True story: I didn’t want to play Hitman this year. It’s not that I had been burnt after playing Hitman: Absolution, a video game which I very much believe still holds some genius moments that were derailed by a story that was completely pants and overshadowed by a blisteringly terrible marketing campaign that made use of nuns in latex.
But I just didn’t believe that an episodic version of the further adventures of Agent 47 was the right way to go. Episodic gaming in general (when not handled by Telltale Games at least), was risky business. There’s no way that this model could work for Hitman. No chance at all. And then I was happily proven wrong. What developer IO Interactive created this year, was not only a reinvigorated franchise but also a platform.
A platform for poetic assassinations and grand designs across the world. Agent 47 was back, thrust into new environments that produced some of the best Hitman levels of all time. And over the course of 2016, I documented all of it. So here’s the very long and complete review then, for the debut season of Hitman.
Hitman is a disturbing game. Disturbingly entertaining to anyone who has some sort of emotional attachment to IO Interactive’s intricate series of murder simulators. After all, how many games are there that allow you to pursue a single target with the relentless nature of a corrupt president cleaning house, of any ministers who have a bad habit of showing too much integrity in parliament?
Hitman’s opening level, a debut episode for an entire season of homicidal missions, is a strong start that smacks of classic Hitman while keeping an idea or two from the underrated Hitman: Absolution in play. This time, it’s less about having to survive an assault from a cadre of killer nuns dressed in latex and more about knowing your target, environment and calculating the most efficient way to snuff a life, or at least the most entertaining method possibly. Something that Hitman pulls off effortlessly.
It’s a meaty example of what IO Interactive is capable of, a massive Parisian level hustling and bustling with lowlife make-up artists and annoying fashion designers, all book-ended by grisly fates for your marks. It’s the art of assassination, distilled into a product that feels fresh and nostalgic, and will finally give Blood Money fans a reason to shut up and focus on a different Hitman game for a change.
Want to poison your target with a quick syringe to the spine while they aren’t looking? Done. Drown a spymaster in a toilet filled with his own vomit and rat poison? That can be arranged. Drop a chandelier on top of your target and a bunch of fashion snobs who probably deserved to be crushed under a few tons of overpriced glass and haute couture? Yes, this is an option. Just one of many in fact.
As a simulator where cold and efficient murder needs to be calculated and planned, Hitman is a winner. There are plenty of chances to off your target and send them to the great beyond, opportunities which can be tracked, exploited and acted upon. It’s also a particularly meaty level, that feels more alive than even the Chinatown mission from Absolution.
The Paris Showstopper is a fantastic level, a multi-tiered mansion of opportunities that encourages exploration, chokeholds and disguises. Infiltrating a high-stakes auction, assuming the role of a German supermodel as you work your way through a plot from Zoolander or mixing an obtuse cocktail. This is where Hitman shines at its best, because working your way into a position to make your mark pine for the Fjords is the climax to some utterly engrossing foreplay.
It’s no longer about that single kill, but exploring the level and using your brain to pick up on audio cues that will work to your advantage. It’s a far more scripted approach, make no mistake, but an entertaining one at that for anyone who wants to take a dip into their gameplay setting s and turn the difficulty up to 11 in pursuit of a perfect Silent Assassin ranking. There’s a sense of crucial timing at play here, as you work not only Agent 47 into place, but your target as well.
But it’s not all perfect.
There’re several annoyances, which detract from an otherwise enjoyable experience. A pause screen takes far too long to load, the AI occasionally manifests X-Ray vision while you’re silently choking the life out of some hired help and the inevitable task of reloading a save game so that you can nail a perfect kill takes far too long. Various challenges can be a blast, but only if you’re online and if certain key elements align like a solar eclipse during an appearance of Haley’s Comet.
That being said, it’s a gripping first episode for Hitman. There’s a lot to do here, a lot to explore and the episodic structure may actually end up being a boon for the return of Agent 47. There’s plenty of hours of play here even with just your two primary marks, and a lot more with the prologue, challenges and planning your contract. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go see if I can kill a couple by shoving them off a balcony during a fireworks display.
Hitman is in an odd position right now. IO Interactive’s reboot is a technical masterpiece, returning Agent 47 back to his roots in a manner that should satisfy anyone who enjoyed the Absolution romp or refuses to stop clutching their case of Blood Money and bemoaning the state of the franchise today. It’s seriously good stuff, as Agent 47’s latest adventures feel like a proper sandbox of murder, intrigue and challenges.
