Developer: Square Enix Montreal Publisher: Square Enix Platform: iOS
If rolling eyes made any sound, you could have heard them in abundance when it was first announced that the latest entry in the Hitman series was going to be a mobile game. For many players who enjoyed the previous games on consoles or PC, just the thought conjured up images of something watered down, derivative and full of the worst free-to-play monetization tactics.
Happily, Hitman Go is none of those things. Square Enix Montreal pulled off a pleasant surprise by taking the essence of the franchise and presenting it in a completely unexpected form: a tactical puzzle game with an eye-catching design aesthetic. Regardless of platform, Agent 47 has never looked so good, though the extreme simplicity of the mechanics that make the game so accessible may also turn off those expecting something more involved.
Hitman Go has no time for anything extraneous. The title screen has only a single flashing “Go” button, and tapping it takes you not into a tutorial, but right into the first stage. Every level is a different layout in what resembles a digital board game, one with rules that you discover as you go.
It makes perfect sense too, as Hitman games have always been about working within Agent 47’s limitations. They’re about eliminating targets as efficiently as possible, and Go follows in that vein in its own way. On each board, Agent 47 can only move along the layout one space at a time, and you simply flick him where you’d like him to go. Early on, the guards are stationary, and the only way to lose is to wander into the space directly in front of them. Hit one from the side or rear and you eliminate him, knocking his piece off the board.
Later levels complicate matters by introducing guards who patrol along specific routes. That turns the gameplay into a turn-based affair, with all guards moving to the next spot on their routes right after you move. It’s almost like chess, as you need to think ahead to ensure you don’t move to a spot where a guard will be going next.
Other clever touches show up as you unlock more levels, like objects that can be thrown to draw guards to specific areas, plants to hide in and trap doors that allow you to pop up in a different area of the board. New enemies have more tricks too, so it’s like an ongoing battle of one-upmanship.
The only drawback is that if the cerebral challenge doesn’t hook you pretty quickly, it probably won’t grow on you later. Hitman Go is a single-minded experience, and while it executes that plan exquisitely, it’s also clearly not for everyone. For people who do get into it, the challenge comes in fulfilling the optional objectives on each level, like completing them with no guard kills, reaching the goal in ‘X’ moves or less or grabbing the briefcase along the way. A maximum of three stars (which aren’t really stars, but you get the idea) can be earned per level, and later collections of boards can only be unlocked by accumulating enough of them.
If a specific objective proves too difficult, you have a limited number of hints represented by a light bulb icon in the lower-right corner of the screen. Using one will walk you step-by-step through the level to accomplish your intended goal. If you run out, you can buy more, which might seem like an unnecessary addition in a game that already costs something to download, though it has to be said that these are some of the most unobtrusive in-app purchases out there today.
And as other reviewers have pointed out, it’s pretty likely that the “solutions” to every goal on every level are going to be floating around on the internet before too long. If you don’t want to challenge yourself, you’ll be able to just look up what you need to know. Yes, it’s sort of like cheating, but only against yourself.
The idea that there’s a “right” way to beat every level is why it’s best to characterize Hitman Go as a puzzle game, albeit one with gorgeous, minimalist trappings that just happens to be about an assassin. Even if it proves not to be your particular cup of gaming tea, you’ve got to appreciate the way it defies assumptions in several very welcome ways.
+ Clever reimagining of Agent 47’s adventures in puzzle game form
+ Striking, minimalist design
+ Simple game mechanics belie increasingly deep strategy
– Has in-app purchases on top of a price to download
= Some goals have “correct” solutions