Tim [McDonald]: For this review, we’ve got a special treat for you. Both myself and my long-standing PC Invasion co-conspirator Peter Parrish have been sneaking around in the guise of IO Interactive’s barcoded baldy, choking/garotting/bludgeoning/shooting/accident-ing people, so we thought we’d actually do one of those joint review things, where we argue with and belittle each other while hopefully telling you about the game and helping you figure out if it’s worth your cash.
For the record, I’m the one who thought Hitman: Absolution was a complete travesty, and Peter’s the one who was objectively wrong about it. I couldn’t, in good conscience, let him deal with this first episode himself. And this is the first episode – what you get here is the prologue (previously discussed in Peter’s preview) and the Paris-based The Showstopper mission, which you’ve seen in basically every trailer of the game.
Peter [Parrish]: Hitman: Absolution had some positive things in it, Tim! Some of those things have even made it into this new Hitman – and are we still calling this Hitman 6: Hitman?
Tim: Yes, this is Hitman 6: Hitman. Specifically, this release is Hitman 6: Hitman: Episode 1: Paris.
Peter: Oh god.
Anyway, some of those positive Absolution things really have made it into this, like Contracts mode. And, um, Agent 47 walking around and controlling like an actual human being instead of whatever semi-animate object he was in Blood Money. Absolution’s narrative style has absolute-tioney not made it in, though. This game seems tonally back on track. Lots of serious-ish John le Carré spy bits for the main plot (yes, there’s a main plot), and lots of complete absurdity in terms of what Agent 47 actually gets up to during missions (posing on catwalks! dropping chandeliers on people!) No cut-scenes where 47 gets himself caught like a massive hairless idiot. At least, not yet. Fingers crossed and all that.
Peter: Right, so, the big hope for this game, and the gist of the developer intent behind it, is a return to the sandbox style of Blood Money. One large (or fairly tight, in the case of the prologue bits) area to roam around in. Plenty of entertaining ways and means to cause terrible harm to terrible people. Definitely no linear corridors separated by hard-lock checkpoints.
Lots of factors contribute to that unique Hitman style; the function of disguises, level design (and the scripting of the actors therein), general ambience from NPC dialogue, and so on. As the first major example of Hitman’s intentions, how did fashionable Paris grab you Tim?
Tim: I actually really liked it. C’est bien, or something. My French is awful. Luckily, nobody on that level speaks it.
Tim: Blood Money, for me, was kind of… a learning process, I suppose. You’d play a level for the first time and you’d do it terribly, but you’d almost certainly spot a few intriguing little avenues. There’s a window there that you can climb through; maybe you can employ that in some way. That drainpipe leads up to the second floor; perhaps you can use that to avoid the guards on the first floor. That one guard can easily be led behind the shed for some choking NO NOT LIKE THAT.
Absolution tried to do this and fucked it up horribly by being far more linear, with far smaller levels, and with some really stupid design decisions that forced you to rely more on heavy stealth than the usual harmless exploration before you start causing havoc. A few of its levels got close to Blood Money‘s sandbox lunacy, but those design choices tripped it up all the way.
If Paris is a good indication, Hitman is pretty much pretending that Absolution’s level design didn’t happen. You’ve again got a lot of fairly safe free-roaming, with restricted areas that you can only safely access in disguise. Nicely, this extends to some tools too – a tech guy booby-trapping a plug isn’t going to raise any eyebrows, because tech guys are meant to be futzing around with plugs. A waiter doing it, though?
Tim: It does take one cue from Absolution in that disguises aren’t perfect, but in a manner which actually makes sense this time. Certain enemies will be able to see through your disguises, but only certain enemies. The head guard, for instance, will be able to tell that you’re not one of the guards he hired. It’s not like Absolution‘s ridiculous sushi chef union.
I’ve digressed a bit and most people will probably already know all of that stuff, but I feel it’s important to mention.
