Over the past year, the release roadmap for Hitman changed more times than Agent 47 has disguises, before publisher Square Enix and developer IO Interactive finally settled on “you’ll just get the bits that are ready in March for cheap”. It’s always disquieting to see such indecision over an expensive property so close to release, and sure enough, Hitman’s “Intro Pack” shows signs of a hasty assembly the way my trackpants did in the ‘90s whenever my parents were silly enough not to knock before entering.
Functioning both as a prologue to the 16-year-old franchise and a continuation of the events in 2012’s disappointingly linear Absolution, Hitman: No Subtitle opens with the text “20 years earlier” hanging onscreen, as if the last game anyone played was Absolution, after which we all just sat in unmoving silence, pondering how such a distinctive-looking man could possibly remain so undetectable simply by changing his clothes.
It’s a weird non-sequitur of a start that had me wondering I’d accidentally skipped a cutscene while scratching my back* with my DualShock 4, and when I was only given control of 47 for just long enough to pan the camera 20 degrees to the right before the first cutscene kicked in, I began to wonder if my console was having a seizure.
This cloud of confusion didn’t lift for the Intro Pack’s two hour running time – so much so that I played it through two more times just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. What’s the actual plot here? Should these people be familiar? It was like Sunday morning in your mum’s bedroom, but at least Hitman is decent looking.
Fortunately the game’s core concept is simple enough that even your dad could understand it – if only he spent some time away from sniffing melted crayons. It usually goes something like this: infiltrate a place under false pretences, render someone unconscious in order to steal their clothes and access a previously inaccessible place, check for clever ways to dispatch your target, find some and lay in wait, lose patience and shoot your target in front of absolutely everyone, run for your life, fail dismally.
Things can go better if you leave the game’s many assists on, and this time out there are some new ones, the most notable of which are Opportunities – conversations you overhear that can lead to the discovery of intel, be it a target’s schedule, clues to their whereabouts, weaknesses and indulgences, backstory, and so on. Opportunities are triggered simply by listening in to specific pieces of NPC chatter, and in full mode you get quest markers telling you where the next piece of relevant information is.
This system cuts down the amount of detective and observation work you have to do, while providing interesting diversions from your primary objectives, but like many assists including enemy attention alerts, the mini map, and instinct (AKA the OG detective mode), it can be dialled back or simply switched off completely. Hitman is certainly a game that caters to all sections of the skill curve, from yo sista (easy) to godlike.
The first piece of potentially bad news: the Intro Pack contains a total of four missions spread across three maps, and only one of those missions, The Showstopper, isn’t a tutorial. Fortunately, it is a doozy, giving the player a seriously large and beautiful mansion and surrounding grounds to stalk, plenty of amusing NPC banter to eavesdrop in on, and a handful of fun, creative ways to kill your marks.
The first piece of definitely bad news: many game features including lists of mission challenges, leaderboards, Contracts mode require an Internet connection, and at the time of writing the game’s servers were about as stable Conor McGregor after a Nick Diaz right. Worse: if you happen to be part-way through a mission and they keel over as they did to me literally every five or so minutes, you get kicked back out to the title menu.
You can save manually and/or set the game to play offline, but losing mission challenges in particular is as galling as a series of lame yo mama jokes in a video game review, as challenges provide handy hints as to the breadth of your destructive powers on a particular level. On top of that, the loading times in Hitman are atrocious. Like, launch day Bloodborne atrocious, or possibly worse.
There are also minor complications and vexations. You can no longer carry bodies, and so must be content with dragging them slowly across the floor to the nearest dark corner or cupboard. The game’s AI never quite seems up to the developer’s ambitions or my expectations; it’s happy to forget all about you in some damningly bloody instances, but is prepared to gun you down should you turn a radio on without asking politely. Furthermore, closing doors remains as confusing for poor Agent 47 as postgraduate calculus is for lizards, his voice just doesn’t fit his character model at all, and he’s possibly still – in a mightily competitive field – the least charismatic and compelling leading man in gaming.
Despite these complaints, it does feel good to play a new Hitman title. It’s always been a low-rent less sexy Bond rip-off, but there are deviant thrills in sneaking around where you know you aren’t supposed to be (so naughty!), in wearing other people’s clothes (ooh la la!) and in drowning someone in a toilet bowl after they insulted your waiter’s outfit (uhhhh…). However, despite replayability in both the campaign and Contracts mode, what’s here does feel slightly slapped together and insubstantial, even though it’s yours for less than a movie ticket and popcorn.
A coherently conveyed story will help matters, but so will the paid locations coming in both April and May, the free weekly updates, and the other three locations due by the end of the year. Until then, what we have is a promising start gameplay-wise marred by a couple of technical issues and a lack of content.