Wednesday, 11 May 2016

PS4Play: Hitman (2016, IO Interactive)

After a bit of a fallow year for gaming in 2015, when I played a lot of analogue cardboard games and MGS V and basically nothing else, I started this year by buying a PS4. I'm in that glorious post-new-console honeymoon period, where I suddenly have a huge library of games at my disposal. So as I cycle through games, I want to try and write about at least some of them. 

The plan is short blogs – not too much thinking ahead, not too much editing, just what I can shake loose in a single sitting – picking out one or two things I find interesting about each game. Here's the first:

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I've always enjoyed the Hitman series, but none of its previous incarnations has ever made me swoon like Hitman, the awkwardly-named sixth (depending on how you count) game.

Maybe I'm being shallow, and it's just the lovely graphics. Sapienza in particular is luscious, the kind of Mediterranean seaside resort you wouldn't mind getting bumped off in.

Maybe it's the slightly increased willingness to hold your hand. The Hitmans (Hitmen?) have always been about finding off-kilter ways to dispatch your target, and this game introduces an Opportunities system that walks you through some of the dozens of murder options present in each sprawling level. That might sounds a bit off-putting at first, like Assassination For Dummies, but in practice it makes achieving that ludicrous
disguise-yourself-as-a-kitchen-assistant-poison-your-target's-spaghetti-then-kick-them-off-a-cliff assassination a feasible prospect without having to consult an online guide beforehand.

Maybe it's the episodic structure, which I suspect was a result of how the game got made rather than a deliberate design decision, but is nevertheless absolutely perfect. Releasing the game in level-by-level chunks means there's the promise of a new destination every month, and extra incentive to thoroughly rinse the missions you've already got while waiting impatiently for the next to come out.

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So, for the first time in a over a decade of playing Hitman games, I feel like I really understand the series, for good and ill. The Hitman games pretend to be loose and spontaneous, with hundreds of ways to complete each level, and I've been tricked into thinking they're games of violent improvisation. But that's not really the case at all.

Let's use one of Hitman's coolest new additions to explain what I mean: Escalation Contracts. This mode recycles the levels you've already got with a brand new mission that takes two or three minutes to complete. Remember that guard on the left that you just sprinted straight past? Now he's the target. Once you're done, it runs you through five increasingly difficult variations on it. This time, you can't kill anyone but the target. This time, you have to kill this second guy as well. This time, that disguise you've been relying on doesn't work anymore.

It's a great way of underlining both the fluidity and the rigidity of Hitman's systems. As you level up, you can choose your insertion point, what clothes you're wearing, what weapons you have stashed in a dark corner of the level. This leads to a cool puzzle, capable of generating some genuine eureka moments before the level even begins. Oh, man, if I start in the kitchen with the poison stashed back there, I can probably do this in no time.
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Equally, though, once you've found an optimal combination and route to success, you're likely to spend each new variation basically perfecting your racing line.

At best, you're Bill Murray jumping over the puddle in Groundhog Day, Tom Cruise shooting aliens without even looking in Edge of Tomorrow, Keanu Reeves seeing through the Matrix to the underlying code. At worst, you're living through the bits they cut out of those movies' montages, screwing up one tiny moment in that combo chain and endlessly reloading the same thirty seconds over and over (to ratchet up the tension, you can't save at any point during these Escalation missions, and have to start all over every time you fail).

This is exacerbated by some truly atrocious loading screens, which involve staring at a vaguely animated map of the world for up to a minute. Mess up the first couple of seconds a few times and you'll quickly spend more time in this dull geography lesson than actually playing.

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All of which exposes the mechanisms beneath game's shiny (oh god it's so shiny) exterior. Hitman is set in a world world which revolves to a hilarious degree around the player. Practically every other male character is bald, and/or wearing a hat, and roughly the same dimensions (not to mention skin colour) as Agent 47, so that you could easily pass for that person with a simple costume-change, probably after garrotting them and dumping the body in a freezer.

This is something the game actually pokes fun at in its training levels, which are constructed out of cardboard and plywood and where you're assured all of your stabbing/poisoning/ejecting is completely harmless. It's a reminder that this is an artificial environment created for you to muck about in.

So, no, Hitman isn't the game I once thought it was. I remember criticising mobile spin-off Hitman Go for trapping the player on rails, which I saw as a fundamental misunderstanding of a series where the whole point is choosing your own approach. I was wrong. Hitman isn't an organic homicide simulator. It doesn't reward experimentation, except under very strict lab conditions.

But you know what? That's fine. In exchange, Hitman offers gorgeously deep levels, and it's hugely rewarding to learn the whirr and tick of their inner workings.

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In the process of grinding out the perfect stealthy walk down a corridor, you might suddenly notice a speedboat parked up outside an open window, or a poisonable glass of wine that had passed you by the first six times, unlocking a completely different set of clockwork mechanisms that lead to you drowning your mark in a toilet rather than dropping a light fixture on them.

Often, though you won't be able to do anything with this information until the next time you play through this level, or by switching over to a different mode. So you do, this time spotting it's possible to scale that clock tower on the square –  but to do anything about it, first you'll need to keep playing and unlock the sniper rifle. And you do, starting over and over again and finding more and more ways to dispatch your targets until you know the nuances of this simulated town almost as well as that bloody loading-screen atlas you've got burned onto your retinas.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Alex's Adventures in Internetland: The Year So Far

Oh gosh. I haven't posted anything on this blog for the entirety of 2016 to this point. I've got a couple of things cooking, but in the meantime it seemed polite to let you know what I've been busy doing instead (namely, writing for other sites for actual currency that I can use to feed myself and my very hungry dog).


