Well, this is a pleasant surprise.
Square Enix’s announcement that IO was working on a new Hitman game was met with a degree of trepidation. While 2006’s Blood Money was praised by fans of the series, its follow up – 2012’s Absolution – was something of a misstep. Many fans felt betrayed by Absolution, and while I still contend that it was nowhere near as bad as many of its detractors make out, it’s impossible to deny that the introduction of quick time events, action set pieces and a greater focus on telling a story diluted the purity of the series.
Thankfully, IO Interactive has listened to the critics. While Hitman‘s first episode features just a couple of training levels and one full mission, it’s immediately apparent that the series is back on track. If Hitman‘s future episodes display the level of polish and ingenuity of design on display here, then this could well turn out to be the best game in the series to date.
One of Hitman‘s selling points has always been that its levels are open sandboxes, open to experimentation and multiple ways to complete your mission. It’s what made Blood Money so rewarding to play, and one of the reasons why Absolution’s smaller, more linear levels were something of a disappointment. You’re unlikely to be disappointed here.
Episode One contains three different maps, though the first two of these are small, small, constructed by the Agency as training areas designed to introduce (or reacquaint) you with the core gameplay principles, and themselves containing a handful of different ways to complete them. But the main bulk of this episode centers around Paris. Specifically, a fashion show being held inside a sprawling palace by two world-famous designers who you’ve been assigned with taking out.
Of course, this being Hitman, there’s more going on in Paris behind the scenes – your targets are also notorious information brokers, selling secrets to the highest bidder. Any concerns that Hitman‘s episodic release schedule would lead to small-scale missions are quickly dismissed upon setting foot in Paris for the first time. This is easily the largest level to feature in the series so far, rife with opportunities and different approaches to your targets. Agent 47 starts on the red carpet leading up to the main entrance, but there are plenty of alternative routes into the show – some of which might throw up interesting information just waiting to be advantage of.
That’s not to say that IO has jettisoned everything from Absolution, however. Contracts Mode returns, allowing you to craft devious bespoke challenges for other players by tagging NPCs in a stage and uploading them to the game’s servers. And Absolution‘s controversial Instinct mode returns, allowing you to highlight objects of interest and track multiple murder opportunities. Instincts mode will no doubt be useful for less patient players, but it also removes some of the satisfaction to be gained from exploring the world. Luckily, you can turn it off in the options menu – and it’s strongly recommended that you do so.
Paris also brings with it a large number of optional challenges to keep you occupied, divided into various categories such as Discovery, Assassination and Opportunity. Complete these challenges and you’ll gain XP, which in turn increases your Mastery of a level and unlocks additional starting equipment and locations. It’s a neat addition, though some of the Challenge descriptions are a little too direct in telling you how to unlock them. Still, it’s another reason to keep playing long after completing the mission for your first time.
One other way in which IO ekes out the replayability of the level is the new Escalation Mode. A handful of different Escalation contracts exist, challenging you to assassinate an NPC somewhere in the level and get out safely. Complete the contract, and a higher difficulty variant is unlocked which introduces more wrinkles – additional security cameras, more guards, or restricting you to killing a target in a certain way. Each Escalation contract has 5 levels of difficulty, and later difficulties are likely to present a stiff challenge to even the most experienced series veteran.
In the future, IO will also be introducing time-limited challenges called Elusive Contracts, which are available only for 72 hours, don’t mark out your target’s location in a level, and give you a single chance to complete. It’s an interesting idea in principle, though one wonders why IO is insisting on making them available for a limited time, when many players prefer to consume content at their own pace.
Hitman looks gorgeous, courtesy of IO’s upgraded Glacier engine. While frame rates can dip in more crowded areas, overall the game performs well on consoles. The lighting is a particular highlight. The biggest letdown is the NPC variety. With so many NPCs in the level (IO has stated that there are around 300), some degree of repetition was always going to be a factor; but it often threatens to break the immersion. The palace and its grounds feel like a coherent, believable space – until, that is, you pass the same NPC for third time in a corridor.
The same can be said for the voice acting, which never rises beyond mediocre and frequentlly becomes cringeworthy. Despite being set in France, almost every NPC has an American accent, and the lackluster script is delivered by a cast who sound as though they phoned it in. Agent 47 is the sole exception, with David Bateson returning to the role he’s occupied since the very first game sixteen years ago. In keeping with his personality, Agent 47 has little to say – but when he does, Bateson’s delivery is spot on. Hopefully, future episodes will address these issues, as right now they take some of the shine off of the otherwise impeccable presentation.
Overall, Hitman‘s first episode is a success. Take it in isolation, and despite featuring just a single proper mission, there’s more than enough content and replay value to keep you occupied for a dozen hours or more. While certain elements of the presentation stick out like a sore thumb, Agent 47’s world has never looked more inviting, and it’s a great to see a return to the sprawling sandbox environments of Blood Money. Hopefully, the early promise on display here carries through to future episodes. If it does, Hitman could well turn out to be the best installment in the series to date.