An episodic Hitman always made sense. Even when IO Interactive and Square Enix were routinely flubbing exactly what shape this new approach would take, the idea of a Hitman game released piecemeal over the course of a year remained appealing.
After Hitman Absolution failed to recapture what so many people loved about Agent 47's escapades, particularly in Hitman 2: Silent Assassin and Blood Money, IO wisely went back to its roots.
Hitman's mix of open-world stealth, action and puzzling has never been successfully mimicked and so to change the formula dramatically was a mistake.
When the first episode of Hitman dropped in March it did so with two great tutorial levels and the first full mission: a contract set in a crowded Paris mansion hosting a lavish fashion show. In this locale, densely packed with detail and possibilities, Agent 47 is tasked with eliminating two targets.
This is the primary, story-leading mission, but beyond that is a wealth of other challenges for players to accomplish beyond simply killing the targets. Discovering the various means of doing so increases a level mastery that unlocks new start points and the ability to start in certain disguises - meaning one less person to risk attention by taking out.
Additional targets are provided through bonus missions, missions curated by other players and Elusive Targets – a feature we'll return to later. Like the very best Hitman game – 2006's Blood Money – one play-through may take an hour or so, but there are many more appealing hours to be invested.
It certainly helped early on that the Paris mission is so exquisitely designed. The mansion's logical set-up (kitchen and staff quarters in the basement, party on the ground floor, more exclusive guests on the upper floors) helps ease players in by removing some of the need to explore. It's also a perfect first episode as it encourages the classic style of Hitman play – getting disguises, conducting clean, unnoticed kills – while creating breathing room to ease players in.
Paris is a classic Hitman mission, but what followed was perhaps the best ever. Sapienza has the same wealth of opportunities and logical design as Paris, but is more varied and inventive. The sewer network, church tower, graveyard, beachside shops and castle ruins add to the target, Silvio Caruso's villa and surrounding township atop the hill.
This sun-drenched Italian town is a gorgeous high for the series, which made episode three – set in Marrakech – a disappointment by comparison. It offered something different to Paris and Sapienza, which is a positive, but felt divided, like two smaller Hitman settings – the bombed-out school turned military base and the Swedish consulate – squashed together. Episode four, in Thailand, was similar to Paris, but more difficult and on a larger scale, with a more complex layout within the walls of its grandiose hotel.
When Hitman arrived in the United States for its fifth episode, it offered players a very different environment: a militia training ground located on a disused rural farm. The map was more open, had fewer places to hide and its inhabitants were spread out further. With a whopping four targets plus an additional objective to complete, it provided a great challenge to players who had already honed their skills across the first four episodes.
The finale, set in a sleek, luxurious Japanese hospital for the super-elite, is a classic Hitman setting but one given a few twists. Players start with no gear, and it is disguises, rather than keys, that offer passage through certain doors and into the most important areas.
In terms of the challenges presented, the choice of settings and the story – dished out sparingly to great effect – this incarnation of Hitman is the perfect distillation of the series' formula. The moment-to-moment play also represents a series high, 47 is responsive and combat teeters fantastically on a knife's edge thanks IO making stealth-play appealing by not making a trip down the bloodier path too easy, nor too difficult.
Hitman is within reach of perfection, but doesn't quite get there. This is due to a heavy reliance on the Opportunities system, which shows players exactly what they need to do to kill targets in inventive ways. It's possible to follow these opportunities organically, should players turn off the system or decline the on-screen prompts that appear when the opportunity first presents itself – but most will not.
Following such an opportunity on a first play through is a good way to get a lay of the land, but in doing so the game almost plays itself. It's enjoyable, but also too constricted, creating a stark contrast in how the game plays depending on whether or not you decide to follow one of these trails.
Overall, what keeps this Hitman from true greatness is a lack of authenticity and humanity. NPCs and targets are much closer to pieces in a puzzle than people in a simulation. They adhere to predictable paths and occasionally their reactions are off-balance. A guard will give the player some leeway if they wander near or into a restricted space, but do something small that arouses suspicion – like nudge someone or turn an oven off – and that suspicion can quickly turn into security arriving and Swiss-cheesing you.
Hitman can and does work wonderfully as this kind of puzzle game – one that players can spend hours examining and learning the intricacies of – but it could stand to loosen up. With a dash more realism in how characters interact with the world, even a bit of spontaneity, the thrill of setting up a perfect assassination would be all the more potent. Hitman shouldn't target outright realism, but it would benefit from being a little less predictable at times.
Elusive Targets are entirely counter to the Opportunities system, offering up new targets that can't be taken out by following a string of strict objectives and can't even be seen with the option that allows players to see through walls. Players also approach these one-and-done timed events knowing they cannot save and should they die they'll never be able to try it again. These targets are the ultimate test of a player's knowledge of individual maps and their overall ability.
IO Interactive's new, episodic Hitman is a triumph. The developer knew how to revive its ailing series and did so with aplomb, crafting a robust set of core mechanics and designing superb levels around them. Reminiscent of everything Blood Money did so well, from its focus on gameplay over story to its cold, sardonic presentation and dark sense of humour, this is Hitman as it is and always should be.
It falters when the game leans too heavily on optional Opportunities, but counter to this hand-holding system are Elusive Targets – a fantastic test of any Hitman player's abilities. While these one-chance contracts are only available for a few days at a time, IO's consistent, quality support of the game ensures many more will follow this first season's physical release.