When I first tried the brand new HITMAN I was both excited and apprehensive. Nowhere, when talking about the game, was it made clear just what the new Hitman game would be. How would it be episodic? How would the online content be handled? None of it was clearly elucidated and I was worried. When I first played the game when it’s opening and first sand box were dropped in March I was incredibly disappointed with just how much of Square Enix’s confused online-only approach to games just ruined the experience. I held off writing my thoughts because I was deflated.
But we’ve now had a very positive title update, another sand box and another one on the horizon (literally, Agent 47 will be travelling to Marrakech as soon as next week) I am extremely happy to say that 2016’s HITMAN is one of the best distillations of the Hitman experience since the series kind of went off the beaten path with Absolution. It’s great, it’s accessible, and it’s just an all-around superbly designed experience more aligned with IO Interactive’s near immaculate pedigree.Hitman is, if you don’t know, more or less a glorified assassination simulation. You are thrown into an environment with several options at your disposal to carry out the perfect hit. You can be outright – whether it be just infiltrating a building and shooting someone in the face or, sneaking up on them and garrotte them with your fiber wire. There’s plenty of options at your disposal that encourage creativity. Previous games encouraged such situations as replacing a prop pistol with a real one during a rehearsal of a theatre production in order to make the kills look like an accident.
Others might have you tamper with dodgy light fittings to make them drop at the right moment. You can even discover that a clown has been hired as an entertainer for a family, assume the identity of the clown, and then work your way into the house to get closer to the heavily guarded target. These are all situations that have taken place in previous games in the Hitman series and they run the gamut from deadly serious to incredibly goofy. Hitman is a serious experience, don’t get me wrong, but it’s got a kind of macabre sense of humour in the way you can approach some of your contracts.The reboot of Hitman opens with an introduction. Agent 47 meets his handler, Diana and is introduced to the ICA. They put him through two simulations which are hilariously played out just like simulations – the locales are clearly built out of makeshift materials and the people you’re taking out are presumably actors working for the ICA. Both missions are a great introduction to the games mechanics and similarly demonstrate the multiple ways you can take out your target without overwhelming the player.
From the get go it’s obvious that the team really took into account the criticisms levelled at Absolution when designing the new Hitman. The most welcome change is that the scoring system that was displayed on screen permanently throughout Absolution is now gone completely. No longer nagging you incessantly to hide bodies or not pacify certain enemies, you’re now truly free to do whatever you want. The bizarrely incongruous Point Shooting mechanic borrowed from the likes of Splinter Cell Conviction is thankfully absent in the new Hitman too.What does make a return is the Instinct Mode, though it’s been tweaked ever so slightly. Previously Agent 47 could activate the mode and become virtually invisible no matter what outfit or behaviour he’d be engaging in. In the new Hitman, time is slowed ever so slightly but 47 will still remain visible and points of interest will highlight while the rest of the colour drowns out of the world. It’s admittedly a feature that almost every modern game has implemented now, and it will rub some fans (especially of the original trilogy of Hitman titles) the wrong way, but it’s so inoffensive now that it’s hard to care too much about it. If you really hate it, we simply recommend not using it.
Every level is also now littered with opportunities, intel and challenges to complete. Opportunities are juts that – they’re optional paths to take through levels that could lead to one of your objectives. They’re, once again, admittedly a bid to make the Hitman games more accessible to newcomers, but they can safely be ignored if you wish to pursue a different type of kill. Intel is just that – bits of information that are cryptic enough to encourage exploration. Challenges are mini objectives that are optional, but completing them yields mastery of that sand box. It’s especially fun to try to and use your intel and opportunities to try to unlock as many challenges as you can with a single kill and it’s the flexibility of Hitman’s game world that makes it such a joy to do so.The first area that Agent 47 visits in the new Hitman is Paris, more specifically the Palais de Walewska. It’s a lavish mansion owned by a prominent baron and it’s also where your first two hits are. Agent 47 must assassinate Viktor Novikov, an influential Russian oligarch who also happens to own a fashion house named Sanguine. Dalia Margolis is the other target, a supermodel turned criminal ringleader who runs the shadowy spy network IAGO alongside Viktor Novikov. Agent 47 heads to the Sanguine fashion show, held inside the palais, to assassinate both the targets.
