Since it debuted early this March, IO Interactive’s episodic Hitman has grown substantially. With the exception of some bothersome always-online DRM that caused issues for some during launch week thanks to server load, Hitman started strong with its introductory Paris map. Since then two more maps of equal or greater quality have been released, with new maps still coming every month as scheduled. Both critics and the game’s community have been incredibly receptive to each new level, with both Sapienza and Marrakesh receiving very positive reviews pretty much across the board. Despite this, there still seems to be a lot of negativity around Hitman from the wider gaming populace, particularly regarding the episodic format and the trust that many hardcore fans lost when the previous game, Absolution, took a much more linear approach to the Hitman formula.
Now that the game is officially half way to being “complete” and I’ve had time to sink my teeth into all three episodes and a handful of elusive targets, I’m happy to report that not only has Hitman replaced Blood Money as my favorite entry in the series, but it’s one of the best games to come out so far this year. It does a commendable job of bringing a series of games that haven’t aged particularly well into 2016, and succeeds in all the ways that Absolution failed. Open levels, the delightful gallows humor that gave the otherwise weak beats of classic Hitman’s storytelling some personality, and dozens of ways to help each target meet their untimely end make Hitman a stealth sandbox unlike any other.
The Episodic Format Is Perfect for Hitman
“Yawn, let me know when it’s finished”, reads a typical comment on any article about a new episode. When it was announced at last year’s E3 that the new Hitman game was going to be episodic, there was a lot of (understandable) outrage and confusion among fans. Breaking a Hitman game up into monthly releases rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, myself included. A large part of this response was likely due to IO themselves, who didn’t do a lot to justify why the decision had been made, or explain how it would benefit the game. It seemed to many like an odd, poorly-conceived idea at best, and a deliberate cash grab at worst.
Imagine my surprise then, after I grudgingly downloaded the first episode, which includes two smaller “intro” missions and the full-blown Paris level. Paris in particular immediately impressed by being the largest, most detailed map in the history of the franchise up to that point (I’d argue that Sapienza has taken the crown now). More importantly, its size came along with an equally impressive number of ways to tackle the mission, some of which were immediately obvious during my first run, and many more that only revealed themselves after I set out to explore the map’s many nooks and crannies. The harder I looked, the more interesting things I found, and as my appreciation of the way Paris was designed grew, so did my understanding of why the decision to go episodic was made. I only played Paris because I got free access to a friend’s copy of the game, but playing it was enough to turn me from one of the many angry dissenters to a huge fan.
The best levels in the old Hitman games were a lot like what I’m describing above: large, intricate, and full of interesting ways to dispatch your prey. In other words, replayable. The problem with this was that the missions were presented linearly; beat one level and you were strongly encouraged to move on to the next to keep the plot moving. Going back and replaying a mission you liked is something you could only do once the game had been beaten (Absolution was the exception to this), and by that point you’d already been playing the game for 12+ hours and were probably ready to move on to something else. Hitman has solved this problem in two ways; by putting out one map a month, players can’t just move on to the next mission once they’ve completed a hit. While this might sound bad on paper (starving players for content is never a good thing), the levels are so immaculate and full of things to try that each playthrough can honestly feel almost entirely different. I’ve continued to discover new areas and ways to kill targets after putting over five hours into some maps, and even now I’m not sure if I’ve explored them in their entirety.
The second way that players are incentivized to keep playing maps is the new progression system. Each level has its own experience bar, and completing signature kills, discovering locations and hazards, and using different weapons all contribute to it. Each level up unlocks a new loadout item or starting option for your next run, such as spawning in a different location (with a disguise already equipped) or having a hidden item of your choice stashed away in a dark corner of the map. These mechanics encourage replaying contracts in a way that no Hitman game ever has, and combined with some of the best maps that the guys and gals at IO Interactive have ever designed, they make for one hell of a fun (and dense) game.
Elusive Targets Are Worth Doing
If you haven’t heard the buzz about these guys, here it is: another new feature in Hitman are the time-limited, devilishly punishing Elusive Targets. They’re generally announced a week beforehand, then can only be killed for a three day period before they’re gone forever. This is yet another thing that I was skeptical about before I played the game, but despite the fact that they’re only going to be seen by a fraction of players, an impressive amount of work goes into each one. Upon starting a contract to kill one, you’ll be met with a unique pre-rendered cutscene that explains their backstory (and why someone wants them dead) complete with VO. Aside from that, each character has an entirely unique AI pattern, model, and voice actor, and some even change little things about the maps they appear on. This level of detail is really surprising, especially considering that killing some of these targets is so challenging. Elusive targets can only be attempted once- quicksaves are disabled and restarts are only available if the target is still alive. Die, and your opportunity to kill them is gone forever. To make things even harder, most elusive targets are under very high security and won’t wander anywhere secluded without some encouragement (in the form of rat poison or an alarm being triggered, for example). A recent target even threw in an additional wrinkle- an identical twin that couldn’t be harmed in any way or the mission would fail. This was perhaps the most mechanically interesting one so far, as it required getting very close to the twins to figure out which one had to die, pretty much forcing you to do the deed up close, an especially risky proposition.
It’s the Most Accessible Hitman Game
Whether you’ve been with the series since it started, never gotten into stealth games at all, or are somewhere in between, Hitman has something for everyone. There are a number of noob-friendly assist features enabled by default – from the “Opportunity Tracker” that helps make some of the more elaborate assassinations easier to follow by breaking them down into a step-by-step process, to the detective vision-like “Instinct” mode that allows you to see targets through walls, your experience can be customized to suit your skill level. Fortunately for purists, all of these features can be completely disabled in order to emulate the feel of the older games, and I’d absolutely recommend doing so once you’re comfortable with how the game plays.
The tutorial is also the best the series has had, and explains the core mechanics and the logic behind them very effectively, so new players don’t need to worry about the odds being stacked against them. Hell, even the plot is written for new players; Hitman is effectively a reboot of the franchise, so all of the existing characters are reintroduced and have had their backstories altered. If you’ve ever been curious about Hitman, now’s the perfect time to hop aboard.
Right Now is the Perfect Time to Start
We’re now exactly half way through the missions that are slated for release this year (DLC missions wouldn’t surprise me, but none have been announced yet). This gives new players 30+ hours’ worth of content that can be played right now, along with the promised future missions that should bring roughly the same amount of content to the table. You’ll also be able to get in on upcoming Elusive Targets, which you will never be able to play if you wait until all of the episodes are out. If you’ve been on the fence about buying the game, or waiting for the whole thing to be finished and/or reviewed before picking it up, I highly recommend that you play Hitman right now. The vast majority of performance problems it had at launch and during beta have been fixed, the episodic structure will give you something you’ll enjoy coming back to every few weeks, and if the second half of this season meets or exceeds the already high bar that the first three episodes have set, Hitman may very well be deserving of the crown come Game of the Year season. It’s that good.