The bald assassin is back, but this Hitman game is a little different to those that have gone before it. IO Interactive are taking their beloved Hitman franchise in a new direction that speaks to the emerging trend of games being seen as expanding platforms, instead of a single release that fades into the background shortly after launch.
Before we go any further, it’s important to cleave through some of the potential confusion that’s building up around Hitman’s launch plan. At present there are two options for getting the game: an intro pack with the prologue and first location, as well as what IO is calling the “full experience”, which pre-purchases all of the episodes still to come. Both versions will offer up the same hefty wad of content including the ICA Training Facility as well as the Paris Sanguine Fashion Show. Everyone who buys a copy will gain access to Hitman’s core modes and features, yet those who fork out a little extra can expect five additional locations starting in April, as Agent 47 takes a trip to Sapienza, Italy.
At a glance, it may look like your typical episodic release plan. However, given the sandbox nature of the franchise and IO’s expansive online plug-ins, each slab of content that rolls out will have a considerable amount of replayability.
It all kicks off with a rather comprehensive prologue, fleshing out 47’s early years in the contract killing business. Approached by his soon-to-be handler, Diana Burnwood, our slaphead assassin is placed in two training scenarios that do a grand job of easing you into the game. Whether completely new to the series or a returning veteran, both simulations lay the foundations for the full scenarios, outlining the base mechanics and systems before letting you explore a whole array of opportunities nestled within each level.
The core gameplay on show has been heavily refined since the days of Silent Assassin, Contracts, and Blood Money. This has much to do with the improved one-button system, allowing players to kill off close range targets instead of priming their weapon and swinging it manually. Gunplay, meanwhile, is quick and precise whether you’re sporting a pair of silverballers or the Jager sniper rifle.
Hitman’s stealth and traversal have also been also be streamlined for the benefit of players. When carrying out an initial sweep of the level, players will be made aware of which areas they can’t access wearing 47’s default uniform. The way around this, of course, is to obtain a disguise before trying your luck again. In previous Hitman games that didn’t always work though, given how most NPCs were on constant high alert. This latest iteration is much more lenient, however, with only a scattered handful of guards being able to spot that you don’t fit in.
Sneaking around is made even easier thanks to the improved Instinct Mode that originally featured in Hitman: Absolution. This allows Agent 47 to track pertinent NPCs through walls and monitor their movements. It’s incredibly useful yet never feels like a cheap crutch for players to cling onto.
Overall, Hitman feels much more intuitive and forgiving. However, for those who have disliked previous entries, some of its core problems still remain. In fairness, these mostly tie-in with the stealth genre as a whole, but they can be much more egregious given Hitman’s predisposition toward exotic killing methods. In order to line up a kill and make it appear as an accident, a lot of prep work needs to be carried out beforehand. Once done, players can often spend minutes at a time waiting for their target to casually stroll into the killzone. Needless to say, patience and precision are absolutely key in order to get that coveted five star rating.
It can be extremely frustrating, therefore, when spotted at the very last second by someone who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Shooting your way through a level is also a viable option, primarily for when things go wrong like this, but there’s little satisfaction for having to make your escape in an unplanned hail of bullets.
Where the prologue levels serve as two microcosms, the Sanguine Paris Fashion Show is much, much bigger. After good five or six hours of running the scenario over and over, we’re still finding new areas, items, and characters to interact with. With so much to explore, those first few steps into the palace complex can feel overwhelming to say the least. Not only are there three floors with dozens of interconnected rooms, there’s also a basement, several outbuildings, and a fair amount of greenery on the fringes of this Parisian playground.
Finding a way through all this madness can feel daunting at first. Although identifying your target is easy enough, you’ll need to gauge their movements while also keeping track of the myriad NPCs around you. Naturally, we didn’t count all of them, but there are several hundred of them milling around in the busiest parts of the palatial building.
Thankfully there is some guidance available in the form of “Opportunities”. These can often be triggered by eavesdropping on conversations, prompting a call from Diana. From here, players can choose whether to engage in a guided step-by-step process that will more or less offer the mark’s head on a plate. Though fans of the series are encouraged to switch these off, they’re still fun to play with turned on and help to flesh out some of Hitman’s more advanced systems.
Upon completing specific challenges and feats you’ll earn experience points that contribute to your overall “Mastery” of a level. Every time you rank up, you’ll unlock new options which can then be used in a subsequent runthrough. For instance, you can spawn in the building and in disguise, instead of walking through the front door as a guest, and there are several smuggling caches which can be used to store unauthorised items and weapons.
The replay value doesn’t end there, however. As in Hitman: Absolution, players are invited to create their own contracts to kill any person in the level and then share these online online. Then there’s Escalation, a mode in which you’re given a fairly basic kill to carry out before the game starts piling on additional rules after each round. Finally, there are the Elusive Target contracts which will update on a 48-hour basis. Aside from imposing strict rules in regards to disguises and weapons, you’ll only have one shot at completing them.
Taking a step away from its complex layers of systems and mechanics, Hitman is an absolute beauty. Though short, the cinematics are wonderfully lifelike with much of this aesthetic carrying into the game itself. No matter where you step foot, there’s an insane amount of detail on show, whether it’s the character models of ultra-stylish decor. IO has worked in that extra degree of believability when it comes to the way NPCs react to 47 as well as each other. The disguise you happen to be wearing will trigger contextual lines of dialogue, ranging from smalltalk to insults. Occasional references to real-life things such as Instagram also help to give the game a sense of reality.
Square-Enix and IO Interactive have certainly taken a gamble with Hitman, but so far it seems to paying off. With a low-price entry fee, there’s enough included within the intro pack to last a good dozen hours or so, especially when you factor in user-generated contracts and other live game modes. There’s certainly enough here to whet anyone’s appetite, allowing IO to turn present future updates as mini-events, maintaining a constant buzz among fans throughout the year.
That said, there are some minor imperfections that bring Hitman down a peg or two. Requiring a constant connection to the Hitman servers means that some modes and features like challenges, feats, and mastery levels, will be stripped out when playing offline. It clumsily deals with losing this connection during play – such as putting your PS4 into Rest Mode and coming back later – by forcing you back to the main menu. The core game design and its continued emphasis on preparation and waiting will also undoubtedly irk a sizeable number of players, yet this will mainly hinge on your tolerance of the stealth genre as a whole.
Versions tested: PlayStation 4