Bottom Line: IO Interactive brings polished professionalism to dirty work — and then keeps the hits coming.
Doom; Tomb Raider; Thief; Killer Instinct. New games with old names.
Add Mortal Kombat, Sim City, Syndicate, Twisted Metal, Bionic Commando, and Star Wars Battlefront, and you can see why there’s reason to be a little worried about a new game called, simply, Hitman. Some of these games may be praised and heralded as a revival of a classic, but for the most part they don’t live up to expectations. Compensating for mediocre execution by invoking the “reboot” marketing gimmick grants them a chance to totally change rules and still get away with it. It may piss off fans of the original, but the point is always the same: pay lipservice to the original diehard fans while actually catering to the mainstream who’s never tried it before. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it’s just a cash grab for a game that would otherwise not be noticed.
Hitman stands slightly apart from that crowd already. There hasn’t been a numbered sequel in the series since Hitman 2: Silent Assassin, which was actually the only numbered entry in the series. Every game since then has ditched numbers and favor of a subtitle. And the original Hitman had a subtitle too — “Agent 47” — so the new Hitman is technically unique in name; no need to specify that this is the “2016 version”. It’s just HITMAN™. So I guess the big question is whether I would feel cheated if IO Interactive and Square Enix had shown the gall to name this one after the original. But in a sense they have gone even further, by implying that this is the truest and purest Hitman game of all, without need of a subtitle to demarcate it, right? It’s a bold choice, but is this a proper attempt to revive a classic, or are they just hoping to get away with murder using a familiar disguise?
Hitman is about infiltrating a place, killing somebody, and getting out. It’s a puzzle, a sandbox, and a simulation. In this installment, the levels are quite large, and yet highly detailed. Buildings have sensible layouts, realistic security protocols, and lots of useful doodads strewn about. You’ll find washrooms, control rooms with security cameras, kitchens, furnace rooms, closets, attics, basements, and alleyways. Different types of personnel are allowed in different places, making disguises counter-productive if you’re straying outside the areas you look like you belong. When you’re “trespassing” everybody knows that you’re out of place, but some people will see through certain disguises even when you’re walking around the normal area. You can take note of these people by the solid white dot hovering above their heads. Avoid being seen by them, but don’t worry: if you change your outfit, they probably won’t know you’re an imposter anymore. Think of these people as supervisors for their own department, able to spot who isn’t an employee. Being suspected causes a noise to get louder, an on-screen indicator to point in the direction of the suspicion, and the people noticing you to start talking. There are various degrees of suspicion, with various reactions to being caught depending on the level of security. If you’re dressed as a civilian and you stray into an off-limits area, the guards will simply tell you to stop and try to escort you back to where you’re allowed. If you comply with their orders, you won’t get any more hassle. If you are caught doing something illegal, they will probably try to arrest you. You must “fake surrender” if you want to get out of this situation, meaning that Agent 47 raises his hands until the guard is right next to him, and then quickly tries to knock them out when they’re close. There’s no option for actually being arrested, of course.
The systems really shine in Hitman, and they find a balance between tension and hilarity without having to script any of it. The difference between a brilliant plan and an epic screwup is a matter of the wrong person barging into the room while you’re strangling the target, or a person whose outfit you desperately need walking into a room of people who can see through your current one. Being “compromised” by getting caught and then escaping means security will shoot on sight instead of just asking you to hold still. Poisoning a person’s food or drink will cause them to wander to a washroom, where you can hopefully eliminate them with some privacy. Triggering environmental deaths is a tidy way of avoiding suspicion.
You can kill or knock people out with just about anything. Screwdrivers, wrenches, hammers, crowbars, etc. But that’s not all they’re good for. Various tools are useful for setting up the aforementioned environmental deaths, like using a wrench to loosen a big chandelier, or a screwdriver to puncture an oil drum. You can use a crowbar to break open a door (which is noisy) or you can pick the lock quietly if you bring the dedicated tools. Careful what you carry, though, because you may need to get frisked to enter certain places, and the best weapons are dead giveaways that you’re not actually there to deliver flowers to the grieving woman.