But yes, Paris is definitely a learning experience. I’ve completed it about four times now, and I’m still trying to figure out “optimal” ways of doing things for my inevitable Silent Assassin run (and I strongly suspect I’m going to have a very hard time doing a no-disguise Silent Assassin run). I’m still spotting new areas and figuring out new ways to go about things. This is actually kind of interesting, if only because a lot of people feared the Opportunities and Challenges might “ruin” all of the on-the-fly learning that the Hitman series usually presents.
Peter: I liked it a lot too, and think I approached this in a similar way. My first run at this level (or ‘destination’ if you want to use the game’s fancy terminology) was definitely exploratory. For those who don’t know, there are a pair of targets in this Parisian museum. One is running a fashion show on the ground floor (with gantries and so forth above), while the second is running an auction on the heavily guarded top floor. Of course it’s not nearly as innocent as all that because they’re Bad Types™ in need of a thorough piano-wiring, but that’s the general basis.
Since it’s a grand old museum building, the place is huge. Multiple floors, plus a decent sized basement too. It feels like a proper, used space, which is important for establishing a sense of location. First time in, I spent a long time just wandering about (where disguises permitted) and didn’t worry too much about finesse or class. It’s a level you need to get familiar with if you’re to master it, and part of that, at first, is figuring out when and where the Opportunities are going to pop up.
Peter: These are … not entirely unlike the sorts of things you get up to in Blood Money, they’re just a bit more codified. Think about switching the prop gun for the WW1 pistol in “Curtains Down”. If that were replicated here, you’d overhear a conversation pertaining to the real firearm, then be given step-by-step guidance in making the switch. It’s also important to mention, however, that you can scale this back quite considerably. The most linear option gives you actual way-point markers to follow, opting for “minimal” will just give you hints and hide the markers, while “off” gives you no specific help at all and lets you piece things together through observation and guesswork alone.
I think these function pretty well, and the happy medium of “minimal” is what I’m leaning towards now that I know the system. It is a bit more restrictive than Blood Money, but it’s fairly nuanced. Tim, we discussed this earlier and you managed to distinguish the two quite well, so I’m going to force you to do it again.
Tim: Peter, I can’t even remember what I wrote in my last segment above, let alone what I may or may not have said at some undefined historical point in time. But – after noting that minimal is a pretty good option unless you’re hunting for a specific object that could be anywhere – I’ll have a go.
Tim: The difference, primarily, is that these are treated more as… “quests”, I guess. As you said, you pretty much have to “start” the Opportunities; they run in chains, and you have to do one bit before you can really do the next. If you want to follow the fashion superstar Helmut Kruger Opportunity, you have to eavesdrop on his phone conversation before you incapacitate him and take his clothes. If you take him out before that conversation, then you don’t know that he’s got a meeting arranged upstairs, so you can’t use his phone to sort that out, and… etc.
That said, I’m actually not entirely sure how much you can screw them up and still carry on regardless. I’m fairly sure you could dress up as fashion superstar Helmut Kruger and swan upstairs unchallenged regardless of whether or not you eavesdropped on his conversation, but I don’t know if you’d get the meeting with the second target. I think you could probably find the cocktail recipe and mix a poisoned cocktail without having to follow the Opportunity, as long as you’d actually heard the target demand one of those cocktails. Etc. And you only have to follow them as far as you want, too: you can absolutely drop the lighting rig on the stage without having to follow the Opportunity for it.
Tim: The thing is, I don’t think this is that big of an issue for two reasons. For one, most Opportunities are actually pretty well hidden – you don’t have a giant lightbulb on the map showing where every single start point is; you still have to explore to find them. Rather than overhearing someone talking about something and going “oh, that might be useful”, you overhear someone talking about something and the game actually says that this might be useful, and asks if you want more info. You don’t have to accept. And having them be a little bit linear, and triggered primarily by player action and position rather than a “living world”, isn’t really a bad thing in levels this huge. Trying to balance every single event so that it would trigger at roughly the time when a player walks past would be nightmarishly difficult, and it’d be a complete pain in the arse to learn as a player. Particularly because a lot of this stuff doesn’t run in cycles, which it often did in Blood Money.
That said, I have seen the fashion show come to an end before I could complete one Opportunity related to it, so it looks like there’s still a degree of real-time in there – even if it’s just you accidentally triggering events by being nearby.
