In the 16-year history of Hitman, it has sometimes felt like the fans have a better idea of what makes the series work than developers IO Interactive. This was especially true following 2012's Hitman: Absolution, which arrived six long years after the series high of Blood Money, but disregarded much of what made that game a classic.
The series came into its own when its levels became morbid playgrounds, littered with the means to dish out murders as simple or extravagant as the player wished. The more restricted style of Absolution, coupled with the grindhouse presentation of its story, didn't sit well with critics or fans. So, for the sequel IO Interactive has made what the people always wanted: a true successor to Blood Money.
IO's new, episodic approach to the series – while muddled in its messaging for many months – sits perfectly with the Blood Money style. That previous game was episodic before episodic games were really a thing, offering an array of distinct missions largely disconnected from one another. In 2016 that translates to seven missions released over the course of the year.
It kicks off with this Intro Pack, which includes two tutorial Prologue missions and episode one: the first major assignment for series' protagonist Agent 47. In it, the chrome-domed assassin is tasked with taking out two targets at a swanky Paris fashion show – but that simple objective only scratches the surface of what each Hitman level offers.
Hitman isn't a game about killing. Killing is just the result of everything else; the planning, patience and problem-solving. The best kills – be they messy, spectacular 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. It's about mastering the environment; knowing the best people to target to acquire the best disguises, how far those disguises will get you, the best escape routes, the best windows of opportunity.
The joy 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 deadly end. Each setting also offers numerous challenges that set new goals and open up new avenues to explore and routes to take. In Paris alone there are 24 assassination challenges, 32 item 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 crucial staircases are guarded by people who will spot that you're an intruder. This forced me to find new routes: an open window leading to a drainpipe up the building's side, or a piece of scaffolding tucked away. Contracts mode also returns, letting players create their own missions with their own selected targets, that can be shared online.
IOI encourages exploration through these means, helping new players and unpractised fans understand how Hitman works. This is also aided by the sleek, intuitive design of its interface, which makes clear when you're trespassing and when your cover is about to be blown. Hitman also gives long-time fans the chance to turn all that off easily. If so inclined, a player can go into a mission with an entirely clear hub.
That freedom of approach and focus on gameplay is what makes Hitman work. A lot of modern AAA games champion story over gameplay, and that doesn't befit 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 pristine, ornate and beautiful settings masking the dirty, true nature of humanity; something embodied by 47 – a clean-shaven, well-dressed personification of death.
Hitman falters in the time spent outside of missions. Load times are appallingly slow each time, and menus are sluggish, sometimes refusing to load in images. It's 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 baffling.
After a decade of uncertainty, and one sizeable misstep, Hitman 2016 is a triumphant course correction for a beloved franchise. Purely in terms of gameplay, this is perhaps the best the series has ever been. What matters now is how IOI handles the remaining episodes, and whether they can iron out the smaller technical problems.
IBTimes UK's plan is to review each subsequent episode as it arrives, before publishing a final review of Hitman's first season later this year.