Agent 47 was apparently so aggravated at being portrayed as a bumbling fool throughout most of Hitman: Absolution’s cut-scenes, that he’s applied his trademark piano-wire to the whole idea of a suffix. IO Interactive’s upcoming title will be Hitman and Hitman alone. If I worked in marketing I’d probably suggest that decision has been taken as a subtle signifier of a “return to basics” approach.
As site regulars may know, fellow writer Tim McDonald won’t yet allow me to live down giving Hitman: Absolution a seven out of ten instead of orchestrating some kind of elaborate accident resulting in the review code toppling into an incinerator. Followed by the incinerator belching out choreographed smoke patterns spelling “it’s shit”.
Look, fine, seven was a bit generous. But beyond the check-pointed levels, weird disguise logic, and tone-deaf US grind-house-meets-road-movie aesthetic, Absolution did leave us a couple of positive influences: Contracts mode, an Agent 47 who didn’t control like a block of wood in a tie, proper third-person shooting mechanics (you may not have wanted them, but they were there), and, um, wait, I can think of more. Really lovely graphics? A solid Nixxes port on PC?
The truth is, even before Absolution went down in some quarters like a sabotaged balloon, everybody just wanted another Hitman game as darkly silly and carefully crafted as Blood Money. I understand. I want that too.
This Hitman might end up being that coveted object. The pair of prologue levels that constitute this pre-release beta certainly make encouraging systemic motions in that direction; but they’re also very self-contained, a touch scripted, and quite tutorial-ey nature. Which makes sense, because the first level (before it lets you free to play it again) actually is the tutorial. Death of a Showman and A Vintage Year hinted at Blood Money’s charms too, but the real classic stuff didn’t appear until later.
Speaking of appearing later, you’ve probably heard that Hitman is opting for an unusual episodic release structure where each of the main six ‘locations’ will have a staggered release. I’ve already said my piece on that, and it’s not going to change at this stage, so there’s not much else to add.
Instead, let’s get into the guts of this prologue, which goes all flashback to show us Agent 47 and Diana Burnwood’s first meeting. 47 is being put through his assassination paces in a couple of film-set style mock-ups of famous ‘hits’, deep within the bowels of a mountain. The full cast of actors, stage curtains, and balsa-wood helicopters are straight out of a Jon Ronson book on weirdo CIA practices, and I rather enjoyed the absurdity of the whole thing. Seeing my target fly through the air after ‘pretend’ blowing him up with a suspiciously powerful-looking explosive is just the sort of tone I appreciate from Hitman.
The game’s disguise system now sits somewhere between Blood Money’s “you’re basically invisible” and Absolution’s “every other cop in the area knows you’re a fraud”. Put on the outfit of a Soviet soldier in the mission to topple a former chess champion, and you’ll mostly be able to stroll around unimpeded. Some soldiers (denoted by a mark over their heads) and higher ranking officers, however, will know there’s something a bit off about you. Going too near these people will spark the Absolution-style suspicion meter, and lingering for too long will have them investigating further and exposing you.
It seems to work fairly well, retaining the sense of disguise hierarchy from older games (dress as the lone KGB agent and nobody will bother you), but also ensuring that Agent 47 needs to stay alert when wandering about as a lowly mechanic. There’s still some weirdness to the system though, as breaking line of sight (no matter how) will lower suspicion. That makes sense as a game mechanic, but suddenly ducking behind a box like a TOTALLY NORMAL PERSON is a little tough to swallow as a logical method of assuaging someone’s doubts.
It’s worth noting here that it’s possible to toggle off the “this person will recognise you” marks (plus various other assists) and rely on sound alone. The beta was also (I believe) set to a default difficulty, so it could be the case that skulking around behind crates to remove suspicion won’t cut it on higher settings.
The general standard of AI behaviour is a little mixed. I saw things that impressed me, like an unarmed mechanic trotting to the nearest guard and asking him to look into my odd shenanigans rather than confronting Agent 47 himself. But I was also able to set up stall behind a box on the docks of the opening yacht level and mow down dozens of guards as they ambled down the gangplank towards my position. Guards sometimes seem a touch reluctant to actually open fire on 47, though again this may be down to the set difficulty level of this tutorial-focused beta.