A Curious World of Assassination
The world of Hitman is presented as a setting, not a path. This means locations are not chained to story per se. There is a semi-linear narrative which unlocks new levels initially, but beating a level seems to unlock multiple levels down the line, meaning you can skip one or two if you want. This breaks traditional game design structure to the point where I was shocked. The first thing I wondered was, “If they weren’t going to lead me through all of the content by my nose and force me to do things in a certain order, how are they planning on keeping me engaged?” It’s a philosophical question I’ve always had about games: if you could skip to the final section of any game, would people do it? I mean, you can skip to the last scene of a movie you’re watching on your computer, or flip to the last chapter of a book you’re reading, but people don’t do generally do that. You’re losing out on the experience and will probably feel lost. Only video games force people to pass tests in order to access content they’ve paid for. I’ve always thought of it as a holdover from the old arcane scene, where failure and inability to progress was built into the business model. That’s just one of the fascinating things Hitman does differently.
As I progressed through the story I also began to wonder why the game wasn’t becoming punishingly difficult. Even if you can skip to the end, I thought, aren’t games supposed to climax in a nigh-impossible task that forces you to master every system (and subsystem) before you can have the satisfaction of saying you won? Isn’t it about winning? Each map has variety, charm, and a decent premise, but in terms of challenge they were all about the same. Isn’t that… against the rules? Non-linear mission selection and a plateau in difficulty? I had to know what they were hiding up their sleeves. Just going for a better score couldn’t be it.
I finally realized what the game was doing when I revisited the missions again. During the “planning” phase, before entering the map itself, I was suddenly able to choose entirely different approaches, including the starting point in the level. Instead of starting outside the gates in my normal suit, I could start inside the compound or facility dressed as one of the grunts. Instead of carrying only my silenced pistol and some piano wire, I could choose a deadly syringe or a breaching charge that would quietly blow open locked doors for me. Each change can significantly alter the rhythm and difficulty of the same mission.
Unlocking new planning options is an interesting hook to keep you coming back. Whether or not it makes the mission easier, you soon realize that Hitman is not about whether you can kill the targets — it’s about how many ways you can kill the targets. The challenge is in exploring all the possibilities. Picking off a target from 50 paces with a silenced pistol and running away while your cover is blown is considered sloppy in this game. The best kills are the poetic ones; the elaborate ones; the clever ones. No witnesses and not even an indication that the cause of death was deliberate. The planning options naturally lend themselves to different forms of assassination, making it tempting to explore every option.
Once you’re inside the location, there are a bunch of “Opportunities” that can be discovered by listening to conversations, reading things laying around, and generally being a nosy bastard. By default you’ll start in a safe but distant location, outside the target area, dressed as whatever default outfit you have available. Eventually — after gaining “mastery” of a level by completing it well — you can use your new options to get a headstart to various points, which can actually make a difference, since some opportunities are lost if you don’t act on them fast enough. Perhaps next time, instead of picking up your “Smuggled Item” from a box in an alleyway, you’ll find it in a bedroom, closer to the target. Maybe you’ll start with a machete, or throwing stars. “Mastering” each level becomes the soul of the game, until eventually you have the finest selection of weapons and options at your disposal and can live out various twisted fantasies.
Hitman is still an unapologetic simulation of a sociopath who murders for money, which is awesome. In the politically correct year of 2016, this is refreshing and necessary. A weaker publisher and developer would fear the headlines written by neofeminist slobs who want to hijack the industry with their shrill cries. Hitman could theoretically become some kind of misunderstood patriot, activist, or savior. Not the case here. Here, you have clients that want somebody dead. You hear the reasons, and sure enough you generally find that your targets are scumbags outside the reach of justice, but your actions are still a long ways from being a hero — especially when you end up slaughtering ten or twenty people along the way to get to your target. Nobody is crying in your ear about a code of ethics if you do so.
There have been complaints that when it comes to Opportunities, too much is spelled out for you. You can track an Opportunity as soon as you stumble across it, and then simply follow the waypoint markers that show you where the next piece of that particular puzzle is. It’s true that once you have a solid disguise and thorough access to the majority of a level, it’s not hard to follow these prompts, but that’s the challenge. Instead of wandering around for hours guessing where the particular water valve is responsible for shutting off the cold water, you just know where it is, and then the hard part is getting there without causing alarm. Which would you rather have? This game doesn’t want to waste your time. It wants to keep you interested in what’s all possible.
