This week IO Interactive released the second episode for their new Hitman game, full title Hitman 6: So You Want To Be A Hitman? After some costume changes and a few grisly murders, we decided to put our heads together to talk it out. This new mission takes place in the Italian coastal villa Sapienza and tasks 47 with murdering a couple of new targets, as well as infiltrating a well-guarded underground lab in search of a deadly new bio-weapon. Riley MacLeod and I put on our best disguises and met to discuss what worked, what didn't and who a guy has to kill to get some poison spaghetti around here.
Fair warning that we will be discussing some disguises, locations and methods for taking out the two targets, though we won't get into too many specific spoilers regarding the later parts of the level.
Kirk Hamilton: So here we are to discuss the second episode of Hitman, which came out this week. I never quite know what to call this Hitman. I guess the accepted term is Hitman 2016?
Riley MacLeod: Yeah, I just say "new Hitman".
Kirk: What's funny is, the first game was not actually called Hitman. It was called Hitman: Codename 47. This new one is actually the only game called Hitman, so Hitman it is. Anyway. New episode. It's good! Damn good, I'd say. Agree? Disagree?
Riley: Agree! It feels really different than the first episode — easier in some ways and harder in others. I was glad it felt so different, though.
Kirk: Yeah, to both counts. It's one of the biggest Hitman levels I've ever played, particularly in how many nooks and crannies there are. It's also the most sprawling in terms of objectives.
Riley: I definitely had to temper my tendency to panic and run for it because of the multiple objectives, as well as try to think a bit more strategically about hiding bodies so I wouldn't blow my chances for later.
Kirk: I like how both of the "full" levels released thus far — Paris and now Sapienza — have had multiple targets. It's not a new thing for the series, but it adds a nice feeling of escalation and consistency to each playthrough. I've actually been doing way less save-scumming than I did in Paris, and I like the fact that if I screw up, I can't just blow away my target and run to an exit point. I gotta keep on moving, because there's more to do.
Riley: I found Sapienza a lot harder to navigate than Paris in terms of the number of NPCs there were. In Paris I felt like there were so many people it was hard to get my target alone, but at the same time it didn't feel hard to get into places and blend in. In Sapienza, I found it easier to get into areas and be alone with targets, but the NPCs who were around felt harder to navigate and deal with. It might have been my costume choices too, though. I'm hard-pressed to resist an outfit change when the opportunity presents itself, even if it might not be the most expedient choice. "I like your shirt! I want that!"
Kirk: Yeah, so far in Sapienza I've yet to find an ultimate disguise that lets me get into a ton of places, which I kinda felt like the Helmut costume did in Paris. So it's made me have to be more deliberate with my costuming strategy, and keep a mental checklist of where I've left various outfits.
Riley: Related to that, something I found interesting was the way one of the targets, Silvio, was hard to get close to. He's characterised as kind of introverted and with a lot of social anxiety — I wasn't in love with the way that was demonstrated through, say, his speech patterns, but I noticed that he would get suspicious if I came near him no matter what I was wearing. It made it harder to track him, but I also thought it was an interesting way of expressing his personality through the mechanics. It made him feel less like a generic target and made me think more about how 47 would have to assassinate a specific person.
Kirk: I haven't explored every method of killing both targets, but I do think it's interesting how the ways I've killed them have tied in with their characters and told me more about them. Like, I killed Silvio by bringing him flowers and hiding by his mother's grave, then strangling him while he grieved. (Which: dang!)
Then I posed as the golf pro and killed Francesca, which also let me learn some new stuff about her. I really like how you learn more and more about the characters in the level by playing it in different ways and listening to various conversations they have. It gives the game a richness that feels uncommon — to the point that random NPCs appear to have relatable inner lives.
Really though, I'm still overwhelmed by this level. I walk through and see so many objects highlighted, and so many options… feels like I'll never try everything. How do you go about choosing which avenues to explore first?
Riley: I want to say I make a plan and stick to it, but I keep getting sidetracked because I walk by cool stuff and can't resist using it. There are so many random things to find! This time around I played with the opportunities turned off, so I could resist the temptation to just follow them, but the lack of guidance also left me with my pockets bulging with stuff I didn't know what to do with. I like how all the highlighted objects clue me in to the possibilities, though. They really make me want to replay the level and find new things to do.
Kirk: Same here. I basically just wander through, figure out some options, then see if I can perfect that method before branching out. But then like, I'll be out in the yard and will see "place exploding golf ball" as a greyed-out option and I'll think, "Holy shit, there's an exploding golf ball?"
Riley: Totally! I learn of a new option and try to think "I'll try that next time" and then I can't resist and try it right away anyway, even if it isn't part of my plan. I found a can of expired spaghetti sauce while skulking around the attic of the mansion and got really excited. I found the spaghetti to poison and then couldn't for the life of me make anyone come eat it (it turned out I'd already killed the target you could kill with that option). So then I wandered around the level poisoning everything and shouting "Someone come eat this poison!" at my computer. Then I abandoned the run so I could start again and poison everyone, but then I found the golf pro costume and did something else entirely.
Kirk: Hah, poisoning someone with a can of expired spaghetti sauce is so perfectly Hitman...
