Accessories and Playsets Sold Separately...
Reviewing games can sometimes feel like an exercise in putting Andrew Ryan's famous opening speech from Bioshock to the test: "Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow?" News that Hitman has been divided into an episodic game has given quite a few fans and reviewers pause, with fears that the game will be diminished due to the difference in release schedule and style. This was perhaps compounded by the recent decision to divide the game even further than prior plans and release it with all its individual locations as single episodes—with seven planned for release in 2016 and a planned full disc release in 2017, instead of the first release comprising the first three locations. So this begs the core question: Is the Hitman - Intro Pack worth $15?
Yes, especially if you're willing to put time into the game to discover its secrets and the many different pathways through each location. It's probably worth quite a bit more than that if you're the type of player who goes through the levels multiple times to achieve mastery, complete its challenges, and get the coveted Silent Assassin status. Hitman attempts to train the player to play this way by having you play through its first training prologue mission twice (which players of the beta will have experienced already) with a different assassination technique the second time, prompting you to try different ideas and improvise as part of the early gameplay experience.
The prologue is set in an ICA training facility, 20 years before the rest of the game, during the selection process to see if 47 is a viable agent. The training missions take place in sets built in what looks like an abandoned missile silo that have a weird "high school play" production value to them that's actually charming. The first mission involves taking out an art thief, and the second is designed to force 47 to fail, set in a small military airport where you have to replicate one of the the ICA Director's successes from the 1970's. This second mission, The Final Test, offers a fun little challenge that gives you multiple paths to kill your target, including one that's so outlandish, it's ridiculous fun.
From the beta, Io Interactive have already made adjustments to these levels and the game in general, including making the Opportunities system more explicit and easier to know how to turn off. Opportunities is the game's built-in guide system, which activates when players listen to a particularly useful conversation, prompting them on where to go with on-screen objective markers to complete the missions following a specific designed path to success. Opportunities can be turned off—or set to a minimum—which is recommended for fans of the series, since they're basically like an in-game FAQ that tells you how to find all the tools you need for each recommended method of execution; without them, it's back to classic Hitman series gameplay.
Speaking of classic Hitman gameplay, Instinct mode appears to have been scaled back from Hitman: Absolution and no longer shows enemy movement paths or enhances disguises. Less helpful than Arkham Batman's detective mode, it does slow time slightly while active and allows Agent 47 to see the outlines of targets in red, but this appears to be the limits of the ability in this outing, making skilled execution of stealth much more important.
All of this comes into play in the larger Paris Fashion Show environment, set in a giant palace and its grounds, with a story mission to take down the leaders of a spy ring known as IAGO. The massive environment offers the opportunity to weave through large crowds of fashion elite, hair and makeup artists behind the scenes, kitchen staff, socialites, and guards of varying degrees of military training. As with prior Hitman outings, using the term "crowds" is not an exaggeration but is accentuated here even more so with a tweaked Glacier Engine, with the areas around the runway and a reception area packed with people.
The Palace has multiple levels, and depending on the path you take in taking out your two targets (there are eight Opportunity paths, in addition to whatever you can carve out on your own), you may go up and down several flights of stairs, each with its own massive area, to reach your goals. Having followed one of these paths, after dispatching one of the targets, I found myself on a balcony overlooking the Paris Fashion Show runway below. At that exact moment the lead designer was giving his speech, with my second target standing right behind him as his patron. A double tap—fired from three stories up—dropped him, and I stowed my silenced pistol and escaped wearing my male model disguise with no one the wiser.
In a previous, failed playthrough, I poisoned one of the targets with rat-poison and then garroted him in the bathroom after he vomited into a toilet. I was, however, discovered because I left the door open before I began my attack. I killed his bodyguard, but the arrival of successive guards eventually proved too many, and I was taken down.
