Hitman: Sapienza Review

It’s been six weeks and a hair since Hitman: Intro Pack launched, aspiring to take a leaf from Telltale Games’ book with an episodic release format. Doubling down on the series’ trademark replayability, it seems that this game’s success would hinge on the quality of future content. If Hitman: Sapienza is anything to go on, fans can rest easy for now; Hitman is in very good hands.

Sapienza brings Hitman’s second major map and story mission, set in the eponymous Italian town. Your mark this time is noted bioengineer Silvia Caruso, a troubled genius that’s developing a deadly virus that can target specific people across the world- something of a killer app in the assassination game. His phobia of travel means that he doesn’t want to leave his luxuriant mansion, which is handily kitted out with an underground laboratory. You’re also to take out Caruso’s Head of Laboratory, Francesca De Santos, who is very capable of taking over if (when) Caruso leaves the picture. Finally, you must destroy the virus sample in the laboratory.

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As with Paris, it’s a joy to carry out the mission a number of times. There’s more to each of your targets than you’re initially aware of, and integrating your intel into assassination approaches is still tremendous fun. I was a little bit disappointed when the most obviously laid-out paths for each mark involved poisoning, but repeat playthroughs revealed some delightfully outlandish executions that topped my standing favourite kill from this game so far (that would be tipping the wife onto her husband in Paris).

The real star, though, is the map itself. Like Paris, Sapienza centres around a very classy mansion, although this map still manages to feel distinct. The streets surrounding the estate feel alive and fleshed-out, with a surprising amount of enterable buildings. Sun-bleached yellow cobbles, colourful cafes and butcher shops bustle with activity, and the backdrop of Mediterranean cliffs and sea sets a totally different tone to the mansion setting.

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I remain gobsmacked at the scale and complexity of Sapienza. Even though the crowds are thinner than last time’s Herculean effort, there are still scores of NPCs to outsmart, outmanoeuvre, and impersonate. The mansion is smaller than Paris’ too, but the streets and caves around and under the place lends a serpentine, multilayered feel that showcases the game’s continual utilisation of current-gen technology.

There are some issues with dumbass AI, though. NPCs largely react relatively intelligently to situations, with a believable spread of alert through guards and nice touches like civilians alerting guards to illegal activity, and guards carrying found weapons to lockup. But NPC behaviour is far from perfect, since I encountered a few situations where guards tried to apprehend me whilst facing the wrong way, as well as some doofy pathing. Since the whole fantasy of the game revolves around outsmarting people, that effect is diminished when those people don’t act in a believable fashion.

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Outside of Sapienza’s story mission, there’s still a wealth of side-content in the form of Escalations and Contracts. Escalations have you carrying out a series of assassinations with similar objectives- like the use of explosions to take out the mark- that get progressively more difficult. Altering your approach when stipulations like “no non-target casualties” are added to the mix makes for interesting variation.

The real meat when it comes to side content is in the Contracts mode, though. It’s good to see that the community has continued to produce a plethora of quality scenarios to play through. For those that don’t know, Contracts allows players to specify chosen NPCs in a level to be killed, as well as limitations like required weapons or disguises. Crucially, IO Interactive continues to curate and promote the best examples of player-made content, ensuring a stream of fresh content each time you log onto the game.

It seems like IO is settling into a good rhythm for now. I’m excited to see where they take the series, although I hope Episode 3 steps back from the mansion setting before it becomes a crutch. Since it’ll be set in Marrakesh, I’m hoping to see more of the streets that are so well realised in this episode. IO and Square Enix have had a hard time convincing people of the viability of their release schedule, but it seems to me that a modular Hitman might shape up to be the best choice for the series right now. Good work, IO.


Hitman Intro Pack Review

Hitman is a curious beast. It seems that IO Interactive have listened to the overwhelmingly tepid reception to their previous offering, Hitman: Absolution, and with good reason: the way that game mixed up the social stealth elements and neglected the traditionally open level design of classic Hitman series play left a lot of people cold, myself included. Hitman plays it safe by returning to the style of gameplay that cemented the series’ popularity, yet risks it all with an unprecedented episodic release format and a baffling always-online policy.