My column over at ComicsAlliance, The Issue, has warped into something I didn't expect: an outlet for the frustrated English-Literature student that still resides within me. Like when I tried to capture the purple-prose energy of Grant Morrison's ambitious but flawed picture-book issue of Batman and channel it into my write-up:
"Van Fleet’s art constantly strains to break out of the restraints it’s been given, blurring the edges of boxes so they look like a Papa Roach album cover, or even flopping out onto the rest of the page to disrupt the reading flow of the text. Morrison embraces his inner pulp-fiction writer practically to the point of strangulation; strings of adjective and simile tumbling out onto the page like he’s not fully in control of the keyboard.

The result is actually quite ugly, with a visual style evoking the manual for a bargain-bin videogame, and writing that crushes just about every convention of ‘respectable’ literature like a crook’s windpipe under the weighty tread of a Bat-boot."
(And if that's not highfalutin enough for ya, I also wrote one about Rudyard Kipling, or at least the version of him that appears in The Unwritten.)

On the exact opposite end of the spectrum, here's a dumb ComicsAlliance thing about when Spider-Man rolls his mask up to his nose, and how Kirsten Dunst getting off with Toby Maguire shaped me as an adolescent. (To this day, I can only get my mack on while upside-down and wearing a ski mask.)

"My own personal kinks aside, though, that rolled-up mask is just a cool practical consideration that makes the costume feel that much more lived-in. It’s probably also my favourite thing about cosplay at cons, or Hallowe’en — seeing people in these costumes in downtime, at lunch or a bar or on the dancefloor, expresses a different side of the characters they’re dressed as."


Meanwhile, over at the day job, the ongoing ad block war (which is the third most fun war of the last six months, after Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Captain America: Civil War) has provided plenty of fuel for my inner tabloid writer, as both sides of the debate throw increasingly soap-opera-esque insults at each others.

As part of that, I spoke to Alexander Hanff, a privacy advocate who's basically threatening to take the entire European ad industry to court. The result was one of my favourite interviews I've ever done:

“People have the right to block ads,” Hanff told Mobile Marketing. “People have the right to walk out of the room or switch the channel when their TV shows commercials. People have the right to not look at the ads or destroy the ads in a newspaper. There is no law anywhere that states people have to look at ads, so to call these ad block users ‘thieves’ is completely false.

“The people that are breaking the law are the publishers and the ad tech industry and the developers of the software that is doing this surveillance, and that needs to end. And it’s my goal to stop it.”

(I also got to write one of my beloved brief-history-of pieces, this time on the occasion of Twitter's tenth birthday.)

With the lonnnnng gap between issues, it's been a while since Mr Maytom and I once more returned to our Tumblr side project, Tim + Alex Get TWATD. But my most recent essay was heavily delayed enough to fall into the 2016 window, and fortunately it's one of the ones I'm happiest with, as I pick apart the distancing effect I felt across the course of WicDiv's 'Commercial Suicide' arc.

"Each guest artist bends the comic’s style to match with the relevant god, but in a lot of cases I think it’s actually more to do with how they want to be seen.

Brandon Graham trades in McKelvie’s crisp thin line for something softer and more sensuous, even while we realise that Ruth is actually a character in denial about her feelings, not embracing them. Stephanie Hans’ glorious painted art amps up the mythology angle, in line with Amaterasu’s self-presentation as the most classical god. Reading the issue, I didn’t feel any closer to the character, because Amaterasu is permanently posed, every panel is an epic mural."

(For more of me enthusing about Gillen/McKelvie comics, and exposing a little too much of myself, check out my ComicsAlliance review of their Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl, which kind of turns into a veiled rant about how I'm getting old.)

I mentioned already that I have a dog, right? Right at the start of the year, I managed to find a neat way of closing that using-my-time-to-actually-feed-him loop by writing a Kotaku piece about dogs and games, from Nintendogs to The Sims.
"There are some things that no game can really prepare you for. I don't remember the bit in MGS V, for example, where D-Dog is sick en route to a mission, producing a substance that resembles awful school-dinner chilli con carne but which he apparently finds delicious.
There's no Nintendogs minigame that has you waggling the stylus to pee against a shed at 3am in a sleep-deprived attempt to teach your new puppy that the garden is a great place to go to the toilet."
(I also wrote another thing over at Kotaku about pairing music with games, including Dre/GTA and Carly Rae/Audiosurf, but as that was specifically about 2015 stuff I've relegated it to this bracket.)

And if you'd like to get a little better acquainted with little Lucky Spencer-Dale, why not watch this lovely short film starring he, me and Imi, directed by friend of the blog Reece 'Shimmerman' Lipman?



(There's also a 'profile' on me in which I answer a set of questions about London as stupidly as I can manage.)

Oh, speaking of videos... Would you like to see me looking like an idiot in a variety of VR goggles? Of course you would.



(And if that piqued your curiosity, check out this more in-depth piece about my feelings and reservations about virtual reality after spending a bit more time there.)

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Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.