Hitman Go is the one thing previous games in the series have never been: subtle. In earlier outings, directing Agent 47 through each gruesome assassination occasionally required some subtle thinking. Do I hide in that dumpster? Do I dress up like a clown and sneak through the kitchen? But no matter how quietly or sneakily you offed your targets, you were still playing as a bald man with a barcode tattooed on the back of his head. "Ave Maria" plays every time you garrote some hardened criminal. Hitman games, from the PS2 era up to 2012's Absolution, are silly, taxing, and deft at giving you options, but they're about as subtle as Godzilla's Tokyo vacations.
Square-Enix Montreal's new iOS and Android spin on the series, meanwhile, is softly smart and marvelously complex despite its simple exterior. On the face, Hitman Go seems to be all style and no substance, devoid of the chewy, strategic flexibility offered by the console games. Rather than mimic the polygonal 3D style of Hitman as Square-Enix has done with other iPad-ized console/PC spin-offs like Deus Ex: The Fall, Square-Enix Montreal presents Go as a board game, complete with wooden boards and tiny plastic figures that look like tokens straight out of a Risk box. The motif is appealingly sleek, replacing the gaudiness of I/O Interactive's Absolution with primary colors and white space. Even the menus where you select which level to play – the initial release comes with five "boards," the last of which is actually based on Hitman: Blood Money – look hot, with the little mocked up board game box inviting you to paw at the touch screen.
The boards themselves are a guided tour to Agent 47's targets broken into 15 small stages. The point is to lead Agent 47 to either a goal point or a target along a grid of interconnected dots. Moving from one dot to the next is as simple as swiping him in that direction. It's the most basic sort of touch screen interaction, but it does evoke the pleasing tactility of an actual board game with none of the messy clean up when you're done playing. Shuffling Agent 47 along a bisected mansion balcony, on his way to offing some creep in a red robe, feels just right. Stages start out linear but become more and more complex as the game goes on, requiring you to pick up keys to open doors or use trap doors to warp between different sections of the map. Difficulty ramps up swiftly. Even by the end of the first board, levels have ceased to be a matter of navigating from point A to B.
Complicating matters are the many guards, dogs, and other problem elements cluttering up the grid and barring your way. Every time Agent 47 moves to a new spot, most of his enemies react. Yellow enemies will move one space in a straight line every time you move, knife-wielding greens will change which direction they're facing, and dogs will follow your path. Step onto a panel directly in front of an enemy, and they'll kill you, forcing you to restart the board. Hop onto their spot from the side or from behind, and you knock them out. With just a few enemies crowding a stage, the mental gymnastics required to manipulate them into the right spots for you to sneak through aren't terribly taxing. Later, when ten or more bad guys are around, and you need to pick up a key to enter the door, Hitman Go becomes a veritable brain-buster.
Square-Enix Montreal complements these spatial and logic puzzles with a delicate selection of toys. Toss a rock onto an adjacent spot to lure guards onto a new path; pick up the series' signature dual pistols to pick off guards that surrounded you (provided they don't have riot shields); head to the sniper rifle to nail a distant target parallel to you on the board. The interplay of items and enemies in the stage layouts would be satisfying enough if they could only be solved a single way, but every stage is deviously designed for replay. Getting to the goal is one thing, but can you do it in under 17 moves? Can you do it and pick up the optional briefcase hidden on the opposite end of the board? Can you do it without killing any guards? Each stage has two sub-objectives like these, and while you don't have to complete them all, the other boards are locked until you clear a set number of them. Hitman Go admirably challenges you, requiring you to clear a hefty number of sub-objectives to advance even to the third board.
As unassuming and stylish as the rest of the series is melodramatic and bombastic, Hitman Go is an impressive debut for Square Enix Montreal. The play style recalls the strategic thinking of the console/PC games, but does so with an entirely new style that fits touch-based devices like a fine leather glove.
This review is based on an iOS download of Hitman Go, provided by Square Enix. Hitman Go is also coming Android. Images: Square Enix.
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