Hitman Intro Pack includes the prologue maps (which were available in the beta), as well as Paris, which holds the game’s first major mission. The prologue comprises two “training” levels: Agent 47 is training as an assassin for the ICA (Google tells me that’s the International Contract Agency, I’m not sure the game extends that courtesy for those of us that haven’t read up on Hitman’s lore) and must complete two mock-up assassinations in the ICA compound. The first mission takes place on a boat, and the second takes place in a Soviet military base.

Out of the prologue you’re off to Paris, where you’re to infiltrate a fashion show in order to take out two marks: Viktor Novikov, the owner of the Sanguine fashion house and host of the event, and Dalia Margolis, ex-model and Viktor Novikov’s girlfriend. The two characters are also leaders of IAGO, a spy network that sells classified information to the global elite, which is the real reason they’re in your crosshairs.

These playable sequences are sandwiched between cinematics that try to provide a little bit of flavour to Agent 47’s character and background. I don’t necessarily think that 47 needs to actually have a character; I always found him more interesting as an unfeeling instrument that doesn’t really need fleshing out, so I always find it weird when they try to.

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The core gameplay of Hitman is a triumphant return to form. Absolution’s decidedly linear level design is gone, and reliance on an Instinct resource to “sell” your disguises is gone. Hitman employs an updated version of the disguise system: the vast majority of people will be fooled by your disguises, but certain people will notice that you’re an intruder if you stay in their line of sight too long. So if you’re a waiter, certain members of staff will notice that you’re not from amongst their ranks, especially the boss. You can counteract this by “blending in” at certain points, though- sweeping the floor or standing ready behind the bar or whatever’s appropriate for your current disguise. This system maintains that thrill of trespassing in plain sight, but lends a sense of believability and challenge that Absolution failed to deliver with its own revisions to the disguise system.

Beyond the disguise system that is the focus of so much of the gameplay are competent stealth and action mechanics that you can employ to dispatch your targets. There’s not really anything new in these areas, but then Hitman was always about working the environment and its inhabitants to take out the marks, and this is capably realised through those mechanics. If previous Hitman offerings didn’t put you off with their particular brand of action-stealth controls, this one won’t either.

Speaking of environments, Hitman Intro Pack knocks it out of the park with its offerings. The prologue missions are packed with NPCs and a variety of paths and details, but Paris is absolutely stuffed. The level takes place in a massive multileveled mansion and its grounds, boasting hundreds upon hundreds of NPCs and a veritable wealth of detail. It’s immediately clear that the game offers a vast amount of customisability to your approach, in a way that makes you want to immediately dive right back into the level when you’ve completed it the first time. In short, Hitman expands upon the series’ trademark sense of experimentation while making full use of current generation hardware to boost its scale to the next level.

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The variety of approach is highlighted by the new Opportunity system and the extensive list of mission-specific challenges that the game tracks as you progress. The game will alert you when you’re witnessing an opportunity to follow a certain path to fulfil an assassination. In my first playthrough, I learned that Agent 47 bears an uncanny resemblance to one of the models in the fashion show. Upon eavesdropping on the model and learning that he has ties to one of the targets, I relieved him of his clothes, assumed his identity, and got into a one-on-one meeting with the mark during which I decided to poison their drink while they were distracted.

What’s great about the Opportunity tracking system is that it’s fully customisable. You can have the game give you both prompts and waypoints, even pointing out specific people that you should target to gain their disguises. You can turn off waypoints so you’re exploring and working out how to fulfil each step of the opportunity based on vague hints alone like “learn more about this” or “attain that costume”. For a fully independent experience more akin to old-school Hitman, you can turn off the Opportunity tracking system altogether. This is a fantastic way of allowing people to approach the game with the exact degree of handholding that they want. Purists can take their time to observe everything patiently and make measured decisions on how to progress, and people without the patience for all that can get a little bit of help to see the various outlandish assassination methods without shamefully resorting to online guides.

