Up until now, pre-order incentives have always fallen into one of three categories: the cut content, where items, missions or equipment have clearly been held back from the main game to help boost pre-order numbers; the ‘betas’, which often serve no other purpose than to act as pre-release demos to those already committed to buying; and the inane, whacky bonuses that nobody really cares about.
Square Enix, of course, is no saint when it comes to things like this. Just look at some of the stunts it pulled with Final Fantasy XIII-2.
But for Hitman: Absolution, the publisher is hoping to change the way you look at pre-order incentives.
It makes no bones about its intentions. “We wanted to create the best pre-order incentive in the business,” a Square Enix rep tells us just prior to unveiling Hitman: Sniper Challenge, an unprecedented free single-player experience that provides a teasing glimpse at some of the action found in Hitman: Absolution.
And it has every reason to make such bold claims. For what it is – a free teaser, remember – Hitman: Sniper Challenge is an incredible product, providing a surprisingly deep and addictive experience that’ll have players returning to it even after Absolution’s November release.
Sniper Challenge is built around a single mission that sees Agent 47 on the hunt for Richard Strong Jnr, the CEO of weapons manufacturer Stallion Armaments. ICA Intel suggests that the target is due to make an appearance at the company’s annual retreat, a party that’s being held on the roof of a downtown Chicago hotel, and the perfect place for Agent 47 to scope him out from an adjacent skyscraper. In addition to assassinating Strong, you’ll be rewarded for taking out as many of his bodyguards as possible, with each of the 14 providing additional score bonuses.
So, how do you go about your assignment? Well, the clue is in the title. Sniper Challenge is essentially a mission crafted around a long-range shooting gallery and, beyond aiming the sniper scope, you don’t have any form of control over 47 – don’t expect to find yourself creeping around in other people’s clothes or throwing bodyguards into dustbins here.
Instead, you’re perched stationary atop an adjacent skyscraper armed with a sniper rifle, 50 bullets and a 15 minute time limit to get the job done. But despite appearing relatively limited at first glance (it is just a single short scenario, after all) Sniper Challenge is actually incredibly in-depth, with multiple ways in which you can approach the scenario.
Like missions in the full game, there’s plenty of scope for strategy: expose yourself to get the quick kill, or wait it out, scoping the paths of patrols while keeping tabs on your target to earn that revered Silent Assassin rating. Indeed, it’s entirely possible to take out the target within the first 30 seconds of gameplay but, as with Hitman games previous, the fun comes in picking the correct moment.
The dynamics of the mission can change drastically over the period of the 15 minutes – Strong and his bodyguards will change locations, and certain events will occur to lure him into particular areas. Around five minutes in, for example, your handler will make a call to lure Strong out to a balcony overlooking the partygoers. Do you take him out then, or do you wait for an even better opportunity? It’s the ultimate urban hunt.
Mechanics from the main game also work their way into Sniper Challenge’s gameplay – you can shoot out lights to attract guards to certain locations, create havoc by firing into the partying crowd or use Instinct to find hidden agents. Alternatively, you can shoot out scaffolding to drop barrels onto the head of a patrol, or shoot a bodyguard guarding the elevator to send him tumbling down the shaft. There are other factors to be aware of too, simple things like squeezing the trigger lightly for increased accuracy.
But while there’s plenty of fun to be had in repeating the mission to try out new tactics, the game’s real lasting appeal comes via its series of challenges and unlocks, and the score-chasing, friend-baiting leaderboard system.
Challenges help promote different things to try, with each completed challenge adding a percentage boost onto your overall score. They’re often nothing more than a bit of fun: shooting hidden items like pigeons or gnomes, or ‘removing the evidence’ of a stripper, but some reward skill – killing all targets with a headshot, for example, or completing the assignment within 2:30 will net you a nice permanent score boost.
The leaderboard system also tracks the scores of you and your friends, and point bonuses can be awarded for completing the assignment without raising suspicion or for achieving skill shots. Global and national leaderboards are also available for those who want to have a go at becoming the world’s greatest assassin.
But it’s Sniper Challenge’s multiple unlocks that will most likely keep Hitman fans coming back until Absolution’s release. As well as offering an exclusive sniper rifle on booting up Sniper Challenge, additional abilities and equipment will gradually unlock as you reach particular score thresholds. Reaching a cumulative score total of 30,000,000, for example, will substantially increase your clip capacity, while unlocks for increased rates of fire, improved reloading speed and operating stability are also available.
The best bit about it, of course, is that not only does it increase your chances of achieving a higher score here in Sniper Challenge, but each will also be unlocked for use in Hitman: Absolution. Similar to the exclusive skins found in the Gears of War 3 beta, these are exclusive unlocks that can only be found here, and if you want a head start on becoming the ultimate assassin, investing time into Sniper Challenge is a must.
Sniper Challenge is far from the lazy and cynical pre-order bonus that you’ll typically see pumped out by publishers, then, but a fun and unreservedly addictive standalone product to tide players over until November 20th, complemented by a deep unlock system that provides heaps of additional value to the final game. But perhaps more importantly, Square Enix has delivered on its goal of creating an industry-changing pre-order initiative by providing a shining example of what can be achieved when a publisher truly seeks to reward its most loyal customers. For a free download, we can’t recommend it enough – it’s absolutely brilliant.
Rival publishers take note: this is how you do pre-order incentives.
Hitman: Sniper Challenge is a free downloadable game available to customers who pre-order Hitman: Absolution at participating retailers.
For more information on Hitman: Sniper Challenge, click here.
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