March 31, 2019 at 2:56 AM #1326
Rating: 4.0 – Great
Season One Hitman (Don’t let the marketing strategy put you off.)
This generation of Hitman almost lost me. I loved all the previous IO Hitman Games, played them to completion and kept going. I returned to Silent Assassin and Blood Money and Contracts over and over again, even buying them on different platforms. Hitman has always been a narrative driven game to start with but replaying each mission to explore and experience crafted events you play through is the mechanic that makes you keep coming back.
The marketing somehow managed to wind up focusing on the multiplayer. Which it isn’t. The online play is sharing a single player experience with others. That means if you like playing a role and losing yourself in a character Hitman can do that like no multiplayer experience can.
Square shot the marketing at the COD crowd and made them feel all disconnected when their headsets went quiet, whilst alienating the single player crowd that adored it when they tried it.
The other big risk the marketing team took was releasing the game in episodes. Let me just make it clear this WAS a brilliant strategy. The individual levels in Hitman have as much replay value in them as most triple A releases offer in their entire game. It taught players to explore the game much deeper instead of rushing through the story.
But the marketing just screamed "We’re not confident about marketing this game!"
Lesson one in salesman schools is "show confidence in your own product or nobody else will." So IO, on your next game don’t go on every interview opportunity, and your own promotional video’s, telling the audience how ‘risky’ your marketing strategy is and how brave you are for taking that risk! Your potential consumers won’t think "F*** Yeah. I’m gonna bravely chuck my money at this risky proposition in the hope it doesn’t suck as much as you way it might!"
This bizarre bit of inverse marketing made me wait until they released all the episodes on disc to reduce my ‘risk.’
Turns out it wasn’t really all that risky. I wound up playing it by episodes anyway, partly because the story just didn’t hook me in, partly because the menu system constantly draws you away from the narrative structure and partly because, like all the Hitman Games before this, replaying a level over and over is more fun than it sounds.
In fact it is consistently more fun than anything I have played in the last decade.
The premise is simple. You are going to be told to kill somebody. But there are rules. You don’t have to stick to the rules but you will learn to try to because you feel much more powerful when you do. Or you’ll screw around with the lives of the NPC’s because it’s a laugh. No, this isn’t Saints Row or GTA. It’s cleverer than that. More ‘real-world’ in a dark version of our world that IO always paint so vividly. Or is that darkly?
Most games get you to play better by rewarding you with points, or guns or special outfits. Hitman has these but it doesn’t need them. You play because you want to be better.
The rules are:
Kill nobody else but the target. Choking them into a coma and leaving them in the freezer to die is okay, breaking their skull from twenty feet away with a wrench and leaving them folded neatly in a wooden box nobody ever looks in is also okay but you should avoid popping their skull with a silenced bullet and killing them instantly. That’s not okay (but you will try that because you can).
Don’t get caught. You can disguise yourself in other peoples clothes and walk around like you own the place or you can sneak. You ‘could’ try and kill absolutely everybody so all the witnesses are dead but that’s not cool. That’s hard work. That’s also possible though.
And then the real point of the game; to fulfil the objective as skilfully as you can. Not on a Trials Bike unicycle whilst juggling kind of way. Instead it might be killing two targets in the same explosive accident. It might be killing two (or more) targets with one bullet. It might mean drowning one target in his own toilet after luring him their with poison induced diarrhoea or vomiting (the voice acting doesn’t always make it clear which end is evacuating but that little detail is never important to the whole head in toilet thing.)
Each mission plays out in a large, open, densely populated environment. NPC’s act out an event or point in time that you can reply and interact with to complete your objectives in different ways.
You are handheld a little, but not enough to be obtrusive and you will soon learn to explore on your own. This is the most accessible Hitman Game Io have ever made AND the most open. You can listen into conversations to find new disguises, opportunities to set up accidents and pick at the security surrounding your target. You live in the moment, engineer opportunities and manipulate events as they unfold.
The game never boils down to the same format, even playing the same mission twice (is is always consistent and fair) but generally speaking your objectives will become finding ways to get close to your target and to remove them from their protection. But you can often strike from afar if you can work out where they will be at a particular point in time, for example, walking under a light-fitting you can crush them under.
This is kind of like being death in ‘Final Destination’ but with the power to Ground-hog Day’ your way to the perfect kill through replaying the same event in different ways.
I’ve made it sound like you fail a lot and given away my age, but this isn’t a punishing game. Screw up a mission and there is always an auto save to fall back on. The thing is, I wound up improvising plan B for a while when things went Pete Tong instead of hitting restart; and plan B was never a shootout to the death. That was plan C or D or E. I was never going to be hiding under a box until the timer ran out like a better tailored Solid Snake but, put on another disguise and the bad guys (or good guys) will be looking for the wrong bald man with a barcode on his head.
That is how clever and how deep every single one of these levels is. It is never simple to get the mission done but it is always possible. It just gets harder to get away clean at the end the more you screw up. Mess up to the point where you’ve had to start brawling and, even then, there is still a chance.
I recall one failed Plan A in trying to knock a guard unconscious on a balcony in preparation for dropping a lifeboat on my target’s head. For some reason I decided throwing a crowbar at his head was more fun than strangling him quietly and I didn’t consider how loud that comic "Claaang" would be when it bounced off his head. Obviously everyone below heard it and I had also just rebounded the very tool I needed to release the lifeboat from the poor mans’ cranium to somewhere every one could see.
The authorities were already running up the stairs when my screen subtitles informed me that the rest of the world had the ability to hear (this happens a lot in real life for me too. The forgetting other people hear bit, not the crowbar throwing).
