Who could possibly have seen this coming? Hitman, the series of violent and visually sumptuous stealth shooting games, has come to iPad in the form of Hitman Go, a mannered, turn-based puzzle board game.
As bizarre as the juxtaposition seems, however, this isn’t quite as illogical as it sounds. For one thing, Hitman—despite the kinetic and controversy-baiting adverts and the heavily armed stripper nuns—was always a quieter game than it was given credit for; its big points are generally earned by slipping through a level with barely a ripple, taking down your mark cleanly while leaving the guards not only alive but unalerted.
There’s also a precedent for this kind of thing. Several big-name console and PC games have dipped their toes in the iOS waters by applying their core storyline and visual themes to a totally different (and usually far simpler) gameplay experience. Dishonored, another stealth shooter, has appeared on iPad and iPhone in the form of a Fruit Ninja-esque casual game; Rage was cut back to a few levels of on-rails shooting; and the free-roaming Arkham Batman games turned into Infinity Blade-style scripted brawlers for the iPad.
But the thread that unites those three is the choice of a safe genre for the iPad edition. Hitman Go is a turn-based puzzler, and a peculiar one at that.
Agent 47, the guards he must evade or kill, and (if present on the current level) the target are all represented on the game board by small rigid playing pieces sitting at points on a grid. Each turn, you must move your character one space (or through a trapdoor shortcut) and certain guards will then make a predictable move in response. There are various complications—disguises, hiding places, locked doors, distraction tools, and, later on, firearms—but the idea remains simple: to reach the objective or target without being killed by a guard moving on to your space. In pleasing contrast to the original games, death involves merely having your playing piece knocked gently over as if you were playing chess.
Hitman Go’s gameplay itself isn’t actually board-game-like in any conventional sense, because the movements of the opposition are so mindlessly scripted—build this as an actual physical board game and no one would play the guard role. But its rendition is more evocative of the components of a board game that any of the iOS versions of real-life board games that I’ve played. (The loading screen after each level depicts an imaginary Hitman Go board game complete with pieces, playing cards and box.) The result is a game that is quietly stunning, and visually unique.
As well as the overarching objective for each level, you’ll be offered a couple of additional tasks, usually to complete the level within a certain number of steps and to pick up a briefcase secreted somewhere on the grid, but sometimes involving either killing all of the guards or no guards at all. An immediate frustration is that it’s often impossible (as far as I can tell) to accomplish all of them in one go, in a sort of mythic perfect run. Frequently one ends up playing each level through twice, first to get the briefcase and then to keep the number of steps down. Repetition is par for the course for video games, of course, but it’s nice to have at least the pretence that if you were on top of your game you could triumph completely on your first try.
More seriously, there’s the feeling that the game is too frustrating, initially. Once you’ve got your head around the mathematical patterns that underpin the game, Hitman Go becomes more of a mechanical exercise where you systematically work your way through the limited range of logical options until you find the answer. (Trial-and-error plays a fair part here, for good or ill.)
The game has little sense of multiple solutions, other than in terms of “the quick route” and “the slightly different route the accomplishes the other objective.” It’s here, rather than in the presentation, that Hitman Go differs most starkly from its celebrated predecessors. Hitman games are (at least traditionally) rich playgrounds that let you plot your own methodology. When it comes down to it, this is almost as dry and restricted—if also often as cleverly constructed—as a sudoku.
It might seem odd to complain about dryness and rigidity when they’re qualities that appear to have been consciously chosen, and even exalted. And the game remains a neatly designed puzzler. Occasionally it drops you into the zen mind-space of the most captivating puzzles, where you feel like you’re reading the designers’ minds and solutions present themselves organically. The wonderful presentation, too, strives manfully to make up for the limitations of the gameplay. But there are uglier puzzles out there that are a lot more fun.
There’s a lot about Hitman Go to adore, from the bold choice of genre to the elegant, restrained presentation. But the puzzles themselves are a touch too dry to really grab the average player. It’s disappointing, given my initial surprise and pleasure at its aesthetic choices, that Hitman Go turns out to be a solid puzzle game, rather than a great one.
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