A smartly dressed figure sits on a rooftop, cradling a powerful rifle. There's an open-air party on top of the building opposite: a helicopter lands, and a VIP gets out, flanked by a small army of bodyguards. Our mysterious observer raises his weapon, his bald head leans into the scope revealing the barcode tattoo on the back of his skull. Aim. Squeeze. Fire.
For fans of IO Interactive's Hitman series, this standalone assassination is the first chance to slip into the black suit and red tie of Agent 47 for almost six years. That's how long it's been since Hitman: Blood Money crept discreetly onto shelves, so there's clearly a need to reintroduce the game's unique milieu to gamers.
Hence the Hitman Sniper Challenge, a downloadable score attack game offered free to anyone pre-ordering the game. With six months to go before Hitman Absolution - and rather appropriately, given the game's concept - this suggests a publisher taking the long view.
The concept of Sniper Challenge is simple. Agent 47 is tasked with killing the CEO of an arms company while he mingles with guests at a party. The contract also asks that he kill all 15 of the target's bodyguards in order to send a more powerful message. Your task, as always, is to carry out the hit and you have 15 minutes to pull it off, before the target - an anti-social sort - finishes glad-handing his employees and leaves the scene. What you have is essentially a closed environment, a generous time limit and complete freedom to pick your targets off in whatever order you deem best.
This is the first glimpse we've had of Hitman running in IO's Glacier 2 engine, and impressions are immediately favourable. There's a wealth of detail in the scene, and a few experimental shots reveals a pleasing physics model. A half-squeeze on the trigger slows things down for precision aiming, and the world reacts well to the bullets you fire into it. Put one through the window of a lower floor and you can knock over the objects inside the room. Shoot out the wires holding up a pulley and barrels crash to the ground. Put a bullet in the back of the head of a guard dawdling by a ledge and the momentum carries him over, somersaulting to the pavement below.
It's hard to judge the AI from such a remote viewpoint, but it seems effective if rudimentary. Guards will usher their boss back to safety, before fleeing the roof themselves. A couple will stand gormlessly and stare at you, waiting for a bullet between the eyes, but that's likely a deliberate decision, offering a few easy conciliatory hits for players who have, no pun intended, jumped the gun.
It's immense fun, and the miniature sandbox feel encourages repeat play. There are leaderboards to top, with scores handed out for speed, accuracy and least bullets fired. Bonuses can be earned by maintaining a kill streak, hitting a moving target and other feats of marksmanship.
There are also numerous ambient challenges that unlock bonus abilities, such as controlled breathing and larger magazines, as well as score multipliers which carry over to subsequent playthroughs, nudging you to ever higher ranks. At the same time, you're earning access to new toys for use in Hitman Absolution, making Sniper Challenge a much more fair and fun way to get your hands on the sort of controversial pre-order bonus items that other games spread across multiple retailers.
What's interesting is that Sniper Challenge also acts as a refresher of sorts. This hit won't appear in Absolution, but it definitely trains the player to get back into an Agent 47 mindset. First time out, you'll likely be tempted to start popping caps straight away, no doubt scaring your target and failing to get all 16 kills required for maximum completion. You can also kiss goodbye to the coveted Silent Assassin rating.
Earning that hallowed rank means taking your time, thinking ahead and observing the world around you - all skills that are more valuable in a Hitman game than a quick trigger finger and a fondness for headshots. You've got 15 minutes after all, so why shoot your load in the first five? A bit of patience and a roving eye reveal opportunities for the smarter player, moments where bodyguards can be picked off without raising the alarm or leaving bodies to be discovered.
It's easy to complete the challenge, but incredibly difficult to finish to the professional standard you'd expect from Agent 47. Replays are vital, and as a welcome back to hardcore Hitman fans, it should offer reassurance that the unique flavour of the series hasn't be dumbed down for an audience now more used to wielding the blunt instruments of Marcus Fenix and pals.
Sniper Challenge may have wider implications outside its own parent franchise, however. As publishers become ever more desperate to entice players into the secure embrace of pre-ordering, this sort of incentive can only become more common. What's unusual about Sniper Challenge is that it's available so far ahead of the actual game, and stands separately from it. This isn't a DLC side dish, but an appetiser course designed to get the saliva flowing.
It's not the first time a commercial game has offered a digital accompaniment, but previous attempts to move game marketing in this direction haven't been entirely successful. Some have been hampered by having a price tag of their own, such as Fable 2 Pub Games which had the additional ignominy of exploits which allowed players to amass millions of coins, thus breaking the main game's already fragile economy.
Dead Rising 2: Case Zero was a huge downloadable success, released for 400 MS Points on Xbox Live Arcade, but it failed to transfer its popularity into passion for the main game. Indeed, by offering a more concise and compelling slice of the game's best features it may have even cost its parent title a few sales, as players decided they were satisfied to replay the low-priced taster rather than upgrade to the full thing. Then there are titles like Red Faction: Battlegrounds, digital spin-offs that were dragged down by lack of enthusiasm for the core brand they represented, both from players and publisher alike.
IO Interactive has explained that Sniper Challenge started life as a design experiment by a couple of staff members with time on their hands. It quickly became a popular pastime in the IO offices, and on the strength of that reaction was chosen to spearhead Agent 47's return.
Could more developers follow this example, carefully isolating one compelling and replayable gameplay feature and turning it into a quick taster for wider consumption? There's no reason why not, and surely at some point some enterprising publisher will decide to offer such a title as a free download for everyone, the ultimate interactive advert, neither demo nor DLC but something more generous and original.
Sniper Challenge is great fun, but by only offering it to those who have pre-ordered this far out, it feels like it's preaching to the converted. After years of lying fallow, Hitman needs to be reintroduced to the gaming public at large not just those who've been craving its return since 2006, and what better way to do that than by giving away a really cool and addictive toy, a digital diorama decorated with headshots?
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