There’s been some discussion of late – amongst myself and Lizard Lounge’s very own Trevor Coelho at least – about the nature of IO Interactive’s beta test for their next Hitman game. Is it right to use access to a game’s beta as incentive to pre-order the game itself? Since the folk most likely to participate are likely to be some of the game’s biggest fans – not new converts to the cause. They want to help the developers out in making the game better, and clearly the developers appreciate that help – so why are they being charged for the privilege?
I don’t have definitive answers to these questions. As someone who recently pre-ordered the game, and hence took part in the Hitman Beta that just took place on the PS4, all I can say is that I didn’t feel I was charged for the privilege. I paid for the game (I’m not sure if I’ve paid for anything at this stage actually – the money may not have left my account). My entry to the beta was simply guaranteed by my commitment to buying the game.
But I’m not here to talk about that. Trevor, myself and some of the other Lizards can maybe take that up another time. Pre-orders. Incentives. Betas. Post-launch content. These are all topics worthy of further debate and discussion. I’m here to give my impressions on what I played of the latest entry to the Hitman franchise, during the weekend just passed.
After a couple of days playing around in the two training missions included in the Hitman Beta – prodding (with varying degrees of force) at the boundaries of accepted behaviour, hearing the same snippets of conversation repeatedly – it was difficult not to feel like a murderous Bill Murray. Living out the same bad day at work over and over again until I was so intimately familiar with everyone’s routine that Agent 47’s bad day slowly morphs into my (and hopefully his too) perfect one.
I execute my target with the ruthless efficiency of a man who has already carried out the same hit successfully in countless different ways, but also with the caution of one who has failed to kill their intended mark (disastrously) on more than one occasion. I slip past that security guard yet again. I distract that waiter with a tossed coin for the umpteenth time – a trick that never fails. I’ve knocked this mechanic out so many times I start to wonder if he has any notion of self-preservation whatsoever.
With repeated plays of these two levels their safe paths become second nature. The overheard conversations become markers of progress. The placement of outfits (or their occupants) and weapons are quickly committed to memory. It has probably been ten years since I played a Hitman game in this way. I didn’t hate Absolution as much as some, but the constant narrative push and its less than robust disguise mechanism meant I didn’t play and replay levels like I had done in 2006’s Blood Money.
Offering up alternative ways to complete your mission, and then putting them in a checklist is a great way to encourage replays (gamers do love a checklist after all), and though they were also present in 2012’s Absolution, I don’t remember them being quite so compelling. Each level’s challenges suggest alternative ways to assassinate your target – drowning them in a toilet, or getting the old fiber wire out and all but slicing their head off – but they are also awarded for locating particular aspects of the level or carrying out specific actions.
Add to that the fact that they are split into categories, and your veering dangerously close towards my kind of game. There were only three challenge categories on show for the beta’s second level (the first only contained a number of Feats), but the completed game will include five – Assassination, Discovery, Feats, Targets and Items. Hopefully these will be completely fleshed out for the prologue missions as well as the Paris level when the first instalment arrives on March 11th.
The two levels themselves were relatively small, at least when compared to the Paris/Showstopper level that has been shown off by IO Interactive ever since the game was first announced. They both take place in an ICA training facility, and despite their intended settings – a party on a luxury yacht and a Russian military base – they each have a delightfully makeshift feel, cobbled together as they are from chipboard, curtains, temporary fences, artificial lighting and an apparently endless supply of willing actors. These are only simulations after all, designed to test Agent 47’s skills. I expect the six real world environments to encompass much bigger areas, and include even more toys to play with.
One divisive addition to the game is the new Opportunities system. Introduced during the second mission, 47’s handler Diana Burnwood highlights these Opportunities as a potential method of getting to your target. As you overhear a conversation, on-screen prompts give you the chance to track them, and you’re essentially guided through the hit step-by-step. I found these a little too intrusive for my tastes and quickly shut them off. I’ve played these games before, I get the deal. I don’t need to be dragged along by the hand. I don’t want to shown everything all at once.
I can appreciate that those new to the series might want some hints as to what’s possible in a level, but for me, half the fun is discovering all those little murder traps for myself. Thankfully the developers realise that there are some pretty hardcore Hitman fans out there (I’m not claiming to be one of those) and have made the GUI pretty well customisable. You can turn on or switch off most of the on-screen elements and prompts in the options, making your contract as difficult as you want it to be. I have a feeling some of these options may expand over the game’s lifetime, depending on how vocal the community is.
The disguises system has been overhauled too, much to the celebration of Agent 47’s fans. Now, once you’re in disguise you’ll only be recognisable to those individuals that are highlighted. They are known as enforcers. All the others tend to ignore you, though they do occasionally make an amusing aside or simply wish you a good day. You’ll still be confined to particular floors or areas – for example, a waiter won’t be allowed into the boss’s private room; a party guest is not able to enter the yacht’s kitchen without sparking minor confusion and panic – but unless you’re spotted by one of those enforcers, you’re free to wander as you please. Just don’t do anything too weird. That’s when things start to get out of hand.
NPC reactions have also received a welcome change in that regard. No longer will they immediately open fire if they spot you in an area from which you are forbidden. You’ll be told you can’t be there, and you’ll be escorted out. It’s refreshing, but more believable, behaviour. It goes a long way to making the world you’re attempting to infiltrate more convincing. But still, if you’re spotted with a gun or meddling with people’s drinks you’re probably going to have a fight on your hands.
Much as I had fun playing new Hitman, there were a couple of areas that still require attention. The inventory system is clunky at best and really needs to be streamlined. Just changing an weapon/item pauses the game and brings up the inventory wheel. A professional hitman should be more adept at selecting the right tool for the job. The animation, while decent enough, was a little stilted, and occasionally prone to clipping/glitching. There is a good chance both of these will be refined over the next six months.
Overall however I was left impressed and excited. More Hitman drip-fed to me over a half a year? Why would I want to pass that up? I’ll have a blast getting to know those levels inside out. To clumsily recall the Groundhog Day analogy, I’m hoping I don’t see Agent 47’s shadow and we’re greeted with six more months of dastardly assassination attempts. How about you? Did you get involved in the PS4 beta? Perhaps you’re taking part in the PC beta occurring this weekend. Maybe you’re a disgruntled XBox One owner who wasn’t given the opportunity. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.