Hitman Go review: mouse trap

Game Info
Platform iOS, Android
Publisher Square Enix
Developer Square Enix Montreal
Release Date 2014-04-17

I was annoyed when Hitman Go was announced. As a fan of the series, I wanted more of what I had always gotten from it, except, you know, better. More third-person stealth and contract assassination puzzle-solving, bigger worlds, more clever targets and opposition. These are the things that we ask for from our sequels, for better or worse.

Cue Square Enix's announcement of a successor to 2012's Hitman Absolution — but for iOS.

Previous action games' transition to iPad and iPhone have been minimally successful, frequently attempting to shoehorn console-game mechanics onto a touch device. But Square Enix has gone a different way. Hitman Go reduces the series to its most basic ideas and expresses them brilliantly, all through the lens of an impossibly sophisticated board game.

Hitman Go captures the series basics via an impossibly sophisticated board game

Hitman Go still places you in the shoes and well-cut suit of Agent 47, the bald, bar-coded star of the series. And, like previous Hitman games, you're flying all over the world, visiting exotic locales in order to ... kill someone for money. Except in Hitman Go, each of those exotic locales are boxed sets of dioramas, filled with tiny figurines of NPCs, guards and your targets. And, of course, an adorable little 47 figure to go along with it.

Each of these boxes is comprised of a series of levels that walk through a wordless, voiceless narrative. Along with ambient noise and an often moody but low-key score, the box set idea makes Hitman Go's visual presentation remarkably effective — even when the intro scene-setting for each level pulls out to reveal the deceptively simple mechanics in play.

Photo3

Hitman Go takes the overarching concepts of the Hitman series and draws up for a thousand foot view — every environment is a puzzle to solve via navigation, every hit a methodical application of problem-solving skills. This is done via a turn-based system that plays out on a limited grid for each level. 47 can move one space up or down, right or left per turn. Moving into an enemy in any direction other than the one they're facing will kill them, depicted in game by knocking their figure over and moving it off the board.

47 isn't without other options. The mechanics of distraction and murder have been cleverly translated to the board game setup as well. Some boards include rocks or even weapons for 47 to use, though even these can only be employed with careful consideration. A rock can be used to cause a radius of noise that will draw enemies to it, but it can only be thrown within one move up, down, left or right, and only at points that aren't occupied by another character. Weapons only have very specific applications. Complicating the situation even further, equipment must be used on the turn it's activated — there's no hoarding options til the perfect time.

Photo5

After 47 moves, remaining enemies on the grid take their turn. This continues until 47 has completed his objectives, or is killed by security.

At first, Hitman Go seems simple. Enemies stand in place or move on a specific line back and forth, one space at a time. Conflict is easily avoided. But Square Enix Montreal deftly folds in new challenges regularly. Each new guard type added creates new considerations. Teal-jacketed guards rotate 180 degrees each turn, changing the angle from which you can safely approach, while elite guards patrol a loop on each board, and so on.

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This setup creates tense scenarios that require thinking two or more moves ahead in many cases, as Hitman Go is inclined to give you just enough rope to hang yourself with. It's easy to make a couple of wrong moves and find yourself trapped between a guard who doesn't move and a guard who is only moving closer, the only solution to restart the mission and try again. And in perhaps the most surprising compliment I can pay to the game, this trial and error isn't a problem.

Instead of sulking over the absence of proper action gameplay, guns and other tools became another move in my ultimate goal to finish each board. And knowing that I would likely fail several times to complete each board, I viewed every death as a note on what to avoid on the next attempt. Hitman Go artfully takes the macabre Rube Goldberg machine that powers the series and makes you just as likely to be the next victim ground up in its gears. And the only person I could ever blame for that was me.

This setup has one chief drawback, a deviation from the ideas core to the Hitman series. The limited grid of each level means there are only so many different paths to take and strategies to form, and more annoyingly for me as a Hitman veteran, you can't play through Hitman Go without substantial blood on your hands — some levels cannot be completed without killing non-target guards.

However, Hitman Go does build a silver-lining into this disappointing sour note: almost every stage in the game features multiple side objectives that beg for multiple playthroughs, which I was more than happy to do. Once I understood a level enough to "beat" it, it was even more gratifying to bend events further to my will to accomplish more difficult objectives, like finishing a board in a minimal number of turns or without killing anyone. These objectives are just difficult enough to make them worth completing, which is good, since you have to complete a minimum number of objectives to unlock new boxed sets.

Wrap Up:

Hitman Go is a great minimalist take on the series' big ideas

As skeptical as I was about Square-Enix's perceived attempts to "dumb down" Hitman for a mobile audience, I'm happy to have been so wrong. Hitman Go's combination of darkly whimsical setup and deep understanding of the core of the mainline Hitman games results in a mobile title that seems uniquely aware of its place in a bigger picture. And it happens to be a great game to boot.

Hitman Go was reviewed on an iPad Air using a download code provided by Square Enix. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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