The primary additional content Io Interactive has discussed in press materials and at a recent review event in San Francisco with Creative Director Christian Elverdam, but which is not yet playable, are Elusive Target missions. Elusive Targets are unlike regular story missions or Contracts, which are the same as in Hitman: Absolution, player-created missions where the players assign a hit on individual NPCs in the mission areas. Elusive Targets, which are set up by Io Intereactive, have a time limit during which they can be played (the first is planned for a 48-hour availability window) and you get a single chance to take out the target, who have a scripted pattern of movement and new NPCs added around them. Fail to kill the Elusive Target, and that's it—no second chances. Also unlike the story missions or Contracts, Elusive Targets don't show up in red using Agent 47's instinct ability, making it an especially hardcore mode.
I'm excited to see Elusive Target in action, and I'm mentioning it because it's a planned major feature of the game. However in scoring the review, I have to acknowledge that it exists and is coming, but we don't have it yet, so I can't factor it in as a feature and will base my review on what is actually available at the time of this writing.
What was available was an early player-created Contract and other additional content including one mode called Escalation—where further objectives are added to an Io Interactive-created Contract after successful playthroughs. The starting Escalation contract takes place during the prologue by having you kill a soldier with a pistol while wearing a soldier's disguise in the Final Test area. A second playthrough added having to break into a safe in the same facility in addition to the prior objectives, and so on. I also was able to play the first of the PS4 exclusive Sarajevo Six missions—in which your target is the head of the Paris Fashion Show's security force, requiring a completely different approach to the environment.
Even with everything turned on—you could turn off every HUD, overlay, or enhancement feature except the crosshairs—and the game doing a certain degree of spoonfeeding to the player, Hitman is still challenging. Even when disguised, Agent 47 still has to avoid detection by wilier enemies who know their comrades, find ways in and out of hostile environments, and hide the bodies of anyone he happens to knock out or kill. It's not terribly uncommon, if you aren't fastidious, to find your way to the target, but suddenly not know exactly how you can take them out short of starting a massive, unwinnable firefight and having to retreat to reconsider your approach.
Completion of different challenges and objectives increase your level, and performing these optional hits allows you to customize Agent 47, including which suit you prefer him to wear, which weapons he starts with, and which items are smuggled into the environments. Some of the cosmetic customization is for bragging rights; you begin the game without Agent 47's iconic leather gloves, which have to be earned through completed Contracts and challenges.
Hitman provides enough replay value—even without the extra contracts—with its multiple paths and challenges alone to justify the $15 price tag. However, it also feels a little too much like a taste of something greater waiting on the horizon. For all the episodic rhetoric and in-level storytelling, the first release of Hitman feels like a bold beginning... but a slightly hollow one. The story is incredibly spare, perhaps in response to criticisms of Absolution's narrative, but there's clearly a larger world of intrigue on the horizon that will tie the missions together—we just haven't gotten to it yet—and it gnaws at you slightly once you've completed the initial arc.
However, the value of the franchise has always been its in-level storytelling over its over-arching game narratives. Here, the framing story is thankfully incredibly spare and is a couple of dialogue-driven scenes of a shadowy figure who opens the story with a voice-over about the ICA, underlining 47's influence and the world he's created in his 20-year path as a master assassin. At the review event, Elverdam may have given some clue as to this character's role in the episodic game, referring to Sherlock Holmes as being important to their narrative design direction for the series—saying that you don't read or watch one of many Sherlock Holmes stories to see the character evolve or grow as a person, but how he reacts to solve each case. As Elverdam would say: "In some stories Sherlock gets bored or depressed without Moriarty around to create a challenge."
The first episode of Hitman is a solid starting point for the full game content, which is Contract-driven, with each environment focusing on a single mission with multiple objectives. This is a solid structure for the franchise, even if it's a little jarring to finish the first mission and realize you have to wait for the rest of what would have been released as a complete title. I find myself more excited for what the game will be, when there's more content, than what it currently is. The Hitman - Intro Pack offers some juicy appetizers, but you can feel the meat of the game is yet to come.
The Hitman - Intro Pack will be available on PC, PS4, and Xbox One on March 11th for $15. Additional episodes will be purchasable individually for $10. A season pass, called the Upgrade Pack, costs $50, and The Full Experience, paying for the Intro Pack and future updates, costs $60.
Game provided for play at review event. Code on PS4 provided by publisher for review purposes. Also available on Xbox One and PC.