Hitman has been a curious series. The frustratingly inconsistent nature of the first three games still managed to find an audience thanks to its unique charms, but remained very much a cult hit until Blood Money arrived and found a near-perfect balance of hardcore stealth and accessibility. After Blood Money brought Agent 47 to the peak of his powers, Hitman Absolution ended up drawing heavy criticism from many of the hardcore fans of the series because of its changes designed to capture a wider audience. It didn’t make it a bad game, just not a Hitman game. The focus on story and combat over stealth and cunning, the cornerstones of the series, rubbed many the wrong way. Thing is, every Hitman game ships with an off-putting feature of some kind, and the latest iteration is no different. Yet like the rest, Hitman has something special too.
Simply titled Hitman, IO Interactive’s soft reboot of the franchise has taken the bold step of being episodic (after several confusing revisions to the setup were unsurprisingly, confusing). The story dovetails between 47’s mysterious past and a shady conspiracy in the present. It’s fairly vague on the surface, but there’s more to find by digging through this opening portion, predominantly set during a fashion show in Paris.
Before you get to that, it’s a flashback training session you’ve probably seen in the beta test. In these two missions, 47, aided via voiceover by his handler-to-be Diana, goes through what is effectively his audition for the Agency, and your introduction to the inner machinations of his world of murder. The first takes place on a yacht owned by your target; or rather, it actually takes place in a warehouse made to look like a dock and a yacht. This is 47’s entrance exam after all, so you’re trying to recreate a successful hit performed by the Agency. This mission runs you through the basics, guiding you along to opportunities and letting you get a feel for how Hitman plays and what you can expect going forward. Upon completion you’re asked to redo the mission, and this time you’re given free reign to experiment with what you know, while Diana pipes up with helpful hints now and again. It’s a really effective way of getting you into the flow of the game. It also helps that 47 doesn’t control like a cruise liner doing a U-turn these days; it’s a much sleeker experience, if not as fluid as something like Metal Gear Solid V, but then the need for that level of fluidity is lessened with little reliance on combat. It does still feel a little awkward now and again, but overall, this is the most layered, yet accessible control set seen in the bald killer’s history.
After that opener, 47 is then given his final test, a replication of an audacious hit performed by the very man who is testing him. In it, the target is a chess-playing champion who just happens to be a spy. He’s holed up in an air force base awaiting the repair of a fighter jet to escape in. The game opens up a bit more now, leaving you to figure out much more on your own while still providing the odd hint to introduce new features. It makes for a more accessible Hitman, without compromising the spirit of it in the manner Absolution did. By the time you’re ready for Showstopper, this first episode’s main level, you’ve learned enough to figure out how to best tackle it.
In Showstopper, 47 must eliminate a power couple who have been leaking classified information about government agencies, as well as having ties to a shady organization that seems like it’ll be the focus of Hitman’s ongoing story. Anyway, these targets also happen to run the fashion label Sanguine and are putting on a show in a grand old building in Paris, and you’re on the guestlist. Arriving at the front gate, you quickly get a feel for how grand the scope is this time round. Previous Hitman titles have had large crowds of NPCs, but generally speaking, levels were pretty enclosed and packed tight to compensate for the sheer number of people, plus very few acted or reacted much beyond simple screaming and running away. In 2016’s Hitman, the space and population found in this Paris map is hugely impressive, more so when you begin to find that many characters have more to them than a run function. Some have conversations that can provide useful information related to your hit, broadening your options. Others, such as staff and security, react to you according to your current disguise.
You can’t just go waltzing about the place without the right outfit. Some disguises will get you into most places, but even then, important people (highlighted by white dots above their heads) in the know will soon discover if you’re a fraud, so you’ve got to find areas to sneak and distract these human obstacles. Set off fire alarms, overflow sinks, turn on vacuum cleaners and so on to draw them away from where you want them to be, or indeed to lure them into a quiet area so you can dispatch them and assume their role. Whatever you do, discretion is advised; after all, the overall goal of any Hitman game is to pull off your assassination with total anonymity. You don’t have to, but the longevity comes from being able to replay a mission and experiment with different methods to see just how clean (or messy) you can make it. That’s continued here, closer to Blood Money’s systems, and augmented by the challenges and Contracts found in Absolution.
The challenges almost work as collectibles, giving you reason to explore every inch of the maps to find fresh ways of bumping off your targets, as well as taunting you with the infamous ‘Silent Assassin suit only’ run that sees you attempting to clear the mission without being seen, killing nobody but your targets and using no costume changes. It’s a good way to encourage repeat playthroughs for those not used to seeking out the variety of options not immediately apparent. Long term fans might bemoan the simplification robbing the joy out of discovery, but it’s never rammed down your throat, it doesn’t flash on-screen constantly, it’s just there as a tool to help those newer to the series. Meanwhile, the return of Contracts is most welcome. Letting you free roam a level and assign targets whilst determining what conditions are set for making the hits, then uploading it for others to try and beat is as involving and enjoyable as it was before. With the game reverting back to some of the more traditional traits of the earlier Hitman titles, Contracts works even better this time out.
Indeed, there’s plenty to praise Hitman for after this first episode. It’s a return to what’s best about the series with fewer compromises than the last time we met 47, but there are some troubling issue that need addressing as well. First and foremost is the concept. Episodic gaming can be fantastic, provided you are telling a story with some depth. While there is plenty of intrigue and a cliffhanger ending suited to episodes, the narrative lacks punch, and much like The Phantom Pain, Hitman tells large portions of its story in the game world itself. Admittedly it’s smarter here than in that game as the story bites are told via things that are actually happening in the grounds of the Paris setting. Even so, you don’t learn anything shocking or revelatory; it’s all basic espionage, cloak and dagger plots, mostly ripped from the script for the original Mission: Impossible film, which is fine, borrowing from the best sources can, and does, make for great games. The problem with this particular setup is there’s no great desire to know what’s coming next in story terms, just the anticipation over what the next mission contains, which feels odd for the structure. On a positive note, you’ll not feel shortchanged in terms of content. Three maps, hundreds of potential remixes of the assassinations thanks to contracts, and the depth afforded by exploration.
The other major knock against Hitman thus far is the inconsistent technical side. Hitman looks good, without combusting a planet, and the use of NPC’s on this scale is done respectably well. The negatives come in how it runs, with aggravating load times, some shonky A.I. (infrequent, but getting seen by a guy two rooms away is ridiculous) and the occasional framerate dip when things get complicated. The game also dropped out to an error screen twice, once taking my progress in a no-save mission as I reached my last target. I will add that I still don’t know if it was a fault of the game or the PS4, because I’ve had this issue on all sorts in the past, but something to consider. Also, having menu icons take an age to load is a big no-no IO, silly mistake.
What you can take away from Hitman’s first episode is that technical issues aside, Showstopper is one of the strongest showings in the series to date, and IO Interactive manages to bring Agent 47 bang up to date whilst retaining the core that gained the series its fanbase to begin with. If the remaining six episodes are even half as open and creative as the Paris mission, then Hitman is going to do very well for itself. One thing it can, and indeed must, address is fixing some of the technical problems as the series continues, with the extra time afforded by staggering the game in this way, IO should be striving to constantly improve everything about Hitman. For now though, this is a good start, and hopefully the beginning of 47’s renaissance.