Agent 47 easily has one of the most generic names in the protagonist business. Over the previous five Hitman games though, IO Interactive’s free-form assassination series has carved out a ruthlessly precise niche and become truly iconic.
Unfamiliar with the bald, barcoded head and dapper suit? Let’s just say this isn’t a gritty Metal Gear Solid or technobabble Splinter Cell. Hitman is all about hiding in plain sight, disguises, puzzle solving and, occasionally, rubber ducks. Identity crises are common once a franchise runs for long enough, and Hitman had its wobble with 2012’s Absolution.
That game’s polarised reception has pushed this sequel into welcome back-to-basics territory, but that’s not to say it’s gone all safe and undaring: Hitman has gone episodic.
At launch, ambitious assassins will have access to only the training section and Paris scenario, with levels set in Sapienza and Morocco to follow on a roughly monthly basis, and locations including Thailand, the US and Japan appearing at as yet undefined dates later in the year. You can pay for the whole lot in advance for £40 on PC or £45 on console, or hedge your bets and start with the £12 ‘Intro Pack’.
Stay for the season
A triple-A game in episodic form?! The horror! But before you brandish your pitchfork, think about the way each of Hitman’s environments is so detailed and open to variety and it actually makes a lot of sense.
IO Interactive’s plan is to add more levels while keeping the others fresh through community challenges and rotating special events. For example, take the fan-favourite ‘contracts’ system from Absolution. This mode makes a return here and involves players marking any NPC from the AI crowd as a hit, setting certain conditions, and challenging other players to beat their custom scenario.
And then there’s the new, fortnightly-ish ‘Elusive Target’ events that give players just 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. Of course, there won’t be any point in returning to the scene of the crime if the action isn’t up to snuff.
Thankfully, despite some occasional ponderousness and a checkpoint system that can frustrate, Hitman delivers wonderfully. In a world of generic, testosterone-fueled, Michael Bay-emulating shooters and tedious open-world crafting mechanics, Hitman feels like a refreshingly pure, even grown-up antidote.
Let’s break it down. The first time through each level you’ll be given targets, some intelligence, and basically let loose to get the job done however you see fit. There are key ‘opportunities’ to be discovered, usually via eavesdropping or discovering an item or area.
These essentially offer paths to your target — or even their outright demise. But while they’re helpful, they wisely never make life too easy. Just one example involves you overhearing 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 and take your target out afterwards.
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
Hitman also impresses from a more immediately obvious technical standpoint. Although not as full of screenshot fodder as something like the sweeping open-world of The Witcher, Hitman is full of quality graphical details. The crowds are really the star of the show, packed full of a wide variety of natural, realistic NPCs who mingle and move convincingly. The slower pace of the game means you have time to take it all in; to soak up the ambience like a glass of fine wine.
Sneak into the attic of the Paris level’s mansion and you’ll be treated to some gorgeous sun-beams cutting through the dusty heaps of antiques, or marvel at the textures of the garden maze in the setting sun. 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 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. And then there are the aforementioned, community-created Elusive Target missions, which should give you infinite ways to revisit and remaster a mission.
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. The only minor frustration will be the wait for the next set of levels, but while there’s no guarantee they’ll all be of the same calibre as the launch content, it’s at least promised that they’ll be even bigger than the substantial Paris scenario. Besides, in the world of the assassin, patience is everything.