I've been reviewing video games in some capacity for the past two decades. One thing you learn is that in a ceaselessly changing industry, you have to keep adapting. During the early days of gaming criticism, we were faced with having to review entirely new and emerging genres, styles and types of interactive entertainment nobody had ever seen before. We figured that was pretty much over after 3D exploded onto the scene but of course, we were as wrong as we were when we first looked at Super Mario Bros. on NES and said, "damn, this is so much better than Atari; can video games get any better than this?!" Yes, kids we were, but even adults - and review veterans - have to remember that times just keep changing.
Reviewing expansion packs was always tricky and that didn't get any easier when downloadable content became an accepted and expected matter of course in the console world. Then we got very small indie titles with comparatively tiny budgets, and the question of how we approach these reviews when compared to big-budget blockbusters. Now, we've got episodic offerings, which throw yet another monkey wrench into the works. Personally, I find this publishing option frustrating, though it can work well for certain types of experiences. I'm not sure Hitman should've ever gone this route and my reservations are why this first episode doesn't score higher because in point of fact, the episode - taken on its merits alone - deserves higher in my estimation.
But enough explanation; let's get started. The graphics have never impressed me in this franchise but then again, they're not exactly a focal point. Hitman doesn't thrive on bombastic set pieces and titillating, eye-popping special effects; rather, we get more of a sheer, almost minimalist detailing that reminds me a little of the "colder" PC productions. The colors aren't as vivid and the whole thing seems a little stiff and sterile. However, does this not reflect the very essence of Agent 47? Isn't such a graphical presentation the perfect metaphor for this assassin's persona and chosen profession? And besides, I should add that there is a fair amount of excellent art work and design in the new Hitman, though nothing will drop your jaw.
When it comes to stealth, the audio must play a significant role in the experience. As you slink through the environment, hoping your caution and tact doesn't attract attention, your senses become fine-tuned to the least little sound. The ambient audio is fantastic here, as are the voices and subtle yet fitting music. Everything fits snugly into the stealth format, which allows the gameplay to really shine. It can be difficult to produce a soundtrack and set of effects subtle enough to embrace the inherently quieter nature of the gameplay, and effective enough to enhance the adventure. Developer IO Interactive does a stellar job in this respect. The balancing is on point, too, and overall, the technical elements are extremely solid, if not award-worthy.
The idea of Hitman has always been to present the assassin as a cruel yet ingenious tactician, one who uses his God-given abilities, hand-dandy-tools, and his environment to bring down a target from the shadows. Of course, this isn't supposed to be easy, especially because those targets are often very high-profile and tend to travel with a bit of an entourage. They're protected by lots of men with guns and they tend to reside within high walls and buildings with lots of fancy security measures. It's Agent 47's job to bypass all these dangers and, ideally, take out the target without a fuss. This means there is indeed a fair amount of trial-and-error involved (with which I've never had a problem), and you spend more time thinking than you do acting. This is the crux of the experience, as it always should be.
The new Hitman takes the next logical step with this formula, opening up the challenging playground and giving the player a bevy of options. Granted, "guns blazing" isn't one of those options but let's be clear: It's not supposed to be. I know everyone is enamored with the idea of letting a player do anything he or she wants in any game, with complete freedom when it comes to tackling missions and challenges. But this mindset only results in what we're starting to see in the industry; a horde of open-world action/adventure games that all start to feel exactly the same, as the genres continue to blend at an alarming rate and pure experiences start to disappear. As a result, strict, realistic stealth is becoming increasingly hard to find.
Thankfully, IO returns to this franchise's roots and gives hardcore stealth aficionados precisely what they desire: An improved, deeper, more rewarding tactical experience that never borders on action and remains unabashedly stealth. If you want more action and freedom to kill anyone you see, however you wish, with little in the way of repercussions, go play Assassin's Creed or GTA or whatever. Hitman is for the stealth fanatics, plain and simple, and that's the way it should be. And it's not like we're limited here; in fact, there are always multiple ways of approaching a target. It's not that each way remains firmly entrenched in the stealth mechanic, so while you can don a certain disguise, lure targets to certain areas, knock out certain security measures, etc., you can't just equip an AK-47 and start shooting.
