Hitman is a curious beast. It seems that IO Interactive have listened to the overwhelmingly tepid reception to their previous offering, Hitman: Absolution, and with good reason: the way that game mixed up the social stealth elements and neglected the traditionally open level design of classic Hitman series play left a lot of people cold, myself included. Hitman plays it safe by returning to the style of gameplay that cemented the series’ popularity, yet risks it all with an unprecedented episodic release format and a baffling always-online policy.
Hitman Intro Pack includes the prologue maps (which were available in the beta), as well as Paris, which holds the game’s first major mission. The prologue comprises two “training” levels: Agent 47 is training as an assassin for the ICA (Google tells me that’s the International Contract Agency, I’m not sure the game extends that courtesy for those of us that haven’t read up on Hitman’s lore) and must complete two mock-up assassinations in the ICA compound. The first mission takes place on a boat, and the second takes place in a Soviet military base.
Out of the prologue you’re off to Paris, where you’re to infiltrate a fashion show in order to take out two marks: Viktor Novikov, the owner of the Sanguine fashion house and host of the event, and Dalia Margolis, ex-model and Viktor Novikov’s girlfriend. The two characters are also leaders of IAGO, a spy network that sells classified information to the global elite, which is the real reason they’re in your crosshairs.
These playable sequences are sandwiched between cinematics that try to provide a little bit of flavour to Agent 47’s character and background. I don’t necessarily think that 47 needs to actually have a character; I always found him more interesting as an unfeeling instrument that doesn’t really need fleshing out, so I always find it weird when they try to.
The core gameplay of Hitman is a triumphant return to form. Absolution’s decidedly linear level design is gone, and reliance on an Instinct resource to “sell” your disguises is gone. Hitman employs an updated version of the disguise system: the vast majority of people will be fooled by your disguises, but certain people will notice that you’re an intruder if you stay in their line of sight too long. So if you’re a waiter, certain members of staff will notice that you’re not from amongst their ranks, especially the boss. You can counteract this by “blending in” at certain points, though- sweeping the floor or standing ready behind the bar or whatever’s appropriate for your current disguise. This system maintains that thrill of trespassing in plain sight, but lends a sense of believability and challenge that Absolution failed to deliver with its own revisions to the disguise system.
Beyond the disguise system that is the focus of so much of the gameplay are competent stealth and action mechanics that you can employ to dispatch your targets. There’s not really anything new in these areas, but then Hitman was always about working the environment and its inhabitants to take out the marks, and this is capably realised through those mechanics. If previous Hitman offerings didn’t put you off with their particular brand of action-stealth controls, this one won’t either.
Speaking of environments, Hitman Intro Pack knocks it out of the park with its offerings. The prologue missions are packed with NPCs and a variety of paths and details, but Paris is absolutely stuffed. The level takes place in a massive multileveled mansion and its grounds, boasting hundreds upon hundreds of NPCs and a veritable wealth of detail. It’s immediately clear that the game offers a vast amount of customisability to your approach, in a way that makes you want to immediately dive right back into the level when you’ve completed it the first time. In short, Hitman expands upon the series’ trademark sense of experimentation while making full use of current generation hardware to boost its scale to the next level.
The variety of approach is highlighted by the new Opportunity system and the extensive list of mission-specific challenges that the game tracks as you progress. The game will alert you when you’re witnessing an opportunity to follow a certain path to fulfil an assassination. In my first playthrough, I learned that Agent 47 bears an uncanny resemblance to one of the models in the fashion show. Upon eavesdropping on the model and learning that he has ties to one of the targets, I relieved him of his clothes, assumed his identity, and got into a one-on-one meeting with the mark during which I decided to poison their drink while they were distracted.
What’s great about the Opportunity tracking system is that it’s fully customisable. You can have the game give you both prompts and waypoints, even pointing out specific people that you should target to gain their disguises. You can turn off waypoints so you’re exploring and working out how to fulfil each step of the opportunity based on vague hints alone like “learn more about this” or “attain that costume”. For a fully independent experience more akin to old-school Hitman, you can turn off the Opportunity tracking system altogether. This is a fantastic way of allowing people to approach the game with the exact degree of handholding that they want. Purists can take their time to observe everything patiently and make measured decisions on how to progress, and people without the patience for all that can get a little bit of help to see the various outlandish assassination methods without shamefully resorting to online guides.
Scanning the Challenges and Opportunities screens showcases the sheer level of variety that Hitman offers, and there’s good reason to chase down each objective; completing challenges progresses your Mastery score for the mission, unlocking new weapons, stash locations, and even the opportunity to start the mission undercover in a disguise to further mix up future plays of the level. This feature, paired with the amount of stuff to see and do in the levels, makes each mission eminently replayable.
Apart from playing and replaying the story levels, Hitman also offers Contracts mode, which features community-designed missions. Players can drop into the map, specify certain NPCs as targets, and stipulate that you dispatch the targets with specific disguises or weapons. There are even featured Contracts chosen by IO Interactive for their quality; it’s really nice to see that degree of curation.
That level of quality control is really important because IO Interactive really need to extend the playability of Hitman between releases of new content. Apart from a major mission/ area release each month, you’ll be playing through Contracts mode as well as Elusive Targets, which is like Contracts mode but there’s a limited window of time that the target is available for and if you mess up, you don’t get another try. IO Interactive are certainly putting their best foot forward in attempting to keep people interested in the game between releases of new content, but it remains to be seen how successful they’ll be.
Hitman boasts excellent presentation, which works with its tight gameplay to cement it as a premium AAA release. The level of detail in the environments is reflected in the visual design, from incidental environmental details to the diversity of character models. The mansion grounds of Paris are beautifully rendered and expansive, from the gardens to the cellars to the grand hall in which the fashion show takes place. One slight complaint I have is with the audio balancing for NPC’s voices; sometimes I tried to listen to mission critical dialogue, but it kept being drowned out by incidental dialogue and subtitling often didn’t pick up on the lines that I wanted to take in.
Unfortunately, Hitman’s always-online state led to some very frustrating instances of servers dropping and kicking me out of my missions. I kept going back online and relaunching the mission, but server blips were a couple of minutes apart at the worst point, rendering the game unplayable if I wanted to score challenges (which is precisely what you’re chasing when you replay a mission). This was made even worse by the game’s minute-long loading screens, which I found acceptable for loading missions but in this instance added insult to injury. I think it’s pretty unacceptable to force always-online into a single player only experience. I can only guess that this is a misguided from of DRM, or a way to stop people cheating leaderboards or something. But it’s a pretty rubbish player experience when you’re at the whim of dodgy servers that are out of your control, and I hope IO straighten this out pronto.
As far as I’m concerned, Hitman represents a triumphant return to form for the series. Fans of Hitman: Blood Money will delight in this game and its progression of the old school Hitman formula. The only reservation I have about the full game is whether people will stay interested for long enough to keep coming back to the new levels when they’re released. I think that Hitman Intro Pack itself represents fine value for money, with tons of variety that really made me want to keep replaying the missions on offer. And you have to love a game that lets you kill someone with an ejector seat.