Scanning the Challenges and Opportunities screens showcases the sheer level of variety that Hitman offers, and there’s good reason to chase down each objective; completing challenges progresses your Mastery score for the mission, unlocking new weapons, stash locations, and even the opportunity to start the mission undercover in a disguise to further mix up future plays of the level. This feature, paired with the amount of stuff to see and do in the levels, makes each mission eminently replayable.

Apart from playing and replaying the story levels, Hitman also offers Contracts mode, which features community-designed missions. Players can drop into the map, specify certain NPCs as targets, and stipulate that you dispatch the targets with specific disguises or weapons. There are even featured Contracts chosen by IO Interactive for their quality; it’s really nice to see that degree of curation.

That level of quality control is really important because IO Interactive really need to extend the playability of Hitman between releases of new content. Apart from a major mission/ area release each month, you’ll be playing through Contracts mode as well as Elusive Targets, which is like Contracts mode but there’s a limited window of time that the target is available for and if you mess up, you don’t get another try. IO Interactive are certainly putting their best foot forward in attempting to keep people interested in the game between releases of new content, but it remains to be seen how successful they’ll be.

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Hitman boasts excellent presentation, which works with its tight gameplay to cement it as a premium AAA release. The level of detail in the environments is reflected in the visual design, from incidental environmental details to the diversity of character models. The mansion grounds of Paris are beautifully rendered and expansive, from the gardens to the cellars to the grand hall in which the fashion show takes place. One slight complaint I have is with the audio balancing for NPC’s voices; sometimes I tried to listen to mission critical dialogue, but it kept being drowned out by incidental dialogue and subtitling often didn’t pick up on the lines that I wanted to take in.

Unfortunately, Hitman’s always-online state led to some very frustrating instances of servers dropping and kicking me out of my missions. I kept going back online and relaunching the mission, but server blips were a couple of minutes apart at the worst point, rendering the game unplayable if I wanted to score challenges (which is precisely what you’re chasing when you replay a mission). This was made even worse by the game’s minute-long loading screens, which I found acceptable for loading missions but in this instance added insult to injury. I think it’s pretty unacceptable to force always-online into a single player only experience. I can only guess that this is a misguided from of DRM, or a way to stop people cheating leaderboards or something. But it’s a pretty rubbish player experience when you’re at the whim of dodgy servers that are out of your control, and I hope IO straighten this out pronto.

As far as I’m concerned, Hitman represents a triumphant return to form for the series. Fans of Hitman: Blood Money will delight in this game and its progression of the old school Hitman formula. The only reservation I have about the full game is whether people will stay interested for long enough to keep coming back to the new levels when they’re released. I think that Hitman Intro Pack itself represents fine value for money, with tons of variety that really made me want to keep replaying the missions on offer. And you have to love a game that lets you kill someone with an ejector seat.

What’s The Best Way to Make A Deadman Game?

With Hitman back in the spotlight (albeit in experimental episodic format- review coming in the near future for my impressions on the intro pack), I’m reminded of much how I love disguises as a game mechanic. I’ve written before on how I adore that sort of brazen stealth that not only offers the thrill of the kill, but the added glee of audaciously walking amongst your would-be witnesses.

While thinking about how this might be expanded upon, I immediately thought of the character Deadman from DC Comics. He’s towards the lesser-known end of the spectrum of comic book heroes, although he has enjoyed the occasional moment in the spotlight like in the Justice League Unlimited episode “Dead Reckoning” and parts in well known series like Kingdom Come, Blackest Night, and Brightest Day.

If you don’t know Deadman and aren’t of the wikipedia inclination right now, I’ll sum him up for you: Boston Brand was a circus performer until he hit that well-known career roadblock: being murdered. His spirit is kept on the Earthly plane by the Hindu deity Rama Kushna, giving him the usual benefits of being dead- invisibility, intangibility and blatant disregard for gravity. Deadman can possess any living being, controlling their actions and sometimes accessing their memories as well as superpowers if they’re a metahuman. That’s a power set that could really push forward disguises as a gameplay mechanic through the method of body swapping as well as adding the voyeuristic element of undetectably flying around the area to plan your move.

