I sprint the final 20 metres to the car. Somehow, I've managed to escape this Russian military base – in Cuba, not anywhere closer to Moscow. Any guard I encountered, I neutralised using the incredibly subtle tool of a hammer. The game assures me it's non-lethal. Sure, a fractured skull almost certainly poses zero risk to anyone's life. At least, this is what I've been telling myself each time I've lured an enemy down a dark corridor for a thump to the temple.
"That was funny, but you'll never get away with it in Paris," smirks one of the Square Enix staff walking around the Hitman preview event I'm at, their steady patrolling making them seem like guards of a different sort. Guards I shouldn't whack with a hammer.
But I'm delaying on answering the big question here, hanging above the heads of every Hitman fan: does this new entry in IO Interactive's long-running stealth-murder series feel anything like the beloved Hitman: Blood Money of 2006? Or, at least, not so much like the maligned Hitman: Absolution that came out six years later and is, iOS titles aside, the immediate predecessor to this forthcoming entry?
'Hitman', beta launch trailer
The answer is that Hitman, 2016 version, is somewhere between the two points, but a lot closer to Blood Money than Absolution. It features the next-gen polish that we saw in Absolution, while the large levels filled with flexible opportunities for sneaky kills return from Blood Money, albeit with a whole lot more non-player characters to interact with. The three areas I explore are thriving with life, some of which to talk to, some of which to take away. The two-part tutorial begins with a boat party before our quiet protagonist, Agent 47, finds himself at the aforementioned base. Later, the first mission proper turns you loose at a Parisian fashion show, complete with dodgy meetings going on in secret rooms.
Each area is teeming with hostiles, weapons to improvise, opportunities for kills – and potential witnesses. And if they see so much as the slightest shadow of your misdeeds, you'll need to take care of them. Suffice to say that while learning the art of the hit, I had to stuff a dozen and more bodies into a side room before stalking off into the night, whistling a jaunty tune and wearing the clothes of the last guard I killed. Who was, conveniently and just like every other male in the game, exactly my size.
The gunplay in Hitman feels fine – an armed Agent 47 is more than a match for a room full of guards, which makes total sense considering you're a genetically engineered killing machine. But fighting in this fashion is only ever a war of attrition. There's only one of you, and every round chips away at 47's health. There are, however, absolutely loads of them. However many guards you drop with a headshot, they will just keep coming.
The Hitman games have always been tough: pulling off the perfect hit takes plenty of practise, nerves of steel and often a little bit of luck. But that final factor's always been a big part of the series' charm. It makes those flawless assassinations feel all the better, like fate was as much on your side as thorough preparation.
Everything gels immediately in the new Hitman. The tutorial shows you Agent 47's training montage within the International Contract Agency (ICA), and the shadowy assassination broker that he works for/against through the series. Within seconds you choke out a poor crewmember near the party boat and slip into his outfit. "We've not seen anything like that before," remarks Diana Burnwood, 47's long-term handler. I guess 47's been into role-play since before he joined ICA.
The boat feels claustrophobic and tense, but it's a perfect location to show off the way playing dress up works in 2016. Disguises have always been an awkward element of the Hitman series, hard to introduce into any stage while ensuring they make enough thematic sense. There's no risk of dissonance this time, though: wearing the uniform of a guard gives 47 his privileges, unless you run into one of that (now, at least, incapacitated) guard's closest work colleagues, or the security supervisor, who knows his entire team personally. And this will probably happen – the crew of the target-owned boat is small, each guard knowing the next, so it's vital to not linger too long in anyone's sight.
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You can avoid suspicion by keeping your distance from other guards. Get your head down if they're passing nearby. Wipe down a table; look like you're supposed to be there. It's a constant challenge – just putting on someone else's clothes isn't enough to prevent detection in Hitman. You have to act the part, too.
The second part of the tutorial sees you throw down with the Russian military. While I pick up a hammer for the blunt approach, the journalist playing next to me manages their hit with perfect stealth, slipping in and out of the hot zone like a whisper.
