In today’s video game industry, full of what seems to be only a handful of set-in-stone genres, the simple fact is there just isn’t really anything else like Hitman. The choice to take the game episodic aside, nothing matches the strange adaptation of stealth at hand in Hitman’s puzzle-like playgrounds.

Likely for that reason, I had just never really grasped what a Hitman game was. Anxious to find out however, intrigued by the ridiculous stories told about Agent 47’s exploits, and of course curious about the new game’s so hotly debated episodic, live structure, I dived in.

Through a quick and effective set of cutscenes, Hitman establishes not only who Agent 47 is and his role in the world, but also the fact that the story is not why you’re here. Two training missions, delightfully set as actual mock-ups in the bottom of a silo, give players, new and old, a crash course on what makes Hitman so special. It’s a game of patience and observation. Success doesn’t come from quick reflexes. It comes from planning and piecing together the intricate puzzles on display. Figuring out which disguises will get you into which areas, which people will question or see through those disguises, and figuring out the continuously running stream of cause and effect are all the real meat of the gameplay. Being able to actually then execute of those plans are just a delicious side dish.

Hitman facilitates this observation-execution framework through what it calls Opportunities, which are  similar to miniature quest-lines. For instance, overhearing that your target only likes a specific type of drink that no one knows how to make triggers an Opportunity. It then leads you to find the recipe, find poison, steal a bartender disguise, and trick your target into drinking a poisoned drink. Best of all however, the system can be set to varying degrees of helpfulness, on one end of the spectrum marking every required item on your HUD, and on the other, not tracking it at all, leaving you to remember and piece things together on your own.

After a straightforward run through the first mock-mission, the game gleefully sets you loose on the same mission again, but gives you a handful of odd, obscure challenges to complete such as killing your target with a lifeboat or tricking your way into a private meeting with him. Interesting end goals in place, the game then lets the chips fall where they may. And that repetition, more than anything, is a testament to the type of game Hitman is.

Upon completing the two training missions, learning the ins and outs of the disguise and Opportunity systems, you are sent to Paris, which is where the game really opens up. You are given free-reign to figure your way to killing your two targets amidst a massive fashion show and high-security illegal auction, with very little help to do so.

I’ll freely admit my first time through the mission was less than elegant. Not managing to capitalize on any of the multiple opportunities I set up, I panicked, killing the first target with a kitchen knife in a back-stage hallway after he spotted me and saw through my disguise, leaving me to run away before anyone noticed the dead guy on the floor. Likewise, again squandering the opportunities I set-up, I pushed the second target off a balcony, running away in a hail of bullets, barely managing to escape and hide before her guards killed me.

The second time through however, I did better, knowing more about the situation than I did originally. Then, my third time, I got upstairs without nearly as much fuss, even more prepared than I was before.

And this is where the challenges come in. Killing your targets in special ways, finding different items, accomplishing certain goals, and escaping specific ways all reward you with Mastery Points. Mastery Points then ultimately increase your Mastery Level. As this increases, you gain access to new gear, new in-mission gear drops, and even new starting locations and uniforms. Therefore, completing the few challenges you know how to solve unlocks the gear you need for the challenges you didn’t know how to solve. Mastery Level 5 for example, unlocks a sniper rifle, making it remarkably easier to complete the challenge calling for you to kill both of the targets with such a sniper rifle.

With this in mind, if anyone is coming to the latest in the Hitman series looking for the rushing, forward moving, set-piece type experience of a stylish action game, or even the progression of a story, they will likely find little charm in its tight ‘Mastery’ gameplay loop. For those that buy in to the repeated cycle of observation and learning that characterizes that very mastery of the game, there is a lot on offer in Hitman. Even after many hours with the opening portion of the game, I still have no clue how to do many of the challenges. I know there are still plenty of secrets to uncover, and just as many things left to unlock, all waiting to be found and earned in the Paris location.

This is made all the better by the game’s live components. The user-created contracts are actually a fun diversion from the ‘story’ targets. Creating a contract is easy enough. You play through either the Paris location, or the second of the two training missions, and tag anyone you are able to kill as a target. That goes for any guard or person. If you are able to kill them and get away, you can upload a contract on that person, a general challenge for anyone to try and pull off a similar assassination. With many of the Mastery challenges still enabled while you take on these user-created contracts, it adds a bit of variety to proceedings.

In a similar fashion, another kind of contract, called Escalation Contracts, are multi-step assassination missions, calling for you to kill a specific target in a specific way, but with additional restrictions and goals each time through.

Overall all, these and the promised Elusive Targets set to release soon, flesh out the experience a bit more than it would have been otherwise. While not enough to warrant the attention of those put off by the general repetitiveness of the game as a whole, it’s a nice touch for those already still interested.

Hitman controls smoothly, emphasizes a brand of stealth and planning seldom seen in games, and works well mechanically. But none of these counts for much of anything however, if Hitman’s always-online nature dramatically interferes with every single aspect of the game. My time with Hitman was entirely plagued with server issues, and while it would be considered an issue in any game, the fact that I was repeatedly kicked out of a single-player game due to server problems is intensely difficult to excuse.

What’s worse is the fact that being “offline” disables the majority of the game’s features. The challenges that are so integral to the Mastery system, and the single most important aspect of progression in the game, are disabled unless you are connected to Hitman’s servers. Consequently, the ability to unlock new gear, new starting locations, and new outfits is also disabled, leaving only the basic gear and set up for players to utilize.

In an even more immediate context, loosing contact with the servers while in a mission not only kicks you back out to the menu, but being “offline” blocks you from loading your most recent save, or any “online” save for that matter, forcing you to restart. While it’s likely the stability issues will be ironed out going forward, the mere fact that such problems can compromise so much of a single-player game in the first place is simply unbelievable.

I very much enjoyed what Hitman had to offer. Aside from having lengthy load-times and the occasional sluggish menu, the game runs well, is gorgeous, and is packed with interesting things to see and do. But the fact that enjoyment was so deeply marred by persistent server issues keeps Hitman from being as easily recommendable as it would be otherwise.

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