I’m not going to beat around the bush: I love the new Hitman game. It is an absolutely fantastic return to form for the series after the deeply flawed Absolution. It combined the things Absolution did right with an infusion of the series’ core gameplay flow, and some of the best level design in the series thus far. If you’re a fan of the series, or are looking for a jumping-on point, you should definitely buy it.
In case the name didn’t make it clear enough, this is a game about Hitting Mans. As the mysterious barcoded assassin Agent 47, you infiltrate various locations around the world, and murder people for money. Your targets are always heavily guarded and in the middle of secured compounds, requiring you to utilize disguises and stealth to get yourself in position to take them out.
In my review of Hitman Absolution, I broke down the series’ basic formula as a five-stage process:
- Discovery. In this phase, the player is allowed to freely traverse the public areas of the level. The guards are not yet actively looking for 47, nor will they accost 47 unless he begins behaving suspiciously where they can see him. Although 47 is limited with regards to which areas he can safely enter, the player can use this time to orient themselves, get a feel for the level’s design, identify vulnerable access points for restricted areas, and find disguises. In some levels, 47 may be able to walk right up to one or more of his targets during this phase – although it’s unlikely that he’ll have an opportunity to surreptitiously off him. Regardless, a rough plan begins to form in the player’s mind. When the player feels ready to act on it, they proceed to the next phase.
- Infiltration. This phase begins as soon as 47 breaks the rules of the environment and does something suspicious. This may include entering a restricted area, or knocking out a janitor and taking his clothing. However he accomplishes it, 47 now has access to restricted areas of the map. He is now able to gather information more thoroughly, and can begin stalking his prey in search of the perfect opportunity to do the deed. The risk of discovery is still quite low in this phase, unless the player is sloppy, but greater care must be taken to avoid detection. A complete plan now begins to form in the player’s mind.
- Assassination. This phase begins the moment the player sets their plan in motion. This phase might last for only a few moments, or it might involve ten minutes of waiting for that damnable opera track to finish playing. Regardless, during this phase of the level, the player is actively hunting and working to eliminate 47’s target. The risk of discovery is greatest at this stage, as it is the only phase which requires that the player act in an overtly suspicious manner, and targets are usually at the center of the level’s highest security.
- Recovery. This optional phase is triggered by a mistake. A guard you weren’t expecting walked around the corner while you were strangling your target. An electrician spotted you with a gun out and ran to find a guard. You opened the wrong door and got seen sneaking into a back room. There are a lot of ways the player can screw up while playing Hitman. And when it happens, you can either immediately reload your save file, or you can try to recover from the error and complete the level anyway. If you haven’t saved in a while and redoing the level will mean listening to the opera track again, recovery looks pretty good. The best way to recover is always to kill everyone who saw you, hide their bodies if possible, and then lie low until the furor dies down. If you don’t have the opportunity to do that, you might instead sprint to a good hiding place and crouch there until they stop looking for you. If you succeed in recovering, the game resets to the appropriate regular phase, although the guards will likely have heightened suspicion.
- Escape. You’ve gotten in, you’ve done the deed, and now it’s time to leave. If you were particularly stealthy, this phase might involve nothing more than a casual stroll towards the exit. If you made a lot of noise and fuss, it might mean a tense game of hide-and-seek with the guards, or a shootout in the final corridor. This phase covers every action taken between the completion of the last objective and when 47 reaches safety.
It is my absolute pleasure to report that unlike Absolution, which deviated heavily from this formula, Hitman follows it to a T. Of the game’s eight missions (two training missions, which are each full-fledged missions in their own right, but smaller in scale and complexity, and six full-sized missions) only two of them deviate from the formula at all – and those that do, the only difference is the absence of a Discovery phase. As I discussed in my previous post, this is the most common deviation and also the one with the lowest impact on the mission’s progression. In every level, you must infiltrate, assassination, and escape.
The game’s eight missions are tied together with a story that tells itself in cutscenes at the end of each, and with small bits of overheard conversations during the missions themselves. To be honest, it’s…kind of nothing! The cutscenes are well-directed and reasonably well-written, and the villain (?) of the piece is fairly charismatic, but he never interacts with 47 and 47 is largely tangential to the entire affair. But this is perfect. It provides an excuse and some context for why 47 is flying all over the world and Hitting Mans, but it never intrudes on the gameplay the way it did over and over in Absolution. In its own way, it’s the perfect Hitman narrative layer. David Bateson returns and is as strong as ever as Agent 47, while newcomer Jane Perry does excellent work as the new voice of Diana. The plot does not resolve at the end of Season 1 and will probably continue in the next season. I don’t really care, to be honest, but if you really hate anything even vaguely resembling a cliffhanger, be warned.
Speaking of missions, while there are fewer of them than previous titles, I feel confident saying that the game is not short on content. Each mission of the game’s first season (the missions being released episodically) is set in a unique location – a fashion show in Paris, a villa in Sapienza, the streets of Marrakesh during a period of unrest, a five-star hotel in Bangkok, a militia compound in Colorado, a luxury hospital in Hokkaido – and each mission plays out in a unique way. Moreover, each of these missions are incredibly dense. I’ve put in over 20 hours already, and most of that has been spent clearing the Paris mission (which is probably the smallest and simplest of the full-sized missions) in as many different ways as I can find. There are a lot of them, and that’s only counting the ones the game points you towards.
