Hitman: Sapienza Review

It’s been six weeks and a hair since Hitman: Intro Pack launched, aspiring to take a leaf from Telltale Games’ book with an episodic release format. Doubling down on the series’ trademark replayability, it seems that this game’s success would hinge on the quality of future content. If Hitman: Sapienza is anything to go on, fans can rest easy for now; Hitman is in very good hands.

Sapienza brings Hitman’s second major map and story mission, set in the eponymous Italian town. Your mark this time is noted bioengineer Silvia Caruso, a troubled genius that’s developing a deadly virus that can target specific people across the world- something of a killer app in the assassination game. His phobia of travel means that he doesn’t want to leave his luxuriant mansion, which is handily kitted out with an underground laboratory. You’re also to take out Caruso’s Head of Laboratory, Francesca De Santos, who is very capable of taking over if (when) Caruso leaves the picture. Finally, you must destroy the virus sample in the laboratory.

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As with Paris, it’s a joy to carry out the mission a number of times. There’s more to each of your targets than you’re initially aware of, and integrating your intel into assassination approaches is still tremendous fun. I was a little bit disappointed when the most obviously laid-out paths for each mark involved poisoning, but repeat playthroughs revealed some delightfully outlandish executions that topped my standing favourite kill from this game so far (that would be tipping the wife onto her husband in Paris).

The real star, though, is the map itself. Like Paris, Sapienza centres around a very classy mansion, although this map still manages to feel distinct. The streets surrounding the estate feel alive and fleshed-out, with a surprising amount of enterable buildings. Sun-bleached yellow cobbles, colourful cafes and butcher shops bustle with activity, and the backdrop of Mediterranean cliffs and sea sets a totally different tone to the mansion setting.

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I remain gobsmacked at the scale and complexity of Sapienza. Even though the crowds are thinner than last time’s Herculean effort, there are still scores of NPCs to outsmart, outmanoeuvre, and impersonate. The mansion is smaller than Paris’ too, but the streets and caves around and under the place lends a serpentine, multilayered feel that showcases the game’s continual utilisation of current-gen technology.

There are some issues with dumbass AI, though. NPCs largely react relatively intelligently to situations, with a believable spread of alert through guards and nice touches like civilians alerting guards to illegal activity, and guards carrying found weapons to lockup. But NPC behaviour is far from perfect, since I encountered a few situations where guards tried to apprehend me whilst facing the wrong way, as well as some doofy pathing. Since the whole fantasy of the game revolves around outsmarting people, that effect is diminished when those people don’t act in a believable fashion.

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Outside of Sapienza’s story mission, there’s still a wealth of side-content in the form of Escalations and Contracts. Escalations have you carrying out a series of assassinations with similar objectives- like the use of explosions to take out the mark- that get progressively more difficult. Altering your approach when stipulations like “no non-target casualties” are added to the mix makes for interesting variation.

The real meat when it comes to side content is in the Contracts mode, though. It’s good to see that the community has continued to produce a plethora of quality scenarios to play through. For those that don’t know, Contracts allows players to specify chosen NPCs in a level to be killed, as well as limitations like required weapons or disguises. Crucially, IO Interactive continues to curate and promote the best examples of player-made content, ensuring a stream of fresh content each time you log onto the game.

It seems like IO is settling into a good rhythm for now. I’m excited to see where they take the series, although I hope Episode 3 steps back from the mansion setting before it becomes a crutch. Since it’ll be set in Marrakesh, I’m hoping to see more of the streets that are so well realised in this episode. IO and Square Enix have had a hard time convincing people of the viability of their release schedule, but it seems to me that a modular Hitman might shape up to be the best choice for the series right now. Good work, IO.


Hitman Intro Pack Review

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.