Another game that played with ghostly possession was Ghost Trick for the Nintendo DS, in which you could possess corpses and rewind to up to 4 minutes before their death, rearranging objects in the environment in order to change events and save their life.

What I envision looks more like a Hitman game, though, with open-ended levels packed with NPCs that you can assume control of. Since Deadman can physically go anywhere, invisibly passing through walls with ease, the challenge should some from engineering events and possessing the right people to achieve whatever goals that level calls for- extract a vital object or person, learn some important information, save innocents in danger. All things that Deadman needs to use a proxy body to interact with the world to achieve.

In traditional storylines, Deadman is either trying to solve a mystery like the identity of his murderer, or aiding spirits that have unfinished business on the Earthly plane in order to serve Rama Kushna’s goal of maintaining the balance of justice. Either setup would accommodate a series of open-ended levels rife with multiple paths of progression as well as side objectives for an opportunistic do-gooder like Deadman to help people out. I’m imagining a series of events that keep tying back to a central antagonistic individual or organisation, like the Daredevil or Jessica Jones Netflix TV series where events consistently tie in with the respective shenanigans of the Kingpin or Killgrave.

While possessing an NPC, your physical abilities should be limited by the capabilities of their body. Maybe you want to use someone to infiltrate a building to retrieve some vital object (perhaps evidence to prove someone’s innocence) and spot an open window a few floors up. There might be an NPC amongst a group of people practicing parkour. You can use their skill for manoeuvring urban environments to clamber up to that window and get in. The advantage of getting that person into the building rather than, say, just possessing a guard, would be that if things go south you’re in the body of a person that’s physically capable of escaping more smoothly. If you manage to grab the mission-critical object you’re not easily able to chuck it between NPCs and hop-scotch between possessing people on you way out of there; the player should be forced to find a clean way out, or else the challenge disappears. Not to mention the ramifications of leaving a poor innocent person in a heavily guarded building.

I’d also like there to be an element of roleplaying to the possession-disguise system. Like in Hitman and the original gameplay concept for Splinter Cell: Conviction, you should only act in ways that don’t draw attention to your character and don’t draw heat from suspicious NPCs. So long as there’s no hint of the stupid hat-tugging “act cool” system from Hitman: Absolution. Because that was a design decision that betrayed a misunderstanding of the whole allure of disguise in Hitman games.

There should be some limitations on Deadman’s possession powers to preserve the sense of challenge and difficulty. There should be NPCs (for instance, guards) that can’t be possessed, since the antagonists may know that Deadman is on their trail and might take magical or technological precautions against his powers. Another stipulation might be that you can’t possess people that are within sight of others. This could be explained away due to the sudden and obvious change in body language as well as having that person suddenly walk away mid-conversation potentially arousing suspicion. These limitations could be used to force you to find creative ways of infiltrating an area rather than simply possessing whoever’s closest to your objective.

There might even be a section of the game that locks Deadman into mortal bodies, only able to jump from body to body through touch and unable to fly around freely in spirit form and inhibiting your ability invisibly to scout out areas. This shouldn’t be for the whole game, though, for fear of gameplay becoming too similar to Hitman.

I can envision a number of potential mission scenarios and tasks for you to carry out. You might have to break an innocent person out of jail by setting up an escape through a number of people in the prison grounds. You might unlock a few crucial doors with one prison officer, shut down surveillance cameras or otherwise distract the officer in charge of surveillance, or cause a riot by possessing an inmate and drawing the bulk of the prison workforce to the ruckus. There are lots of potential objectives ranging from extracting a person or item to learning key snippets of information and stepping in to save innocents from harm for side objectives. The key here is diversity of settings, objectives, and progression opportunities.

