Game review: Silent but deadly, Hitman will bring out your inner assassin
The franchise has made the move to episodic release, and the change means that the game’s world of stealth and murder is more immersive and engaging than ever before
Episodic games have proliferated in recent years but, until now, have broadly conformed to a specific blueprint in which storyline has taken precedence over gameplay. Well-known examples such as Life is Strange, The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones have many merits but underneath their visuals they belong to the most archaic of genres, the point-and-click adventure. So when a major franchise such as Square Enix’s Hitman (for Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC) turns itself episodic, that’s pretty big. You might not have flagged Hitman as an obvious candidate for such an experiment but it turns out to have been an inspired move.
While the series is ostensibly about stealth, it also offers meticulously realised environments, providing its taciturn star Agent 47 with all manner of ingenious means to conduct his sinister business. In Hitman games, you are really playing your surroundings. Having experienced the prologue and Paris-based mission that constitute Hitman’s first episode, plus most of the following mission (set in the fictional Italian town of Sapienza), it’s clear that putting Hitman out in this format has given Io Interactive a newfound freedom to craft missions that explore the intricacy and richness of these environments in new ways.
The need to engage gamers while they wait for the next episode has motivated the studio to develop a clever structure that immerses you in those environments to an impressive extent.
Hitman kicks off with a prologue, set 20 years ago at the ICA headquarters, the organisation that issues Agent 47’s orders. There he undergoes two training missions that, while nowhere near as baroque as the full-story quests, are still pretty interesting. You instantly discover that Io Interactive hasn’t tampered unnecessarily with Hitman’s much-loved stealth gameplay: Agent 47 has stalwart tools such as a fibre-wire garrotte, a silenced pistol, and a coin for distracting guards. He must also undertake a bewildering number of costume changes. Furthermore, he remains adept at sneaking up behind people, knocking them out and dumping them in crates.
The game autosaves frequently and you can manually save, so you don’t have to start from scratch if Agent 47 is caught surreptitiously preparing a refreshing rodenticide chaser.
But concessions have been made for those who may have found past Hitman games frustratingly difficult. Most notable are the so-called opportunities, in which Agent 47 overhears conversations that lead him to discover offbeat ways of taking out his targets. Hardcore fans are given the chance to turn off the opportunities at the beginning of the prologue, but these mini hints are so inventive that it feels a shame not to have them highlighted.
There are vast numbers of such hints, which offers a pointer to the depth and breadth of the missions.
While the prologue and story missions constitute the building blocks of Hitman, completing them for the first time fosters a sense that you’re just getting started.
Io Interactive has developed some clever new modes, which endow the game with unprecedented levels of playability. Chief among them is escalation mode, which involves playing through existing missions but with different targets and added conditions, during the course of which you will inevitably discover huge areas that you never knew existed. Each escalation has five levels. When you accomplish your mission, the next level adds extra conditions and occasional targets. In the first escalation, you must accomplish the fifth level by taking out your targets without “pacifying” anyone – that is, knocking them out or even engaging them in fisticuffs.
All of which cleverly knocks you out your Hitman comfort zones because you’re forced to modify your strategy with each escalation. By the time you’ve accomplished all five levels of an escalation, you’re left with an incredibly intimate knowledge of the environment and an intuitive sense of the rhythm according to which everyone moves.
Hitman has a nicely developed user-generated element. For, example, you can create your own contracts simply by playing through existing missions and tagging new targets for elimination, then adding extra conditions. Those contracts can be published for all-comers to take on and, without any briefing beyond the targets’ names and appearance, are usually hard to enact. Even pre-launch, there were hundreds of such contracts to carry out.
But the most innovative new addition to the Hitman blueprint is elusive targets. Sadly, we weren’t able to sample any of those as due to their very nature, they are time-specific. Elusive targets will crop up for just 48 hours, and any clues as to who they involve and where they might be found, are extremely cryptic. Once you work out what they entail, you’ll have one shot – if you fail to eliminate your elusive target, you must wait for the next one. It will be all about being the first Hitman in the world to take them out – global bragging rights will be yours.
Ham-fisted gamers can try the first episode and see if they like it. What they will discover is that the structure has given the game new levels of immersiveness, bringing out the puzzle-solving elements that were previously somewhat latent.
There has never been a better way to indulge your inner assassin.