Basically, it means a little bit less trial-and-error (but not too much) in terms of working out what triggers every little thing and how events tie together, but the map is so staggeringly massive and there’s enough stuff to do that I honestly think this is better than the alternative, which would be an infuriating amount of trial-and-error. I suspect I’d have muddled through the mission a few times by now and maybe figured out a couple of ways of dealing with the targets, but I’d probably have had a lot less fun. I mean, I talk about how much I love Blood Money, but I know Blood Money‘s levels like the back of my hand. It’s pretty hard to remember how confused I may have been the first time I tried those levels out, and the biggest of those was far, far smaller than this.
And you’re still going to have a hell of a time trying to do some of the tougher Challenges.
Peter: This is going to be the longest review of an episodic game ever. I mean … er, thank you for that in-depth explanation! I only have myself to blame, I quite literally asked for it.
Tim: Be careful what you wish for. At least future episodes won’t have to be this long as we’ll have covered the bulk of “this is what Hitman 6: Hitman” is, and can instead focus on “here’s what Hitman 6: Hitman: Episode 2: The Moon is like.”
Peter: Blood Money was terrific, but the only reason I knew how to do loads of stuff on that game’s Paris Opera level was because I’d seen, heard and read lots of real life people talking about those things being possible. This new, swanky 2016 Paris level is, frankly, pretty bloody great. It’s gigantic, but every area feels like it has a distinct purpose, function, and potential for mischief. As we found during the beta, it’s possible to screw up but keep the trouble fairly ‘localised’ as long as there aren’t crowds of people nearby (probably messing up your score, but it’s fun to do a muddled run every now and then). And, as you’ve noted, there are stacks of Challenges (Opportunity-linked and otherwise) to attempt.
Peter: Before I talk a bit about those, I will mention that the AI is quite … well, Hitman AI. It’s not too difficult to exploit and, while this may seem like a cop-out, I’m actually okay with this. I like my stealth(ish) AI to be fairly predictable in its behaviour. It does still do some clever things, like scared, unarmed people running off to get the nearest guard to sort you out. But other times high-level bodyguards will just give up and let you waltz away, even though you made them really quite suspicious. “Hey man, I really think you’re up to somethi … oh well, you’re strolling up the stairs, never mind”. During the preview, I assumed there’d be difficulty options that would affect how quickly guards assumed a hostile state, but in fact that’s not the case.
I also managed to somehow break one of the scripting sequences, creating an alarming plot paradox where Target One was speaking to the (recently deceased) Target Two on his phone. I’m not sure how often this might occur, but that was the only incident to stand out.
Peter: But yes, Challenges! Everything you do during a run-through of a mission, assuming it’s something a bit special (drowning someone in a toilet), or clever (tossing a coin into the fountain at the start) will earn you points towards mastery of a level. As you move through this progression, new and exciting possibilities unlock. Such as the ability to start the mission pre-disguised and in position as, say, a waiter, or a security guard. Or a new ICA hiding place in which to pick up equipment on the grounds. Or new equipment in general.
The more you do, the more doorways will open for you to perform your assassinations in slightly different, elaborate ways. You won’t be doing any sniping challenges, for example, until you actually unlock the sniper rifle as a pick-up. It forms a neat little loop to retain interest in the main mission, and gradually helps fill out your knowledge of the building and its surrounding grounds. There is, undeniably, a point at which a single mission (no matter how large) will become a bit repetitive. But there’s a substantial period of time before that, or at least there has been for me, where the mission is becoming familiar. That steady familiarity is one of Hitman’s strengths as a series, and is definitely in evidence here.
Peter: If you get tired of that, there’s Contracts mode (returning from Absolution in the same make-a-contract-for-someone-by-playing-it-yourself-first form), Elusive Targets (not present in the review build, but they have potential) and Escalation Mode. I’ve waffled on for ages now, so, Tim, do you have thoughts on any of this online-linked stuff, or to add about Challenges?
Peter: You dick.
