Originally Written on December 18, 2016
The Hitman franchise was in an uncertain place after 2012’s Hitman Absolution failed to excite fans or meet sales expectations. As a result of this, publisher Square Enix and developer IO Interactive decided to experiment with the newest entry in the series. In addition to being a soft reboot, this year’s Hitman released in an episodic format. Poor messaging and a general apprehension towards episodic games left fans worried before launch, but IO managed to both justify the structure and build a great game around it.
The first Hitman episode released in March, with April and May getting the subsequent two. There was no new episode in June, and July only gave us bonus missions, reworked versions of the second and third maps. The final three episodes came out in August, September, and October. With plenty of reasons to replay each map and a significant amount of live content, I found this update schedule to be quite reasonable.
What makes the episodic structure work so well is that the missions in Hitman are meant to be replayed. They all have many layers to them that I would never discover on my first run through. If I was playing a Hitman game that came out all at once, I would play through a level and move on to the next one. By the time I finished the game I would probably have my fill and never go back to the older missions. But instead I was spending time in between missions playing through the old ones. The episodic release structure made Hitman a game I kept coming back to as opposed to a game that I played through and tossed aside once something else came out.
The game encourages replayability with the mastery and challenge systems. Each location has a set of challenges attached to it, ranging from dropping a chandelier on a target to throwing a coin in a fountain. Completing these challenges earns XP, which increases the mastery rating on that level. There are twenty mastery levels on every map, and each one grants access to a new weapon, item, starting location, or agency pickup. The items and weapons become useful on later missions, while the map specific unlocks help with higher mastery levels as well as the other content on each map.
There is also plenty to do in Hitman aside from these main missions. This includes escalations, hits that get progressively harder over five levels of difficulty; contracts, a mode which allows users to create their own hits; and elusive targets, hits that appear for a set period of time and can only be attempted once. The former two are fun to engage with once the main content has been exhausted, but the elusive targets are the true standout. In addition to the challenges previously mentioned, they also are not given the same red outline in the game’s version of detective vision that all of the other targets are. These challenging, high stakes hits led to some very tense moments. They resulted in the sweetest of victories and the most agonizing of defeats. These targets are also given the same type of introduction and backstory that the main targets are, making them more than just random people to kill. It also makes an amount of in-world sense that I appreciate. Agent 47 would get a target, some information about them, a location, and a timeframe for when they would be there. It’s the game showing him doing his regular job while waiting for another beat on the global conspiracy at hand. Elusives and escalations have been added to the game on a regular basis, and the recent Christmas mission might indicate that they are experimenting with other forms of live content as well.
The episodic format is great, but it does come with one unfortunate and unforced error in the form of online-only features. The entire game can be played without an internet connection, but this removes the ability to unlock items, complete challenges, or increase mastery level. This progression is an important aspect of what makes the episodic structure so great, and it’s a shame that people with spotty internet connections don’t get to experience it. The online-only aspects also add nothing to the game for people who do have an internet connection, making it a wholly unnecessary annoyance. They have made strides to fix this with the latest patch allowing users to use items unlocked online when they are not connected, but a connection is still required to unlock them in the first place.
With the episodic release structure, the story in Hitman is very disjointed. There are a few cut scenes in the beginning of the game and one at the end of each episode. Making things more confusing is the fact that a lot of them are only tangentially tied to the mission. It starts to come together and make sense after the fourth episode, but it ends up being nothing more than typical espionage schlock. That being said, the cut scenes look good and are well acted in an overly dramatic sort of way. They also manage to end the first season’s arc while setting up the premise for the now confirmed season two.
As a character Agent 47 is a little bland, but what he lacks in personality he makes up for in talent. Aside from being a master assassin, he also has the ability to perform seemingly any task that he is faced with. He acts flawlessly and without hesitation whether he is mixing a drink, playing the drums, giving a massage, or teaching yoga. This adds to the absurdity of the whole thing and gives the developers free reign when coming up with kills. And they use this freedom to its fullest effect with some truly creative and hilarious ways to complete a hit. It helps too that the targets are all villainous caricatures getting their just desserts.
On its most basic level, Hitman is about giving the player an objective and free reign in how to approach that objective. This freedom can sometimes be a little overwhelming, especially for players like myself who are new to the franchise. For this reason, IO has implemented an opportunities system. These opportunities are specific paths that the player can follow that will either get them into a location, get them a specific outfit, lead them right to the hit, or sometimes just end with the hit being completed. This is somewhat of a guided tour that the player can follow, and it really helped me get my bearings when I started the game. There are between five and ten of these on each map, and they are only the start of what there is to see. Seasoned Hitman veterans will be happy to hear that these opportunities can be turned off, and I found myself using them less and less as I got more familiar with the rules and mechanics of the game. In fact, almost all of the UI elements can be turned off from the aforementioned detective vision all the way down to the mini map and alert notifications.
Hitman allows for a variety of ways to play, but it never stops being a stealth game. Getting into shootouts is not a viable way to play the game given that it only takes a couple of bullets to down Agent 47. Whether it’s sneaking around, taking out guards stealthily, sniping, or hiding in plain sight, all of the core systems are built around not being discovered.
