Mobile is a viable gaming platform. Whether you like it or not.
We’ve come a long way since the monochromatic screens and the original Snake. We are no longer limited by a tiny LCD and a weird antenna sticking out of a huge plastic box. Remember how we used to insert text messages via physical numerical keyboards? Or how we played Tetris on a silly oversized toy with just a shoddy uncomfortable joypad? And while Tetris still holds the number one spot on the “Best selling video games” list, it is now less than uncommon to see headlines like “[Mobile game] has surpassed [incomprehensible amount of money] in [horrifyingly short time]” on industry websites.
A major franchise going mobile is often responded to with a disappointed sigh of its fanbase. Who can blame it? We still think of Candy Crush or Flappy Bird when someone mentions “mobile gaming”. Simplistic mechanics, limiting controls, low graphical fidelity. All of that sends a clear message. A downgrade. At the same time, exploring a new marketplace is oh so exciting to publishers, especially once they get a few of those aforementioned industry news headlines thrown their way. Thus, we get mobile spin offs. Or companion apps. Although it feels like those are fading away as time goes on. Still, I can appreciate having an interactive map of Camp Omega on a second screen. And I can also dig switching around my inventory with the touch of my fingers instead of tapping the same arrow key over and over again… I can only imagine my character’s frustration as they have to turn that little knob to get to the desired bottle of coke… Even Hitman Absolution had a companion app! An app full of potential, as was Absolution itself. Fully in-universe with an access to player stats and some additional lore. Shame it was discontinued and did not end up being one and only Hitman lore encyclopedia. Guess my original series of write-ups will have to do…
Nowadays it seems like every franchise, not just gaming, has to have their own marketing space on a mobile device. This more often than not leads to a rushed knock-off of the existing product reskinned with iconic characters of the target franchise and filled with microtransactions. Want to build a town? How about building your own Springfield?! Or helping out Twilight Sparkle and Spike as they do it?! Doesn’t it sound so much nicer when you put it against generic “develop your own world”? You get to do it with Noctis or Peter Griffin or those annoying yellow Tic Tacs with eyes!
Or would you rather match treats for popular internet cats or Disney emojis?! Or play a complete depredation of your favorite childhood classic in the form of a free-to-play portable franchise currently owned by Electronic Arts or Atari? If none of those sound particularly pleasing yet you still wish to indulge in your favorite franchise whilst holding a small device in your hand, you may have to look at the GO series. And whilst in this piece we will be looking at Hitman and how it beautifully translates the franchise-specific game mechanics to a tiny screen, I wholeheartedly recommend the other titles as well. Except for the weird extended reality monsters one. That’s by a different company altogether…
If you’ve ever happened to come across White’s opinion on Hitman GO, you know that the first thing I always do is gloat about its aesthetic. Let’s get that out of way as early as possible then. I absolutely adore the art design of the GO series, especially Hitman. It’s very minimal and clean with a high focus on pastel colors. All of the characters have their distinctive color-coded looks, meaning you know very well what you’re dealing with just by looking at the screen. On top of that, every level is presented as a diorama, with all of the characters being pawns. This makes yours truly wish they could own a physical version of the in-game scenery on their Hitman altar and, as you may imagine, also very sad the only copy of it exists at the Square Enix Montreal headquarters. We also do get a relaxing atmospheric tune accompanying our adventures and Schubert’s Ave Maria ‘cause it would not be Hitman otherwise!… ugh…
You might have scratched your head when I said “diorama”. In fact, scratch it again cause Hitman GO’s primary mechanics are based around an idea of a board game. How can it still be a Hitman game, then? It most certainly can! The title is an environmental puzzle game, akin to the rest of the franchise, albeit with a bit more limited movement abilities. Our pawn 47 can only move to predetermined spots on the map once you slide him with your finger. Personally, I always found to be extremely adorable. The game begins simple enough with only a handful of static enemies on the screen. You can eliminate them, also prompting a board game-inspired animation. You literally take their pawns off the diorama. Wonderful!
The game introduces its concepts in a steady fashion. There is no over the top tutorial. No tool tips, no messages breaking the game flow. Instead, the player learns by doing. Level 1-2 is a straight path, allowing the player to eliminate an enemy from behind. 1-3 gives them an option to move in-front of the enemy’s line of sight, thus teaching the player getting seen equals “bad”. Hey, isn’t that also the premise of big console Hitman titles?
Moving forwards, the game teaches you going straight to your goal isn’t the best of options. You will often have to loop around the level getting rid of enemies who stand in your way, thus clearing your route to the ending space. In fact, you can influence those pesky pawns to move if you find a distraction. 1-5 is all about throwing a rock and seeing it fly. The latter is mimicked by a usually stationary guard who suddenly goes almost Metal Gear Solid-level of “huh” accompanied by a question mark over his head. He also twitches anxiously to signify something is about to happen. And it does! Once you take your next turn, he moves forward to look for the source of the noise. It’s almost as if usual stealth genre distraction mechanics are being translated to a mobile title!
1-6 gets fancy with adding some drums to the ambiance as well as a few challenges to the gameplay experience. From now on, players can gather insignia which unlock further stages. The concept of three stars was popularized by Angry Birds, so there’s no surprise it also appears in Hitman GO. After all, as a mobile title, it has to be familiar to the platform user demographic.
