Published on April 16th, 2016 | by Joseph Saulnier0
Hitman has had a spotty record in the franchise’s 16-year history. Probably the biggest fiasco in the series was 2012’s Hitman: Absolution, released 6 years after what is considered the high point of the series: Blood Money, and which largely disregarded much of what people loved about the franchise.
The Hitman brand ultimately came into its own when the levels became essentially very macabre playgrounds, with simple and extravagant means of murder scattered throughout. Absolution became very restrictive with a more controlled style of gameplay, along with storytelling akin of a grindhouse production, which didn’t sit well with critics and fans. So, for the follow up, IO Interactive has made what all of us fans have been pining for… a true heir to Blood Money.
IO’s new, episodic, approach to the game sits perfectly with Blood Money, which was episodic before it was really a thing. There are an array of missions in this new outing, which are largely disconnected from one another. And we should expect to see seven of these missions throughout the year.
It all kicks off with the intro pack, which includes two tutorial missions and the first episode, which is the first major assignment of the series’ protagonist, Agent 47. In this first glimpse into the new game, we find our elusive agent tasked with taking out two targets at a bourgeois Paris fashion show (that’s France, not Texas). This simple objective, though, only begins to scratch the surface of what the episode, and what future episodes will, have to offer.
Hitman is not all about killing, as some may believe. Killing, in fact, just happens to be the result everything else: patience in planning and problem solving. The absolute best kills, be they messy, grandiose, or carried off expertly, without arousing any suspicion, are prefaced with lengthy swathes of time spent observing routines, scouting routes and looking for objects that might, with a little “persuasion”, be quite deadly. Hitman is, and has consistently been, about mastering the environment; knowing the best targets for the best disguises; how far those disguises will get you; the best routes of escape; and the best windows of opportunity.
The delight comes in mixing and matching ideas. IO Interactive encourages experimental gameplay in many ways, without being overbearing or disregarding veteran players. The Opportunities system sees prompts appear when you encounter certain items or happenings in the game world, offering players the chance to track those opportunities through to their fatal end. Each setting also offers numerous challenges, which set new goals and open up new avenues to explore. In Paris alone there are 24 assassination challenges, 32 items or events to uncover, and 10 feats to accomplish.
The Escalation feature turns other “notable” NPCs in the game world into targets, and changes elements of the game to provide a new challenge. For example, in the standard mission, the suited security guard outfit gets you access to most places, but in an Escalation mission, two pivotal staircases are guarded by people who will spot that you’re an intruder. This forces you to find new routes, such as an open window leading to a drainpipe up the building’s side, or a piece of scaffolding tucked away. Contracts mode, a fan favorite, also returns, letting players create their own missions with their own selected targets, which can also be shared online.
IO Interactive highly encourages exploration through these means, helping new players and unpracticed fans understand exactly how Hitman works. This is also aided by the polished, visceral design of its interface, which makes clear when you’re trespassing and/or when your cover is about to be blown. Hitman also gives long-time fans the chance to turn all that off easily. So if you wish to do so, you can go into a mission with an entirely clear hub.
With this freedom of approach and focus on gameplay, Hitman just works. A lot of modern AAA games champion story over gameplay, and multiplayer over campaign, but that doesn’t behoove this series. Hitman has character in its presentation and how it plays. It doesn’t need to turn Agent 47 into an action hero, it lives and thrives on its world-building. Hitman is about natural, ornate and beautiful settings masking the dirty, true nature of humanity; something embodied by 47 – a well-dressed, clean shaven personification of death.
Hitman does falter in the time spent outside of missions. Load times are dishearteningly slow, and menus are lethargic. Which is particularly problematic in a game that prices itself on slick presentation.
Then there are the server issues. This is a game played solo, but if, during any mission, you are disconnected from the servers, you’ll be booted all the way out to the main menu and have to start over from your last save. There are leaderboards and Contracts created by other players, but that’s as far as the connectivity goes. There is no other reason for online connectivity, making this problem – which has been more frequent for some than others – entirely bewildering.
The bottom line is that after a decade of uncertainty, and one sizeable gaffe, Hitman 2016 is a triumphant course correction for an acclaimed, beloved franchise. Purely in terms of gameplay, this is perhaps the best the series has ever been. What matters now is how IO Interactive handles the remaining episodes, and whether they can iron out the smaller, more technical problems.