Phil Savage: We don't have a Hitman review just yet, because we only received code yesterday. Instead: let's chat! First, how much have you played?
Tom Senior: I played the beta a lot, and then spent a couple of hours in the finished release last night. That includes the tutorial missions we’ve seen already in the beta and the huge Paris level, which I explored in that slightly creepy Hitman manner. You know, when you stalk around watching people and wondering who’s skin you need to steal to get upstairs.
Phil: I've completed the Paris level—the main event of this initial release—albeit messily, with the lowest possible Silent Assassin rating. I've also started mucking around with some of the extras. Contracts mode is back, of course, but there's also something called "Escalations". It's an assassination that, each time you play, increases in difficulty. Between that and the time limited 'elusive targets' that IO has planned, it looks like there's a fair bit to do between now and the next episode. The Paris level alone is probably bigger and more detailed than any previous Hitman level. I'm still not sure how much you can do in it, because I turned off the Opportunities hints.
Tom: The Opportunities system is probably the part that most rankled veteran Hitman players in the beta. When you overhear conversations that offer clues for a novelty assassination or escape opportunity, a quest chain starts with instructions and objective markers. The question is, if you turn it off, can you still discover and perform these novelty events organically through exploration, and to what extent are characters’ meetings initiated by the opportunities system?
Phil: You can. The Opportunities are still working in the background—all you really disable is the markers and UI prompts. The conversations still hint at what you can do, and so it becomes a matter of figuring out where to be and who to meet. And it feels more satisfying and organic. Without spoilers, I stumbled into one of these chains part way through, while I was wandering about. Taking advantage of it didn't feel like locking myself onto a solution, but rather like I was manipulating the level against a target. That's classic Blood Money. I'll probably turn the Opportunities UI back on when I've played through a few times, just to see what I missed. But I'd recommend disabling it for at least your first run through a level.
Tom: Agreed. They have done a lot to recapture the look and feel of Blood Money. Visually it’s a lot cleaner than Absolution, there’s none of the film-grain grit and dirty surfaces. There’s a very keenly observed sense of style running through everything: the cutscenes, logos, fonts and even the fashion of the party guests aboard the boat and in the Parisian fashion show. It’s both reserved and opulent at the same time, and I really enjoy spending a lot of time there. That’s good, given the amount of time you’re expected to repeatedly visit the same locations. The big worry is that after a few hours you understand the workings of the level so completely that the introduction of new hits won’t significantly change the experience.
Phil: Yeah, I do wonder how much Contracts or elusive targets will shake things up, given that Paris feels so focused around the two targets. Opportunities feeds into this two, because, as far as I can tell from my limited time, the level progresses around 47's actions. For instance, no matter how long I muck about outside the mansion, one of the targets, Novikov, always descends the stairs just as I enter the front door. If you think of a Hitman level as a big, moving machine, 47 now feels like the wheel that turns the cogs. I'm not sure how I feel about that shift yet, or what will happen when alternate missions change the machine's focus. At the same time, there is plenty of scope for slapstick. In the Contracts tutorial, which takes place on the tutorial ferry, it shows you how to set up explosives in such a way to create a chain reaction that takes out three dock workers. That's not something I'd even think to do in the level proper.
Tom: It will be interesting to push the AI around to see how it reacts and where the cracks start to show. I went mad with a sword in Paris and got much further than I probably should have. Unlike a gun, a thrown sword lands with 100% accuracy—it auto-locks onto your target's head— and is completely silent. If a guard wanders over to find out why his friend is lying down with a sword in his face I still have time to reclaim the sword and throw it again before he's brought his gun up to shoot me. I can clear entire zones of guards this way. This probably needs tweaking, fun as it is.
I’m not sure how I feel about the super-observant NPCs with blobs over their heads, who can see through your disguise if you linger in their gaze too long. It’s better than the permanently suspicious NPCs of Absolution, but the system effectively restricts where you can walk depending on the disguise you’re wearing, which can feel limiting. There are a few ways to distract NPCs, but it seems odd to distract your target’s business associate by throwing a coin at the floor nearby.
Phil: The coin thing is occasionally hilarious. I threw one at a soldier's face, and he went off to check out the spot where it eventually landed. Then I threw a brick in his face, and knocked him out. I was really working through some issues with that guy's face. I expect some AI malfunctions, though. Blood Money is regarded as a classic, and had plenty of weird NPC behaviour. It's part of Hitman's thing—by creating a social stealth game about manipulating people, you open yourself up to some shonk. Overall, I'm enjoying Hitman. There's still plenty of prodding to do before the review proper, and I've not had chance to fully evaluate its performance—I've had a few framerate drops in crowded areas, but haven't played about with the settings much. Still, my first impressions are mostly positive.
Tom: I tried out Hitman’s DirectX12 support, and saw some crashes, so expect that to be a very work-in-progress aspect. I couldn’t even really tell the difference between the game running on DX12 and DX11 with all settings maxed out, though I gather there are plans to add extra effects to the DX12 version over time. Otherwise it ran very nicely on a GTX970, bar a few similar drops when entering very crowded rooms.
Likewise, I’ve been enjoying it, but it’s going to be impossible to judge it as a service until it has been out for a while, and on that basis it might be useful to wait for the next release before buying in, to see if the rolling Contracts and Elusive Targets systems offer enough incentive to keep playing. If they do, and the levels are complex and variable enough to maintain interest between releases, this could be a fascinating ongoing project—one that could grow into the deepest Hitman game yet.
Come back for our full review of episode one on Monday!