Hitman Starter Pack review impressions

The Hitman fans love is back, but this episodic approach will leave them wanting more.

The day after finishing Hitman’s Paris level, I sent an e-mail to the PR contact who sent me the code, asking if he’d had a chance to play the game himself. I was asking because the game was still under embargo, and I desperate to discuss what I had done the night before. The best part of the Hitman experience has always been the weird ways you find to pull off your jobs, the near-misses, course corrections and inventive methods you utilize. It’s not quite the same if you don’t have somebody to share it with.

The Paris mission is set against the backdrop of a fashion show and contains two targets. On that first successful attempt I’d dispatched them in very different ways. The first target, without spoiling anything, had been taken out in a professional, methodical manner. The game had prompted me towards a specific path, and with a little ingenuity and a few hidden bodies, I’d put on a perfect disguise and walked into a private meeting with my mark. I’d walked up to her, knocked her out, and coldly snapped her neck before hiding the corpse in a cupboard. A clean, methodical kill, with no living witnesses.

It was the second kill, though, that really made me love the game. It was quick, dirty, and unprofessional, arguably even cowardly. I’d tried a few different tricks to lure my target out, tracking them from afar with Agent 47’s instinct abilities (which let you see people’s movements through walls). My plans weren’t working; the target was always too far away, too well protected. But finally, I caught them out: there was a three second gap where it was just him and me, no crowds, no witnesses, no protection. I took my chance, firing three bullets into his back. The body was discovered within seconds, but by then I was long gone.

This is the quintessential Hitman anecdote of pulling a plan out of thin air, of just scraping by. It’s a feeling that Blood Money evoked so well, and which Absolution really struggled with. For many fans of the series, the awkwardly titled Hitman is going to feel like a return to form…as long as the rest of the game holds up.

The Starter Pack release is a bit of an awkward product. At launch, Hitman contains three missions – the two tutorial areas that you’ve already played through if you accessed the beta, and the Paris mission. Just wrapping up these missions won’t take longer than an hour or two, at which point you’re likely to find yourself sitting back on the main menu, desperately wishing that there was more content.

Playing the same levels over and over again means that you’re likely to develop an appreciation of the game’s deep level design. While the tutorial missions don’t offer up huge spaces to explore, they still give you several options for taking down your targets.

There are plenty of opportunities for poisonings, stranglings, staged accidents, or good old fashioned bullets to the head, and while the game signposts your options quite a bit more than the series used to, experimenting and testing things on your own is more fun than following the instructions. This is especially true in the Paris mission: exploring the area fully, digging deep into the building hosting the fashion show turns up all kinds of fascinating details.

Stealing different uniforms and testing out their usefulness is tremendously enjoyable - a make-up technician will be able to walk through some areas with greater ease than a security guard, while the models hold the greatest sway of all. There are sniper nests that are ideal for anyone willing to wait for that perfect moment, quiet corners of rooms where a murder can happen without anyone noticing, and all sorts of props, distractions and potential traps to take advantage of. Playing through more than once will reveal all kinds of extra layers to the mission, deepening the characterization of the targets and giving a greater sense of place.

But still, playing the same mission over and over again is something you’ll do out of necessity rather than choice. This initial release feels less like a first chapter of an on-going story, and more like one of your favorite musical artists dropping a great single. It’s all well and good to loop through it over and over again, but what you really want is that full album. It would be lovely to be able to jump to the next level, to keep playing until you’ve experienced every setting the game has to offer, and then have a choice over which levels to go back to and fully unpack.

Repeatedly running through the same levels also means that you’ll have plenty of opportunities to work out all the exploits and AI quirks. While it can be great fun watching characters interact – the way news of a murder seems to spread organically among guards and personnel is really interesting, and there’s something unsettling about hearing a witness present a perfect description of you to anyone holding a gun – every now and then an NPC will grow suspicious of you but give up because you walk past them too fast, or will be easily tricked into a quiet spot because they inexplicably keep following the sounds made by coins you’re throwing.

The Contracts mode attempts to alleviate some of these issues somewhat. This mode allows players to enter levels and pick new assassination targets, before uploading them online for anyone to test out. As long as you can successfully kill the targets you tag (up to five) and escape, you can upload the challenge. These are definitely an interesting wrinkle, and force you to think about each level in new ways, but it’s unlikely that they’re ever going to be as enjoyable as the assassinations the game is explicitly built around.

It’s also worth noting that the PS4 version of Hitman suffers from appalling loading times. Initial level loads are lengthy, and loading old save files is pretty frustrating – even getting the list of files to load can take ages. Opening up the map during play, which was instantaneous in Blood Money, causes a delay of several seconds. It’s never bad enough to ruin the experience, but it means that you’ll feel just a little more reluctant to reload after a job goes bad than you should.

Hitman is off to a great start, and if you’re a fan of Blood Money, it’s going to be hard to hold back. I suspect, however, that those who wait until the game is finished down the track will ultimately have a more satisfying experience.