Tuesday, 29 March 2016 00:00

Hitman Episode One: Paris Review

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In any given iteration, the series has had both ardent fans and harsh critics.

It started off as sort of a cult hit, and slowly built on its success. This seemed to culminate in Blood Money, which deftly combined the usual assassination contracts with a slowly evolving storyline that left you hunted and having to use all your skills to come out alive, in the end-game missions. Then Absolution took this story of being hunted down as a basis for a new title. It had you running for your life a good portion of the time, trying to protect a young girl, and usually giving you a linear path to get to a particular objective. You weren't given contracts in the way that previous titles had provided them – instead you were agreeing to go after someone in exchange for information, then told what path to take, pushed to wear specific disguises to get through scripted areas until you get to a particular encounter, often ending with a cut scene rather than you completing any assassination.

The new Hitman, following after Absolution, goes back to its open-ended roots, while still working to spin a tale alongside the contracts.

It starts off with a tutorial that's supposed to be a prequel to the entire series, while the rest is a sequel to the existing series. It's difficult to say how it will play out, seeing as this is being released episodically, but from what I've seen thus-far, I like it. I'll come back to that “episodic” nature a little later, but the assassination contract system works very nicely this time around. You're given targets, as well as any rules to follow in the course of killing them, then it's up to you to find a way to make it happen.

It's similar to Blood Money's system, with certain key elements modified and included from Absolution to excellent effect. The instinct system in particular was pulled from Absolution, without the ability to see NPC paths which was panned as an overly easy way to play since it basically made you psychic (knowing exactly where characters were going to walk before they did so). This time it lets you see the silhouettes of NPCs, whether they'll respond negatively if they spot you, and red coloring for your targets. Objects that you can interact with are colored orange, too, which is extremely helpful at times for quickly identifying what's in the room around you. Instinct definitely makes the missions a little easier than in Blood Money, but not as much as in Absolution, which feels like a good balance.

Some stuff isn't immediately available to you early on, requiring you to play through multiple times in order to unlock drop-offs, items or starting points, but even if you can't get it at the start of the level, in all likelihood you can find it somewhere on the map. And there are numerous options for lethality. Want to kill Mr. Novikov on stage in front of hundreds of his fans? Set up a bomb, or drop the light rigging on him from above, or shoot him in the face from an elevated walkway out of sight. Want to eliminate him without anyone knowing? Arrange a meeting in the garden overlooking the river, then when you get a chance snap his neck and toss him into the water. Want something with an extra dramatic flair? Find the fireworks remote, set them off early to lure the man and his wife outside (his wife on a third floor terrace) and shove her off the ledge where she'll land on him, killing them both. You just need the tools and the skills to get it done.

You really can go about the job just about any way you want.

By default, you can bring along a silenced pistol, a fiber wire for strangling your victims, a poison syringe, coins, and a few other items that can be quite helpful (although I've found myself repeatedly bringing along lockpicks, which I have never used).

No matter what you select, once you get in you're probably going to find a situation where you're wishing you'd brought something else. Then you learn that it's sitting on top of a crate with a couple of guards nearby, and you have to figure out a way to get to it without being noticed... Do you want to kill them for it? Lure them away? Knock them out and strip them naked so you can wear their clothes? The options are endless.

It's the classic, entirely open play that made the series such a hit with its fans. I'm quite happy to see it this way again. I can spend a long while experimenting to find my favorite way to take out a target, so the myriad of choices is a very good thing.

Only having the one regular mission makes it much more difficult to justify coming back to play again and again. They've countered this to a certain extent by including numerous avenues of completion and challenges which you cannot possibly do in a single playthrough, and some of those challenges really are great. A series of unlockable modifiers for the mission attempt to extend play a bit further by rewarding you for completing more challenges.

Unfortunately, they have only included one regular contract mission so far: Paris.

Honestly it works, but again... to a certain extent. If you're a completionist who loves trying out different ways to finish and earning new tools/guns/other modifiers, then you'll probably get many hours out of even the one level. Add to that the custom contracts that players can make, as well as the escalation contracts which will incrementally increase difficulty for a given assassination, and you could find hours upon hours of playtime to justify your money in this one lonely level. Of course, if you're the type to be meticulous and work at finding the perfect method of silently killing your targets, then you're going to spend quite a while on any given mission anyway.

