I'm usually high on technical execution in games, but part of developing a great sequel is getting the spirit of a thing right. If you reach the core of what people enjoyed about the predecessor, people are willing to overlook bugs, glitches, and framerate dips here and there. If you miss that core, having a technically flawless game won't help matters.
I bring this up because the new Hitman is all about attempting to reach the spirit of the original Hitman games, even if the presentation isn't completely up to snuff.
Agent 47 is back in action after the events of Hitman: Absolution, alongside his handler, Diana Burnwood. But before you jump into the current assassinations attributed to Agent 47, you have to go back to where he started. The Beta is the early tutorial levels of the episodic Hitman game and they're presented as assassination simulations that Agent 47 is undergoing to be cleared for fieldwork.
The two levels - a pleasure cruise in Sydney, Australia and an airplane hangar in Cuba -are rather small for Hitman standards and can be cleared rather quickly. For the first level, Hitman will actually direct your towards two different ways to kill your target, before letting you do whatever you want. The second level is all up to you though.
The problem IO Interactive has had in the past is that Hitman is a hard game to wrap your head around if you're new to the series. It's a game with heavy stealth elements, but I wouldn't call it a traditional stealth game. Instead, it's more like a puzzle game: here's your target, figure out how to kill them. Hitman is at its strongest when the game isn't holding your hand and just lets you wander around, feeling out each contract.
As Hitman has progressed, IO has tried to retain that strength, while also providing more guidelines and hints for the player. This culminated in Hitman: Absolution, taken by many fans to be one of the low points of the series. (Honestly, Absolution isn't a bad game, but it's not a very good Hitman game given the earlier pedigree. Similar to Splinter Cell: Conviction.) The levels themselves felt more linear, with fewer assassination solutions, and the Instinct mechanic - shades of Arkham's Detective Vision that tied into the new Disguise system - felt too easy for some hardcore fans.
So with this new Hitman, IO Interactive was forced to find a way to make every level open-ended with a number of different solutions, but also provide some extra help for the players that needed it. I think they're close to the sweet spot. At least close enough that Hitman 2016 feels like it splits the difference between Absolution and Blood Money.
The small size of the levels is actually to the beta's benefit, because each level has to rely on density to give you a reason to play through them again and again. IO Interactive has placed a number of potential weapons, disguises, and hiding spots across each level, some hidden in corners and rooms most players won't ever go. If you want to go exploring randomly, you can, but IO is helping others by adding Challenges.
These Challenges act as spoilers if you're a hardcore player, so it's best to avoid them if you want to play Hitman like you used to. For the rest of us, Challenges are like small hints as to how you can kill your target. In the first level, do you kill Kalvin Ritter in a liferaft accident, dose him with rat poison, or disguise yourself as the contact he's preparing to meet and kill him face-to-face? This is what I mean when I say that Hitman is a puzzle game. You know the solution, but the game is in how you get there. In fact, I'd say it retains Hitman's focus on having multiple ways to dispatch your target.
Instinct has returned as a way to see where your target and other meaningful NPCs are in a level, but it doesn't have a meter or connect up to the shooting mechanics like it did in Absolution. Think of it like a 3D version of the old Hitman map. And if you hate it, simply turn it off completely, since it's no longer tied to any other major mechanic.
Disguises still work like Absolution's system to a point: certain groups of NPCs can puzzle you out of certain disguises, usually those related to them. Unlike Absolution, it's not everyone who wears the same disguise who can sniff you out, it's usually the most senior members of those groups. A cook knows you're not a part of his kitchen staff, just like a maintenance manager will know you're not on his team. The system tends to force you to switch disguises on a regular basis to get past certain chokepoints.
Hitman 2016 feels more like a classic Hitman game, which is why I'm willing to overlook its issues. Graphically, it doesn't match up to my mental picture of Hitman: Absolution, which had some interesting art direction in its environments. The Paris level IO Interactive keeps showing off looks great, so I assume the more amazing levels are coming after these early shots. There's also some noticeable frame rate drops on PlayStation 4. (The PC beta hasn't started yet.)
The AI seems to be a bit slipshod as well. Most of the NPCs in the first-level don't seem cognizant of your more extreme interactions, I assume because the game's AI is only really applied to important NPCs like guards and targets. Even that AI seems to miss some things normal folk would see: like the time I dropped rat poison in a wine glass in front of my fellow bartender. You'd think he might raise the alarm, but perhaps he hates rich people almost as much as he thought I did.
Then there's the general list of random glitches and bugs apparent in the beta. Ragdolls getting weird in stationary positions or when being dragged. Items not going into your inventory like they should. NPCs occasionally falling through walls. Honestly I found most of these bugs quaint and nostalgic in the beta. Hitman: Blood Money was one of the best games in the series, but it was also buggy as hell.
I'm not sure if IO Interactive will be able to continue what they've started here into the launch levels, which consists of six campaign missions in three regions: Paris, Sapienza and Marrakesh. If they can successfully take this dense level design and interesting challenge structure into much larger levels, they'll have something grand on their hands. Hopefully they can stick the landing.