Back in the day, the Hitman series brought a complex mix of costumes, stealth and planning to the murky world of the gun-for-hire assassin. As the the titular Hitman - Agent 47 - you were given a target, a selection of weaponry and left to your own devices to make the hit a reality. We still fondly remember playing Hitman 2 back on the PlayStation 2, trying to snipe the right guy through a window while Diana wittered in our ear, telling us "he has no beard!" and other useful info. We're still not sure we ever did whack the right guy...
Scroll forward to 2016 and IO Interactive has reimagined the Hitman world, and has turned it into an episodic adventure, with new locations and scenarios being released on a regular basis. In this review, we're going to cover the tutorial levels and the first of these locations, Paris. From the off, the game impresses with its graphical style, and the voice acting is also commendable, both from the impossibly posh Diana and the gruff Hitman himself. This game has gone back in time to before "The Initiate" actually became Agent 47, and the tutorial takes the form of testing your abilities to see if you can do what is required, followed by a final test, which is considerably harder. The first time you play the tutorial, you're pretty much guided through by the hand, with Diana instructing you to subdue certain people, take their clothes, blend in with a crowd and so on. Following her instructions will result in a successful mission, but it feels somewhat stilted as you can't do what you want to do since there's no exploration element. Luckily, after completing it once, you are then free to try the mission again in "Free Form" mode, where you can pretty much do as you wish. Free Form mode also introduces you to the challenges that are available in each mission. These can vary from wearing a certain outfit to perform the hit, to using certain tools, or even making it look like an accident. The challenges do add to the longevity of each mission, addressing at least one of the concerns we had about the new episodic format. Is it possible to drown the target in the toilet, do you think?
The final test is much more the Hitman we all know and love. You're outside the gates of a Cuban airbase, and the target is inside and needs to be gotten rid of. Again, there are multiple routes, approaches and disguises that can be used to get up close, with certain outfits granting access to the bits of the base that others can't. Just as an example, one of the ways to get rid of the sneaky defector is to sabotage the ejector seat mechanism on the plane he's going to use to escape. You can only do this if you are dressed as a mechanic, so plainly tracking one down and isolating him to knock him out becomes part of your play. Luckily, you can distract NPCs by throwing coins, at which point they will toddle off into the darkest corner to see what the noise was, offering you the perfect opportunity to get a nice new outfit. You can even distract the same guy multiple times to get them in just the right place for a silent takedown. Also introduced in this mission is the ability to do a bit of eavesdropping, which can reveal opportunities to help you in your task. These opportunities can be tracked in your HUD, allowing you to see where to go and what to do to make them come to fruition. The hint about the ejector seat comes from overhearing two mechanics talking, for instance. The payoff for a successful hit and extraction is to be accepted as a full fledged assassin, and to take the name of Agent 47.
After these sections, the game opens up. There's the main mission at a fashion show in Paris to attempt, then there's also Contracts Mode and Escalation. Of these two side modes, Contracts could a potentially unlimited source of missions, relying as it does on the community to create missions for people to undertake. There is a full tutorial to work through that shows you the basics, and after that, the mission can be made to be as fiendish as you want it to be. You choose the stage, you choose the target by wandering around and tagging NPCs (it can be literally anyone, it doesn't have to be the main target on that level), and you can even choose the way you'd like the mission completed. For each stage there's a serious "Assassin" challenge, and a "Fun" challenge. In the tutorial, the serious challenge was to take out a guard without raising an alarm or having his body discovered. So far, so normal. The fun challenge however, requires you to plant an explosive propane cannister by a car by three mechanics, without raising their suspicion, then plant a remote explosive on a nearby car, then walk away and trigger a chain reaction. Maybe it's just the inner baddie in us coming out, but we found this mode to be a lot more enjoyable.
Once you've set up your own fiendish mission, you can publish it to the Square Enix servers and other people can download it and try to beat your par score. This element of score chasing, of trying to shave seconds off a successful hit, is actually very compelling, and will add to the life of the game. The other side mode, Escalation, is also an interesting concept. Set over five rounds, it starts off nice and easy by giving you a stage and an objective - kill a certain person with a certain weapon while dressed a certain way, for instance. Once you have completed that, stage two requires you to do the same again, but adds extra objectives, such as stealing the contents of a safe. Complete that, and stage ramps up the difficulty again, and so on. These missions are a fun diversion, and the harder levels certainly get the brain pumping while you try to figure out how on earth you are meant to get over there and kill your target, unseen.
The Paris level itself sees you trying to take out a pair of targets that are at a fashion show. At the beginning, you are given the chance to select the outfit you want to wear, the area you wish to start and a smuggled item you think may help you out on way to bumping off the pair of bad guys. On the first run through, the choice of suits and start points are a bit restricted, but as you complete challenges and unlock new gear, your choices expand. After this, it's pretty much classic Hitman time again, as you have to infiltrate the show, and then follow hints and try to decide how to make the kills. Should you try being clever and acquire a ticket to the upper floors, or should you arrange a fire alarm so the targets come to you? What outfit would work best? Which of the challenges in the pause menu do you fancy attempting? It really is as open as the game gets, with every decision about approach and route having knock-on consequences that you need to consider. The size of the crowds here is a particular highlight, as the show is stuffed full of NPCs, from security guards to just regular bystanders, all of whom are ready to shout if you do anything to raise their suspicions. Wandering around with a silenced pistol in your hand is a good way to make everybody notice you, and not in a good way...
So far, so good then. This reboot is shaping up very nicely. There are a couple of issues we've noticed with the AI, however. Firstly, hiding in bins is a problem and for a game of this nature, this is pretty unforgivable. On the Paris level, one of the opportunities that is revealed is to take the identity of a male model, and then get close to one of the targets. We were following the clues, waited for said model to wander off and then subdued him and pinched his clothes. Sadly, we were seen by a security guard (from 50 yards away on the other side of a hedge, but lets not get sidetracked) and as he challenged us, we ran away and hid in a convenient bin. Using 47's "Instinct" mode (a handy power that lets you see through walls and highlights your targets in red) we could see two guards coming toward the bin with their guns drawn and pointed straight at us. Normally, we would leap out and die in a hail of bullets, but as a test we decided to keep still and not move, to see what the AI would do. As it turns out, the AI characters wait about 90 seconds, then holster their weapons and walk away, wondering out loud about where we had gone. To say this is a little jarring is somewhat of an understatement, and effectively kills any immersion that you'll feel on that particular runthrough. Another issue we found, and this is something that just seems out of character with the game, is that no-one bats an eyelid if you jog everywhere during a sneaky stealthy mission. You can jog past guards, past soldiers, even past the target, and nobody takes a blind bit of notice. It seems to be a bit strange to be happily wandering around at high speed with nobody caring. If a burly man in a suit with a bald head and barcode tattoo were jogging straight at us, we'd probably take notice! Add to this the amazing eyesight of certain guards, who can spot that you aren't the real Mr McCoy from 40 yards behind you, and the game's AI is an odd mix of hyper vigilance and almost comical laid-backness.