Publisher: Square Enix Developer: Square Enix Montreal Format: iPad (version tested), iPhone Release: out now
Hitman has always been a puzzle game. Each hit is an elaborate conundrum which requires the player to consider their strategy, spot patterns, think on their feet and react calmly under pressure. As such, this mobile spin-off isn’t as major a departure as it first appears. Mechanically speaking, Hitman Go might be quite different from its predecessors, but Agent 47’s modus operandi is very similar: be methodical, precise and discreet, and get away clean.
Each set of levels is presented as an open box, containing what looks like an expensive, handcrafted board game, with cards and die-cast figurines. Yet it behaves more like a mechanical contraption, its pieces gliding along lines and nodes arranged like a rudimentary circuit board. Each time you swipe to prompt 47 to advance, patrolling guards will take their turn a half-second later. The final set of levels aside – which takes inspiration from one of the series’ best-known set-pieces – each box features two hits in the same location, segmented into 15 individual stages. At the midpoint and in the finale you’re asked to kill your mark; elsewhere, it’s simply a matter of reaching the exit. In that regard, it has plenty in common with Absolution.
Some guards remain static, while others patrol predictable routes. Those in yellow jackets will move in straight lines, while their knife-wielding counterparts in blue will pivot on the spot. On each turn you’ll move before they do, but if both moves see you land in a position where they can see you – in most cases, a guard’s eyesight doesn’t stretch further than a single space ahead of them – they’ll take you out of the game, and you’re forced to start again. Though often you’re encouraged to stay out of trouble, sometimes it’s unavoidable: at first, you’ll kill enemies by simply moving into their space, but later you’ll get to dispose of them with weapons. Either way, the figure is sharply cast aside, left by the side of the diorama with the others like taken chess pieces.
New elements are introduced at the ideal rate, Square Enix Montreal waiting until your confidence spikes and you begin to breeze past obstacles that once proved problematic. Cans and rocks can be thrown to nearby spots, causing sound waves to spread outwards, which attract the attention of guards in the vicinity. You can descend trapdoors and emerge on the other side of the map. Leafy plants will hide you from watching eyes, even when both you and a guard move into the same spot. Soon, you’ll have more tricks at your disposal. Weapons are left lying around, though each is only good for a single shot, forcing you to pick your targets carefully. Later surprises add inventive wrinkles to the formula and shouldn’t be spoiled.
It’s a consistently stylish game, with a refined aesthetic that eschews clutter; indeed, it firmly subscribes to the show-don’t-tell school of game design throughout, with even its tutorials entirely text-free. And yet the solutions to its puzzles can often seem decidedly inelegant, forcing you to shuffle between two positions as you wait for the path forward to clear. While two optional objectives add replay value to each stage, whether you’re asked to retrieve a briefcase or reach the exit without killing any canine pursuers, there’s rarely more than one, very specific solution to either of them. As such, the presence of purchasable hints that walk you through one of a stage’s objectives is as understandable as it is mildly unsavoury. More problematically, it can feel like you’re being rewarded more for perseverance than ingenuity, as you brute-force the solution through trial and error. It’s telling how often you’ll find yourself in a spot with only two or three others to move to, and only one which won’t obviously get you killed.
Still, while it lacks the improvisational element of the series’ better big-screen outings, the satisfaction of a successful hit remains – particularly when it comes at the first attempt. As crisp, clinical and smartly presented as its protagonist, Hitman Go a reminder that in game design, as in 47’s line of work, it’s all about the execution.