Tim: Oh, alright, but I’ll try to be quick. Contracts is basically what it was in Absolution, and I have a few rather devious ones in mind already. The Paris level is so huge it’s impossible not to think of a few while playing. Escalation Mode is a bit weird, in that it seems like it’s basically five IO-designed Contracts on a level, only more twists are added in each time. Kill this guy with a pistol, while wearing this outfit! Now do the same thing, but get vodka out of a safe! Now do the same thing, but… etc. All with no mid-mission saves. It’s a nice touch, forcing you to adapt your approach a little each time as things get trickier, but it’s not really something I’d play straight through in one sitting.
Tim: As for the Challenges, yeah, I like the little loop of “you have some new stuff to try out, go play again.” My progression slowed massively once I finished the level a couple of times, and the unlockables then became of the boring sort for awhile (a new start location and being able to have a supply drop in a truck doesn’t have quite the same panache as, say, unlocking a sniper rifle) but I still want to go back and try more. And some of the Challenges look genuinely hilarious, too. One involves pushing Target Two off a balcony and having her land on Target One. I have no idea how I’m going to pull that off, but holy shit, I’m going to try. So, again – just because Challenges give you an idea of what’s possible doesn’t mean they make everything very easy, or spell things out for you.
Moving away from general Hitman and back towards Hitman 6: Hitman: Episode 1: Paris, I’m pretty bloody pleased with what’s here. The Prologue levels are kinda neat (though we haven’t talked much about them here as they were covered in a prior preview), but Paris itself is a really good level in terms of showing off what the game is trying to do. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not A New Life, but then, what the hell is? I don’t know exactly how far I’d go with the Blood Money comparison, but I’d say Paris (or rather, The Showstopper, to give it its real name) could happily stand alongside a few of Blood Money‘s better levels – which is a hell of a thing in itself. And I’m probably a bit jaded towards this anyway because I played the Prologue missions to death during the beta.
Also, it ran really nicely. No DirectX 12 for me because I’m still using a good version of Windows, but I feel its smooth performance should be noted.
Peter: Yes, I talked a bit about performance in my preview, and using DirectX 11 it was pretty similar in the review build. DirectX 12 was an option for me though, and performed rather well. This is a rare AMD branded game and I have an R9 380X, so bear that in mind, but DirectX 12 helped a few areas that were struggling in the 40s-50s with DX11 get to a solid 60. I was running a mix of High (textures) and Medium (shadows), and not everywhere kept 60fps in the Paris mission, but the DX12 option was preferable in all of the more demanding bits. There’s currently an oddity or bug where DX12 is capped at 60 for certain AMD GPUs (and not others), even though the game allows uncapped frame-rates. But since I was aiming for 60 in any case, this wasn’t a huge problem.
Peter: Since we’re covering technical bits and pieces, I want to add that some of the game modes (Contracts) are only accessible if you’re online, and will unceremoniously boot you out if the servers go down while you’re playing. Same goes for the ‘main’ mission, but you can choose to start this offline. Basically, Hitman treats offline and online runs as separate entities, and even gives them different saves. I found the servers a bit inconsistent pre-release. I’m sure a lot of this is because they were doing things like periodically clearing the leaderboards and doing last-minute bits of maintenance, but it is annoying to just have your latest Contract attempt ended by a server hiccup.
Tim: I fully expect the online side to be not working at all, come launch. That’s how this works, isn’t it? Well, I say “works”, but you know what I mean.
Peter: With that mini-warning about ‘always online’ aspects out of the way, I’ll say that I concur with Tim’s conclusion that this mission would slip pretty comfortably into the upper-strata of Blood Money levels. The strange, episodic nature of this release has to be considered in conjunction with this praise, because even though Paris (and, in an extended-tutorial kind of way the prologue missions) is of a high, return-to-form standard, you are only getting this one major mission to repeat. IO’s measures (Challenges, the various online modes) are broadly successful in staving off possible level fatigue, but a lot also depends on how the ongoing support (Elusive Targets and the like) pans out. It’s probably too early to get confident about going all-in for the whole $60 set of locations; Paris, though, is a compelling opening page for Agent 47’s new scrapbook of contracts.