Hitman prologue review
The Hitman series is like a son to me. The first game was the toddler years. It was still learning how to walk, how to find its footing. You had some iffy voice acting (“I need to use the bathroom”) and some level design that encouraged or flat out required a brute force approach. The 2nd game was the child years. It matured a bit and you saw some inklings of greatness, but it was still a bit rough around the edges. Contracts was the teenage years. You see where it’s headed, but the AI just isn’t there yet. Blood Money is when he went off to university and became a doctor. You’re proud of what it’s become, with such flawless execution that you can only consider it to be a perfect game.
Absolution is where things fell apart. It was wrong in the worst way. You could still see glimpses of its past, but it was ruined beyond belief. Oh sure, it still had disguises and stealth gameplay but it was all so scripted. Each level was a series of set pieces for you to trigger, not a sandbox to explore. Disguises were almost useless since the AI could see right through them. It was linear, the story was goofy without being self aware, and the character of Agent 47 just wasn’t right. It’s even worse than if they had just made an unrelated game and slapped the Hitman brand on it. In that case it still could have been a competent game on its own merits. Instead it was just wholly incompetent by trying to appeal to a new crowd within the confines of the original series.
Simply put, my expectations were not high for the sequel. Oh sure, the developers promised not to make the same mistakes but I’ve seen it all before. Creating Absolution after Blood Money indicates a deeply flawed understanding of the series. You just assume that they’re incapable of even understanding the franchise in the slightest and hope that the next game is just less bad than the previous one. The newest game is simply called HitmanTM, and is an origin story. I guess they didn’t want to have to continue with the story they put forth in Absolution so they decided to ignore it, and the rest of the game’s canon, completely. This was a wise choice.
I’m starting off the review like this to highlight just how blown away I was with the newest Hitman game. Aside from the unfortunate title (Hitman 2016 will never be as iconic as Silent Assassin, Contracts or Blood Money), it is an absolute treat from start to finish. I’m actually willing to say that it’s the best Hitman game yet, and it’s not even finished yet.
Yes, it’s still being made. It’s episodic in nature, meaning each month we can expect a few new missions. At first I thought this was a terrible idea but now I’m in love with it. The missions exhibited so far are so complex and intricate that I feel that they could only be made if an entire month was dedicated to each.
Aside from the tutorial missions the only mission available is The Showstopper. The premise is simple: Viktor Novikov and Dalia Margolis are publicly key members in the fashion industry, and privately information brokers that deal with corrupt governments and terrorist organizations. A huge fashion show is being run in an elegant palace, but on the top floor is a VIP only auction for stolen intel. CIA agent names, blackmail information and more is all up for grabs.
As a concept, the idea is perfect. A fashion show is a perfect excuse for huge crowds (which you’ll need to avoid), and the auction is a great excuse for all the security present. With a big show also comes technicians, stylists and kitchen staff. Simply put, the location lends itself well to having interesting challenges and lots of disguises to play with.
The gameplay is closer to Blood Money than Absolution. Before a mission you can take a few pieces of equipment with you (such as lockpicks, fiber wire and remote detonators). During a mission your main method of movement is to disguise yourself. Most, if not all of a level is locked off to outsiders so you need to play dress up. To get inside a kitchen you may need to dress up as a chef, waiter or possibly a janitor. The idea is that since you’re dressed as a chef then you must be a chef, and obviously chefs are allowed in the kitchen. In Absolution this was ruined in the worst way: dressing up in a certain uniform didn’t make it possible to sneak past people wearing that uniform. So, other chefs would notice you and call security on you. However, unique characters such as judges would be able to move freely since there weren’t any other judges there. It got to this weird area where the only judge in a small town is completely unrecognizable to everybody, but everyone can call out a fake cop just from seeing the back of his head.
In Blood Money disguises were very powerful. It was impossible to be caught with a disguise unless you did something stupid such as commit a murder in full view of everybody. This has the downside of making the game too easy if you get your hands on the right disguise. Hitman 2016 actually blends the two methods perfectly. Certain people could see through a disguise, but not everybody. It makes sense; an officer should know what all his employees look like. It’s enough that disguises aren’t as overpowered as they were in Blood Money, but not so much that they’re rendered useless as in Absolution. Instinct returns, but it’s only used to highlight important items. It makes it easier to find a crowbar that you may need to bust open a safe, but it’s not something you use to just walk past a group of enemies. There are a few other features that make the game easier such as a hint system and minimap, but there’s nothing that can’t be turned off or removed. The game only holds your hand as much as you want, and doesn’t force you to use anything as a crutch. Absolution was ruined with the Instinct mechanics, but due to the level design some sections were impossible without it. This is not true in Hitman 2016.
The level design is just perfect. It requires exploration, creativity and timing. There are a lot of options available to you, but they’re not obvious. You need to explore the level to find out what you can and can’t do. However, even that is not enough. Unlike Absolution where special kills were simply the flip of a switch, Hitman 2016 requires you to do a bit of legwork to set up a kill. Let’s say you want to poison Viktor. In Absolution the poison would be in the same room as a glass that he drinks from on a short 20 second loop. It’s inaccurate to say that the devs solved the puzzle for you since it wasn’t really a puzzle to begin with. In this game the process is a little more involved. Here’s how it went for me: first, I overheard Viktor trying to order a Bare Knuckle Boxer. The waiters don’t know how to mix that particular drink, so he leaves in a huff. From a different conversation I discovered that they wait staff left a copy of the recipe in the basement. I found a door off to the side and snuck in. Luckily the basement also had a changing room complete with a spare set of wait staff clothes. With this disguise I was able to freely move around the kitchen and bar. I pick up the recipe, and also find some rat poison in a supply closet. When Viktor returned to try for a Bare Knuckle Boxer I mixed him a perfect one, with a twist. The poison isn’t enough to kill him though; he makes his way to the bathroom to vomit, where I proceeded to drown him in the toilet.
