Hitman rediscovers its agency in this strong start for IO's episodic series.
Editor's note: We will review the full season of Hitman once every episode has been released. But, as it is a systems-driven sandbox game, we feel that there is enough to go on in this initial release to warrant a full Eurogamer verdict.
We play games to unwind, but how many of the major titles are actually relaxing? Open worlders cut you adrift in the wilderness, but most of them quickly rope the player into mean little spirals of acquisition and upgrading. Shooter campaigns are strident, suffocating tunnels of bombast and attrition. But Hitman games? Hitman games are different. Hitman games turn laidback appreciation into an end in itself. Hitman games want you to slow down.
The Paris level in the first episode of Hitman's 2016 revival is, in this regard, a bit of a personality test. A fashion show set in and around an enormous marble palace, it starts Agent 47 off on the red carpet by default, and the natural inclination is to walk along that carpet to the entrance. After all, that's where the camera comes to rest as you assume control, that's where all the spotlights are pointed, and that's where the programming you've inherited from Call of Duty tells you the action should be.
It's hardly the wrong move - not far inside there's a palace staff outfit that'll let you tour the rear of the building unchallenged, and who knows, you might bump into one of your targets while you're pretending to mop a floor. But perhaps you aren't the follower type. Perhaps you fancy a stroll in the gardens instead. Perhaps it's worth tailing the news crew near the fountain. Perhaps there's somewhere you can casually abandon something that's a little too unwieldy to smuggle into the building, where a guard might stumble on it and ferry it to a security locker. Perhaps you'll overhear something opportune while you're taking the air.
"Perhaps", I'm glad to report, is the most exciting word in the new Hitman's lexicon. I'll try to resist talking about the possibilities in detail, because uncovering the threads that join these bustling AI ecologies together is the heart and soul of the game. But suffice to say this is a welcome step back - away from the Polly Pocket levels and bloodthirsty action beats of 2012's middling Hitman: Absolution, and towards the vastly less obvious, more detached unpleasantness of Hitman: Blood Money.
There's a way to go, mind you. Paris and the accompanying prologue missions are a fine statement of intent, but I'm still waiting for a setup as beautifully evil as Blood Money's open air wedding or opera house rehearsal, and the game's handling of AI states and scripting needs work. On the whole, though the complexity of the initial sandboxes and the way they respond under pressure are worth the odd hiccup, and the advantage of an episodic release strategy, of course, is that IO can address mistakes before it reaches the finish line.
If you're new to Hitman's brand of assassination, know that this isn't really a game about hiding, though Agent 47 can crouch-walk and lock to cover with the best of 'em, and it's possible to carry out hits this way if you're determined. Rather, Hitman is all about fitting in. Each location is essentially an intricate map of dress codes that determine the AI's level of suspicion, so closing with a target is all about trading up from outfit to outfit, whether found in some closet or "borrowed" from some hapless bystander.
The other half of the game is working out the running order. Most of the key personalities in each area have a schedule - a private meeting with a high-level associate, say, followed by a tour of the showfloor and a trip to the bar - and these routines create openings for assassins. You might contrive to work behind that bar, for example, in order to charge the subject's glass with rat poison. In theory, efficiency and discretion are your watchwords, but the firmer your grip on the level's moving parts, the more tempting it is to be creative. After all, any old chancer with a silenced pistol can snipe a KGB turncoat through a window. Wouldn't you rather shove the man's head down a toilet after spiking his vodka, while dressed as the general he's supposed to be drinking with? Most delectable of all are the kills that look like accidents - a dropped chandelier, an electrified puddle - leaving you to amble away calmly, the Grim Reaper incarnate, while all hell breaks loose in your wake.
New "Opportunities" provide a gentle on-ramp to Hitman's complexities. Triggered by certain objects or conversations, they essentially walk you through a hit, from waypoint to waypoint. That's going to sound like straight-up poison to a purist, but fear not - you can switch Opportunities partially or completely off at any time, along with the minimap, Absolution's "Instincts" X-ray vision mode (which can now be used without limit), text prompts about AI alertness, and the directional HUD indicator that warns of an NPC's mounting suspicions. It seems an accomplished balance of accessibility and challenge.
Absolution dabbled with disguises that lose effectiveness over time or when NPCs are close by, much to the ire of fans. The new game abandons that frustrating system in favour of having certain characters able to see through certain disguises where it agrees with the story. So you won't be able to fool a chief bodyguard by dressing as a member of his hand-picked team, for example. It's a sensible adjustment, though the idea that Agent 47 - a sort of vampiric James Bond with a barcode on his skull and cut-glass eyes - can pass himself off as anybody at all remains a mystery.
Another satisfying evolution is that word of your misdeeds spreads in a more organic fashion: witnesses to a crime will run for the nearest guard and pass on a description that corresponds to how clear a view of you they got, including your current outfit. If you're quick on your toes, you can bring a runner down with a thrown object before they have a chance to spill the beans. Distant guards won't become magically aware of you the second your cover is blown, either, so you can generally retreat to another area and change your clothes. This does strain credulity at times, admittedly. I recall looking down as I dangled from a balcony, bullets shattering the glass all around, only to see sentries lounging with their arms folded, idly casing the crowd. Hopefully, later episodes will tweak how the simulation compartmentalises the AI, but then again, this is Hitman. A few dodgy behaviours are to be expected.
Less forgivable are the events, conversations or sequences of events that trigger based on proximity, so that you're required to drop by certain locations in order to nudge the simulation along - all for the sake, presumably, of ensuring that you overhear certain bits of story. There are only a couple of instances where I find this outright annoying, however, and depending on your tactics, it might be convenient that certain wheels must be set in motion. Still, I hope to see fewer of those triggers in episodes to come. In general, the story seems too prominent in the texture of each mission - there's an absolute glut of scripted dialogue, which you're obliged to sit through if you're shadowing the NPCs in question. Needless to say, this makes revisiting locations with new tools more of a chore than it needs to be.
I'll forgive IO that, though, because the storyline is an excuse to put Agent 47 through basic training, which involves two fairly small yet densely layered prologue levels - a luxury yacht operated by a black market dealer, and a Cold War base housing a runaway spy - that translate Hitman's founding conceit of poking at a convincing yet predictable sandbox into the very art direction. They're elaborate, clapboard sets populated by fellow agents in costume, some of whom fall out of script in response to more sensational assassinations. It's both amusing in itself and a sign that IO truly understands what made previous Hitmans spectacular - not the stalking or killing in itself, but the chance to infiltrate what is effectively a cycling theatrical production and bend it out of shape.
As to whether there's enough bang for your buck here - the return of Contracts, Absolution's one universally acclaimed innovation, should keep most players busy for weeks, providing the fundamentals hook your interest. This lets you set up and share bespoke hits by tagging any NPC and executing them while dressed a certain way and wielding a certain item. It's a mission editor, in other words, that requires you to be talented enough to pull off the feat you're proposing.
Hitman's return is in danger of being overlooked this week - it launches neck-and-neck with Tom Clancy's The Division, a game that aims to be the next Destiny, with a gigantic, lustrous world and a mighty ladder of unlocks to scale. As dubious a move as this may seem commercially, it's fitting to see a game as vast and, at times, vacuous as The Division launching alongside a game that's all about detail and volatility, where weaselling a target out of a packed room can take up to an hour. Without wishing to knock Ubisoft's work too much, Hitman's design is much more rewarding to ponder - it asks for experimentation and mastery, rather than mere patience and the ability to follow a waypoint. Agent 47's return is long overdue, and so far, very welcome. Roll on episode two.