Make no mistake, this return of our favourite, follicly challenged assassin (loved as a silent type by the ladies, and revered as an example of Athenian athleticism by that NPC in Episode One) is the entry, or four, that the series needed so desperately, after 2012’s divisive Hitman: Absolution.
I’ve been a huge fan of the series since 2006’s Blood Money, regarded by many as the best entry of the series, after taking the best mechanics from the past games (yes, I’ve used copious amounts of fibre wire on those games, too!) and blending them together into a comic book of larger-than-life characters, novel level design, and outrageous methods of eliminating the dregs of society in the world of 47.
Don’t get me wrong: I loved Hitman: Absolution. It’s varied, if not uncomfortably linear and claustrophobic level designs, sleazy characters and an actual story lent itself to creating an experience into which I invested some 40+ hours. Yet many others and myself didn’t kid ourselves into thinking that this was a true Hitman game. The story was cheap at times, with the controversy caused by the masochistic unit of warrior nuns a particular blow to its reputation. Moreover, IO Interactive sought to both create something that appeared conclusively ‘next-gen,’ whilst also emulating other heavyweights of the genre; namely, 2009’s Splinter Cell: Conviction. In a phrase: Hitman lost its character. No hugely open environments and a punishing disguise system stood out like… well… a bald gent with a barcode on the reverse of his noggin.
It’s with great pleasure that as your handler (kinky), I can report that IO have amended most of what was fundamentally flawed with Absolution, and have categorically run with it. The levels are big, the episodic releases a hidden blessing, the disguises work fairly, all whilst based around a central, albeit lacking, story.
And yes. There are custom saves… they are back. Hallelujah!
The levels are titanic in scale and depth, with hundreds of NPCs on-screen at a time, and many with their own quirks and routines – of particular note is the Priest in Episode Two, set in the sleepy Amalfi town of Sapienza, who roves around in eery traditional garb, prophetically bestowing his blessing upon our protagonist in passing. Yet there remains a decent structure, with the new Opportunities and Feats edging those daunted by the depth of the four episodes thus far towards certain set-pieces which are sadistically humorous, and as much rewarding.
The earliest example of this is in the first full episode in Paris, where 47 is tasked with eliminating Viktor Novikov; fashionista by day, and ringleader of IAGO by night. By overhearing a conversation between two guards, we learn that the lighting rig above the catwalk is…precarious, to say the least. By locating the stage schedule, we find out what time our star NPC will be standing on this catwalk, and with a conveniently placed crowbar, we can quite literally rain on Novikov’s parade; by ‘rain’ I mean ‘glass fluorescent lighting tubes’, and by ‘parade,’ I mean ‘life.’ The ability for traversal of the levels is also entirely new, with the ability to straddle ledges, climb drainpipes, and navigate dingy corridors or open marketplaces helping to establish this as not just a remake, but an entirely new landmark in Agent 47’s unscrupulous story.
If, like me, you were sceptical about the episodic releases, then let me put your minds to rest. The main contracts in each level have taken me roughly two hours each, with a Silent Assassin rating to boot; ergo: complete and kill everything! However, with the innovative Escalation contracts, which sees an NPC become a target with increasingly difficult objectives to meet in the level (for example, don’t get spotted by the security cameras smattered across the levels) the shelf life of each location is extended to upwards of 10 hours. Inclusive of the community-made Contracts, another mechanic borrowed from Absolution, the levels can even feel overwhelming, meaning the time between each episode sets a welcome pace.
Aside from just fixing the problems of Absolution’s linear level designs and diluted Hitman experience, the infuriating system of disguises has been repaired, and now works as it should have done all those years ago. If 47 ‘borrows’ the uniform of a janitor, then only other janitors on the level will be able to see through the disguise. Trespassing in an area that you shouldn’t be? Then simply find a uniform belonging to someone meant to be there and Diana’s your handler and Fanny’s your aunt, you’re no longer trespassing! I can’t remember the last time I felt as satisfied in a game as when I nonchalantly dropped a statue of a moose on the Swedish ambassador, before dissolving into the background by pretending to mop a floor, as tens of NPCs rushed around in panic. It is these amended mechanics, and not just a fresh lick of paint, that creates the opportunities for entirely outrageous times. Killing is truly a bundle of laughs, it would seem.
As with anything, I am fan enough of the series to acknowledge its shortcomings. Not everything is ICA Silverballers and Emetic Rat Poison. Though helpful in structuring the levels into more manageable objectives than simply “Go here. Kill this Russian,” the Opportunities and Challenges can also constrict how you want to play. For example, on my first playthrough of the Sapienza level, I had noticed a schedule carelessly left on a table. A number of plays later, I triggered an opportunity that would inevitably need this information. However, when I skipped the menial tasks that usually open this opportunity (‘Go and eavesdrop on this conversation’ is a favourite of our voyeuristic, neighbourhood hitman) to go straight to where I knew this item was, it wouldn’t let me activate it as I hadn’t followed the objectives by the book.
It really doesn’t help that these challenges (which, granted, do also include simple Discoveries; so, ‘discover the secret passage into the Swedish consulate’ warrants 1000 points towards the ‘Mission mastery’ rating) are crucial in securing points which make up the debrief after a mission. By unlocking these points, you gain ‘Mastery’ points, which allow 47 to take new gear into the field, as either concealed items, or items smuggled in amongst caches within the levels. Essentially, without at least once conforming to these opportunities, there is no way that you can progress through the level. More optimistically, and the way I’ve come to see it, is that it inspires many playthroughs with different approaches to the missions each time. Though, inevitably, there will be those that just want to do their own thing, and that 47, is not cool here.
As with Absolution, players are given a number of points at the end of each mission based on the time taken to complete the objectives, and with penalties issued should your cover be blown or a stray body discovered. Again, the idea of rewarding players for a perfect run can also act to its opposite, by seemingly punishing ways that the developers don’t want you to use. ‘All methods are valid,’ I can imagine Diana saying to 47, ‘just some are more valid than others.’
And of course, playing Hitman for the story is like watching an adult movie to find out what type of pizza the woman ordered. Credit where its definitely due, we see IO straddling the absence of a story in Blood Money and the all-too cinematic experience of Absolution. The mission briefing offers a succinct insight into why 47 is sunning up in Italy and subtly links the targets to the overarching story, which itself is revealed in rather abstract sequences at the end of each mission. However, the story is confused, and somewhat unavoidably feels like a relatively half-hearted attempt to justify the abundance of garroting and explosions. From the heart, that is essentially what the story thus far is. C’est la vie as one of the Parisienne NPCs said…probably…at some point…
As we reach this halfway point, things are boding well. The four entries so far are everything that IO wanted Absolution to be, with sublime level design, well-constructed characters (from the main target all the way down the food chain to the lowliest NPC), thoughtful traversal and a rewarding smorgasbord of assassinations to carry out. Even the sceptic in me is surprised at how much of a blessing the episodic nature of this installment in the series has turned out to be. Let down only by its story, and more so by the accidental constraints placed on many styles of play, Hitman is a seriously strong title, and for me, is a contender for GOTY, providing it can continue in its confidence.
Now, I’m off to B&Q to buy some fiber wire, gaffer tape, and a hefty haul of emetic rat poison…