As long as I have been playing the Hitman games, I have always been struck by the strange dissonance between the way the series is marketed and the way it actually plays. In adverts, cutscenes, and promotional art, Hitman games are always presented as offering a power fantasy in which you play as a globetrotting, sharply-dressed, dual pistol-wielding assassin. This is strange because, as anyone who has played a Hitman game will tell you, the games are actually much more about dressing as an engineer and rigging an oven to explode, or disguising yourself as a waiter and spiking your target’s drink with a laxative so that you can murder them in the privacy of the bathroom. This pattern holds for IO Interactive’s new entry in the Hitman series, and, for fans at least, this is good news. Even if this game is something of a known quantity, it does still manage to deliver that same incredibly cool feeling that comes with watching a chandelier “accidentally” fall on your target and walking out without anyone suspecting foul play.
Platforms: PC, PS4 (Version Played), Xbox One
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: IO Interactive
Genre: Social Stealth
Release Date: March 11, 2016
ESRB Rating: Mature
Hitman is, in every sense, a new Hitman game. What it isn’t, is a novel Hitman game. All the classic Hitman gameplay is here, only this time with bigger crowds and environments, and a wider variety of ways to kill your target. Much of your time will be spent watching an NPC’s path until you see a window in which you can kill them, after which you can steal their clothes and dump them in a bin. Once you’re suited and booted and ready to infiltrate some military base or ritzy party, you’ll find yourself listening to conversations to gain intel about the target to set up elaborate and, very often, absurd hits.
Ultimately, Hitman has always been about these elaborate assassinations, and this remains true. Hitman offers more ways than ever before to take out your targets, with the first level alone providing opportunities to kill your targets by drowning them in toilets, burning them with fireworks, crushing them under a lighting rack, and, in a refreshingly simple turn, poisoning them with cyanide. This list covers only a small portion of Agent 47’s many assassination methods. And most of the fun comes from seeing the hundreds of other options play out. While the assassinations are fun to watch, they always feel a little too prescribed, a little too close to something that the game wanted you to do, rather than some interesting thing that you discovered for yourself.
Hitman’s newest innovation is a tooltip system, but this never succeeds in leading the player toward these kills in a way that feels satisfying or organic. With the tooltips on, Hitman takes you by the hand and leads you through the required steps to kill the targets. With the tooltips off, the game lets you run free in fairly large levels and hopes that you will overhear a photographer’s phone conversation, find the van in which she left her camera lens, secure both the lens and a remote explosive to the camera, and detonate it when she is interviewing the target. This is by far the least byzantine of the assassinations, and I doubt that a player would discover even this one without the game’s help, and yet that necessary help also strips the assassination of most of its excitement.
Comparisons are not always a useful – or fair – way to judge a game, but it is hard to resist comparing Hitman to Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, the most recent high-profile stealth game, and unfortunately Hitman does suffer from this comparison. Hitman is of course a very different game from The Phantom Pain – I imagine Snake would struggle to disguise himself as a waiter with that eye-patch and stone-lodged-in-head combo – but The Phantom Pain offered so many ways of approaching a given mission, each of which felt organic and unique to the player, that Hitman’s rote assassinations seem incredibly stale by comparison. For all of Hitman’s variety, it never achieves the feeling of freedom that it so clearly aims for.
That said, it is at least fun to see most of the assassinations once. Hitman incentivises trying all of them through its “Feats” system, which might ask you to headshot the target in 47’s suit, or something more fun like pushing one target off the top of a building so that they land on the other target. The more Feats you achieve, the more the game opens up options within a level, allowing you to spawn in a different place, or with a different disguise. This has the dual effect of both streamlining and adding variation to the player’s other attempts at the level; I only wish that the Feats menu didn’t take so long to open and was available offline.
Hitman also has very interesting online functionality that allows other players to create assassinations and upload them for other players to try out. This is actually my favourite part of the game, because the anonymous partygoer that another player has tasked you with killing doesn’t allow you to rely on any of the pre-made assassinations that the main story missions offer, and so completing these community-made challenges often feels as though it involves a lot more of your own individual creativity.
Of course, with Hitman being released episodically, this review can only speak to the small portion of the game that is currently available. The Intro Pack, a bundle that includes two tutorial missions and a full story mission, will cost you $14.99, with additional packs set to be released monthly. If you enjoy Hitman games you’ll almost certainly have fun with this first episode. There are, however, some slightly troubling trends that I hope the subsequent episodes break out of. The three levels in this pack are all arranged as buildings with multiple floors. The disguises in each level are associated with floors, so, for example, a cleaner might only be allowed on the ground floor, but a soldier is allowed on everything up to and including the third floor. This means that, in all three levels, I ended up following the rather boring progression of trading up my disguise every time I needed to reach a new floor. Going from servant to engineer to security guard to VIP got very old after only three levels, and made every mission feel like some bizarre episode of Downton Abbey in which the player has to gradually make her way from the servants’ quarters to the aristocrats upstairs. I also find that the story, of which I have seen very little, has already outstayed its welcome.
In Hitman, 47 is tasked with taking down the leaders of a secretive terrorist organization named IAGO before they can leak the true identities of several undercover MI6 operatives. The desire to go with this kind of Wikileaks-esque, ripped-from-the-headlines story is fairly understandable, but in an era in which questions are constantly being raised about the treatment of real-life figures who have leaked files, I found it troubling that Hitman rewards the player for assassinating targets inspired by real people in a comically violent manner. In any case, you’ll likely be too bored to notice the game’s troubling politics. In an early cutscene, 47 is described by his shadowy superiors as “A blank slate. Anti-social. Apathetic and unresponsive.” This also happens to describe my own feelings about 47, and I therefore couldn’t be less interested in his story.
With its user-created content, Hitman offers enough fun to make it feel worth the $14.99 that this first episode costs. If you’ve enjoyed dressing up as a chicken and dragging naked bodies around before, I’m sure you’ll also enjoy it here, and if you haven’t played Hitman before, this first episode comes in at a reasonable enough price point to make it a good introduction to the series. That said, my reservations about the disguise progression that features in all of the first episode’s three levels also makes it hard to recommend investing in the complete Hitman package (marketed as the “Full Experience” for $59.99) to even the most ardent fans. I’m looking forward to more lethal bogwashing and elaborate dress-up in the next episode, but if Hitman is going to keep me interested, it will have to abandon the single building with multiple floors design for a more open sandbox in the subsequent instalments.
Review Disclosure: A retail copy of Hitman: Intro Pack was purchased by Warp Zoned for the purposes of this review.