In order to remind you that the game is a continuous service and not a static boxed product, the main menu highlights patch notes, recent additions, and seasonal content. As of this review there’s a Christmas themed rendition of an existing level available, where you can play as Santa Clause and hunt down burglars in a mansion. I doubt it will be available forever. Then there are the “Elusive Targets”. These are temporary missions that can only be played within a specific real-world time window (of a few days). If you don’t launch the game, go to the destination, and complete the mission while the Elusive Target is active there, you’ll never get to experience it. You only get one attempt, with no saving or loading. If you die, you’re out. The ideal goal with Elusive Targets is to end up with the highest score on the leaderboards. Yes, there are leaderboards. Because there was only a day or two left and I knew I didn’t have the skills to do it properly, I lazily tried to rush one of the Elusive Targets and died in the process thanks to his security detail. I confirmed that indeed, you only get one chance.
IO Interactive has given themselves a very dangerous and risky task with Hitman, but they’re pulling it off. The game was first first released with only 3 maps, and like so many fans of the old games, I was wary about this fact. I avoided buying Hitman until all “Season One” content was released and reviewed, because I was sure they would mess it up somehow. And as you can see from the Steam Reviews, they very nearly did:
But don’t let the reviews fool you: if you actually read them, you’ll find that 95% of those negative reactions are simply aimed at one big “feature” nobody asked for. That would be the online requirements. Even those who don’t recommend the game still praise it for having excellent design. They love the game, and that’s why they don’t want to be shackled to some online service that can literally kick them from the middle of a play session if their connection drops. That is pretty extreme, I will grant you. Nobody wants to pay for a single-player game and get kicked out of a play session. However, you can still play the game offline, it turns out. It’s just that your saves will be segregated into “online” and “offline” versions, which are kept separate.
I fully embrace the “living world” model of gameplay, especially after reading interviews with the creators:
As Seifer explains, he and his team are done with the “ivory tower” game development mentality, in which they spend years cranking out a full game only to go silent for several more after its completion. In becoming a “live studio,” as he calls it, IO hopes to respond more quickly to player feedback and do a better job supporting Hitman’s online multiplayer feature, Contracts mode.
Contracts are a way of creating and sharing your own missions with other players. When you select a contract this way, you are given conditions and targets like normal, only this time without the fancy Opportunities and story stuff interwoven into the gameplay. It’s a raw contract, nothing fancy. You might have to kill a bystander using a shotgun, or a secretary using a fire ax. Think of it this way: if you bought a copy of Super Mario 64 and found out that every so often the developers added a whole new world to the game, with its own setting, characters, and set of missions, you would love it. But if they also allowed players to create optional new challenges inside those worlds by remixing objectives and adding special conditions, you would even more appreciate the replay factor. In some ways this is preferable even to the Super Mario Maker style of complete level design freedom, since here you know that the overall map will remain beautifully designed, populated, and functional no matter what. Your focus will simply be different each time. You can make your own too, of course, and there’s a little tutorial for it.
There’s one last game mode I want to discuss. “Escalations” are a fascinating challenge mode where you repeat the same basic contract over and over with increasingly difficult settings. As you can see in the screenshot below, this mission started off with the simple objective of killing Evan Holden using a kitchen knife while wearing a Yacht Security outfit. The target was isolated and obtaining the knife wasn’t very hard, so it was a piece of cake. Next came the security cameras you see to the left of Mr. Holden. By adding cameras into the level and demanding that I erase the footage within two minutes of being spotted, there was suddenly an element of urgency, since it’s tricky to get aboard the yacht without being caught on camera. By the final escalation, you’re given very difficult complications while still trying to pull off the same set of objectives. For those unsatisfied with the ease of most missions, escalations are great. There are dozens of them, making each level more than ripe with fun variations. What more could you ask for in a game like this?
I suppose you could ask for a Season Two…
HITMAN™ is quickly building a business model worthy of envy and imitation. Delivering high quality maps, frequent unique challenges, and constant balancing based on community interaction is exactly what a segmented, mission-based, sandbox stealth game like Hitman can afford to handle. It shines as an ongoing high-end service, much like Agent 47 should. This makes it a +3.3.