Instead, you’ve constructed a plan so elaborate you can barely hold it all in your mind at once. It involves stealing a lighting technician’s clothes to get a remote control that sets off some fireworks, which will lure both your targets from their interior locations to balconies on top of one another. While Dalia Margolis saunters outside to observe the pyrotechnics, you’ll sneak up behind her and push her over the edge – killing your second target, Viktor Novikov, as she lands.
In other words: with Hitman, Io have arrived at the most sophisticated assassination sandbox the franchise has ever seen, nostalgia for Contracts and Blood Money be damned. The puzzle box levels that were so sorely missing in the last series entrant are back haven’t just returned – they’ve returned in such fine form that you begin to wonder whether Hitman: Absolution wasn’t just a bad dream you had.
You pat your suit pockets and feel a garrote, a silenced pistol, a coin, some emetic rat poison, a wrench, a kitchen knife, a screwdriver, a lockpick, two keys, a modern lethal syringe and a priceless bust. You’re not going to use any of them.
The episodic delivery structure of Hitman dictated a slower-paced playthrough than many players would have liked when the opening Paris episode released. By the time episode six landed though, Elusive Targets, Escalation Contracts and the sheer cornucopia of assassination options in each level had changed the way you play Hitman.
At first glance, those live game modes – Elusive Targets and Escalation Contracts – might seem like filler, designed to wring a bit of extra playtime out of the currently available content. And in less stark terms that must have been at least partial inspiration for their conception, but the reality is that they force you to play Hitman in yet another different way, and there’s a thrill to that. A very real thrill, if you’ve just unloaded your Silverballer into a target you know you’ll only ever get one chance to assassinate, and a nearby guard suddenly goes on alert.
Which is a big deal, because lesson one of Games Industry 101 is that developers of big, successful franchises don’t take gambles. Because somebody, somebody, at that pre-production meeting three years ago said this one should go for the eSports crowd, or change a main character’s voice actor.
You naturally feel much braver to experiment within the sandbox because of that. Sapienza could be just as bristling and sprawling with opportunities, but if the game’s systems didn’t give you such a clear understanding of what you can get away with and when, it ‘d be absolutely no fun to play.
Previous iterations in the franchise have kept their populations poker-faced and stoically silent until the moment they tip over the edge into combat, and the decision made by Io’s developers to take the guesswork out of their AI’s alert states and the effectiveness of your disguise has a major effect, tonally and mechanically. 2016’s Hitman feels less oppressive than anything that came before it, because you have a degree of certainty at any given time as to what the effects of your actions will be. You know whether your disguise is working, you know which guards to avoid while wearing it, and you know how alert those guards are right now.
The foundation for everything that works in this game is AI. Enemies and npcs signpost their states so explicitly, in fact, that it’s actually a bit disconcerting the first couple of times you play Hitman and hear them vocally cycle through their protocols.
It’s hard to feel that same inherent wrongness about being in a particular location when you have so many indicators relaying information to you, and reminding you that you’re in a videogame. No, it’s all a bit helpful for that.
There is a trade-off at play here, though I think Hitman’s developers were right to arrive where they did on it. The explicit presentation of all game systems encourages you to manipulate environments and people, but it does have an effect on immersion and tone. When I think back to my personal favourites in the series – The Meat King’s Party and Beldingford Manor from Contracts, Curtains Down in Blood Money, and the original game’s Lee Hong Assassination – I remember how dark and dirty they felt, and how strongly I felt I was trespassing in them.
The holiday brochure locales that comprise most of Hitman’s six episodes are a tonal departure, too. Colorado and Hokkaido do arrive at a sense of atmosphere that feels consistent with previous games and Paris sits somewhere in the middle, but when you’re soaking the sunshine into your razored scalp in Sapienza, Marrakech and Bangkok, it’s hard to shake the sense that this all feels … quite nice. Quite comfortable.
It’s fun to be empowered and surrounded by beauty, just as it’s fun to feel like you’re in over your head in hostile and strange territory, so really how you feel about the tonal effect of Hitman’s six-episode globe-trot will come down to personal taste. It’s the faintest of criticisms to say I personally found it lacking in atmosphere.