Riley: There's a lot of stuff in this level I can't even remotely figure out what to do with, which is exciting. It's super replayable, which I feel like is a Hitman staple, but which I also think is good given the release structure.
Kirk: When I beat a level, I'll go through the optional objectives in the results screen and just marvel at some of the things that are possible. In Paris, one of the objectives is to simultaneously kill both targets with the same dropped chandelier. I liked seeing that objective with no specific explanation of how to do it; it got my imagination going.
I also like how some of the achievements are just "classified", with an image or a title to indicate what they are. So far I think this game has done a good job of nudging me in the right direction without telling me what to do, though I definitely agree that it helped a lot to lower the opportunities notifications to "minimal". I might just turn them off at some point soon.
Riley: Yeah, I think the game's at its best when you're left to your own devices, with stuff like challenges and opportunities as just vague suggestions of what might be possible instead of step-by-step waypoints.
Kirk: So we should probably at least touch on a few of the more discussed, controversial aspects of Hitman 2016 (or whatever we want to call it) — the always online stuff, the episodic format and the general early-accessness of the game.
The always online thing hasn't been an issue for me since I have a stable internet connection, but I do get the sense that it's not implemented very well. Why not have your offline progress re-sync with your online profile if you choose to play offline and then go back online? That sort of thing should not be outside the realm of possibility for a game like this. It could be that's tied to DRM or some other such thing, but I actually wouldn't be surprised if it was just due to the game's overall technical roughness.
I don't know how it's been for you lately, but the PC version has been… well, I hesitate to call it "a mess" since I've been having a ton of fun playing it, but it's certainly messy. I get uneven performance despite running a 980Ti, and the frame-rate dips seem largely unrelated to my graphics settings or even resolution.
There are also bugs — I kept killing NPCs that I thought I was knocking out, and I thought it was my fault until I saw a lot of people complaining about it on the Steam forums. Then this morning, the game downloaded a new small-ish update and promptly stopped loading entirely in DirectX 12. I got it to work in DirectX 11, but I see people on the Steam forums who say they're totally locked out. Not good.
Riley: I actually haven't had many technical problems this time around — excluding the bit of fuzziness at launch — and it's running pretty solidly on my GTX 970. I've had bugs in terms of NPCs being able to see me when they shouldn't and things like that, but nothing game-breaking.
Kirk: It's a weird thing with the game's performance, feels like it's wildly divergent for different people on different rigs. It makes it very hard to share performance tweaks, since everyone's game runs differently and has different problem areas. All of that has definitely contributed to the feeling that we're playing an in-development, early access game. Which makes sense, because for most intents and purposes, we are.
All that actually hasn't done much to detract from my own experience, but it's too bad that so many people have had a rough go. I'd imagine (hope?) this game will ultimately exist in a more polished, optimised and "finished" state. I've liked how the episodic model encourages me to really squeeze a lot out of each level, but part of me wishes I could just play the less buggy, better performing final version.
Riley: I'm torn. I was talking to a friend who's a huge fan of the series, and she was telling me that while she always enjoyed replaying levels, she didn't like that with this release structure she couldn't go to the next level right away and then come back later. While Hitman encourages replayability through its design, I do feel a little forced to replay it because I don't have anything else.
Kirk: Yeah. One good way to play might be to come back to it every couple of episodes with larger breaks in between, though that presupposes you've bought the full version. If someone's on the fence, still no reason not to just wait for the finished game. It isn't like there aren't plenty of other things to play, after all!
Riley: I feel conflicted about replaying Hitman levels in general, actually. I think in terms of "roleplaying as a badarse assassin", that first time through a new level is really the peak experience I want. I have to take out a target how I'd actually do it if I were really there, right, with all the learning and seizing opportunities that that would entail. At the same time, I'm usually a bit of a bumbling fool on my first sweep through a level, with none of the finesse of later experiences. But when I replay levels to try new things and pull off those slick, awesome kills, there's this certain Quantum Leap-esque problem for me, like I feel like I'm cheating. Does that make sense?
Kirk: That makes sense. I like improvising my way through the level the first time, but I definitely get a different type of satisfaction out of perfecting various techniques and learning the ins and outs of the level. I enjoy paying attention to all the detailed conversations and other little bits and bobs, so it's nice that the devs have taken the time to add that stuff. Two types of gratification, I guess. One is more along the lines of how I play most stealth games, the second is peculiar to Hitman: Getting my head around the full collection of interlocking systems and figuring out weird and creative ways to manipulate them.
So, to wrap us up: Good level, still some bugs and other weirdness, but the fundamentals are strong and we're going in promising new directions. I feel like I still have several hours' worth of experimentation to do, and I still have a lot of escalation missions to complete. And those Elusive Targets still haven't even launched! What a weird, generally cool game. Any final thoughts?
Riley: Agreed: it's weird, but a good weird. I haven't played any of the Sapienza escalations, nor many of the Paris ones, so there still feels like a ton of stuff to do. And I didn't even know there was an exploding golf ball, so I'm on a mission for that now.
Kirk: You find the golf ball, I'll get on that poison pasta. Mmm. Pasta.