The Hitman series is known for complex controls, difficult missions and generally the kind of elements that I would think would never work well on iOS devices. For the second time in a row, Square Enix Montreal is poised to prove me wrong.
After the excellent surprise of Hitman Go earlier this year, that studio is now working on Hitman: Sniper. Like Hitman Go, Sniper reimagines the series' contract killings in a form that fits better on mobile and tablet devices. But this time it's far less abstracted, but it still completely works.
In a meeting last week at E3 2014, I was able to go hands-on with the iPad version of Hitman: Sniper. Each mission in the game places series mainstay Agent 47 on a distant perch from which he can view the level below. You won't be moving at all — the challenge is entirely in taking the best shots you can from that single position.
The controls for this are as simple as they are elegant. You zoom with the rifle by using a pinching motion on the screen — the same way you'd zoom into and out of a photograph. You look around by dragging your finger across the screen. You can "tag" enemies with a quick tap, creating a bookmark that allows you to quickly snap between targets. And you shoot with a single, heavy tap on a target. It worked perfectly and it felt very natural immediately.
Though you always have a primary target, much of the challenge in Hitman: Sniper will be getting rid of potential witnesses to the crime. In the mission I test out, I'm looking into a fancy apartment condo. Guards are patrolling the area around where my target is hanging out. Each guard I take out earns me points.
At one point, I shoot one guard only to see another coming in the same direction. To avoid raising an alarm, I shoot the first guard's body a second time, knocking it into a nearby pool. It's a goofy tactic that doesn't make much logical sense, but it earns me bonus points for hiding the body.
The more I play, the more I realize that Hitman: Sniper isn't about logic at all. It's about figuring out what weird things you can do in each environment and then stringing them together for the most points possible.
In one of my playthroughs of the same map, I notice two people playing pool in a room below the target. Not expecting anything to happen, I shoot one of the pool balls. This causes another ball to ricochet into the corner pocket, which in turn starts an argument between the two players. Eventually guards from up above head downstairs to see what the fuss is all about.
Small, silly choices like this can have a big impact on your performance in a level. Hitman: Sniper embraces this kind of playfulness, making replays of each mission very worthwhile.
Further pushing replays is Hitman: Sniper's "rival" system. At any point during a level, you will see the person who has the next-higher score on the leaderboards in the upper-right corner. Square Enix Montreal says the idea is to encourage you to take small steps forward each time rather than intimidating players by looking at a number one ranking that seems impossible to reach.
Players will also be pushed back into levels to try out a constant series of unlocks and upgrades. After a successful mission, the game plays a roulette mini-game to award players with parts, which can then be used to assemble new weapons. Each weapon levels up individual and unlocks abilities. The sniper rifle I used had supersonic rounds that would create noise and draw guards to an area as well as a rapid fire ability that allowed me to shoot several bullets in quick succession.
Of course, as a free-to-play game, players will be able to fast-track their journey to the top of the leaderboards if they're willing to open their wallets. Square Enix Montreal assured me that everything in the game can be obtained through regular play, but new weapons and XP boosts to increase the speed of gaining abilities will be available for purchase.
As much as I'm wary of the microtransactions and the push to make a well-known console and PC franchise working on mobile and tablets, I walked away from E3 impressed with Hitman: Sniper. I'm looking forward to playing it more when it arrives on iOS this fall.