For the longest time, the Hitman series seemed to get better with every game, culminating in the 2006 release of Hitman: Blood Money. Then came Hitman: Absolution. In the six-year gap between Blood Money and Absolution, developer IO Interactive lost sight of what made the series great. Absolution wasn’t a bad game, it just didn’t have that Hitman feel; who wants to ride a linear rollercoaster of cinematic cut-scenes and scripted set-pieces when you can have the run of an entire open-ended murder park? Hitman, the new sans-subtitle reboot, plays to the series’ strengths, once more setting you loose in a murder sandbox to discover the multitude of ways to eliminate your target without spoiling the other party-goers’ evenings.
While Hitman looks to the past for its gameplay inspiration, the way it’s being distributed is decidedly and divisively modern; copying Telltale’s episodic business model, it’s being spread across seven episodes – set in cities both real and fictional in France, Italy, Morocco, Thailand, United States and Japan – and released on a monthly basis. Episode One, which includes a couple of prologue missions in addition to the main Paris showstopper mission, eases you back into the assassin saddle. In addition to serving as the tutorial, the prologue introduces the only bit of story you’re going to get, taking players back 20 years to when an amnesiac 47 was recruited into the ICA and first met long-time handler Diana Burnwood.
Her dulcet tones will guide you through two smaller missions aboard a party boat and inside an aircraft hangar, allowing you to refamiliarize yourself with the game’s mechanics. These missions are ostensibly gauging 47’s field readiness. Hidden deep inside some secret mountain-top facility, the plywood sets for a party boat and an aircraft hangar feel half-dressed and hastily constructed; the crystal clear waters surrounding the yacht are represented by blue crash pads. I enjoyed the staged feel of these training ground missions, especially since they still allow for some outrageous kills; why poison, drown or electrocute your target when you can tinker with the ejection seat mechanism of a test aircraft and send him soaring into the heavens sans-parachute?
Still, the prologue seemed to be missing something. It felt like there should have been a third training mission, at the least, since there’s no real replay value to them once you tease out the small handful of ways to dispatch your mark. Two is nice and all, but as the sage poets of Three Dog Night taught us, “two can be as bad as one.” As it stands, they feel like a couple of beta levels tacked onto the real game, which is exactly what they are. The shining star of Episode One is the aptly named showstopper mission, which takes you to a labyrinthine Parisian mansion and its surrounding grounds.
Though IO’s only giving us seven maps to explore, in contrast to Blood Money’s dozen, it appears those maps are going to be huge. Paris’ mansion and surrounding grounds are massive; you’ll spend a lot of time, and a lot of lives, just learning the layout. You can creep in through the parking lot, the wine cellar or the gardens. Or you can just strut in through the front door in your best evening wear. The myriad of connecting rooms means there aren’t a lot of choke points, giving you plenty of options when formulating your entry and exit strategy, while also making you that much more vulnerable to discovery.
It’s both exciting and daunting. When I first stepped into the main stage area, with hundreds of high-society spectators waiting beneath the pulsing lights and thumping music for a fashion show, I admit I didn’t know where to start. Thankfully, Hitman offers direction in the form of the new “Opportunities” feature; get close enough to trigger one, and you will be able to eavesdrop on a conversation that will give you the breadcrumbs you need to start down the path of a signature kill scenario. This feature, like 47’s ability to see the outlines of his targets through walls, can be switched off at any time for a more immersive and challenging experience.
But even with the hand holding deactivated, you will eventually complete the double assassination mission. Repeating missions in Hitman has always been part of the formula, but seeing as here it’s the whole formula, IO attempts to stretch out the experience with the return of the user-created Contracts game mode as well as two new offerings: Escalation and Elusive Targets. Escalation has you assassinating the same target five time in a row, each time adding a new constraint be it using a specific weapon, wearing a certain disguise or imposing a time limit for hiding the body. Elusive Targets are one chance hits who only appear for limited hours in real time. While these modes give you reason to dive back into the Paris map, the more time you spend in this stunningly detailed, realistic setting, the more apparent the seams become.
Though the AI has been tweaked so that you are at least asked to leave a restricted area before being mowed down in a hail of gunfire, after several hours the gaps in logic start to show. And I mean beyond the gameworld’s caveat that everyone is face blind, recognizing the killer in their midst by his fashion choices rather than the barcode tattooed on his conspicuously bald head. You can snatch items from beneath the noses of NPCs, as long as the prompt appears and they’re not looking right at you. You can go on a murder rampage in one section of the mansion, and still stroll past guards in another. In one playthrough I offed Dehlia first, which didn’t stop the second target, Viktor, from carrying on a lively phone conversation with her. There’s plenty of dark humor to be found in Hitman, though not all of it intentional.
The newest Hitman combines the sandbox gameplay of Blood Money with the stellar controls of Absolution, all beneath a gorgeous next gen graphical sheen. And though the fresh coat of paint doesn’t entirely cover Episode One’s flaws – the long load times (on PS4 anyway), the easily exploitable AI, and the point of diminishing returns you eventually hit replaying the same level – it’s still a blast. Overall my biggest criticism is that I was left wanting more, which is the best complaint a gamemaker could hope to hear.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.
It's still fun to play in this murder sandbox
Thanks to the episodic format, we won't know if the newest Hitman has set the high watermark for the series until January 2017. But so far it's channeling the spirit of the series, even if it's not perfectly polished.