But not everyone is biting. The whole episodic hook hasn’t won that many fans over, as most fans are biding their time until January (Spoiler: There probably will be a delay on this one) instead of participating in regular releases of content. And that’s a shame. The first proper episode of Hitman, the Paris Showstopper mission, hit all the nails on all of the heads.
A large level, two targets and at least a dozen methods available within which players could carry out their contracts through to its bloody conclusion. That was a damn fine show. Thing is, the Sapienza mission isn’t just better, it’s one of the best Hitman levels ever created.
Once again, you’ve got a pair of targets to focus on: Eccentric bioweapons expert and culinary dick Silvio Caruso is one of your first targets, while Francesca DeSantis’ neck is just waiting to have the life strangled out of it. The catch here is that the mission also requires you to kill something even smaller, a deadly virus that the pair have been working on that could put the whole assassination industry out of business. And we can’t have that, now can we?
Sapienza itself is another wonderful character, a seaside setting that houses homes, bioweapon labs and ice cream shops. It’s also far more open, inviting exploration far more than the tight corridors of the Paris Showstopper event did as the omniscient security of that first mission is replaced with relaxed bodyguards who aren’t expecting that bald chap with a trendy barcode tattoo to get up to any nonsense around them.
And therein lies the fun.
All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women of Sapienza are merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, routines and habits to prey on. Maybe it’s a detective who is blissfully asleep, a spaced out kitchen hand or household cleaners who are spilling secrets. It’s that bit of attention to detail, which makes the various opportunities to snuff your target out that much more gruesomely satisfying.
Sapienza is littered with hazard and opportunities to pounce on your target. Tried and trusted methods such as a bullet to the head or some wire around the throat are always acceptable, but the real joy comes from experimentation. Replacing a golf ball with an explosive one as Caruso prepares for his daily lesson. Preying on his rampant mental problems and convincing him that the ghost of his mother is haunting him. Hell, you can even make him a pasta dish to die for. And by that, I mean that I Sparta-kicked his ass off a cliffside as he was vomiting his lunch out.
And this is why Sapienza is such an achievement in the history of Hitman. It’s not just murder for the sake of it. Every possible opportunity is carefully calculated with maniacal glee, exploiting fears and weaknesses in a manner that only this franchise is capable of, to deadly effect. Sapienza distills the entire Hitman experience down to one homicidal happy level, resulting in some fatal fun in the sun.
Marrakesh is not a friendly city. At least, not in the manner in which it is represented within the third episode of Hitman. It’s dirty, hot and filled with merchants who want to sell you rugs as an angry mob gathers outside the Swedish consulate that houses a banker who has managed to steal over $7 billion from the people. There’s a heightened sense of danger in the air, the streets are armed with soldiers and a coup is imminent as the stakes are raised even higher.
And that makes for a grimmer and more grounded Hitman experience.
The beauty of the previous Hitman episodes that were set in France and Italy, is that they were flights of murderous fancy. Assassination simulators where you were targeting Parisian spymasters and biological weapon developers to help make the world a safer place. The stuff of Steven Seagal movie plots and cheap TV series then.
Those episodes also had multiple ways to dispatch your targets that could be described as maniacally macabre. After all, how many games these days allow you to off someone by poisoning his lunch and then Spartan-kicking your mark off of a cliffside as he upchucks his food? Marrakesh isn’t this kind of Hitman episode however. There’re still plenty of opportunities available here, but they’re a lot more brutal and require a certain finesse to properly execute.
Skills which have been honed in the previous two episodes as a game of escalation plays out. There are opportunities here to kill both targets in one gloriously gory fell swoop, or chances to catch them when their guard is completely down. Dark and brutally efficient kills are the hallmark of the Marrakesh episode, a stark departure from Paris and Italy.
But where Hitman’s third episode feels somewhat scaled back in the assassination department, it makes up for it with a thrilling map. On the surface, Marrakesh seems smaller than Sapienza or the Paris Showstopper missions. The markets are filled to breaking point with gormless tourists and vendors who want to convince you that snail meat is a delicacy. There’s not a lot of room to manoeuvre, soldiers are everywhere and most areas are off limits if you’re dressed in your Sunday best.
But once you’ve assumed a few identities, Marrakesh opens up beautifully. Because it’s a level that is all about contrasts.
One of your targets is living a high life in the Swedish consulate, gloating over his success as angry mobs gather below while his partner in crime is waiting for his moment of glory in a bombed out school. It’s the horrors of red tape and bureaucracy, juxtaposed against the African reality of daily coup d’etats that meets in the middle. And on a design level, that’s rather subtly clever.
