This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Hitman.
It continues to be catchups month, that magical time of year when the extremely sick and bloated games industry pauses between massive heaves of pukes that we could pick through some half-digested carrots and try to figure out what's wrong with the malingering bastard this time. To that end, let's take a look at a game that first appeared last March but took the rest of the year to gradually squeeze itself out like a life-threatening bout of constipation.
Hitman, the...(mumbles)...fifth or sixth game in the life of Mr. Hitman, master assassin, cold in both emotional and literal sense whenever he goes outside without a bobble hat. Not that you know that this is the sixth (possibly seventh) Hitman game from the title, which has gone along with the industry trend of antagonizing all the world's filing systems. What, was every other Hitman game just pissing about up to now?
Well, that might not be far from the intended message. The goal of Hitman 2016 seems to have been to create a modular platform for Hitman gameplay into which new levels can be inserted in my fly- sorry, I meant "on the fly", get your hands off me! The game's six missions were sold episodically for ten bucks a piece more or less a month apart - a rather clever way to disguise the fact that your full-price game isn't very long. I use the same technique in my lovemaking; between every thrust I bolt from the house and book a caravanning weekend in Castle Douglas.
But I feel this is an ill-advised route for AAA games. First impressions count for a lot and my first impression with Hitman back in March was an hour of gameplay followed by getting smashed in the face by a big stop sign telling me to come back in a month. With so many other games fighting for our eyeballs over the course of the year, interest in Hitman would inevitably suffer more diminishing returns than a financially stricken branch of Blockbuster Video.
I only recently downloaded all the subsequent episodes to play in one big block because I'm a hardcore gamer with no social life and two legs atrophied down to knobs like giant chicken nuggets, but after spending six episodes building up a mildly intriguing background conspiracy, the series explosively climaxes by waggling a hand and going "...yyyeah, this will probably be important in season 2. Now go back to sleep."
But on the plus side, this is the quintessential Hitman experience. You play a grumpy man who is commonly mistaken for a packet of Birds Eye frozen cod fillets right down to the supermarket bar code, traveling to a number of glamourous locales represented by huge contained sandboxes sprawling with little nooks and crannies, tools and people with remarkably loose grips on their trousers. You're given a couple of assassination targets and away you go. Maybe you'll sneak off to a quiet little rooftop and wait for the perfect opportunity to install a top-of-the-line new ventilation system in in the side of their fucking head. Maybe you'll engineer some terribly clever accident involving a chandelier, a recently mopped kitchen floor and a poorly supervised circus tiger. Or maybe you'll just punt a brick at your victim's skull, then leg it for the exit while hooting like Daffy Duck. It's up to you!
So far, so Blood Money. But what Hitman 2016 introduces is much bigger emphasis on the opportunities it set up for you. Every now and again you'll overhear two civvies say something like, "Hey, that bloke in the penthouse suite with big target painted on his face sure loves to drink out of a water bottle with skull and crossbones logo." "Really? That would be jolly easy to swap with poison if one happened to be an assassin." "Yes, it fucking would! Speak up a little, I can't hear you over our waiter being strangled by a giant packet of frozen cod fillets." And then a fucking breadcrumb trail appears on the map guiding you first to a bottle of poison, then to a point where you can dress up in the uniform of a mysterious bottle salesman, then to the target, and then to a convenient local restaurant for the celebratory dinner that strikes the right balance between representing the local culture without being too touristy.
I'm really torn about this, 'cause while this does make getting the fancy kills almost insultingly easy, on the other hand, Hitman is the kind of game where I have to hit quicksave the way the talent agent from The Aristocrats joke hits the call security button on his phone. Because every single mistake you make in Hitman inevitably sets off one of those cockup cascades I've been talking about. It starts with you trying to knock out a guard without noticing he had a friend watching you in the reflection off his shiny bellend, then a bunch of guards come over so you knock all of them out, but then the civilian who's supposed to escort the ice cream man to the birthday party (or indeed any armed psychopath who happens to be dressed like one) gets freaked out by the nine unconscious guards in varying states of undress and you lose the opportunity, and the cockups just escalate and escalate until you give up and reload.
Next time it goes great until someone unexpectedly walks in while you were pulling the unconscious ice cream man's trousers down and gets the wrong idea, and you have to go along with it: meet the ice cream man's parents, get a civil partnership, go on a magical honeymoon to the Seychelles. And all the time, the game's going "There goes the no kills bonus, and the no bodies found bonus, and the never spotted bonus, and the never accidentally got stuck in a loveless marriage bonus." So getting your hand held throughout the assassination opportunities does remove a lot of that frustration, even if succeeding doesn't feel an ounce as satisfying it when you had to figure all this out for yourself.
But hey, you can still get that feeling if you ignore the signposted opportunities and make up your own. Sniping's a good one. Find a nice quiet vantage spot, explode the target's shoulder grapefruit and throw the rifle away before the bodyguards burst in to investigate the shot and go, "Damn! Must have just missed him. There's nobody here but a huge, ugly grimacing French chambermaid smelling faintly of cordite."
Mind you, "sandbox" is a big word, and the maps in Hitman are slaves to the contextual button prompt. The difference between a ledge you can climb on and a perfectly vestigial dado rail is information exclusive to Mr. 47's lovingly shaved noggin. So you do get funnelled down specific routes a lot. The game does give you more rewards for taking the opportunities it sets up. In fact, it gives you rewards for a lot of things: for killing the target with a headshot, with an accident, with drowning, for putting on all the suits, for putting on no suits, for putting on a just-the-right-amount of suits.
There's also countless alternative targets for each map and more besides from the user-designed missions. Clearly, the game was hoping to generate enough gameplay with each maps to tide us over for a month. What a lovely dream, Square Enix. I dream one day of fitting an entire Toblerone in my mouth and everyone tells me that's not very realistic, either.
Pretty as your maps are, I get sick to death of playing them over and over again just to fill out a checklist without story context. And it wasn't even a good story. It's a dimestore thriller with half the pages missing. All you're offering is scavenger hunts, and I got sick of those a long time ago when my uncle used to make me play, "Guess where I put the fun-size Twix".
- All the hits that are fit to play: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Google indicates there are indeed many commercial water bottles with skull and crossbones logos so there's a hot tip for all the easy targets out there
- 'Cock-up Cascade' was my second least favourite game of my uncle's