Speaking of challenges, they are my one big gripe with the title. They often circle around either killing or not killing enemies, retrieving a briefcase or finishing the stage in a set amount of turns. They are exclusive of each other, meaning replaying levels is a given. And whilst some of the later levels get so complex, accomplishing those goals is a true brainteaser, it sometimes feels like a bother in early simpler stages. That might be because I am not fond of replaying stages to achieve some sort of completion mark to begin with. Hitman games thrive on their replay value but my personal opinion is that players do not need products to give them specific reasons for playing. Those should come from good design and enjoyment instead. It’s always so much more engaging when it’s the player who creates an argument for the playsession – be it further environmental exploration, learning the game mechanics or simple curiosity: an “I wonder what will happen if I do this?” type of scenario. As much as people want to hammer home the point that visual media defile receivers’ imagination, I beg to differ. Give me enough stimuli to fuel my creativity and I will stick by your product like a guardian dog. Hence being the Hitman lore expert and all…
1-8 is our first kill! Up to then, we were simply scouting the territory and getting close to our target… hey, that’s what the main games of the series do! This stage is also where pawn 47 has to manipulate his movements to avoid getting spotted. You are required to move back and forward, waiting for an opportunity to arise. I remember wondering why there isn’t a “skip turn” button first time I played Hitman GO but after a while, it became clear to me – the lack of it is a gameplay mechanic. The player has to make a move and time it such as to traverse the stage unnoticed. It is almost as if someone took the old-school Hitman titles and used their ideas to build a board game!… Wait. That’s exactly what had to happen!
The game introduces new mechanics in a steady fashion. The player never gets bored of the existing content as it is used in more complex and interesting ways. Soon after the first kill, we get an ability to hide in a potted plant. Probably more akin to a Looney Tunes cartoon rather than Hitman but the concept of hiding behind cover is there. World 2 begins with teaching you of a new way of travel – trap holes. They use a turn and transport you to the according space meaning your mind will be twisting and turning trying to time things correctly. We also get some new enemy types to spice things up. The world map notifies you of this beforehand so you can anticipate it. This also motivates the player to keep playing. I remember personally being very curious of how Square Enix Montreal manages to pull off disguises in this diorama setting so I got more than excited seeing them on the world 2 map.
World 3 ends up being focused on weaponry. We start of with a sniper rifle and even more reasons to time your turns as pawn 47 has an impressive ability to eliminate multiple enemies with a single bullet if they reside on the same space. Landing that shot is satisfying to say the least. There are also more and more enemies and ideas limiting your available routes. You get to find keys to open doors which end up being a double-edged sword in some situations – giving more level access not just to the player but also shifting the timing of NPCs as they get one more additional space in their pathing. The enemies all act in a predictable way as they only operate on the most basic of behaviors. Truth be told however, the game would simply not work if this was not the case. I can only imagine frustration if I was not able to predict how the next turn is going to go. Especially on some of the later levels.
Hitman GO gets complex. And I love it for being this complex. It reminds me of some of the big open levels of main series Hitman games and the strategies for them I used to create in my mind. One of my most powerful memories of the franchise is coming up with my unique way of accomplishing Blood Money’s Amendment XXV on Professional difficulty with Silent Assassin rating and I keep searching for ways to scratch that itch once again. Late stages of GO give me exactly that. As the mechanics pile up, the player has to use their foresight, game knowledge and strategic abilities to reach that end circle. It’s never as simple as it looks at the first glance and I can assure you, pawn 47 will land on the board time and time again before you finally hear that satisfying jingle.
It truly feels like a Hitman game. Maybe even more than the latest installments. It carries the old school feel in a modernized way all whilst gracefully translating it to a much more limiting platform. It’s a 3D environmental puzzle game with creative stealth elements albeit player creativity comes in play in different scenarios. It’s not focused on eliminating one singular target. Actually, levels which contain a target make them simply an ending goal you have to reach. It’s more about the journey rather than the destination. The puzzle element lies in figuring out how to clear the path, dissimilarily to how the main series plays out.
How is it a Hitman game then if it’s not about killing specific NPCs with whatever you can find on the map? It manages it by proving core design ideas are more important than themes. Just as with the big titles, it relies on strategy, creative thinking and timing. It provides a map and various tools to help players solve a puzzle. It requires to plan movement carefully, learn enemy patterns, further the knowledge of game mechanics. Remember how I mentioned being surprised when I realized there is no “skip a turn” option? I had to incorporate it into my play and dig deeper to find out what advantages I could use instead of this obviously-too-easy one.
It’s almost poetic as a title which had to adapt complex mechanics onto such a limiting device also ends up being a game on getting around your limitations. The movement area is a set of straight lines, you can only move one space at the time, as the NPCs all take a turn with you. Items can only be used on the very spaces they were placed by level designers. No carrying stuff around, no magic pockets. You get seen – you go back to start. You really have to Silent Assassin your way through the stages… if taking their pieces off the board counts as an accident kill…
In the end, it embraces core Hitman ideas and presents them in a very refreshing manner. Whether it’s the aesthetic, the overall feel, the focus on mechanics and game knowledge or straight up nods to the source material such as disguises, a sniper rifle, double Silverballers or sets of levels inspired by the old school classic – GO embalms the franchise and I am so very glad it does so this respectfully in a marketplace filled with money-grubbing reskins with a big franchise logo slapped on the top. It wasn’t the first mobile Hitman title (that was a Blood Money promotional tie-in: Hitman: Vegas) but it was the one which has done Hitman in a way Hitman should be done. Personally, I admire the team for truly knowing what the series is all about when it comes to design. And for the amount of research it had to take, I tip my hat.
Thus, I leave you with these words – go and play Hitman GO. You might just scratch an itch you didn’t realize you’ve had.