The biggest disconnect here however, and you’re going to hear a lot of it, is the voice work. Sure, your target speaks in a rich and thick German accent, but every other Marrakesh citizen sounds like they were taught to speak English through Dukes of Hazzard DVDs. The joy of Hitman has always been wandering around a location and listening to side-stories as the natives go along their scripted lives. Hearing said citizens speak with an unmistakeable western accent, is somewhat…odd.
Hitman’s Marrakesh episode isn’t as good as Sapienza. But that doesn’t mean that it’s in any way a bad level. It’s actually pretty damn good, and barring the bizarre dialects, it’s still classic Hitman action as you move from target to target. What Marrakesh is, is a more grounded and direct episode that has no time for distractions. It’s right up there with the standard set by the Paris Showstopper opening level, and it has plenty of high moments spread throughout this more sombre episode.
It may not hit the same high notes that Sapienza did, but the third Hitman episode is still a high level game of infiltration and assassination that is peppered with plenty of memorable moments.
With three episodes in the bag so far, Agent 47’s fourth outing marks the point of no return for the rebooted series. By now, all the patterns are visible as veteran players can see the machinations at work behind each setup for a kill. And yet this episode works, restoring faith to the episodic nature of IO Interactive’s revival with a setting that does more with less.
Whereas previous episodes such as Sapienza and Marrakesh worked with larger open spaceswithin which to craft a canvas of carnage, Bangkok scales back the design quite a bit, opting to take Agent 47 back to a familiar stomping ground: A hotel. It’s a staple part of the Hitman series, one best captured all the way back in Hitman Contract’s Traditions of the Trade mission.
Episode 4 doesn’t stray too far from that influence, giving players a more multi-layered environment that is home to numerous opportunities that can be leveraged to devastating effect. Once again, Agent 47 is off to go murder some very bad people in the form of a millennial rock star with anger management issues and his seedy lawyer who specialises in keeping the guilty out of jail.
While the map for Episode 4 of Hitman may be smaller, the interiors of the Himmapan hotel certainly aren’t. They’re spacious, luxurious and boasting a security level of at least one armed guard per guest while indie rocker Jordan Cross and his entourage have taken over the upper floors of this Thai palace to record an album.
There’s a lot to explore here, whether you’re checking in as a guest or skulking around as an employee. Episode 4 definitely feels like a step up from the Marrakesh mission, an episode that while it may have been technically impressive also felt far too claustrophobic and suffocating with a denser crowd of tourists and citizens, as if IO Interactive were trying to create a technical showcase.
Episode 4 however, feels like a better example of what this Hitman game is capable of. Possibly the smallest map, although only by a slight factor when compared to the Paris Showstopper debut level, it is however the most beautiful level ever seen in a Hitman game. Thailand looks magical, a mystical land washed in the golden rays of a setting sun as western rock stars plunder the place and live it up in first-class hedonism.
The Himmapan Hotel is just begging to be explored, with deviously dangerous opportunities that involve murdering a target with a Tuk Tuk or making certain that Jordan Cross joins the infamous Club 27 for deceased rock stars by tampering with his audio equipment. IO Interactive knows that Hitman at its best is when the game sets up kills that border on ludicrous, but they’re forged with just a touch of realism to keep these kills from veering too far off into the realm of silly antics.
Episode 4 of Hitman may feel like a more relaxing episode, but it’s still ruthlessly satisfying as Agent 47 takes down a pair of targets who deserve to have their throats introduced to some piano-wires. Despite the smaller locale, there’s still a lot to see and do here, as the Himmapan Hotelis fully confident in the new Hitman formula that IO Interactive has crafted, perfecting and scattering opportunities all over the exotic getaway.
The only thing holding back this latest episode of Hitman from being the best and toppling the Sapienza map from its perch however? The audio. Hitman still insists on using misplaced American accents for most of the world that Agent 47 lives in, although this is more nit-picking than anything else when you find yourself surrounded by dozens upon dozens of western tourists who sport the same dialect as the Thai hotel staff.
Hitman is back on track with yet another solid episode so far, that swaps the size and scope of previous maps for a more intimate and gorgeous setting where you can check out any time you want, but you can never leave.
There’s been a thin thread connecting all of the Hitman episodes this year, but for the most part they’ve been standalone experiences. Episodes where terrible people meet terrible ends. Episode 5: Colorado doesn’t veer too far off from that idea, but it does finally have a narrative pay-off as the dominoes fall into place. It’s also the purest example of Hitman so far, a challenging new level that builds fully on the experiences learnt so far and the ability to recognise certain patterns in your environment.
Or to put it in more simple terms, developer IO Interactive isn’t messing around with this level.
