Alekhine's Gun review: ugly as all sin

We review the PlayStation 4 title Alekhine’s Gun; does this Hitman-inspired tale live up to the promise of its spiritual forebears?

It’s hard to believe that Alekhine’s Gun has been built for the PlayStation 4, yet here it is, packed neatly in the unmistakable blue box with the PS4 logo on top; a full priced game, no less. You see, with its muddy textures and boxy character models, Alekhine’s Gun wouldn’t look amiss on the PlayStation 2, a console that was first released 16 years ago and had its heyday sometime around 2003. With its ageing engine, dated lightning and visual artifacts, Alekhine’s Gun would fit right into the PS2 catalogue with no questions asked.

Alekhine's Gun
Nope, it ain’t pretty.

What’s surprising then is just how demanding it is. For a console that can power The Order without a hitch, the PlayStation 4 can barely keep Alekhine’s Gun running above 20 frames per second, a figure which drops into the low teens in outdoor areas. While the developers have somehow managed to cobble together a few artful promotional shots for the official website (of which our featured image is one of them), the actual game is a shoddy technical mess. It looks like a decade-old game and runs like it’s being powered by an emulator, not the grunt of Sony’s newest machine.
The story puts you in the shoes of an agent named Semyon Alekhine who’s in bed with the CIA, attempting to foil a plot that could have ramifications for the entire world. By the halfway mark, I was already losing interest. What really matters is this: the game shifts gears often enough to give you different people to kill in different locations.
Cutscenes between levels are hand-drawn and almost completely devoid of animation.
Cutscenes between levels are hand-drawn and almost completely devoid of animation.

The killing itself is clearly inspired by the Hitman series and Alekhine’s Gun borrows liberally from its stealth-action template. Semyon is Agent 47 in all but name, and can sneak, garrotte and disguise himself in the clothes of his enemies. An awful opening mission aside, the game’s ugliness becomes less of an issue as the familiar – and pleasing – mechanics come into play. Guess what? Assassinating targets and getting away scott-free is as fun as ever, even in a game this technically deficient.
The obligatory Chinatown level. Passable.
The obligatory Chinatown level. Passable.

In fact, in the face of the smooth, sublime Hitman series (which sparkles and gleams), Alekhine’s Gun is decidedly clunky. If the former is a Rolls Royce, the latter is a Beetle by comparison, stuttering, wheezing and coughing up smoke as it tries to keep pace. There are all the hallmarks of the better game: Targets to assassinate, disguises to wear, and for canny sleuths, the ability to make the hit look like an accident. The levels are large too, and your target is often in plain sight, going about his routine while he’s guarded. The trick, of course, is finding an opening. In Hitman, you can lose yourself in the joy of the fantasy, worlds rich with atmosphere so thick you could cut them with a knife. Alekhine’s Gun struggles to conjure up this fantasy and the worlds feel like artificial structures boxing you in until the next level comes along.
Try as you might, it’s hard to escape the reality you’re simply navigating a series of textures and sprites, with wooden enemies following simple AI routines.
Alekhine's Gun_20160329185000
There’s the obligatory suspicion meter too, which fills up the more enemies see through your disguise, but the balance isn’t quite right. Almost every bad guy will turn to look at you, following your movements no matter what disguise you’re in. You get the sense you’re a queer and strange new face in their midst – which you are. But will they go so far as to see through your disguise completely? Almost never. Heck, you can run around like a madman or walk around in circles and no one will call you out, meaning the system ends up feeling arbitrary… exactly like Hitman then.
One of the few things Alekhine’s Gun does get right is the option to let you save at will. It seems like a small one, I know, but I really enjoy being able to inch forward – and save; inch forward – and save. It means you have the freedom to experiment with different gameplay styles without the risk of losing hours of hard work and I wish more games would let you do the same.
All told, there’s a lot of content here, including a 10-hour campaign and the option of replaying levels in different play styles. The question is: will you really want to finish it at all? Ultimately, Alekhine’s Gun is light on the interesting ideas and winds up feeling like a slog. In a day and age where we want our lives to be pain-free, the niggles stack up. The map is useless with no directional marker showing you the way you’re facing. Loading screens are too long. The controls are clunky, especially when the game chugs in open areas (of which there are many). And let’s face it: it’s ugly; enough to make your eyes water.
The map isn't much good at all.
The map isn’t much good at all.

Some games have benefited from their warts and used them as a pathway to cult stardom. Just look at Deadly Premonition, an off-the-wall adventure game with a sickly visage that had you battling zombies one minute and debating Patrick Bateman’s personality the next. But Deadly Premonition was bonkers and memorable. Alekhine’s Gun plays it straight, and is almost comically po-faced.
In 2003, when the PlayStation 2 was in its prime, Alekhine’s Gun might have made a better impression. Back then, the game would still feel novel and the graphics would be easier to stomach. But to buy this at full price in 2016? That’s several bridges too far. Only diehard Hitman fans should come close to buying this, if only to see how far their beloved series has come.