Mind you, I’m not hugely concerned that Hitman’s AI doesn’t want to play the drawn-out, third-person shooter game, because that’s easily the most boring way to ‘solve’ any of these missions.
It seems to cope better in smaller, more confined encounters. Say you screw up and get spotted doing something untoward; it may be necessary to shoot or punch (in a slightly rubbish quick-time event) the nearest guard or two. As long as your problems remain localised, it’s possible to ride through the rush of tension, stash the bodies, maybe don a new disguise, and lay low for a short while. Fail to keep the situation under control and panic or alarm will start to spread through the whole map, but I appreciate how this Hitman allows you to keep on rolling through smaller mistakes without having to revert to a recent save.
Much like The Pet Shop Boys, Hitman urges players to take Opportunities. These are effectively the same cunning plans you were able to enact in Blood Money (switch out the fake gun for a real one in the Opera mission, for example), but (optionally) spelled out through a series of objectives. With Opportunities at their most hand-holdy, the game will quite literally walk players through the necessary steps to carry out, for example, an unfortunate fighter jet ejector seat ‘accident’.
You can set Opportunities to “minimal” or “off”, though when I tried the latter option in the beta they were still quite central, and present as icons on the map screen. The only thing missing was a prompt to immediately start auto-tracking the objectives. Again, this might be because this is the very first map where Opportunities make an appearance. I’d hope that in the final game setting them to “off” will force 47 to discover such events more organically, through ambient conversation and experimentation.
Challenges also return from Absolution, collating the sorts of kills and antics you might wish to get up to. It’s fine to have a way to officially track whether you’ve managed to do a suit-only total stealth kill on a given level, but having the challenges so clearly laid out does diminish that sense of emergent adventure a little. Unless you just avoid ever looking at that page.
That lean towards more guided events and less player-led discovery does concern me a bit. The Hitman series has always had scripted aspects, of course, and couldn’t function without them; but the difference here seems to be how often Agent 47’s presence is required to kick things off. On the opening yacht mission, you may find the target’s office and plant a remote explosive there. But unless you specifically wander over to where he starts the mission and trigger a first conversation, he’ll never actually go to his office on his own. It’s a subtle difference between scripts being on long loops that you can interrupt or mess around with, and events which will only begin when Agent 47 shows up.
There still seem to be examples of the former in this Hitman, and the latter can obviously still be useful for larger levels (things just spontaneously happening miles away from the player aren’t always good), so how well this works in motion will depend on IO striking the right balance throughout the mission design.
These things, once again, may be more pronounced in the first two tutorial missions.
The settings in the above images were what I used for the majority of my time with the beta. Shadows bumped down to Medium, AA just on FXAA, AF at 8x, and Level of Detail on High rather than Ultra. On this i5-6600 / 16GB DDR4 RAM / 4GB R9 380X machine, that got me solidly over 60fps on the final training level (usually around the 70+ range), but was a bit ropier on the yacht mission. There, the large crowds (which, admittedly, look pretty impressive), kept bouncing me down to the 40-50 range.
I’m kind of nervous about how that performance might suffer on a much larger level like the ‘proper’ Paris one, but for a title in pre-release I wasn’t too dissatisfied by those frame-rates. The big red AMD logo at the start of the game suggests this might be one of the few games where my GPU gets actual, direct performance benefits.
As a short indicator of Hitman’s intent and mechanics, then, this beta was mostly very encouraging. It’s very difficult to say whether larger, more complex levels will accentuate or remove the sort of reservations I have over guided events taking some precedent over player-driven emergent fun; or the extent to which custom difficulty levels can be applied to suit different tastes. But the sandbox assassination feel of Blood Money is evidently back in fashion, with a sensible (but not overpowered) disguise system, and the sort of interactive control improvements you’d expect after a gap of ten years. Plotting the best route and methodology with which to dispatch a target, distracting guards with your (now) finite supply of coins, attempting ridiculous ‘suit only’ stealth runs, and lugging semi-naked men into closets all feel the right kind of satisfying in this prologue pair of Hitman levels.