2015.02.09 update: This game made our Top 5 mobile games of 2014 list!
Have you ever wondered what Agent 47 would have done with his life had he not been raised in a Romanian asylum, born and bred to be the perfect killing machine; had he, let’s say, pursued a career in architecture? Hitman GO, Square-Enix Montreal’s mobile addition to the franchise, is the answer to a question you never thought to think in the first place, distilling the essence of the series – stealth, strategy, and above all murder – into a series of diorama-styled puzzles that looked like they walked right out of a Bachelor of Architecture final exam. It’s a huge departure from the visual aesthetic and gameplay style of the Hitman console games. And it’s also, surprisingly, a huge success.
When fans of the series heard a new Hitman game was coming to iOS and Android, you can be sure they weren’t expecting a board game, complete with grid-laced, dollhouse-styled sets and tiny tokens to represent enemies, obstacles and, of course, the titular bald-headed badass. But once you get through the initial shock of having your expectations completely confounded, you realize they haven’t been, not really. Though the presentation is a drastic departure from other entries in the Hitman series, the core tenants are still here, albeit in a streamlined form.
You play through four different game boxes – styled on the selection screen to look like darkly inviting versions of your childhood favorite board games – each divided into 15 boards. There’s even a bonus fifth game box with nine boards inspired by the opera house level in Hitman: Blood Money. A simple swipe of your finger will move Agent 47 along one of the set paths, toward either an exit point or target. But since this is turn-based, you only get to make one move before all the enemies take their turn. Hitman GO eases you into the mechanics for the first few boards, but quickly ups the proverbial ante with knife wielding guards, dogs and snipers. With more obstacles than solutions, what seems simple at first becomes a delightfully deadly chess match that rewards observation and calculation.
It doesn’t matter if a guard is looking right at you – you can move out in the open as long as there are no guards immediately adjacent to you and directly facing you. Obviously, near-sightedness this severe would be quite a hindrance to a real-world career in thug-ery, but it works in a board game. If you’re unable to avoid a direct intercept or hide in a potted plant, you might be saved by one of the pickups scattered throughout the levels, which range from tennis balls to silencer-equipped pistols. The catch is that these single-use items have to be used immediately. When used correctly, they can mean the difference between a successful run and starting over. But more often than not I found myself drawing all the guards to exactly the wrong place at precisely the wrong time, because apparently Agent 47 has never seen a rock he didn’t have to throw. Stealth be damned! This compulsion is a major flaw in an otherwise flawless assassin training program.
Agent 47 makes up for his OCD tendencies by being really, really good at killing people. Position yourself so your next move intersects from the side or the rear of an enemy, and they are knocked off of the board. This is particularly satisfying when you’re taking out an assassination target, as the familiar strains of Schubert’s Ave Maria strike up, adding a hauntingly poignant touch to the toppling of a hunk of plastic. When it comes to coldly, efficiently dispatching your mark, Hitman GO does a pitch perfect job of capturing the spirit of the console series on mobile devices. But what it’s missing is a sense of choice. Most of the puzzles have disappointingly few solutions. And others yet require an annoying advance/retreat strategy to complete, as you force the guards line up just so before making a break for the exit point, transforming Agent 47’s figurative dance of death into a weirdly literal one.
In lieu of a variety of “options” for solving the puzzles, Hitman GO gives you “objectives” following the tried and true iOS format – the three-star challenge. Most boards task you with completing three objectives, such as picking up a briefcase, reaching the exit point under a certain number of moves, and killing either everyone or no one. These objectives feel a little like padding to lengthen the game, and wouldn’t really be worth an additional playthrough if it weren’t for the fact that you need a certain number of “stars” to unlock the next game box. Of course, you can simply pay to unlock the next game box, but that sorta cheating. Agent 47 has done a lot of bad things, but he has to draw the line somewhere, doesn’t he?
Though it might not be the handheld Hitman you were expecting, Hitman GO is a solidly designed, sleekly produced puzzle game. Square-Enix Montreal made a smart move embracing the turn-based strategy approach, which proves the perfect fit for touchscreens. It’s not a perfect experience, but the deceptively simple gameplay mechanics and overall aesthetic – a compelling contrast between a good, clean board game and the messy business of murder for hire – more than make up for any minor annoyances with repetition. Those willing to endure a little trial-and-error are in for decidedly deadly good time.