Whereas Absolution‘s missions felt cramped and confined, these maps are huge. The villa in Sapienza is large enough to be a fair-sized Hitman: Blood Money map on its own, but there’s also a whole town, a subterranean lab, and an abandoned castle attached to it. Marrakesh is basically two Blood Money levels bridged by some impressively sprawling streets. And these exterior environments are not just window dressing to waste your time as you sprint from one end of the map to another. They’re full of opportunities to gain access to the secured compounds your targets wait inside, and ways to lure your targets outside where they’re more vulnerable.
Speaking of opportunities, that’s one of the game’s new systems. As the player moves around the maps, overheard conversations will reveal new Opportunities; a piece of intel about a good way to murder a target. The game pops up a box asking whether you want to track this opportunity; hit F1 to do so, and the game will begin giving you instructions on how to take advantage of the opportunity, complete with waypoints guiding you through the map. At first, this seemed too generous on the part of the developers: half the game’s challenge has always been about exploring the map and discovering routes and methods for yourself. But the more I played around with the system, the more I appreciated it: these sorts of hints were always there in previous games, they were just needlessly obtuse. Instead of wandering the map aimlessly and hoping to stumble across the item you need for your chosen kill method, the game guides you there itself. What’s more, although the Opportunities may tell you where to go, they don’t tell you how to get there. By giving you a starting point and some general guidance, Opportunities actually encourage map mastery by walking the player through its basic navigational layouts.
On the flipside of Opportunities are Challenges. Challenges are essentially achievements obtained for doing specific things in each map. Some of these are gimmes, like starting the map in specific locations, while others describe esoteric ways of assassinating the targets. Unlike Opportunities, Challenges give you no guidance on how to actually pull them off, but they do point you towards alternate styles of play that you might not have realized were even possible. If there’s a Challenge for killing both targets by pushing one off a ledge and having her land on the other, there must clearly be some opportunity to do just that; finding that opportunity and pulling it off is left as an exercise for the player. What’s more, completing Challenges levels up your Mastery level for that map and unlocks new items, starting locations and disguises for you to use there, giving you even more options. The more you play, the more you gradually unfold each mission’s layers and get at the sweet murdery center.
The level design is fantastic and variable. From the vertically-oriented French castle, where access to its various floors are gated off with guard checkpoints on each staircase, to the Colorado farmhouse compound, which is almost entirely flat and broad, to the fancy Japanese hospital, where the clothes contain RFID chips which open or lock doors as you approach, depending on who you’re disguised as, each mission feels unique and dense with possibilities. Targets are frequently escorted around by armed guards who will try to ruin your day, but always have openings when they can be lured away from their protectors…or when the protectors can be lured away and disposed of.
Adding to this depth are the tweaks IO Interactive has made to Absolution’s stealth systems. No longer are disguises worthless in the face of anybody who happens to be wearing the same clothes as you; instead, each disguise has certain people who will see through it. These people are clearly marked with a white dot over their head, visible from a considerable distance. Wearing a soldier uniform will get you more or less free reign of the military compound in Marrakesh, but the officers will see through you in an instant. A bodyguard uniform will get you free reign of the Paris castle, but the guards protecting the stairs up to the third floor will detect you. On the other hand, if you wear the grey vest and bowtie of a worker for the auction taking place up there, you can walk past those guards no problem…but not before they frisk you, meaning you need to leave any guns, explosives, or other obvious weapons behind. On the other hand, you can clamber up the side of the building and hop up a balcony instead, bypassing these security procedures.
This is a fantastic change for multiple reasons. First is simple realism. There was nothing wrong with the basic idea behind Absolution‘s stealth systems; the problem was that it was too broadly applied. It makes sense that disguises wouldn’t be bulletproof, but it doesn’t make sense that every cop knows every other cop by sight, as they apparently do in Absolution. Moreover, people who can see through your disguises are more common at the perimeter of an area, which maps well with human behavior. If you’re already inside, people assume that since you got through security, you must belong. The other reason, perhaps more important, is that it shapes the player’s progression through the level. When the staircase is gated by a couple of suspicious guards, you need to either find a way around, or find a new disguise. It encourages exploration and discovery, and makes each mission a series of small ‘ah-ha!’ moments.
There’s really only two caveats I have about the game. First, the game is always-online. If you play offline, you can, but you’ll lose access to all unlocked starting points, equipment, and disguises. Only the very base game can be played offline, and it’s for really no reason. This doesn’t bother me too much; it’s bullshit, sure, but we already lost this battle a decade ago. The other is that at times, characters (particularly targets) have behaviors that don’t trigger unless the player is nearby to witness them. Mostly this works invisibly and only becomes obvious on replay of a map, but it does make the seams show a bit, and makes the maps seem like setpieces waiting for 47 to show up and activate them rather than a living world that gets by without him.
Apart from those minor defects, the game is fantastic. I’ve had an absurd amount of fun with it, and if you’ve got any interest in the series at all, you should consider buying it.