Smart, Beautiful, Boring
Agent 47, or Jonathan Hitman as I like to call him, is an assassin with a heart. He may garrote goons with piano wires taken from actual pianos and dump their bodies in children’s ball pits, but he usually does so for some contrive good reason. I think the previous games involved clones or …something?
You know what? It doesn’t matter. Hitman GO is nothing like the games from which it derives. It’s a board game – several board games, according to the main menu. You move the titular hitter of men across prescribed grids like a game piece while other pieces representing civilians and thugs of various orders patrol and/or survey the board to knock him over. The hitman always moves first, and moving into an opposing piece from behind or the sides will knock them over instead.
That’s literally all there is to the game. It’s as minimalist as 47’s own well-waxed dome, and far more appealing to look at than Timothy Olyphant’s.
The tutorial, if you want to call it that, works by good old conveyance. Instead of telling you what to do, the early levels put you in situations where what to do should be obvious. In this way you learn the basics; in this way the entire game is played. Hitman GO doesn’t even tell you where to tap to start a game.
Boy, does that ever make for a handsome experience. I’m no designer, but I do appreciate minimalism. In addition to the lack of text and dialogue, the game looks like it was designed by JJ Abrams’ Enterprise design team. It’s all white negative space with color used only to highlight important differences between enemies.
The design feeds into the sort of game this is quite well. You don’t want a lot of prose abstracting and distracting you from the routes 47 must walk to collect briefcases, escape boards without killing, and/or assassinate targets. It all depends on the level in question. Most of them have two optional objectives in addition to the primary goal of escape or murder. Completing a number of such objectives gives you access to new locales, including at least one inspired by Hitman: Blood Money, the most popular of Jonathan’s previous work.
The intended effect, I assume, is to find a way of providing the Hitman experience with touch controls. The developers wish to convey the sense of excitement inherent to being predator over prey. It’s turn-based, of course. There’s no blood, and “violence” is only one plastic mold toppling another. In every way, this is the assassin experience downsized and processed for the mass market.
I like everything I’ve just talked about. The gentler turn-based experience, the spartan aesthetic, the lack of handholding — even the music recycles the bizarre, operatic croons from Hitman: Absolution in a way that feels natural.
I just don’t like the game very much.
I hate sliding block puzzles. I don’t like them as hacking minigames in my first-person shooters. I don’t like them as padding in adventure games. They’re dull and frustrating. Replace the colored tiles with bald-and-besuited miniatures and this is still just a sliding block puzzle game.
Every such experience plays out the same way, and it’s no different in the stages of Hitman GO. I move my piece left, up, right, down- oops, I’ve failed. Alright, let’s try right, up, right, d- oh damn, try again. Absent-minded trial and error — that’s my experience.
I think Square Enix Montreal (the developers) were on to something. Spread the movement options off of rails and onto a grid, throw in a surfeit of options for tackling enemies (a hallmark of the franchise), and you’d have a solid basis for a turn-based strategy game on your hands. It’s not like a stealth franchise hasn’t successfully made that leap before (does anyone remember Metal Gear Ac!d as fondly as our own editor-in-chief?)
I hate to get into armchair design, but this is my review and actually I love to get into armchair design. Also, I’m a liar.
I’m not lying about the game, though. It’s a fashionable example of something that isn’t very interesting. The Hitman license is used here to good, if slightly limited, effect. It’s just not enough to make me like something that a lot of players like myself finds fundamentally frustrating, and, moreover, just boring.