On the other hand, if you want to play through each level, just to complete them all... you'll find Hitman sorely lacking, for now. You'll invest a decent chunk of time in figuring out how to complete your kill, but it's still just Paris, which may go by very quickly for someone with good skills in the series. I can't say if the episodic release idea was a good one or not because of this. It may work out well by further engaging players who can enjoy practicing each contract to perfection, or it may wind up driving away players who want a series of different levels while playing. If you're the latter... I'd recommend waiting a while for more so you don't find yourself bored of playing.

If you're concerned with graphics, it's not the best looking title ever. Most of it looks good, but with how many characters tend to be on screen at any given time, there's very little they could do to make it look better than it does without tanking performance. So while the characters don't look great compared to Rise of the Tomb Raider, it still runs pretty well when you've got a couple hundred of them in front of you, each moving and behaving independently. Very few games can make that claim.

I did find some amusement in the main menu, though. It's extremely reminiscent of an indie game called Plague, Inc. Some of the music for the menu has vibes of the original Fallout, too, mixed in with Plague, Inc. Makes me wonder what they've been playing. Throw in some laughs about the AI being in some ways pretty bad, like not noticing the guy grabbing a drain pipe and climbing up the side of the building right in front of them... it can be comical, but I'll forgive it. I don't expect everything to be perfect.

There is one absolutely infuriating thing about it: the DRM.

I did find the voice work to be excellent - maybe a bit repetitive. Hearing Mary Elizabeth McGlynn's voice again feels very, very strange, especially playing a character named Dalia. It's almost like a time warp back to an alternate 2001. With a couple of other minor exceptions, everyone sounds great, though lacking any form of a Parisian accent.

For whatever unfathomable reason, the developer/publisher chose to implement a kind of DRM which makes no sense whatsoever here. It requires you to be online constantly in order to play. Why? It's a single player game. I'm not up against any other players. There's no deathmatch or co-op mode. I shouldn't have any need at all to be connected to their servers while I'm knocking out NPCs and taking their clothes (which no one else can see). So why are they doing this?

I can only assume they think they can make it nearly impossible for anyone to pirate it, but I'm pretty sure someone can figure out how to make it work anyway. So how does it wind up affecting players with legal copies? Well, I've had some connection problems in recent times, and what I found was that as my connection would drop out for a few seconds, I'd get completely kicked out of the mission I was in. This happened repeatedly; I'd have to reload and hope that there was an autosave that wasn't TOO far behind where I'd been, which I could only do when my connection came back on. So if the Comcast connection decides to crap out for a few days in my house, I'm not allowed to play; meanwhile, the crafty pirate who gets it to work without having to check in with their servers gets to play as much as they want without the hassle of being kicked out. It makes me think about getting a pirated copy, despite having it legally, just so I can play without that headache.

And the crashes – so many crashes I've seen... I started off trying to play in DirectX12, since that's the new hotness for Microsoft, and I couldn't even be in a mission for more than a few minutes before it would crash. After 6 or 7 crashes in the first tutorial level, I switched to DirectX11, which seemed to work much, much better. I managed to get to Paris, the one and only regular contract mission, spent a while trying to figure out my way around, was finally getting the hang of things, and my connection crapped out, kicking me out again. I decided to come back later, when I had a cooler head to give it another go.

So is it worth the price? Maybe.

After coming back and putting in a solid number of hours trying out different ways to go about that one mission, I've seen several more crashes since my connection has stabilized. That says to me they've got some more work to do. Even if every customer can manage to hold a constant connection to their servers, these issues can significantly impact player experience. It's hard to get going in the game when it keeps crashing, and if you have any connection problems like I did, then you might not even be able to continue playing long enough to complete anything. At one point, it crashed while I was in Paris, I tried to reload, and it crashed again before even showing the main menu. That's frustrating.


The Verdict

They're offering a 'starter pack' with the tutorial and the Paris mission, as well as access to custom contracts, for $14.99. If you can get enjoyment out of visiting a palace in Paris a few dozen times, with fairly good graphics, then sure, it's worth $14.99. The $60 package? That's a pretty tough call to make right now. There's no way to know how good or bad the rest of the content will be until they add it in, which is supposed to be spread out throughout the year. Right now the content is very good, but there's only Paris and severely ham-fisted DRM trying to control how you play. Scale back the DRM, fix the crashes, give me more levels on par with Paris, and then it'll be amazing. As-is... it's being held back.

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Eli Ross

Eli Ross is an eccentric dude who enjoys entirely too much horror. Photographer, YouTuber, gamer, maker of many random things at random times. He'll be just as likely to mix up an improvised cocktail as he is to tell you that his spoon is too big or that he lives in a giant bucket. He also cares not whether you get his references - he'll only silently judge you if you don't.