial instructing you to kill three mechanics with a double car explosion.
There are also two other features that are new to the series. Escalation seems, so far, to be a predetermined contract that task you with killing a target in a specific manner with a specific outfit. Elusive Targets on their turn is a feature not implemented yet at time of writing, but are said to be challenges that have a limited time to complete before they get replaced with a new one. Details will follow once this feature actually launches.
Rounding off, one can't wrap up this review without addressing the business model. The announcement of episodic content for this game has proven controversial at best. Currently, I find myself tackling these two, mutually similar questions. Is this package worth $14.99 (€12.99) for the Intro Pack, and is the promise of the five other locales worth the price point of $59.99 (€49.99) for the Full Experience?
As someone who's been a long time fan of the series, Hitman's return to its roots was something I might have bought the Intro Pack for. I've always wanted Absolution's engine placed in Blood Money's level design, and right now it looks like it's truly heading in that direction. However, what if you're new to the series or just not a fan? I'd honestly suggest holding off and see what the future brings. Maybe the Intro Pack will have a sale in a little bit, in which case it could very well be worth it.
How about the Full Experience? I'm a lot more wary about that. You're effectively paying full price for a game that's not completed. People are right in complaining about it, and it certainly isn't setting a good precedent for the future. If it wasn't Square Enix that tried this model and instead a smaller studio, such a thing could effectively destroy a game's popularity months before its actual release along with the reputation of the studio.
Instead, it's being done with a well established game series by a well established game developer. A calculated risk, it seems. If you are uncertain in even the slightest about purchasing this game, you'd do well to keep up with the game's release schedule and see how it develops over time. Meanwhile, you might even catch a sale of the game with any luck.
To summarize, it looks pretty and it looks fun, but the issues with the DRM and the episodic content should rightfully make you wary. Here's to hoping Square Enix either buffs out the issues with their connectivity or I'll have to resort to replaying Blood Money to get my fix.
Hitman was reviewed on PC using a Steam key provided by the developer.
Hitman looks very promising so far even as an episodic release title, but the always-online DRM hampers it and may prove a serious black mark if it remains this unstable.