Most games these days either give you an overwhelmingly vast open world to explore or confine you to a relatively linear path, but Hitman takes a third approach and is all the better for it.
It's open enough to be considered a sandbox game, in that you can explore its six locations at your own pace and in your own way. But at the same time there's only one real objective to each level.
That objective is of course to kill your targets - preferably unnoticed - and escape alive. To do so involves puzzle solving, disguises, a fair bit of hiding in plain sight and, occasionally, rubber ducks.
It's a simple formula, and one that was essentially perfected in 2006's excellent Blood Money. Fortunately, smarter AI, creative challenges and a thriving online community ensure that the sandbox format still feels relevant a decade later. And it's certainly a welcome return to form after the polarising experimentation of 2012's Absolution.
If The Complete First Season seems like an odd title for the game, that'll be because it was initially put out in episodic form before now getting this full packaged-together release. As always, it sees you take charge of Agent 47, a character who may have one of the most generic names in the protagonist business but who's become something of an icon over the course of five Hitman games.
At the start of each level - or location - you’ll be given your targets and some intelligence, then let loose to get the job done however you see fit. Whichever approach you take though, you're going to need to discover the key ‘opportunities’, usually via eavesdropping or locating an item or area. These opportunities essentially offer paths to your target – and sometimes even to their outright demise. But while helpful, they wisely never make life too easy.
So, for instance, you might overhear a hipster fashion blogger panicking over the fact that she’s broken her camera lens and is scheduled to interview and photograph your target. This give you options: if you help her out she’ll conduct the interview in a nice, secluded spot that’s just perfect for a bit of long-distance sniping. Or you could sabotage her camera with explosives. Or simply listen to the hilariously OTT interview then take out your target with another more dastardly method.
Experimentation is encouraged, and there’s a brilliantly broad and often darkly amusing range of ways to take out the bad guys and gals.
The devil (literally) wears Prada
Enemy AI is absolutely crucial to this. We always bemoan our games for not being realistic, but reality is hard, man. Hitman menacingly treads along just the right line: AI is responsive and suspicious, but just about forgiving enough.
The key to this system is elegantly simple. NPC suspicion depends on your disguise, and therefore your security clearance. There will be key NPCs with a little white dot over their heads who become suspicious if you get too close to their *ahem* special areas (e.g. entering the kitchen dressed as a hair and makeup assistant). They’ll start to follow you at first, and raise the alarm if you don’t break line of sight for long enough.
Until someone starts firing, though, you’ve got time to ‘convince’ (read: incapacitate) someone to switch outfits with you and blend back in. The simulation is flexible enough that you can still just take route one by scaling a drainpipe or whipping out a silenced pistol, but you’ll most likely cause yourself more of a headache further down the line. The important thing is that the AI goes a long way to building your immersion and forcing you to get crafty, but it never feels unfair. When you mess up, you’re generally only angry at yourself.
View to a kill
The variation in level design means that each of the six locations has its own atmosphere and obstacles. For example, you’re allowed access to a great deal of the Paris level without needing a disguise, since the target is hosting a public fashion show. While this means sneaking around is not mandatory, it proves more difficult to make the kill without a drunk socialite noticing.
In Colorado, on the other hand, the majority of the areas are hostile and heavily guarded. Even in disguise, someone’s always keeping an eye on you - but on the other hand there are way more explosives and firearms lying around for you to put to good use.
IO Interactive doesn’t want you to just hastily take down your target, though. Exploration is rewarded, whether you’re discovering an explosive golf ball or a secret tunnel. And it’s not just objective-centred treats up for grabs, either. Sneak into the attic of the Paris level’s mansion and you’ll be treated to some gorgeous sunbeams cutting through the dusty heaps of antiques; take a dip in the sauna in Japan and you'll get to marvel at Hokkaido’s mountain range as it's kissed by the setting sun.
The crowds, meanwhile, are really the star of the show, packed full of a wide variety of natural, realistic NPCs who mingle and move convincingly.
The slow pace of the game means you have time to take it all in and to soak up the ambience. And while the game shows off its graphical splendour, you can show off your craftiness. Pre-set challenges, such as not changing outfits or offing your target with a certain weapon or item, give you a chance to make things more difficult and interesting for yourself, and in turn they reward you with alternative ways to start or play the level, such as bringing in new items or spawning you in a different area.
IO Interactive’s objective is to keep these levels fresh through community challenges and rotating special events. For example, take the fan-favourite ‘contracts’ system from Absolution. This mode makes a welcome return here and involves players marking any NPC from the AI crowd as a hit, setting certain conditions, then challenging other players to beat their custom scenario.
For these challenges, you’re unable to save, and there aren’t any ‘opportunities’ that will help you get closer to the target. It’s all up to you, and since these characters are not always scripted to walk into an empty room, or under a dangerously loose chandelier, they can be significantly harder to kill without witnesses.
A few bonus levels are also included in the full game. These don’t take place in new locations, but rather in cornered-off areas in previously played maps. They're each nice additions, with their own targets and opportunities available. And then there’s the fortnightly-ish ‘Elusive Target’ events that give players one shot at a new character or situation for a limited time. In theory, this combination gives Hitman a huge digital shelf-life full of tweaks and extras.
Despite the clear effort at making each level fat with replayability, however, there are only so many times you’ll want to return to the crime scene. That's mostly because there are only six locations, excluding the tutorial. Hitman Absolution, for all of its sins, had 20 levels.
The initial episodic structure of the game’s release seemed to have disguised the fact that there was limited content on offer, but it's all-too-clear now that we're faced with the full release. Sure, levels are ridiculously customisable, with a multitude of targets and weapons available, but it’s still disappointing that there are so few maps to explore.
Fortunately, the new Professional mode does give you another reason to replay those levels. The heightened difficulty allows only one save per game and makes AI more intelligent, so NPCs finally realise that a man running around in blood-drenched clothes is not something they should ignore - all of which changes the experience dramatically.
It's a shame, then, that it’s not available by default: you have to reach Level 20 for the corresponding map to unlock it, by which time you may have had your fill of the game. What's more, only players who purchase The Complete First Season or Hitman: The Full Experience will have access to it, which means that anyone who bought the game level-by-level will be unfairly punished.
The newly bundled-together format is also, presumably, the reason why there's now a shambolic story wedged between levels, seemingly to provide some continuity. To be fair to Hitman, the series has never been known for its storytelling, but its presence still feels about as necessary as a rocket launcher in a stealth game.
Hitman: The Complete First Season verdict
Like Agent 47’s trademark, impeccably pressed suit, the new Hitman game simply fits. There’s nothing baggy, or in bad taste, and nor is there anything over the top: it’s a classic, tailored cut. But that's not to say it's quite perfect.
The principal - and indeed, pretty much only - criticism here is that we would have loved to see more of it. Yes, there's masses of replay value on offer thanks to the multitude of ways in which you can revisit the six locations, but another couple of levels would've brought it close to that five-star rating.
Still, when the worst thing you can say about a game is that you want more of it, it's clearly doing something right. All killer, no filler indeed.