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I've often noticed a conflict between the way games tell me I'm a master assassin/spy/soldier and the more bumbling, experimental way that I play. One moment I'm panicking and shooting the wrong person in the face, the next I'm coolly walking away as a chandelier drops on a target behind me.
The new Hitman, the first episode of which was released last week, gives me those same entertaining feelings of exploration, experimentation, failure, and slickly perfect execution. It combines familiar elements of past games in the series, but it packages them in a new way: it will be released episodically over the course of the year, which is a format we associate more with adventure games like Life is Strange and The Walking Dead. I've spent six or so hours playing the first episode, which includes the two tutorial missions that comprised last month's beta along with one new "real" mission set at a fashion show in Paris.
As the game's creators have been careful to point out, this new Hitman seeks to combine the strongest elements of the series' previous entries. Honestly, most of that can be translated to "We know you all liked Blood Money, so we're making this game like Blood Money." Which is fair---the 2006 game is held up by many Hitman fans as the pinnacle of the series.
All three levels in the first episode, particularly the culminating Paris level, are glitzy sandboxes in the vein of Blood Money, featuring numerous ways to manipulate your targets into meeting a stylish demise. There are guns to fire, vials of poison to pour into drinks, fuseboxes to detonate, winches to release, and wrenches to throw. You rub shoulders with a glamorous crowd while tracking your fashionista-cum-spy targets, wandering through sprawling environments that feel both like believable real-world locations and carefully constructed video game levels. And when the time is right, you strike.
Agent 47 returns as the game's protagonist, complete with his back-of-the-head barcode and his near magical ability to change costumes in the blink of an eye. Those costumes are of paramount importance, too---each mission is designed to be approached by costume-hopping your way deeper and deeper into a level, much to the admiration of the AI, if their generally positive and flirty comments about my outfits are any indication.
Playing as a master of disguise also happens to be my favorite way to play Hitman games, and while at first that approach usually ended up with me getting in too deep in the level and panicking, over the time I've spent with the game so far I've managed some pretty creative kills, too. There are literally dozens of ways to take out some of the targets, and a lot of the fun is in finding the coolest, goofiest, or most creative.
Success in Hitman, as always, relies not on quick reflexes or pinpoint accuracy, but on the more generally human activities of walking and listening. The game demands a thoughtful pace and relies more on creativity than twitchy skill. Paris' bustling crowds and busy environment are varied enough that I didn't mind taking my time with each level. If anything I was sometimes overwhelmed by how many options I had. I'm sure that as I play each level more, I'll grow more comfortable with how they work.
Each level is intended to be played and replayed, as evidenced by the additional gameplay modes that accompany the main story. There are leaderboards for players who want to compete with their friends, as well as the returning free-form "Contracts mode" in which you can assign your own targets and challenge others to take them out. I'm particularly fond of Escalation mode, which sends you through the level multiple times with stricter requirements on each one. I'm looking forward to playing more with the disabled save option, which will keep me from relying on save-scumming as much as I usually do, and tracking down some "Elusive Targets," which are time-sensitive contracts that weren't available when I played earlier this week. (It's worth noting that the story is available to play offline, but the leaderboards and contracts require an internet connection. Update: Based on some comments, we tested this on PC and were able to access the story missions in offline mode, though not the contracts, so it appears a persistent internet connection is not required.)
Each level reveals its assassination opportunities to you in a variety of ways, including snippets of overheard conversation in the grand tradition of NPCs shouting important secrets to each other in public. The information they reveal can then be optionally tracked, opening up new paths and assassination options. While these opportunities can feel a bit hand-holdy---hear thing, follow waypoint to thing, kill target with thing---they do provide some useful direction if you're feeling lost.
While IO has done away with Absolution's more linear levels, it's retained some of the other features that made that game play well, especially for Hitman newcomers. The optional waypoints, generally responsive controls, and easy-to-read suspicion indicator remove interface and interaction barriers and help players focus on the job at hand.
There have been some tweaks to pre-existing systems---blending in, for instance, which in Absolution was done via 47 hiding his face like the Phantom of the Opera, is now bound to costume- and context-specific hotspots. Managing suspicion now requires more general awareness of your surroundings, actions, and outfit, which feels about right. All of it feels logical, fair, and easy to jump into and begin dissecting the levels and the various opportunities they afford.
The suspicion system itself has also received an overhaul. Unlike in Absolution, characters dressed like you don't immediately see through your disguise, and the HUD gives a clean indication of who's on to you and how close they are to triggering an alarm. This enables you to plan and avoid suspicion in a way that feels natural and flexible. In the second mission, which takes place on a military base, I found myself lurking in the shadows outside an airplane hangar dressed as a soldier, carefully waiting for the perfect moment to walk confidently by two other soldiers before turning a corner just in time to avoid sending their suspicion over the tipping point. The AI is just predictable enough to manage and manipulate, but not so predictable that I don't have to think on my feet.
Agent 47's instinct ability, which lets him identify threats and targets through walls, has also been revised. It's much less powerful than it was in Absolution, but it never runs out and requires no recharge. It serves as more of an optional bit of guidance to help you get your bearings and plan your approach.
This kind of change perhaps best represents the new Hitman's ethos: it's a game that wants you to play it, but it also wants you to play with it rather than following a set path. The story is told between missions and in snippets of dialogue, and while it's the high-conspiracy globetrotting you've come to expect from your Hitmans (Hitmen?), the broader context the cutscenes provide so far feels inessential. Each assassination is its own story, and those contained sandboxes are the game's true focus.
I did run into some technical issues on PC---I'm running a 3.2Ghz i5 and a 2GB R9 270 graphics card, which puts me right on the edge of the game's recommended specs. I regularly experienced huge framerate drops that detracted significantly from my experience, particularly in the Paris level. My colleague Kirk Hamilton is playing the game on a much beefier rig and says the Paris level has some odd framerate dips for him as well. The game doesn't seem very well optimized in general, an issue which will hopefully be addressed by patches in the near future. A few performance hitches aren't the end of the world for a methodical game like this, but it's worth keeping in mind if you're hoping to play on a less powerful PC.
As I finished the Paris mission for the first time, I was a little disappointed that I couldn't keep playing like I would in a full release. That's not a knock on the game, though; in fact, the episodic model might actually improve, or at least alter, my Hitman experience. I tend to barrel through these games on my first go, planning to but seldom getting a chance to return to them to try new things. Given Hitman's release structure, I can see myself spending more time really getting to know each level as I wait for the next episode.
The first episode of Hitman is a very strong start, and it's a return to form for a series that some were worried had begun to wander. Time will tell whether the finished game will live up to these first three levels, as well as whether the timed events and player-generated challenges will be as fruitful and interesting as the game's creators hope. For now, we've got three solid new Hitman levels to play. I'll take it.