I was still able to run away like a murderous Shaggy from Scoobydoo, down the opposite stairs and into a kitchen where I was just about able to murder the cook without getting blood on my nice new white cooks’ disguise while loading him into the freezer before they all came piling in behind me.
"He’s disappeared!" they all thought. Even my target had run after me.
I then screwed up again by trying to lob a knife I found in the kitchen at the target who was last out through the door of the kitchen, presenting what I knew was a really rash opportunity to complete my mission, even as the knife sailed through the air and hit the door closing behind him.
Obviously they heard the knife hit the door and being the only guy in the room who wasn’t in the ice compartment, I was rumbled.
I was still able to kill him another way and I still got away, albeit with a very poor skill rating.
Finishing the story mission ten different ways might sound like fun (and it is) but in Contracts Mode you get to chose the target yourself, kill them any way you choose and then, brilliantly, you can challenge your friends to it better. You set the rules in your own mission. It is so simple it is brilliant and, if you are a time starved dad or mum playing between the kids going to bed and collapsing to sleep, you don’t have to be online at the same time to make a challenge.
There are also challenges to pick up different tools, find different kill methods and discover little details you might otherwise miss in a challenge mode (no not the yawningly repetitive challenge modes you’ve seen before. This is actually a challenge that is different every time.)
On top of that there is escalation. The same mission but the mission gets harder. Step one is kill a hard to reach target. Step two might be more guards. Step three might be cameras, step four might add another target but set the disguise to something hard to get and then step five might be do all that in just 5 minutes. And you’ll still play it again to do the whole thing silently and smoothly because it’s cool.
One level in this game will keep you finding new stuff, keep you smiling, sometimes laughing, for tens of hours. ONE LEVEL!
I’ve been back to levels to play hide and seek! Intentionally doing something that has the whole population in a panic and seeing how long I can stay alive without completing the objective. The game is clever enough, stable enough, and fair enough to let you really push the rules. (I hope someone at IO realises how fun hide and seek is and makes it an official mode.)
Hitman games are all about creating atmosphere for each mission. The narrative linking the missions is clearly going somewhere but I barely noticed it. Knowing IO it’ll pick up, but not in these episodes and that may be dragging things on too much.
This game has a sense of place and time like few ever have. And they get better with each episode. The Every NPC has a name and a life story. You can tag them as targets of your own in the contracts game but it isn’t just to give you an identifiable target. No. These guys have backgrounds because Io are masters at crafting environments that feel alive. You learn to watch behaviours, using the people in the crowd to blend in, find information, lead the target away and even to kill for you. They feel like people, not furniture.
Graphics and Sound 4 (the graphics are the best on the system, the sound?…not so much).
I’m going to kick off with sound and show my age. The music in the ‘old’ games was by Jesper Kyd. The score sticks in your head, you remember the music long after you’ve moved on and I still listen to one or two tracks from contracts now and again.
I challenge you to recall a single bar of any of this game. That’s not much of a criticism, it just shows how amazing Jesper Kyd is, and he’s not in this game. It doesn’t ruin the experience, the music just adds literally nothing to the experience. I am hearing impaired so to hear any game music I have to turn things up to 11. I did and I heard the same kind of score I hear in a Michael Bay movie. You could put the score to Alvin and the Chipmunks and it’d still be vague enough to work. The great thing is that the subtitles are superb. You can play this game without sound.
The voice acting.. okay I’ll confess, once I’d got into this the hearing aids came out and I just rolled with it. The voice acting is wooden where I remembered to experience it but the performances in my silent world (my agent 47 is deaf) were great.
Agent 47 to a Chipmunks track… hmmmm.
I played 15 hours on the first tutorial mission. The smallest of the two, free, if you didn’t pay for it on release, (thanks Square Enix marketing team you can stay on that naughty step now) tutorial levels.
Challenges pointed me towards different scenarios to work through and I just kept wanting to try different methods. I got a different, rewarding experience every time. After that 15 hours I still had more fun making challenges for my friends to try. BOTH OF THEM had hours of fun with it (mum took a bit of convincing and her dementia made it tricky, particularly in the old folks home but wow, it beats brain training hands down.)
Final Recommendation 4.
There is no doubt that the marketing strategy failed part of Hitman’ audience. Their core fanbase went with them on faith but it wasn’t the Episodic Release Schedule that damaged sales, it was an expectation from Square Enix that the game might fail. It was never going to be a poor game, this is the strongest Hitman game yet, accessible but even deeper and more detailed than ever. It even pulls off the combination of role playing as a psychopathic loner and community play’ that alone is genius! The game is a masterpiece.
If you were put off by the difficultly curve of the last generation titles, this game fixes that. If you were put off by Absolution being too story led and too shallow, you didn’t play it properly, but IO fixed that too. This is not a game split into episodes. It is a game so big, so broad, so deep that you will wind up playing it episodically.
It also has updates so big that that game DVD the retail version comes on may as well just be a biscuit. The update is bigger than the disk, you’re not playing Hitman the day you take it home, you’re playing it tomorrow.
Or the day after.
It is worth the wait though.
This is a must have game for stealth fans. It is a must have game if your enjoy exploring environments and it is an oasis of intelligence in a sea of COD remakes and cartoon multiplayer shoot-em-ups.
It’s clever, dark, funny, horrific and always exciting. The kind of game you have experiences you will want to tell someone else about and want to hear others tell you about.
This is one of those few games that comes along every few years in which you genuinely can say, "you could play this for years."
Now. If only IO would make a Scoobydoo game…?
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