It creates a sense of place perfectly well with the verticality of each location, the sheer size and population of them, and in the fidelity of tiny details such as foods and fabrics. Those scenes are fighting hard against the all-English language voice cast, of course, but if you can square away a busy North African outdoor market bustling with cockney accents the scenery is yours to enjoy.
With the scene set, the AI tuned to coax you into manipulating it this way and that, and the UI emboldening you to hatch ambitious plans within each sandbox, the final element that turns Hitman into such an engaging game on a fundamental level is the polish. Specifically, the polish of each bespoke animation, the collision detection and physical properties of each item. Contracts and Blood Money did the sandbox thing almost as well as 2016’s Hitman a decade earlier, but as you watched Agent 47 inadvertently moonwalk around and garrote the air six inches from your target’s neck in that inimitable style of his, hand on heart you knew something was up with the physics even then.
Six episodes wouldn’t usually be considered a lengthy campaign, but here’s another tradeoff: they’re the six densest, most detailed episodes you could have imagined. Would it have been better to release, say, eight episodes that never reached Sapienza’s scale but instead took 47 to more locations and presented him with more targets? I’m not usually much of a completionist, but Hitman’s structure gets under your skin.
New item and clothing unlocks, pickup locations and starting points change the possibilities of each level dramatically. What might have seemed impossible the first time you played Hokkaido, with not even a coin to chuck at anyone, becomes achievable in two minutes flat once you gain the privilege of starting undercover. Once you’re able to start in disguise and packing heat (coins), the impossibly hostile Colorado becomes a playground like all the others.
As with Hitman’s AI, the consistency of your physical interactions makes you bolder, more likely to contrive some far-fetched kill. And that, like I need even say it, is the exact point of a Hitman game.
Escalation Contracts pull the game in another direction still, showing you how the impossible becomes possible once you become familiar enough with a certain sequence of events. Escalation level one of a particular Paris contract might have you taking out an NPC with a pistol while wearing a security guard disguise. They’re a challenge for the veteran assassin who thinks they know a level inside and out, and they slowly teach a deeper understanding of the intricate clockwork timings in each area and NPC routine.
By the time episode six landed though, Elusive Targets, Escalation Contracts and the sheer cornucopia of assassination options in each level had changed the way you play Hitman. 2016’s Hitman feels less oppressive than anything that came before it, because you have a degree of certainty at any given time as to what the effects of your actions will be. With the scene set, the AI tuned to coax you into manipulating it this way and that, and the UI emboldening you to hatch ambitious plans within each sandbox, the final element that turns Hitman into such an engaging game on a fundamental level is the polish. And that, like I need even say it, is the exact point of a Hitman game. It feels great to skip the usual Machiavellian foreplay and get the job done so briskly, because it sells how fragile life is in Hitman’s world.
It feels great to skip the usual Machiavellian foreplay and get the job done so briskly, because it sells how fragile life is in Hitman’s world. Everyone’s just an ill-fated bathroom trip or sniper bullet away from the long goodbye, Agent 47 included.
Prior knowledge of Sapienza’s layout pays dividends, but at the same time enough has changed here that the hit doesn’t feel like an Elusive Target; you’re treated to new opportunities, areas and disguises here. Professional difficulty is unlocked after hitting level 20 in a certain location, and changes the game in numerous Draconian ways. Disguises that you bloody by killing the wearer can no longer be used; targets’ behaviours and routes are changed up; doing something naughty on camera will alert all and sundry; AI is generally more observant; you’re allowed just one save.
You know about all this, because like me you’ve been playing Hitman for the better part of a year now. We even put it forward as one of our games of 2016. Everyone who nailed their colours to the mast in stern caps-lock forum posts about its episodic structure and vowed not to touch the game until ‘IO actually finish it’ can now quietly go and play it without losing face.
Developers, publishers, PR people and marketers have been talking about ‘games as platforms’ in their beanbag-scattered meeting rooms for years now, and usually it amounts to a base game with a carefully calculated quality level that just about entices people to buy additional DLC. With Hitman, though, you can see that concept realised as something positive: Square Enix and IO created a working framework into which substantial new chunks of content can be added in a meaningful way, and it’s monetised sensibly. Hitman wants to keep you playing not because its ‘platform’ depends on it, but simply because it has so many party tricks to show you.