Hitman Beta hands-on preview: The classic title gets even bigger for 2016

An 'episodic' launch schedule for the new game will keep the hype train going long after the initial release

Four long years and a few inconvenient delays after the last game, Hitman is coming back, on a bigger scale than ever.

The upcoming title, simply named Hitman, has been developed by Copenhagen's Io Interactive, and serves as a prequel to the other games in the series.

Beginning 20 years in the past at a secret International Contract Agency (ICA) facility, we see Agent 47 get introduced to the world of contract killing through his long-time handler, Diana Burnwood.

As the game progresses, the origins of many of the series' hallmarks are revealed - during a prologue mission, in which 47 targets master thief-for-hire Kalvin 'The Sparrow' Ritter, Diana reacts with surprise when the Agent puts on a disguise, revealing the famous mechanic was actually 47's invention.

Disguises have been a part of the series since the very beginning, but sometimes they've really challenged the player's suspension of disbelief - it's never really felt right that guards in various missions wouldn't notice that one of their colleagues has suddenly transformed into a tall, ripped bald guy with a barcode tattooed on his head.

This has been fixed (to an extent) in the latest title. Certain NPCs throughout levels will be more alert and suspicious than others - hang around too long and they'll realise you're in a disguise and raise the alarm. This only applies within certain classes of NPCs - if you're dressed up as a security guard, others might notice you, but cooks and waiters won't.

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The game's story opens in an expansive Paris chateau

High-level 'Enforcers', such as targets' personal bodyguards, are rarer but even more keen eyed - whatever your disguise is, they'll see through it. This feature, first seen in 2012's Hitman: Absolution, is simple but effective, and adds extra layers of realism, suspense and strategy to the whole thing. 

If you've managed to fool everyone with the disguises, the usual array of creative executions are bound to satisfy long-time fans. In the first two prologue missions (which will make up the upcoming beta) played by The Independent at a preview event, we killed a chess master-turned-Soviet spy by having him ejected from a fighter jet, and silently garrotted a playboy before sneaking out of his party unnoticed.

Obviously, the game wouldn't be Hitman if these opportunities weren't there, but the sheer size of some of the levels make them much more wide-ranging.

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Yes, it's possible to shoot someone out of this jet

The first non-prologue mission takes place in a Paris chateau, where a high-profile fashion show is being hosted by Russian oligarch Viktor Novikov and former supermodel Dalia Margolis, both of whom are ringleaders of IAGO, a secretive group which sells government secrets to the highest bidder.

The level plays out inside the grounds of the chateau, and it's palpable just how big the environment is - everywhere, from the basement kitchens and changing rooms to the top-floor private quarters are all fully explorable, providing you've managed to don the correct disguise. 

All these monster levels are littered with small 'opportunities' - sub-plots which can open up new assassination possibilities, usually discovered when listening in on NPC conversations. In a few playthroughs, I managed to take the identity of supermodel Helmut Kruger, before strutting down the catwalk in full disguise and make-up. Another, slightly less glamorous hit, involved dressing up as a waiter, scouring the basement for rat poison, and slipping it into the oligarch's favourite cocktail. These are the only opportunities that we're allowed to mention, but there's countless more in the enormous level. Players can get alerts when these opportunities arise, which makes things a bit too easy. Fortunately, serious gamers can switch them off.

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Dressing up as a supermodel opens up some interesting possibilities

Uncovering more opportunities gives you reason to replay the missions and try different ways to play, which is exactly what Io Interactive wants you to do. They see Hitman as a 'life game', one so full of possibilities and different approaches that you'll be playing it long into the future. The rich and varied Contracts game mode is back in the new game, allowing players to create their own custom hits and share them with the world.

A brand-new mode comes in the form of Escalation - levels that increase in difficulty as you master them, with new constraints and conditions to meet as you progress. This obviously increases the game's replayability value, but there's a danger that things could get a little same-y as things go on.

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The opening sequence shows Agent 47 joining the ICA

There's also 'elusive targets', certain hits that will only be available for a few hours of real time. Once they're gone, they're gone, so players will have to rush to decipher cryptic information about the targets before the time runs out and the opportunity disappears.

All of these modes are part of what Io Interactive calls the 'World of Assassination' - they see players roaming around these open-world, sandbox levels, completing the 'official' contracts but spending just as much time on the community-created content.

The developers going to be very involved with this game after its release - the game will ship with the prologue and the Paris mission, but entire new environments will be episodically released after the game launches.

The next location, Italy, will be released in April, and another, Morocco, will come out in May. Publisher Square Enix has said new levels in Thailand, the US and Japan will follow throughout 2016, until a 'final' version containing everything comes out at the end of the year.

Io Interactive is billing Hitman as the first 'fully episodic' Triple-A game, and players will be able to get the opening missions for around £10. The following locations will cost around £7 each, but it's possible to buy the whole thing for a one-off payment of around £50. Io Interactive have only released these prices in dollars, so the actual cost in the UK may vary slightly.

The episodic format is a bit of an experiment, and it remains to be seen whether people will want to shell out for what will initially be an incomplete game. Their strategy will keep the hype around Hitman going long after release, however, and it's bound to ensure a strong community from the start. And unlike some other titles, the DLC will be just as huge and well thought-out as the launch content, not just a money-spinner.

We'll find out when Hitman gets released for Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC on 11 March. If you want to get an early look at the game, the PS4 beta opens on 12 February (19 February for the PC.)

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