This is just one of the 5 ways I killed him and I know of at least 4 more ways to assassinate him. The best part is that none of this is given to you. You have to study the environment and get a little creative if you want to assassinate your target stylishly and quietly.
Every Hitman game has the NPCs run on a regular loop, but the ones in Hitman 2016 are much more intricate. It’s not that they’re just longer, but that they’re also dynamic. Viktor gets blackmailed by a rival during the game and as a result he takes a trip outside to speak with his adviser. Where he goes is fairly out of sight, and has an opportunity to spring a trap. This isn’t a repeatable event either; if you don’t act when it first appears you lose your chance completely. Even Blood Money never went this far; the much touted Opera level was actually very predictable. The supporting actor would always shoot your target with the fake gun, go to his room, leave the gun on the counter, go to the bathroom, and repeat. There was no variation to his pattern.
Hitman 2016 even offers the ability to indirectly change your target’s actions. Viktor demands that his art director will take the stage and deliver a speech during the fashion show. If you knock the director unconscious and hide the body, Viktor will be forced to do it himself. The stage just happens to be under an unstable light rig. The rest should be obvious.
The AI is pretty great as well. For once NPCs will notice all the little things that usually get ignored in games. They’ll notice bullet holes in walls, or if a guard is missing. They even have an impressive vocabulary. At one point I got caught committing a murder with a fiber wire, while dressed as a waiter. The woman that saw me ran to the nearest guard and told him that a “bald man wearing a waiter’s uniform strangled a guy with wire”. As soon as I stepped in front of them she screamed, pointed at me and ran away. After killing both of them I noticed that no one else knew about the murders. The AI wasn’t magically prescient to everything I did; the woman didn’t tell anybody else about what she saw, and the guard hadn’t called it in yet. This is a level of detail I rarely ever see in any game, so to see it in a mainstream triple-A reboot is both exciting and confusing. They even make sure the NPCs are wrong sometimes; I once was caught knocking someone out with a chokehold. The NPC incorrectly told others that someone was strangled to death. He was wrong about that, but you’d expect an eyewitness to make a few mistakes if they merely glance at a crime during the night. The NPCs felt like real people instead of mediocre bots.
The episodic nature of the game really lends itself well to repeat playthroughs. If I had unlocked a new mission right away I likely wouldn’t have gone back to find all these alternate ways to kill my targets. This is furthered by the new options the game opens up as you play it. By completing certain challenges you unlock content such as the ability to start in a new area, or smuggle something in as a secure dead drop. These don’t provide a major advantage, but it does cut out some of the repetition. Dressing up as a cook in the basement is easy enough to do on my own, but gets tedious if I have to keep doing it on every new playthrough. Being able to save a few minutes in setup time is wonderful and really keeps the pace going.
Hitman 2016 also nails the tone of the game. Everything is serious, but exaggerated for effect. Fashion designers are just a little more pretentious than they would be in real life. There are two security groups at the show and each thinks the other is arrogant and stupid. You can even disguise yourself as a fashion model and take to the runway. It’s funny and a bit tongue in cheek without being the slapstick stupidity of Absolution.
The main story is a bit hard to gauge right now. The story starts with Agent 47 going to the Agency for the first time and meeting his handler, Diana. This section is actually pretty generic; Diana believes in his skills but her boss is worried that 47 is a loose cannon and can’t be trusted. Diana’s and 47’s interactions feel like they’d fit better in a buddy cop movie than a Hitman game. Past that there’s nothing left to go off of. The Showstopper is the first major mission and isn’t directly tied to the main plot, and the game hasn’t progressed past that point. I am hopeful though; the dev team has clearly showed that they can take criticism so I imagine the new dialog should be an improvement over what we’ve seen so far.
While Absolution was an awful, awful game it did have some good ideas, and Hitman 2016 carries them over. Contracts mode returns, where you can create or play custom hits based on the levels in the game. There’s not too much you can do with it (it’s not a full blown level designer after all), but it adds a bit of replayability. It also helps to showcase how much thought was put into the level design. In each level there are a fair number of side conversations that have nothing to do with the main mission. At first I simply assumed that it was a bit of good flavor text, but they have the bonus of being candidates for contracts. You’re not killing generic NPC #1347, you’re killing a reporter that’s really hitting it off with a security guard, or a cook that smokes too much while on the job. Not only does this make it a bit more interesting from a story perspective, but it means that you’ll be focusing more on parts of the level that you may have ignored in the main mission. I never bothered to go to the kitchen in the basement while playing the main game, but one of the contracts takes place there.
There’s an escalation mode but I’m not too big of a fan of it so far. The idea is that you have to complete a mission with increasing restrictions. First mission is to kill a KGB officer, with a handgun, while dressed as a soldier. Second is to do the same thing, but also steal from a secured safe. Third is to do the same thing, but also kill a different soldier while dressed as a technician. The main problem is that these restrictions change very little. 90% of my strategy was unchanged even with the added constraints. The concept isn’t inherently flawed as there’s no reason why future escalations can’t be more interesting. It’s just that the team really didn’t do a good job getting my excited about the concept.
I have heard that there are some DRM issues that make the game a bit of a pain. I never noticed any myself, but it’s clear that I’m the outlier. People have been kicked to the menu screen after a connection drop, and it seems that there’s a separate save for offline and online mode so you can’t access all your content even when offline. These are some really annoying issues that mar an otherwise amazing game.
Hitmant 2016 being this good is amazing all on its own, but being so good after such a massive drop in quality is a most welcome surprise. I’ll be reviewing each level as they come out, and I’m eager for each one.