Video Games

Video Game Review: First ‘Hitman’ episode high on brutality, low on story

This Parisian mansion is the setting for the first episode in “Hitman.”
This Parisian mansion is the setting for the first episode in “Hitman.” Square Enix

Planning is the most important part of any successful assassin’s day.

Agent 47, the “Hitman” franchise’s iconic bald regime-toppler, only has so many hidden pockets in his suit. Many novices fill them with loud, showy items like guns and explosives. But those of us who’ve guided 47 for the better part of two decades know better; we opt for the silent tools. The best weapon in every “Hitman” game? The coins. They allow you to get where you want without leaving a – mess.

For fans of the franchise, playing the latest slice of the new “Hitman” – which will be released in chunks throughout the year – is a bit like a pianist sitting down at his instrument for the first time in years. You know it’s a difficult craft to master. You’re out of practice. But if you just sit there for a few hours, the music will come back to you.

Our first trip back to gaming’s original sandbox slayer was a memorable one. Although the first episode can be completed in a few hours, it has immense replay value. I recommend using your first trip through the prologue levels and the Paris map to explore every nook and cranny. The game seems small until you notice the basements, upper levels, hidden side windows and other openings that allow for dozens of approaches.

The graphics are first-rate. The faces and bodies may not be as realistic as other modern titles, but the scenery – especially in the idyllic Parisian mansion – is of the highest order.

I was also impressed by the AI – the brains of the various non-playable guards in particular. In previous “Hitman” games, they would mow you down with bullets if you made the slightest misstep into a restricted area. Now, they act like actual security. A guard will try to escort you out of a restricted area if you’re just walking around back there – only escalating to violence if you resist or show him you’re armed.

But there are a few holes in this unstoppable agent’s Kevlar.

The episodic formula – an unplanned development choice probably made out of necessity – hurts the overall product. In every previous “Hitman,” you’ve been able to play through all of the missions in succession. The various killings are all part of a central storyline that typically involves 47 and his handler, Diana, being set up by enemies or betrayed by friends. The plots have never been Earth-shattering, but they’ve given the franchise a human element. Without a story, you’re basically playing Murder Simulator 2016.

Now, many episodic franchises have storylines – great storylines. The Telltale games overcome the fractured releases by setting the scene well in the first episode. The first Telltale “Game of Thrones” episode lets players know that you are going to be battling long odds to ensure your family’s survival.

The prologue and first mission in “Hitman” did not tell me anything about what’s going on beyond the assassinations. I have no idea why the Agency is targeting fashion moguls-turned-spies in Paris. Diana and 47 have been through a lot – he elaborately faked her death in “Hitman: Absolution” – but they’re just sort of idly chatting the entire first episode.

I believe this is a casualty of switching to a staggered release mid-development. IO Interactive clearly planned to release a complete title, which wouldn’t necessarily need to set up the plot in its first few hours. “Hitman” is a complete game ripped into pieces – not a thought-out episodic enterprise.

This issue will probably be corrected once a few more episodes are released. I am sure 47’s motivations will become clear.

The lack of a proper plot setup bugged me, but it is by no means a deal-breaker. The solo and multiplayer killing – the stuff that keeps us coming back 16 years later – are quite solid. The scenarios are realistic, and our options are plentiful.

The first “Hitman” episode delivers a good helping of mindless fun, but you may want to wait for future releases if you value story.

Hitman

Video Game Review

 1/2

▪ Rated mature for blood, drug references, intense violence, strong language and suggestive scenes

▪ Developer: IO Interactive

▪ Publisher: Square Enix

▪ Episode one is out now for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC

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