The more I think on it, the more I’m convinced that ghostly possession could be both a gripping central game mechanic and an intriguing advancement of disguise and social stealth gameplay. Deadman is a really interesting character with not only a cool power set, but also a supporting cast, motivations and established themes that could translate to an absorbing narrative and an engrossing world to play in. What if you need to possess someone to achieve a noble goal, but forcing that person away from their day for a while leads to personal disaster? And what about the morality of taking control of a person’s body at all? I’d love a Deadman game to tackle those questions, and maybe introduce a slightly lesser-known and read character to some people.

Image credits: dccomics.com

Brazen Stealth: I Love Disguises In Games

Whether you’re sneaking past guards unseen leaving nary a slumped body in the bathroom, cutting a silent bloody swathe through unwitting enemy forces, or cowering in a convenient closet as some terrible invincible stalker pursues your newly ripe scent, stealth games are a cornerstone of modern video games. I think that stealth is often a more satisfying approach than straight action when given the option between the two, because you’re not just eliminating or navigating threats- you’re outsmarting them. Observing movement patterns, slipping in between weaknesses in the patrols, and removing threats to your infiltration, it’s a more cerebral approach than swatting out a roomful of enemies with a big gun.

A lesser-used aspect of stealth is the use of disguises. Most prominently used in the Hitman series, but also notably turning up in the Metal Gear series and ingeniously in Team Fortress 2’s Spy class, disguises allow you to pass by NPCs (and other players in TF2’s case) unnoticed, so long as you don’t start to act too out of place, like sharpening a knife and asking if anyone wants a free back rub over there. It recently occurred to me that it’s a criminally underused mechanic, both in single player and multiplayer games.

I think my biggest problem with Hitman: Absolution is that it introduced the concept of the “instinct” resource being used to “sell” your disguises, which is represented onscreen through Agent 47 looking down and to the side, gaining a kind of “keep it cool keep it cool” saunter, and generally acting as suspiciously as possible. Part of the atmosphere of previous Hitman games that I loved was the ability to acquire disguises and wander into appropriate areas unmolested by NPCs. If you were caught showing an FBI agent your piano wire throat massage technique, you’d have to show Agent Jones your bullet lipstick, but if you managed to change unseen and hide your outfit donor somewhere safe then you could go wherever the outfit let you. There really is a kind of perverse glee in just striding on by guards without anyone questioning your presence.

Team Fortress 2’s use of Spy disguise to trick enemy players into thinking you’re on their team. You use your disguise device to pick a class to emulate, and to the enemy team you appear as a member of their team, in their colour, and your name shows up as a random member of their team’s. Of course, if the person whose name you’re assuming spots you, they’ll realise you’re a squishy enemy Spy and introduce you to the wonders of cheese grater cosplay. You really have to try to emulate movements that the enemy would make in that class- but you can’t shoot the weapons that the enemy thinks you have, so you need to avoid being spotted not shooting your pals on the frontline. It’s a really interesting method of play that’s totally unlike any other class.

This mechanic seems like it’ll be explored further in Compulsion  Games’ upcoming survival game, We Happy Few. Set in an alternate dystopian England, most of the populace takes a mind-altering drug, Joy, to keep them content and under control under the powers that be. The player is a “Downer”, that is a member of a resistance movement that refuses to take Joy, and wishes to escape town. The general populace doesn’t like downers very much, murderously hunting them down when they notice they’re not tripping Joy. So, the player has to act like they’re high on Joy to navigate unmolested, scavenging food and supplies from the environment and navigating the game’s procedurally-generated world. Aside from the very promising premise and inspired art style, We Happy Few seems to expand on the “Acting” mechanic to really make players think on their feet and avoid detection. Needless to say, We Happy Few seems like it could be a very interesting game.

Stealth in plain sight is so potent in games, I think, in its delicate balance of empowerment and tension. When you can brazenly trespass in restricted areas, yet feel like one wrong move might be your downfall. It’s been used so well in Hitman, Assassin’s Creed (especially online) and TF2, and I’m glad to see new games like We Happy Few picking up and running with the concept. I think that as A.I. evolves and we can start programming for more complex reactions from NPCs, disguises and other plain-sight stealth mechanics will see more use. And they should, because used right, they’re damn fun to play with.