What I love about the new Hitman is how these levels, or sand boxes, are not necessarily the largest open worlds in gaming but how dense they are with activity. Just walking into Paris you’ll see guests lining up. You’ll see news reporters out the front reporting on the event that’s about to play out (and walking in front of the camera during this broadcast has humourous results). You’ll see security and tech staff setting up for fireworks.People socialising at a bar. A male model being photographed behind the mansion. People waiting at the runway for the show to begin. The organised chaos of the atelier behind the runway. Kitchen staff feverishly preparing to serve food to the guests, both on the main floor and in the cellars. There’s even a top secret black market auction being held behind closed doors and some VIP guests preparing to attend in private suites in the mansion.
If it’s not clear what I’m getting at here – it’s that there’s a hell of a lot going on in the levels of the new Hitman and none of it feels like gamey artifice. As you explore the manor you’ll hear all kinds of conversations that help build the character of the people you’re about to kill and paint a picture of your targets – whether it’s just a news reporter discussing the background of your targets to their audience or a disgruntled assistant confiding to a friend about her boss’s poor habits – they’ll highlight new opportunities for you to pursue in your bid to assassinate your hits. Some of the conversations in Paris even tie back to Blood Money, which is a nice touch for fans of the series who have been following up to this point.The kills themselves are rather creative. Viktor is a known drinker and as such can be poisoned if you know the way to get behind the bar. You can drop a speaker on him as a member of the tech crew during a speech. You can even drop an entire light installation on him if you wish. You can go it old school and climb a barge outside of the level, trigger a fireworks display, and pick off the targets from a far as they exit the mansion to watch the spectacle. You can even force them into their panic room after inciting an evacuation – not before rigging the panic room with explosives, of course. Dalia is slightly more interesting – as she’s running the private auction you’ll need to disguise yourself as one of many VIPs, each with different and unique approaches associated with them. Disguises not your style? Scale the manor and take her out from the window instead.
The freedom with how you carry out your hits is totally yours and that’s what makes the new Hitman game so great. It’s a truly open sand box of opportunities to kill, as dark as that sounds. It’s estimated that you’ll be able to find 20 or so ways to kill a single target, perhaps even double that if you don’t mind being discovered and being more overt with your approach. That’s a lot, and such an amazing accomplishment in such a dense compilation of opportunities.There are some times where the game could probably be a bit better – for example there were times where I would follow my target into a bathroom while his bodyguard waited outside, with no consequence, and drown my target in the toilet. I’d hide the body in a dresser and leave the bathroom with no consequence whatsoever. This makes it a bit more obvious that, at times, Hitman is more about playing the AI to your benefit but these moments were few and far between for me.The new Hitman is a triumph and a return to form for IO Interactive. It takes what little that worked with Hitman Absolution and tinkers it to fit in with the “classic” Hitman formula. While it’s not as obtuse nor as complicated as the original games might have been 16 years ago, it’s certainly much more accessible to newcomers without unnecessarily dumbing itself down or sacrificing complexity.
Similarly, the fact that Hitman is distributed in such an unorthodox manner just encourages repeat plays. There were so many times that I jumped straight back into Paris to see how I could do things differently and things would most often play out entirely.
We’ve put the same amount of effort, if not more into the second episode of Sapienza which is a coastal town in Italy. Boasting a larger amount of variety than Paris, it’s something that truly advances the concept of this open world sand box Hitman.
Look out in the coming days for our coverage of the sunny Sapienza sand box, followed by up to date coverage of the new sand box set in Marrakech early next week!