With the biggest levels yet seen in a Hitman game, developer IO interactive gives the series a full reboot on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One - pushing for huge dynamically lit stages, teeming with hundreds of AI characters. The size of each level is taken up a gear over 2012's Hitman Absolution, and the studio claims over 300 characters are now fully simulated, as compared to the previous 40-50 limit. However, based on the PS4 beta, crowds of this size appear to take a toll on finite console resources - and this early taster puts a question mark over the state of the final game's performance.
In a nutshell, this PS4 beta acts as a prologue to the full game, throwing us into two tutorial missions with Agent 47. You're let loose on a cruise ship (and then later a military base), letting you try all the tools in his arsenal before things kick off properly on its March 11th release. Curiously, the full package itself will be meted out in monthly chunks, with Italy and Morocco stages to be added in later months. But for now, both training exercises give us a moment to explore our stealthy options - and the technical choices behind the series reboot.
It's quite a jump from the last-gen; PS4 runs at a native 1920x1080 with a form of post-process AA over and above. It also retains the superb suite of lighting effects seen in Absolution - bloom, light shafts, and some crisp reflections are on show - resulting in a look that marks an evolution of the studio's existing Glacier 2 engine. Stage design is impressively detailed too, and though we're missing the sheer variety of areas seen in the Paris fashion show (revealed at EGX), each area on the cruise ship is distinct.
Your assassination target is marked clearly at the start, but Hitman's real attraction is its large volume of AI characters. The ship is filled with throngs of nattering party-goers, while security and catering staff follow set routes around the crowds - many of whom can let crucial info slip to eavesdroppers. It's a great setup for a stealth action title, and the execution is all the stronger for appearing on PS4 hardware. The big 'but' here is, of course, the health of the game's frame-rate when thrown into the middle of such a large party.
At least in its beta form, Hitman on PS4 isn't keen on processing such a breadth of AI characters in one fell swoop, and it cues long drops to around 20fps. Not only that, but the game also runs with an entirely unlocked frame-rate - and on this level we only see a perfect 60fps around a smaller kitchen area. However the reality is that the rest of play unfolds within the shakier 20 to 40fps bracket (with v-sync enabled), and typically at the lower end for this mission.
As regular readers will know, this variable frame-rate causes a perceptible judder on fixed 60Hz displays, and games tend to look much smoother at either a locked 60fps, or in failing that 30fps. But with this Hitman reboot, frame-rates too often loiter into a 40fps no-man's land, where the output of frames falls out of logical sync with the refresh of any given screen.
In other words, the game in its current state would benefit hugely from a 30fps cap (at least as an option, as per Killzone Shadowfall and Infamous Second Son) and it's something we really hope will be added for the final release. And even though its sub-30fps drops would still be an issue with such a cap, at least any fluctuations above it would level off at an even rate. As it stands now though, letting Hitman run up and down the scale doesn't make for a consistent playing experience. Fortunately, the game is orientated around a slow, stealthy build-up to a hit, and triggering any shootouts en route (where controller response might factor in) isn't a winning tactic. Even so, the setup here isn't an ideal one in purely presentational terms.
A second 'final' mission is also included, which thankfully does improve things. Set around a military base with only a handful of AI characters, areas of this stage almost justify the game's unlocked refresh. It achieves frame-rates much closer to the unlocked 60fps limit, settling at around 55fps to start - but delving deeper into the base we're again stuck between a rock and a hard place. Here the game drops heavily (always at the sight of a central hangar area), and again a 30fps cap starts to look like a more realistic and attainable option on PS4.
It's a concern given how close we are to the game's console launch, but there's plenty on show here to be impressed by. A similar PC beta is due exactly a week from now, meaning we'll see exactly how PS4 stands up by comparison to a 60fps experience - and what hardware it actually takes to achieve that. Elsewhere, the Xbox One version remains enigmatic, and the specifics of its performance and image quality are something we hope to get a better lock on by its March 11th release.