Hitman: Sniper Challenge is an interesting title both for what is and for what it is not. While it is ostensibly a demo for this fall's Hitman: Absolution, Sniper Challenge is a stand-alone experience that doesn't fall neatly within the traditional definition of a demo. Rather, it straddles the fine line between tech demo and arcade-style downloadable game. At once both, and neither, Sniper Challenge may defy easy categorization, but that doesn't mean it isn't fun. It turns out that this preorder-exclusive experience is surprisingly enjoyable.
Sniper Challenge got its start as one of Absolution's test levels. It wasn't meant for the game, but simply as a way for the developers to quickly test different elements within the game engine. In the game development world, this sort of iterative testing is actually quite common, though most such prototypes never make it outside their studios. This time around, the team realized it had a snippet of gameplay that was fun, but didn't quite fit into the main game. Instead of scrapping it, they decided to turn it into a proper minigame and release it as an incentive.
The objective behind Sniper Challenge is simple. You have 15 minutes to eliminate a target and his bodyguards. The goal is to do it cleanly and without being noticed; the better your performance, the better your score. Scores are uploaded to a worldwide leaderboard, so you can see how you stack up against others, and it's not just for bragging rights. Square Enix will be hosting various Sniper Challenge contests over the next few months, with prizes going to the top snipers.
The mission within Sniper Challenge is so addicting due to the variety of ways in which it can unfold. Although the guards all have their own preset routines, they respond to external stimuli. If they spot a dead body, they'll run over to check it out and sound the alarm. If they hear a noise, they'll investigate. In short, what you do can and will have an impact on how they perform. Part of the challenge is determining the best order in which to take out the guards, so as to maximize your score and minimize the chances of being spotted.
In addition to the main mission, Sniper Challenge also has 14 different challenges scattered across the level for you to complete. The specific objectives are stated, but they're not necessarily obvious as far as location is concerned. For example, one challenge requires you to eliminate five pigeons. Another has you destroying evidence of a stripper. Completing each challenge adds a permanent score multiplier to the game — a necessity if you want to compete on the leaderboards.
Going through the challenges, it quickly becomes obvious how much detail has been packed into this single level. There are a number of little things that are very easy to overlook, unless you take the time to scope it all out. Some of the items are no doubt Easter eggs, meant to hint at upcoming elements in Absolution, but some of it is simply there to show off the graphical ability of the Glacier2 engine powering the game.
Character models are well animated and move naturally, with occasional random motions to confuse planned shots. Because Sniper Challenge is first and foremost a sniping game, you don't get to see that much up close and personal; however, zooming never resulted in any lost detail. Textures in the immediate area around Agent 47 look good, and if the short preview trailers that play in between rounds are to be believed, the Glacier 2 engine should shine with Absolution.
Even though Sniper Challenge is separate from Absolution because it's a preorder incentive, your earned upgrades will transfer over when you fire up Absolution. With that said, the game mechanic is enjoyable enough that you're likely to keep playing even after unlocking everything. If the gameplay is fun, going for a high score can be all the replay value you need.
As a preorder item, Sniper Challenge noticeably raises the bar over what we've seen in the past. It isn't just a digital trinket, but rather an entire minigame that's good in its own right. Other publishers should take note, as this is the sort of quality content that makes it worth the effort to actually place a preorder. Retailers should also take note because Sniper Challenge is reason enough for consumers to shift purchases to a retailer that offers it. In the U.S., Sniper Challenge is exclusive to GameStop. A worldwide list of retailers offering the game is on the Sniper Challenge Web site.
When all is said and done, Hitman: Sniper Challenge feels more like a polished PSN or XBLA title than the typical demo or cheap DLC item that is bundled with preorders. All it really needs is a few more levels, and it would likely sell well on the digital storefronts. Here's hoping IO and Square make it a full game one day.
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