I’ve become very familiar with one particular guard outside the main chateau in Hitman: Sniper. I’ve been watching him long enough, staring him down through the crosshairs of my rifle that I feel like he’s a living, breathing person. Shortly after I get the okay to begin my current contract, I know he’s going to go for a smoke over by a row of SUVs, where I can take him out behind a wall and no one will notice. Failing that, I can set off one of the car alarms later and he’ll come over to investigate, allowing me to easily pop him with a single shot. I’d name him, except that I’d feel worse about killing him — repeatedly.
Those are the kinds of details that make Hitman: Sniper such a compelling experience, one that’s about far more than how well you can aim a sniper rifle. It’s a game I remember impressing me when Square Enix showed it off last summer at E3, albeit one I completely forgot about until it popped up on iOS. Now that it’s here, I can’t stop playing it, which is remarkable for a title that is much more concerned with showcasing how much you can do within certain constraints instead of reveling in any kind of excess.
As in other Hitman titles, you are Agent 47, everyone’s favorite follicly challenged, genetically engineered badass. Guided by a voice that we can assume belongs to longtime handler Diana Burnwood, your job is to assassinate a number of powerful bad guys, all of whom have gathered at a group of three fancy houses by a picturesque, mountain-ringed lake. From your perch, there’s no chance of you being killed, but also no opportunity to go after the targets from close range. Success or failure depends solely on your ability to eliminate the proper people before they get spooked and flee the scene.
With the guns blazing approach off the table, efficiency is key, and the gameplay emphasizes that point at every turn. It’s simple enough to get a bead on almost any of the criminals or their guards, but popping them in plain sight means witnesses will freak out and spread the alarm. Even leaving a body in plain sight is a bad idea, because the next person to stumble across it is going to realize something is up, and then the gig is up — unless, of course, you can shoot that person before they can radio for help.
Lucky for you, the developers have included plenty of ways to both kill someone and hide the body. Some are simple enough to figure out by pure common sense, like shooting out a section of glass that rings the rooftop pool and then shooting a guard so that his body drops right off the roof. Others are too good to spoil here, but suffice it to say that it’s worth shooting enough random objects when no one is around to see what might explode.
The truly remarkable achievement that Hitman: Sniper pulls off is that while it adds more targets to your list, the environment stays the same, at least in the multiple hours I logged for this review. Thanks to the insane variety of objectives thrown at you, the consistent scene is a tool rather than a ticket to boredom. It’s like the scientific method of sniper games, changing just one or two variables at a time to test you on your aim and problem-solving skills. Certain levels can get especially tense and hectic, particularly when time is running out or your primary mark is making a dash for the getaway car.
Advancement comes via a truly startling number of weapons to unlock in a variety of ways: simple leveling, leaderboard placement and blueprints that need to be completed via drops from assassinated villains. In-game currency is used to power the guns up with both passive and active abilities, all of which come in helpful. The only mechanic I wasn’t truly sold on was the simple score multiplier that comes with using maxed out weapons, simply because it seemed to make some of the contracts based on score a little too easy.
No discussion about this game could be complete without giving the devs a shout out for its sound design. Many mobile titles recommend you play with earphones in, but this is one of the few that really would be lacking if you didn’t immerse yourself in the audio. Not only is the general music great, you can pick up useful clues about the behavior of both the bad guys and innocent civilians alike by listening to them talk or panic after shots are fired. Added to the lush graphics, it’s just another well-done aspect that makes up the living tapestry you’re viewing through your scope.
That brings me back to Pierre, which is what I’ve decided to name the smoking guard out front. It’s quite possible he didn’t know what he had signed up for before he headed off to work today, though he had to suspect the people he works for aren’t exactly angels. Unfortunately, I’ve got a contract to fulfill, and the Agency thinks the world will be better off without his employers in it. Since Hitman: Sniper works so well within its self-imposed restrictions, I’m going to be lining him up for a head shot many times over the weeks to come. Sorry pal.