One of the new appreciated features is the great Opportunities system. In past series entries, one could argue the immediate goal was always a little vague. Now, there's no guesswork because the game will tell you when you pay attention to a particular conversation, or when there's a point of interest nearby. It's hardly hand-holding; that's another term we use far too often these days. With a game that hinges on information and understanding your surroundings, it's imperative that you learn as much as you can as you creep about. The Opportunities mechanic doesn't tell you how to do anything; it merely gives you things to consider as you progress in the mission. It's an aid - and an appreciated one - and it's not intrusive at all, nor does it make the challenge easier. It simply clarifies and streamlines.
Agent 47's Instincts Mode lets you see through walls, which means your target doesn't have to escape your line of sight. Not exactly realistic but in the realm of interactive stealth, this has become an expected and even necessary feature. And you'll need every ounce of help you can get because this game offers a stiff challenge; you won't easily find silly exploits and simple workarounds. Just putting on a disguise doesn't mean you're set for the rest of the mission, for example. Dressing up as a waiter might be fine for fooling most people but your coworkers won't recognize you and might get suspicious. Changing disguises is often a necessity, especially when the aforementioned suspicion begins to spread. Watching that happen is actually a heady and wicked tense experience, because you have to quickly adopt a Plan B.
The evolution on display here is easily the best part of the game. It seems like just about every element you'd normally find in a stealth simulator of sorts has been improved upon, from the freedom to approach your target in a number of ways to the AI. Yeah, the AI can be a touch wonky is some areas but for the most part, it's on point and quite demanding. The basic control works extremely well and despite the fact that exposure is a constant risk, you always feel as if you're well prepared for the situation. Agent 47's assortment of tools is awesome and exploring the area is always a blast. If you're going for that coveted "Silent Assassin" rating, you have to use everything in your arsenal and that mostly relies on your planning and ability to manipulate your environment.
But here's where we come to the episodic structure, which means we only get a tutorial and one main mission with Episode One of the new Hitman. It's true that you can replay missions - you always could in this franchise - but there isn't a lot of motivation to do so. Sure, you can try out different assassinations and if you want that perfect silent play-through, it might take a few tries. But aside from that, this episode can get a little old all too quickly, despite the more than acceptable size of the environments. It doesn't help that Escalation Mode basically is just a rinse-and-repeat approach, where you have to take out the same target five times in a row, with a new twist to the challenge every time you play. Yes, it's increasingly tough but the extra objective in each round doesn't do much of anything to change the experience.
Lastly, I should add that I'm on the fence concerning the user-created Contracts. It's fun to hunt down fresh targets within such a remarkably immersive atmosphere but let's face it, most users aren't developers. As such, most of these custom-made Contracts are found decidedly lacking when compared with the ones crafted by the pros. As such, the novelty sort of wears thin because you're always noting the obvious difference in construction, and let's not forget that these Contracts have zero story. However, as players become more accustomed to the system and their creation and customization skills increase, it stands to reason that user-generated Contracts will get exponentially better over time. And with IO supporting this game for years to come, this could be one of the most enticing features.
The new Hitman is a love note to all the hardcore fans out there, and I love that. It embraces the idea that we should try to maintain very distinct genres, that not everyone on the planet wants action and other genre elements to invade their beloved stealth category. Furthermore, it improves on just about every aspect of the standard hunt-and-kill concept, adding more depth and intricacy while streamlining the experience and upping the immersion. It's the proper evolution of the genre, plain and simple. Unfortunately, I'm not sure episodic was the way to go. Due to the repetitious nature of the gameplay and the lack of a cohesive story, one episode seems too small of an introduction, and the user-generated Contracts do little out of the gate to enhance the appeal. When all is said and done, though, this is gonna be an excellent adventure.
The Good: Larger, more detailed and highly immersive environments. Great audio that bolsters realism and intrigue. Solid control mechanic. Opportunities feature removes much of the franchise's former vagueness. The epitome of a new entry that sticks to its roots while still evolving within the genre. Excellent future potential.
The Bad: Replaying the same mission gets old, despite the size and breadth. User-generated Contracts are lacking for now. Disjointed episodic structure impacts story potential and overall interest.
The Ugly: "It gets ‘ugly' real fast if you alert the guards...and that's the way it's supposed to be."
3/16/2016 Ben Dutka