Colorado is one of the more sparsely populated levels on offer this year, a decision that does this locale some big favours. While areas such as the Paris Showstopper level and Marrakesh’s Gilded Cage stage were crammed to the breaking point with pedestrians, Colorado scales that back significantly. It’s still impressive to see the game running at a deliciously higher frame-rate, while beams of sunlight pierce an overcast sky and locals who look like they’d vote for a racist businessman in a presidential election go about their merry way.
Hitman this year has been more than just a game. Its been a platform, an experience where repetition is the key to survival. Learning to observe, to take notice of your place in any environment at any given time are just one of several keys to success. It’s a lesson that was taught the hard way, and the Colorado map isn’t holding back.
The difficulty here is reminiscent of some of Hitman’s other finest outings, such as the Deadly Cargo level from Contracts or Absolution’s showdown in the town of Hope. Everyone is a threat here, and to make matters even more complex you have to juggle not one or two but an entire four marks on your list. And that’s before you can even engage in some espionage that takes the Hitman story further down the rabbit hole.
As usual, Hitman delights in some macabre assassinations for your targets. Playing on OCD, drowning a victim in slurry and making certain that answering an email turns into an explosive reply for example. Episode 5 doesn’t feel as if it has as many opportunities as you’d find in previous episodes, but the chance to create your own kills that aren’t listed on the map are plainly evident for anyone familiar with certain patterns this season.
Where this episode does succeed however, is with a sly touch on the system of using disguises to your advantage. The militia of Colorado may be united in their attempt to trim the US political system down, but they’re not exactly on equal footing with each other. Not every disguise in Hitman is created equal, an idea that really comes to the fore here as players need to focus on switching out their new identities at a constant pace.
And when you’ve got four targets and a farmyard of armed anarchists around you, that makes for a tense experience. And that sums up Hitman Episode 5: Colorado perfectly. In an attempt to stay even truer to its roots, IO Interactive have managed to avoid falling too far towards formulaic territory with a level that’ll push fans to their limits with the purest Hitman level produced thus far.
Also, you can 3D print a face for reasons, and that’s just unexpectedly fantastic. Hitman’s purest stealth episode so far is a white-knuckle ride of espionage and action amidst the backdrop of enemy territory, as Agent 47 finally begins to uncover the threads of a season-long conspiracy.
Paris. Italy. Morocco. Over the course of several months, someone has been playing a game in the world of Agent 47. A puppet-master has been pulling strings, planting the seeds of an elaborate plot as 47 was manoeuvred towards eliminating obstacles and people for a shadow client whose connections run deeper than one would think.
And what a game it has been so far. The idea behind Hitman adopting a more episodic approach may have been a controversial idea at first, but IO Interactive have gone above and beyond with their reboot, crafting a new entry in the series that has made its mark as the definitive version of Hitman to date. And the season finale of Hitman is a quiet yet fitting cliffhanger towards the revived future of 47.
The beauty of Hitman this year has been that every level on offer has had something to offer. A defining trait, that gave each mission a unique flavour. Paris had intrigue, Sapienza had a surprising amount of depth and Colorado felt like the purest version of Hitman to date. But Hokkaido? An exclusive mountain retreat hospital that happens to be a fierce blend of modern and classical ideas within its architecture has something else entirely: Poetic opportunities.
By now, IO Interactive has mastered stage design in Hitman. Hokkaido is a more constricted level, one with winding turns and claustrophobic passages the deeper you dig into it. There’s a facade above the sterile and technological wonder on the mountain, with the stage itself proving to be a character on its own.
But scratch deeper below that surface, and you’ll find yourself eliminating a pair of targets with ruthless efficiency that complements their crimes and histories. It’s clever stuff, with episode 6 having some of my favourite opportunities in the franchise so far. Maybe you want to see just how deadly a yoga session can really be. Maybe you want to remind your mark that smoking does kill.
Fiddle with the Kai matrix that runs the hospital and your unlucky target will soon discover that there’s a homicidal ghost in the machine, or you can take things a step further by roping in a doctor whose personal history crosses with his patient and results in a circle being closed. Agent 47 is the great pretender, an assassin who moves through multiple disguises in this small yet deep level that strips him of any of his usual tools and has 47 rely purely on a skill set built up over years of training.
But it’s a fantastic reflection on the community who have been supporting Hitman since day one, as months of play finally pay off. Episode 6 is a quiet marvel, but an amazing chapter nonetheless. And as the sum of all its parts, IO Interactive have gone above and beyond with their episodic vision. 2016 has given birth to not only the best Hitman game ever made, but also one of the strongest contenders for the game of the year.
And I can’t wait to see what the second season has in store for 47.