Little did I know, slyly watching his silent entry to the facility, that he had a master plan. The second tutorial – in addition to introducing enemies with some firepower on their side – is all about the game's opportunities system, a new addition for 2016. Overhearing two guards discussing the fighter jet that'll be used to fly out the Soviet spy you're here to assassinate gives you an inventive new way to take down the mole. With a bit of prodding, and a lot of sneaking, you can sabotage the jet's ejector seat and splatter your target when it triggers prematurely.
These sorts of kills have long been a hallmark of the Hitman series, with perhaps the most infamous being the switching of a prop gun for the real deal during Blood Money's "Curtains Down" opera level. The difference here is that several of them are available in any single scenario. Talking about too many of them would ruin the surprise, but when you move into Paris there are a number of options open to particularly creative players. You might, for example, want to note that Agent 47 is the spitting image of a world-famous supermodel rumoured to be walking the catwalk at today's fashion show.
There is a wealth of positives to embrace about the new Hitman, then; but with the base game – the tutorials and Paris, with further missions available episodically – released just weeks away from the time of writing, on March 11th, I have some concerns. During my preview session with Hitman, it crashed ten times in three hours. The beta, which starts on February 12th, might allay performance fears – hopefully, what I played was a version several tweaks ahead of what the public is about to get its hands on. Perhaps more pertinently, there's the question of longevity: is there enough to do in this game? Will one level proper be enough to keep people content until the next batch of missions becomes available? Square Enix are gambling on yes – and the inclusion of a few extra modes might be reason enough to back their corner.
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The Contracts mode from Absolution returns for 2016's Hitman. Square Enix have revealed that 30 million contracts have been played to date on Absolution, so they're bringing it back. The basic structure hasn't changed: carry out a hit and then upload your efforts so that online friends and strangers alike can either replicate them or, better yet, improve upon your best. What's different is the scope of the mode – 300 "fully simulated" NPCs populate each Contract stage, all of which have their individual routines, ready to either interrupt your progress or become an essential cog of it. Either way, horrible, horrible murder is the likely result.
Escalation contracts are included, too. These are similar to the Contracts missions, but they're hand designed by the team at IO Interactive. They slowly escalate in difficulty by adding more and more problems to the mix every time you beat a scenario. This led to running someone down in the middle of a hall with an ancient cavalry sabre, so expect similarly ridiculous antics when you play the game yourself.
Finally, there are the Elusive Targets challenges. This is what I'm most excited by – time-limited targets who will come online for just a few hours, in real time, with players getting just one chance to take them down. If you kill them, they're dead, obviously; but if they escape, that's it. You don't get a second chance to make a first impression, as they say. And finding these targets is going to be tricky – each has their own backstory, but the player will receive just a few cryptic clues on how to find them. Players will be skulking around looking for hints and listening into conversations if they want to find the target, and I can see this mode appealing massively to Hitman perfectionists.
At its best, Hitman 2016 is the pinnacle of what any game in this series should be. It's incredibly polished, and when everything clicks into place, and you strike down your target having laid out the most incredible plot ahead of that moment, it's just so much fun. But its drip-fed digital release model is a risk, and its pricing a little confusing – you get access to everything for your standard $60 (about £45 in the UK), but breaking the full game down into its components can see that price rise, and it's actually marginally cheaper to buy further episodes individually than as an "upgrade pack" complete bunch of five. A disc version including (presumably) everything won't come out until much later in 2016.
I'm not wholly convinced that the loyal Hitman audience of old will be up for playing the new game piecemeal, but the beta is likely to separate those who are ready to go right now from others who'll wait for the physical package. I'll be playing the beta at home, I know that much, and if the idea of getting away with murder appeals to you, I recommend you do the same.
Hitman is released on March 11th, with its beta beginning on February 12th – check the game's official website for more information.
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