PAX Prime 2014: Hitman Sniper is Right on the Blood Money

It’s rough being a Hitman fan. Most franchises pull ahead on a standout game or two, but Hitman has largely been driven by its clear potential. Codename 47, Silent Assassin, and Contracts all have their moments of genius, but serious missteps hold them back from greatness. IO interactive got it precisely right once with Hitman: Blood Money, a slick, open-ended stealth game with an emphasis on creativity and experimentation. It didn’t turn enough of a profit to save publisher Eidos, however, and any hope of a sequel seemed lost. Agent 47 disappeared from the public eye (as is his specialty) shortly after, and would not return for six long years. When he did, he was barely recognizable. Hitman: Absolution eschews the careful, pensive, exploratory stealth that defines the series for canned, linear trials of patience straight out of Splinter Cell. It reduces the open-ended mission structure of previous games to a boring checklist. In its wake, many fans were left wondering if they’d ever get a true Hitman game again.

If you’re in that camp, wonder no longer; Hitman: Sniper is everything you could have asked for. As the title indicates, Sniper puts Agent 47 behind the scope of a high-powered rifle and tasks him with taking out targets from afar. On a surface level this seems to go against the core philosophy of the franchise – in most Hitman titles it’s best to get by unseen, with few kills and no gun violence – but when you dig deeper into its mechanical meat you’ll find the spirit of Blood Money alive and well. With carefully placed shots you can hide bodies, create distractions, and arrange for your quarry to have unfortunate “accidents.” Every one of those moves will boost your score, allowing you to climb a little higher on the leaderboards.

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When the game ships it will come packed with two distinct levels and a number of different missions that place different targets in them. In each mission your goal is to eliminate a specific mark, which is easy enough, but if you stop at that you’ll walk away with a bare minimum of points. You can earn additional points by killing optional targets throughout each level, as well as any guards who might get in your way. Picking off targets will let you rack up an insane score, but as more bodies are left lying around, the odds increase that your target might get spooked and pull a runner. Once you kill your target the mission ends, so it’s important to find a balance between earning points and finishing your mission.

You might think that a fixed vantage point and a single weapon would make the game simple, and I’d agree with you, except that the word I’d use is “elegant.” In classic Hitman games, little scripted stories play out throughout each mission, often presenting you with ideal opportunities to end a mark’s life. As you play through missions over and over, you learn these patterns and become better able to plan around them. This is true of Sniper as well – every guard has their own patrol route, and every civilian and target will hold conversations and go for strolls as their programming dictates. In one mission, for instance, a rival sniper will eliminate an optional target for you, but you can kill her for additional points. Some guards might wander close to ledges or pools, allowing you to take them out and hide their corpses in one expert shot. Learning these patterns is the key to maximizing your score. Trick is, when you can see the entire map at once, it can be a little tricky to follow all those different threads. It’ll take hours of observation and planning to master just one mission.

As in previous Hitman titles, you can decrease your risk of discovery by making your kills seem like accidents. This too is possible in Sniper, with a bit of clever gunplay. Someone fixing an electrical panel might get a shocking surprise when a bullet closes the circuit, for example, while a guard leaning against a glass railing might find himself falling when it shatters under his weight, which won’t be good for him or the poor fellow directly below. Clever players will find plenty of fun toys lying around in each mission, and finding the optimal use for them will be key in high score runs. Ollie Sykes, the game’s director, has said that the Sniper team has “water cooler conversations” about cool things they discover within the game’s emergent framework.

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Hitman: Sniper builds an addictive, almost compulsive sense of replayability that I haven’t felt since Bloody Money, and reinforces it with scoreboard chasing (your goal is always to beat the next highest player above you) and weapon progression. You start with a basic sniper rifle, but as you play you’ll earn currency to buy upgrades and unlock different guns. These weapons vary in terms of clip size, reload speed, and a number of other factors. You can pick these up via micro-transactions, but if you play a lot – and believe me, this is the kind of game you can play over and over for hours on end – you’ll be able to earn them gradually. It’s possible to earn big points with any gun, but it’s a lot of fun to play around with different weapons.

Sniper is shaping up to be the best Hitman game in years, and it was far and away my personal favorite game on the PAX floor. I don’t say this lightly: not since Blood Money have I felt so compelled to play a single level of a game over and over again. More levels are coming should the game prove successful, and I have full confidence that it will be, With open-ended mission design supported by an elegant set of core mechanics, it should keep mobiles gamers glued to their screens when it releases in the coming months. He kind of snuck up on us (again, as he is wont to do), but Agent 47 is back, baby.