Yes, reviewing a twelve-year old game at the dawn of a New Year may seem a bit convenient or cheap, but when sales on Steam come around, you don’t ask questions – just toss them your money, grab a few choice games and get out. With luck, what you end up with will be worthwhile.
At least, that was the logic behind starting up Hitman: Codename 47. Incidentally, it was also the logic that continually haunted me as I pondered my decision to give up playing after 4 missions and promptly delete the game entirely.
It’s clear that developer IO Interactive wanted a new IP in 2000 that could stand up to the Metal Gear series and the then-recently-released Deus Ex, and their ambition and creative thinking are occasionally visible in the final product. However, few games with such great potential could ever botch the execution of a concept – especially one as potentially interesting as simulating the life of an assassin – with such intensity.
Hitman: Codename 47 is centred around the amoral assassin, Agent 47. Bald, brooding and mysterious, Mr. 47 begins his journey in this single-player only experience when he awakens in an asylum, guided by a odd voice that seems to shout “pervert”. Escaping relatively unscathed, with only the most meager of tutorial levels under their belt, the player is then sent from mission to mission as 47, working out of various locations in Asia and Europe and taking on various odd jobs – from assassinating Triad crime bosses to retrieving sacred artifacts, there’s a nice range of activities to take part in.
Problems arise (at least narrative-wise) when Codename 47 attempts to string all of these distinct missions together. The game lacks a coherent story, preferring instead to indirectly group missions in thematic “story arcs” while saving the explanation of how events fit into the bigger picture for the final hours. By that point, the game misses its chance to be anything more than generic spy fiction.
To be fair, though, the idea of Agent 47 being specifically suited for professional hitman work – and the specific details that come to light as the story progresses – are somewhat interesting, but players should not expect the game to give any more effort than that. It’s not interested or even suited to creating interesting and likeable characters, giving them development as the story progresses, crafting scenes to elicit even the tiniest drop of emotion from the audience, and wrapping everything up in a nice conclusive bow.
Then there’s the gameplay. IO, IO, IO… how did you go wrong? The structure was right there in front of you. Missions areas tend to be large in size but closed off and focused in purpose – they exist as squared-off zones to accomplish tasks. The trouble with this approach, however, is two-fold: the areas tend to be too large to find anything easily, and pathfinding is difficult thanks to a map that, while capable of specifying a target’s location, lacks key information on individual guards or details about the terrain. For all you know, you might be walking into a group of guards or end up two floors below your target.
Controls also tend to be an issue in this game, a fact which hurts its credibility as a so-called stealth game. Hitman: Codename 47 doesn’t adhere to the traditional “WASD” keys for movement; instead the player uses the “SZXC” keys for slow movement, holding “W” to run, and holding “A” or “D” to pivot left or right, respectively. That tightly-packed and difficult to use control set is only the alternative to the default control scheme, which uses the Number Pad keys.
Basically, what this means is that anything more complicated than running down a straight road is going to take up valuable time. For instance, in an early mission, the player is tasked with killing a Triad boss by planting a bomb in their limo. The player, though not clearly instructed, must carefully kill the limo driver (which requires sneaking up and carefully timing a fibre wire choke), walk slowly to the driver side of the limo, line up the cursor to interact with the limo and plant the bomb, and then quickly escape the area. With imprecise controls and a sticky camera, this series of tasks soon becomes a chore once the player makes mistake, after mistake, after mistake, and has to restart the mission due to the checkpoint system dropping them back into the level when all the guards have been alerted to their presence.
This franchise’s key appeal stems from its high difficulty curve and its apparently impressive variety of ways to kill targets, the latter of which you wouldn’t be able to figure out with this game. The A.I. is more than competent (in fact, they can be frustratingly jumpy). No, the greatest problem here is that Codename 47 is far too strict and linear with its approach. In order to succeed in each mission, the player must complete all mandatory objectives, which means leaving the detection of dead guards – who can be looted for weapons and disguises – to chance and following a strict path to victory. Mission success rewards the player with money between missions, which can be used to buy various weapons and equipment – this reward system does add a sense of depth to proceedings, but some missions feel set-up to force the typical player to start killing civilians and police just to save time.
And what is the great reward for all of the struggling? All of the hair tearing, tear jerking, and expletive spewing the player will inevitably succumb to? Nothing, except the knowledge that around 15 hours of one’s life has been spent going through an overly-structured, overly-difficult, unforgiving experience.
Presentation is not particularly worth mentioning, but for the sake of consistency, we’ll delve into it. Codename 47 looks like a twelve-year old game would: the textures look fuzzy and blurry, the character models look like plastic dolls, and the environments feel drab. The art style is nice, but add little appeal to the visuals beyond giving some more colour and personality. The sound design and voice work are lacking in memorability and quality, but David Bateson does a modest enough job of portraying Agent 47 as a reserved, internalized man.
Patience is the key to enjoying this game, but even that does not prevent it from being so great of a failure for Eidos Interactive and IO. I wanted to enter 2013 with the hope that the Hitman franchise’s weakest link would prove to be at least a fair starting point for a newcomer such as myself. Instead, I must confide in my readers the truth: Codename 47 has failed me as interactive media and as entertainment. Sorry, 47, it’s best to just back out of this deal.