Sunday, November 11, 2018

Hitman: Codename 47 - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

Hitman: Codename 47 is an imprecise and cruel relic of the past. The one good kernel it possesses—namely, killing your targets in stealthy and creative ways—is relegated to the backseat, in favor of its chaotic combat system. While great ideas have sprouted from this wretched soil, the original game seeks only to belabor you with aggravating tasks and singular routes through levels. Hitman: Codename 47 wants one thing and one thing only from you: copious amounts of blood spilt.

I'm going to immediately cast a shadow over my entire opinion by confessing that impatience is a significant vice of mine. The only stealth games I had growing up were Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes and Hitman 2: Silent Assassin, and I found the latter to be such a chore that I could only make it a few missions in. It's a flaw that I try to stay cognizant of when playing a franchise like Deus Ex, where I know ghosting my way through an area often provides a more rewarding play experience. And I'm tempted to say that Hitman: Codename 47 showcases the worst the stealth genre has to offer, except that statement isn't true—Codename 47 barely resembles a stealth game at all.

Sure, there's a couple of sneaky instances sprinkled throughout the game. There's a mission where you can bomb a car full of triad and another where you can give a man a heart attack in the sauna, but that's about where your guile ends. Every other mission you're going to be strangling a dozen men to death or just blasting your way to the end, hoping that the game's capricious damage system does 2% of your health instead of the full 100% (which will happen a lot). Codename 47 is not merciful with its restarts either; on the missions where you can continue after death, it'll sometimes drop you next to a pissed-off guard, and you'll be dead again before you can tell where the bullets are coming from.

The wild damage probability coupled with scant pathways through a level already makes for a vexing combination, but what really pushes the game over the edge is how opaque and utterly confusing its detection system is. In isolation the system works: if you kill a man, hide his body, and steal his clothes, you effectively become him. But if a civilian catches you in the act or combat breaks out, good luck trying to figure out how to get the goons off your trail! Some guards remain stoic while others open fire immediately, and if an enemy is alerted they will instinctively home in on your position. No matter how often I switched clothes after a scuffle I'd still get discovered, and it's better to have a weapon in your hands for retaliation, rather than trusting that a snooping guard won't fill your unarmed ass with lead. Speaking of weapons, having certain firearms equipped work for some disguises, but good look figuring that out on your own!

While Codename 47's level design is largely nothing to write home about, there's two really egregious missions that solidified my revulsion for this game: the boat level and the entire Colombia section.

The boat level perfectly exemplifies the contradictory nature of Codename 47. In it, there's 3 gates you have to pass through in order to get to said boat to assassinate your target. Any suspicion by the guards raises the alarm, and soon your target begins his Olympian sprint to his escape vehicle (I never found a way not to trigger this, and always had to kill him as he was running). Getting found out before stepping onto the boat spells certain doom, so what you have to do is steal a guard's outfit and then go past each of the gate's checkpoints. Sounds easy, right?

The problem is that the guards don't let you through the checkpoint, even when you're disguised in an outfit that covers your face! This means your only solution is to snipe every single enemy... but guess what?—if one enemy witnesses this they'll run and tell the boss and you run out of sniper rifle ammo halfway through the level! So after an hour of trying, struggling, and failing, I found out what you're supposed to do is latch yourself onto the back of a patrolling guard and just follow him until he passes through a checkpoint. But make sure you don't get too close and trigger the "you don't belong here!" warning first, or the guards will shoot you should you try this method out.

If that sounds bad, the entire Colombia section is the hideous nadir of this game. On paper, it sounds interesting: go assassinate a drug lord in the jungle, with the catch that you can't restock your ammo or buy weapons between sections of the mission.  However, when you sit down to play it you quickly realize the jungle is massive and empty, taking a handful of boring minutes to run to your objectives. Plus well-armed foes can spot you off in the distance before they're even visible in the far-off fog! This is a nightmare combination where as soon as you're discovered, you're likely to get killed before spotting your assailant and a restart will teleport you back to the beginning of your 1 mile jog. And you have to kill enemies in these missions, so snooping your way through this is a no-go (three men that don't move guard a prisoner on a bridge).

The Colombia saga climaxes in a military base infiltration, where you'll face off against a Scarface-wannabe and blow up a drug lab. It sounds like there's a lot of opportunities for cool things to happen, right?—except there's not. The entire compound is gated, and the only way in is via the front entrance (and you always start at the back, which is great). Not only that, but the boss faces the doorway into the office, meaning you have to fight him (and the guards outside of his room) every time. And later when you have to stealthily blow up a drug lab, you'll be barred from using the two ramps that lead down into it, leaving your only recourse to be stirring up a violent bloodbath. There's ways to mitigate both of these sections, like assassinating the drug lord with a sniper rifle obtained from the first mission and using an officer's uniform to bypass the drug lab guards, but the game does a poor job at telegraphing this. The drug lab in particular strikes me as really rude, as even with the right uniform the guards will still tell you're not authorized to enter, but they won't shoot at you if you disobey them. Having not known that, I did it the hard way, having to run to the airport hanger under the dangerous gaze of a dozen watchtowers. This mission was an unrelenting nightmare to complete.

To grasp at the depths of my despair, know that I had already written a paragraph about how clumsy a particular mission was and had to delete it to make room for all the hogwash above. And I've already covered like, a third of the entire game! Rarely do I not find something to like—or at least appreciate—about the first entry in a series. Most long-running franchises have at least something worthwhile that planted the seeds of its future success, or a case to be made as to why it deserves a sequel. Hitman: Codename 47 buries that beneath so much mindless gunfire, so many forced routes (I didn't even talk about how rigid the first half of the Lee Hong mission was), and so much bullshit detection that at the end of the day, the only case it's made is that it deserves not to be played.

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