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‘Hitman’ Beta Impressions: Not Quite Ready to Come Out of the Shadows

The first thing that strikes me about the Hitman beta is its beauty. The helicopter pad on which I’m deposited is lashed by arctic wind. The monolithic entrance to the Agency’s training center is appropriately foreboding. Every graphical bell and whistle is on display, and for a moment I’m just grateful to be back in Agent 47’s shoes.

Within minutes, I’ve been introduced to my potential handler, Diana. She and I have quite a history across the breadth of this franchise, and I cannot help but smile at the auspicious exchange. This is the origin story to one of gaming’s most iconic characters; as an alumnus of the school of virtual garrotes, I’m immediately arrested by the encounter. I’m like a comic book fan, watching my favorite hero come to life on the big screen.

The illusion doesn’t last long. After an all too brief encounter, it’s back to scenes that feel a bit too much like either of the failed movies based on the Hitman games. The tension between Diana and a shadowy overlord of the organization feels forced, and they talked through the typical tropes about how special I am, how hard to control I might be. It’s a wee bit clumsy, a stroke too melodramatic for a series that finds its best moments in showcasing the reptilian calculation of a contract killer. I’m still interested, though. I’ve enjoyed the best and worst of the franchise, from beginning to end. It’s time to give this entry a chance to stretch its legs.

Both demo scenarios take the form of assassination tests, exhibitions of Agent 47’s deadly talents for judgment by his would-be recruiters.

The first takes place in a closed set, on a yacht modeled in plywood, with a crowd of actors recreating another assassin’s historic exploit. The level is tiny, as befits what is essentially a tutorial. Still, I’m nonplussed. All of the promotion behind this upcoming rework of the Hitman franchise is about vast and open-ended playgrounds, where your actions have intricate ripple effects. This level, however, is essentially a few rooms, several costumes, and a lot of idle filler NPCs.

You’re asked to play through the same scenario twice. Once as a dry run, and then the second time as if it were a real mission. The second time around you’re given some extra tools, but the scenario itself remains very limited. I took every possible approach, but they all boiled down to a very limited set of interactions. I tried on a couple of outfits — only the deck crew costume was of any real use — and employed every possible method of killing my target.

Unfortunately, the strict limitations of the environment and available options boiled down to what felt all too much like the recent “corridor” designs of assassinations from Hitman: Absolution. At one point, I poisoned a drink with a giant tube of rat poison right in front of the bartender and a host of civilians, and no one took note. I also sprinted through every area, pushing and jostling at people with a crowbar. I earned little more than a glance.

The second scenario took place in a remote hangar, and according to the narrative, was exceptionally stacked against me. Agent 47 seems too dangerous, too hard to control, so the Agency would rather I fail the test. For an organization more secretive than any government’s black ops program, they seem to be rather concerned about appearances.

I climb a fence, put on the uniform of the first guard I see, and… that’s it. I’m in. I can’t help but feel a little bit sad about that. Once upon a time in Hitman 2, I was tossed directly into the deep end of a pool full of deadly encounters, and anything aside from shooting my target in the head required finesse and precision. I’m still holding out hope, however. It’s a beta, and I know that it’s meant to be accessible.

After my one-step infiltration, sabotaging my target’s flight is a matter of two short scripted sequences. Again, there are other methods, but the possibilities are still limited by the scope of the area and the lack of reaction from most of the patrolling NPCs.

The game that was so stunning at first glance has lost a bit of its luster. The introductory environment seemed to have spent the entirety of the beta’s graphical budget, and the rest looks disappointingly bland. Some of this is due to the missions provided, but it’s just not as compelling as advertised. I’m reminded of the dissonance between early coverage of Watch Dogs and the final product.

So far, this preview seems a bit glum. Let me focus for a moment on what I think was done right, and what exactly I’m left with at the end of the experience.

First of all, the voice acting is great. There are numerous detailed conversations, and I was all but forced to listen through them. The information they offer on the characters involved in each scenario is colorful and intriguing, even when it doesn’t directly help you with your mission.

When it works, it makes you feel as if the world exists separate from your actions, and that’s crucial to a game about moving unnoticed through the currents of humanity. If those currents don’t feel authentic, the experience feels like an obstacle course full of mannequins. I wish it worked more often. Too often the immersion is broken by robotic animation, or the AI’s ludicrous lack of concern for a character’s immediate surroundings.

I think that as a representation of the product advertised, the Hitman beta does itself a disservice. I can understand wanting to demo essential mechanics in a limited environment to give players a taste of what’s to come, but most people interested in this latest iteration of the franchise could be turned off by what feels very much like a compilation of the franchise’s past criticism.

On the other hand, the game is frequently beautiful. The character portrayals are on point, if sliced a little thickly from the typical origin-story ham. And given a broader stage, I can see myself happily immersed in Agent 47’s dark world once more.

I’m left still craving the icy bite of Hitman’s greatest moments, the emergent nature of his most memorable jobs. And while all of the pieces are present, the sample given is just too small an environment for their use. I’m as tentatively hopeful as I have been since the announcement; I just don’t feel that the beta makes a good case for players still on the fence.

It’s especially concerning because of the piecemeal manner of the game’s delivery. If Hitman is going to succeed, it’s going to need to offer enough within each chapter to hold fans’ interest between episode releases. In the end, we’re back where we started; waiting to see whether the promise of Io-Interactive’s complex murder simulation has the subtlety and finesse to get the job done.

Follow Nate Church @Get2Church on Twitter for the latest news in gaming and technology, and snarky opinions on both.

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