However, all is not lost when 47 does get discovered. Escaping from a bad situation by the skin of your teeth and finding a new disguise to work with is always a possibility, however slim it may be. The AI in Hitman can be tough to deal with, but it is not absurdly difficult. Once I learned the ways the games systems worked, manipulating the guards became an easier but not too easy task.
Ultimately, Hitman strikes the right balance when it comes to difficulty in all aspects. There is a lot of fun to be had for both players who want to stumble their way through scripted kills and players who want to complete every mission with the Suit Only, Silent Assassin challenge. What was even more great was seeing myself transform from the former into the latter as I continued to play the game.
Hitman is a mechanically sound game all around, but one thing I specifically need to talk about is the throwing mechanic. Pretty much any object that can be picked up can also be thrown. Blunt items like hammers and wrenches will knock out a character while sharp objects like scissors and knives will kill them. The silent nature of these attacks as well as the generous lock-on probably makes them a little overpowered, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. The thud of a crowbar hitting a guard before they fall to the ground, the expletive that they only manage to get halfway through if they see the item flying towards them, and the two-handed windup that 47 employs for larger items like an axe or a fire extinguisher never stop being hilarious. Throwing things at people in Hitman is endlessly satisfying.
Of course in a game like Hitman these systems and mechanics are only as good as the sandboxes they can be used in. While there have been a few missteps along the way, IO have managed to put out levels with a mostly consistent high level of quality
The first level in Paris is a huge mansion playing host to a fashion show. The mansion is four whole floors full of things to find, and there is a significant amount of outdoor space as well. Getting around is never too much of a hassle, and 47 can walk right up to both targets wearing nothing but his suit. Paris is both a great first level and a great level overall.
The second level in Sapienza, Italy is set on a beautiful coast with a villa and surrounding town. It’s an interesting level in the sense that there is a huge town to explore, but the two targets and the third mission objective are all located in the villa portion of the map. That’s not a problem per say though, because there is plenty to do and see away from the targets. Sapienza is the most impressive map of the bunch, but it is hampered by the third objective. There are only so many ways to accomplish this, and they stopped being interesting once I knew what they were. It makes replaying one of the most fun levels in the game somewhat of a chore.
The third mission in Marrakesh is much weaker than the previous two. There is a great open-air market to explore but not much to do in it. Both of the targets and most of the interesting interactions are tucked away into the two safe holds at either end of the map. It leads to you spending most of your time trying to infiltrate as opposed to actually thinking of ways to take out the targets.
The Bangkok level is set in a hotel, making for the least interesting location from a visual standpoint. It is a generic look and a disappointing use of the setting. That being said, the mission is a lot similar to Paris in terms of layout, and is a solid return to form after Marrakesh.
Colorado is another step back and might be the weakest map overall. It is the only mission where there are four targets to kill, and since it is set on a military complex 47 is always trespassing in his starting suit. It is a fun challenge the first time through, but I simply ran out of things to see and do on repeat playthroughs. There are about as many challenges and opportunities as in the previous maps, but the problem is that they are spread across four different targets. With some of them getting significantly less attention than others, the grind to level 20 on Colorado is a rough one.
Thankfully the final mission in Hokkaido, Japan is a high point for the season. Set on a hillside, high-end hospital and resort, it is by far the most visually striking episode. The two targets include one that walks around the common area you start in and another that is stationary. This leads to a good mix of manipulation and infiltration similar and superior to Paris and Bangkok. Another twist is that the clothes you are wearing determine what doors you can open. This means you either have to constantly change outfits or drag bodies to doors. It is a twist that is more creative and requires more creativity from the player than the one in Colorado. Hokkaido ended the season on a strong note that it needed after a couple of sub par episodes.
Overall, the only level I would consider bad is Colorado, and even that has some good moments. The rest range from serviceable to incredible, with three of the six falling into the latter camp.
The bonus missions they added were also fun, specifically the Sapienza one. The area outside the villa has been transformed into a movie set for the big comeback film of a washed up action hero. Naturally, you have to kill him. This mission has some of the best comedy in the game and is an impressive visual overhaul of the level. The Marrakesh mission is less interesting, with the only big change being that it takes place at night. It also has confusing logic and a dreaded third objective. I played through it once and had no desire to revisit it.
With the exception of Bangkok, these levels all feel unique, and there are a bunch of small details that make me appreciate the world design. But with the amount of care that goes into bringing these exotic locations to life, it pulled me out of the experience every time somebody in Italy and Morocco talked with an American accent. That combined with a soundtrack that is nowhere near as good as the work Jespyr Kid did on Blood Money diminishes not all but a lot of the potential atmosphere.
Hitman is an admirable feat. It proved that an entire business model could be viable and did so in a way that is better than what anybody could have expected. It’s also a pretty great stealth game with some incredible maps. It is not hard to imagine other developers looking at the work IO Interactive has done when their franchise’s future is in jeopardy. Hitman is more than a great game; it’s potentially revolutionary.
Final Score: 5 Stars