[UPDATE] Originally released as downloadable content only, Hitman: The Complete Season, is now available to buy as a physical disc, and there’s a new trailer to celebrate its launch.
So after all that fuss, it turns out that IO Interactive were onto something with an episodic Hitman. Not only has it worked rather well as a business model, it’s worked for the game itself, producing one of the best games of 2016, and reinvigorating the smartly-dressed merchant of death, Agent 47’s career.
It wasn’t until the beta for 2016’s Hitman came out that I felt we might see a return to what made Hitman such a fine series. Don’t get me wrong, Absolution was decent enough, but it was nothing like classic Hitman, for better and for worse. It certainly didn’t hold a candle to Blood Money, the series’ high point though, and once that beta was tested, it was obvious that developer IO Interactive were striving for that Blood Money high once more, and threatening to achieve it. Seven months on from that training facility beta, it’s plain to see that Hitman 2016, as a now complete package, has nailed it. Here I’ll go through where it pulls off the perfect hit, and where it misses its target.
A Tale of Espionage, Murder and Throwing Cans at Heads
The story (shady organization does shady things to other shady organization and ends up involving 47) is of little consequence beyond setting up your reasoning for visiting the different locations, the backstory of each level and its targets is a far more interesting prospect, but the nicest thing you could say about the plot is that it ties things together pretty well, just not with much depth as cutscenes are brief treats that can be difficult to properly grasp if you haven’t been paying attention to things found in levels.
Things don’t really kick into gear until the penultimate episode, and then the end itself is bittersweet, setting up an admittedly deserved second season instead of offering a dramatic climax. It’s by no means bad, just a little lighter than I would have hoped for. Still, the promise is there for next season to really kick on and integrate gameplay and narrative a little more efficiently.
The Game of Death
In the eight core locations (training area boat, training area facility, Paris, Sapienza, Marrakesh, Thailand, Colorado, Japan) IO have married the looser, more forgiving mechanics of Absolution with the deeper intricacy of older games to create a very pleasing hybrid that feels like the purest version of the Hitman style yet whilst remaining diverse enough from each other. 47 isn’t as stiff and robotic as his earliest incantations, but he’s a little less fluid than in Absolution. He’s certainly not quite so trigger-happy or much of a bullet-sponge either (it takes very few shots to put our bald angel of death down).
The finished product is a stealth system that drags you down you just enough to facilitate a need for caution and observation, a key component of what makes Hitman, at its best, tick. Yet it isn’t so punishing as to deny you a way out of a hairy situation. Rather than go full-guns-blazing when you get rumbled, and hope that you don’t get ventilated within 10 seconds. The slower pace gives you time to learn the surroundings, remember where exits, hideaways, and spare costumes are situated if you end up getting caught out being somewhere you shouldn’t be, killing someone you should. It’s a fairly wonderful system that mercifully only occasionally suffers from bugs (being seen inexplicably, that sort of thing). It may not be as slick a stealth game as say, The Phantom Pain, but it doesn’t need to be. The greatest thing about Hitman is the ability to kill your target with as little violence and fuss as possible, made even more satisfying if you can make it look like a complete accident and like you were never even there. The flair is mainly in the methodical, not the theatrical, but there’s still wriggle room for a bit of morbid flourish.
Also praiseworthy is the sliding scale of difficulty options. For those that struggle you can have hints, pathways and the like, or go all the way in the opposite direction and rely on knowledge and skill alone. This makes for a rather accessible, yet challenging Hitman that suits new audiences and old. It mean IO can stick to their confident vision of what Hitman should be in 2016, whilst allowing it measures of inclusivity for those that aren’t willing/prepared for the purer version of the game. The game is enough of a challenge with the aids thankfully, so it almost never feels too easy, and the better you get, the more things open up for you. Lovely stuff.
The Looks and Sounds of a Contract Killer
At first, Hitman seems to be a step back from Absolution’s glossier presentation, and I suppose it is in terms of pure visual sugar, but what IO have done is concentrate on creating individual levels that have their own deep set of systems and an impressive amount of NPC’s and objects to interact with. Little makes a game world feel more ‘alive’ than having a high level of interactivity, and Hitman’s levels all do that regardless of size and location. The open, bustling streets of Episode 3’s Marrakesh feel just as tactile as the season finale’s more claustrophobic private hospital in the mountains of Japan.
Otherwise, the game is pretty solid looking, not without the odd moment of beauty, nor the odd moment of goofy glitches. Hitman’s overall strength of level design makes this largely inconsequential, but an extra coat of paint wouldn’t go amiss next season. It would also be shameful to not mention the dual-headed beast that is requiring a constant internet connection to get the full experience. Sure you can still play the game offline, but far too much of the game’s challenges are locked behind a net connection. Again, I hope IO soften that a bit because I love what it brings to the table (see later in the review), but the compromise is somewhat skewed towards the negative.
Something else that shouldn’t be forgotten is the audio. Isolate it from the soundtrack and you’ll be staggered at the lengths IO went to in capturing even the most incidental noise. It’s most obviously apparent in the conversations between others, that have potentially useful hints in them for your latest hit. Hopefully the success of this season gives IO a bigger budget for voice actors though. Perhaps the game’s biggest immersion-breaker is the consistently misplaced accents for locations.
The Content in the Shadows
The biggest positive brought over from Absolution was undoubtedly on the user creation side with Contracts Mode. In Hitman 2016, Contracts have grown and evolved into several different modes to go alongside the core Hitman missions, adding more and more value as each episode was released. Those user-created Contracts took the Absolution version’s simple premise of playing a level, choosing a target, killing them, and uploading the parameters for others to attempt and made it a little more straightforward. It’s produced some cracking user challenges full of invention and dark wit.
Escalation contracts are like a game of H.O.R.S.E. where you get given a unique hit on a level, and upon completion, you’re tasked with doing it again, but with an extra wrinkle. This goes five times, with each replay adding more things to do in order to complete. It’s a fun spin on the usual challenge, and there’s plenty of them for each of the levels.
Blood(y Good Value For) Money
PS4 also has the exclusive Sarajevo Six content which adds six interconnected hits across the six main levels, all with their own story to compliment the reborn Hitman universe. Some of these hits are on par with the story ones, others are merely ‘good’. Still, whatever you may think of them, they are more missions for your money.
The jewel in the crown is without doubt the Elusive Target contracts. These one off hits give you a set amount of real time, (48 hours to a week) to eliminate a target that will only appear during this time. If you fail to get there before deadline then it’s gone, forever. If you do get there and fail to kill them and escape, then you get no second chance. It’s a one-and-done mode that disables some of the tracking aids and strips back the hit to the basics, making you rely on visual clues and cunning more so than the regular missions. Elusive Targets are a clever and quite wonderful addition to the Hitman package, and despite some hefty competition, it’s my personal favorite thing about Hitman 2016.
The Perfect Hit
IO Interactive have succeeded with Hitman 2016 on several levels whilst masking the few flaws that exist within them. It revived a cult favorite series with just the right amount of compromise for a more modern audience. It made art out of videogame-based death-dealing. Perhaps most importantly, it made the questionable choice of an episodic model not only work, but an integral part of why the game is so very good.
Having just a piece of the game at a time gives you the opportunity to experiment with each level at your leisure, try the latest contracts, go for that Elusive Target, make your own challenges. As separate entities, the episodes of Hitman are great value for money, but it isn’t until you put the whole package together, and stand back to observe the finished article, that you really appreciate what a bloody cracking game Hitman is.