Friday, February 10, 2017

7 days with... Hitman: Season 1

Hitman: Season 1 – Steelbook Edition
Developer: IO Interactive - Publisher: Square Enix - Release: Jan 31st, 2017

Wrapped in STEEL!

In the years since the last entry in their flagship series, 2012’s much maligned (though underappreciated IMHO) Hitman: Absolution, the developers at IO Interactive have more or less kicked the series off from scratch with 2016’s episodic release, aptly dubbed ‘Hitman’. As a long time fan of the series, I felt I’d be better served by waiting for the eventual retail release, and my patience was rewarded with ‘Hitman: Season 1’.

The Arrival...

‘Hitman’ kicks off with the arrival of Agent 47 at an unknown location in a remote mountain fortress, like something out of Cold War James Bond. He’s introduced to his handler, Diana, and from there, the missions commence. The first two locales are brilliantly executed training scenarios, complete with faux backdrops, sparsely constructed plywood set dressing, and a dense crowd of knowing participants who often break character. They set the tone pretty well, and do a brilliant job of providing you a pair of water wings before throwing you into the deep end. The pittance of locations that follow; Paris, Sapienza, Marrakesh, Bangkok, Colorado, and Hokkaido don’t seem like much on paper, but each is a huge, diverse sandbox with an unrivalled attention to detail, and a nigh infinite number of potential scenarios for hitting your assigned marks. The central story mode is suitably cryptic, and each level assigns two targets, and essentially dumps you at a selected starting location, leaving the rest up to you. What’s insane, is the sheer depth of extra-curricular activities the game tosses in for each setting. You’ve got additional scenarios as rich as the story missions, you have time sensitive ‘illusive targets’ that give you a window of days (in real world time) and only a single attempt to take them out. The contracts mode is held over from Absolution as well, albeit with significant upgrades, and allows for community created missions on any map, and right now, there are HUNDREDS to chose from. You’re rated on performance, and you unlock challenges and opportunities by tackling missions in new ways, and some of these are downright bastards to find and complete. Bottom line: There’s a metric ton of replay here for those who enjoy a creative and patient approach.

So much to do... So many to kill...

The Good:
The diverse sandbox is bolstered by AI and gameplay systems that create a logical and believable world for the player to roam. Scenarios are driven almost entirely by how you interpret the game’s varied systems, play the AI, and push back against the boundaries the developers establish. The first location alone, Paris, tasks you with eliminating a fashion world power couple as one of them organizes a world class runway display on the main floor, while the other meets with global elites upstairs and tries to sell off a list of undercover operatives at a covert auction. Of the wealth of options available to you, you might end up attending said auction (and even winning the bid!), or you could end up on the catwalk as a ponce artiste showing off the spring collection. A quick thumb through of the challenges before you start a level can help out if you’re stuck, or at the very least give you some idea of the depth of options available.

One example of an "illusive target".

Character AI is generally reactive and excellent. Nothing ever feels scripted or pre-planned. Guard routes are logical and varied, and you never feel like you’re taking advantage of pre-determined routines. There’s still a bit of waiting involved, rather than taking advantage of scripted AI by standing around, you legitimately feel like you’re waiting for prime opportunities. You can’t, under any circumstances, get away with being overly aggressive. Subduing within line of sight is impossible, and direct approaches almost always result in detection and your own destruction. Every character on the map hears, sees, and reacts in a realistic fashion to your actions, without ever feeling like they’re cheating. This can really make grabbing new disguises and accessing new areas a tricky prospect, as you often have to play a subtle game of divide and conquer, luring a lonely waiter or bodyguard to an isolated location long enough to subdue him and stash his unconscious (or dead) form someplace subtle. This can be doubly tricky when you’ve got what feels like hundreds of people surrounding you.

The crowded streets of Marrakesh.

The scenarios are bolstered by some top drawer writing; ‘Hitman’ feels like a cold war spy thriller at its heart, and the story mode cutscenes and mission briefs are wonderfully presented, without any of the unsubtle off-color humor that made the old entries in the series straddle the line between grim and goofy. This is straight faced, lean, and effective stuff for those of us who grew up in the age of the Euro spy-thriller. New wave techno beats underscore the action, the villains are suitably enigmatic, and the game never gets mired in Agent 47’s origins. There are no gaudy sci-fi white labs or clones here, and no angst; just a driven, cold, calculating figure that allows you to project your own inner assassin bad-ass.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the beautiful locales. IO is subtle with the design, trading glossy next-gen sheen for stark realism, and even when crowds are at their most dense, like the packed Marrakesh streets, the framerate remains smooth and stable. There’s HDR support in there for those with compatible displays as well.


The Bad:
There’s really not a lot to talk about here, though it must be said, Hitman’s gunplay is pretty weak. This isn’t a game that’s designed for you to shoot your way out of bad situations, or build up a hundreds o corpses body count as you progress, but it’d have been nice to be able to effectively pull a gun and shoot someone in rapid fashion if it meant the difference between a restart or finishing a level. Aiming is slow and twitchy, which doesn’t mesh well with the cover mechanics and the over the shoulder aim. The game really feels like it could function as a capable third person shooter, and there are aim assist and sensitivity options, but nothing ever really makes the shooting mechanics work at an even serviceable level. Granted, Hitman really isn’t that kind of shooter, but the option to draw down on some bad guys in competent fashion really seems like it would fit the all encompassing sandbox. It’s a critique to be sure, maybe a little bit of a nitpick, but everything else works so damn well that I couldn’t help but draw attention to it.


The Ugly:
The Glacier engine is not cutting edge tech, and that doesn’t always work to the betterment of ‘Hitman’. It does a phenomenal job of filling a screen with hundreds moving, thinking people, and at times it can look pretty stellar in subtle fashion, but overall, Hitman’s more realistic bent and the relative age of the engine does give things a kind of bland flavor. Character animations and transitions sometimes look a little stiff as well. It’s not even remotely a dealbreaker, and this really isn't the sort of game you buy for presentation value. Don’t use it as a show off piece and expect people to be amazed.

IO Interactive have taken almost 20 years of Hitman, and stripped it out to its very core. What they then put back together is an elegant, no fluff, no fat package that is really the essence of of everything that’s been good or great about the series since its inception. As a sandbox, it’s as immersive and complex as it needs to be, and it does a fantastic job of separating the core experience from the torrent of extras. The story is lean, but effective, and the overall package, complete with awesome steelbook and sleeve belies its origins as an episodic release and really presents a phenomenal release. This one is highly recommended to fans of the stealth genre, and it’s a must own for fans of the series. I can’t wait to seen where they take us in season 2!

Until next time, here are some more pretty screens...

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