Hitman: The Complete First Season review
Climbing the ladder.
Ratlike cunning, glacial patience, a truly bloodthirsty capacity for improvisation - all definitely components of Hitman 2016's brilliance, but the secret ingredient here may well be just a teeny-weeny dash of class envy. The game's sixth and final downloadable map, a high-tech mountaintop spa in Hokkaido, is my second favourite after the amazing second episode set in Mediterranean beauty-spot Sapienza. The map descends from a surgery overlooking an exquisitely tended Zen garden to a sushi restaurant and, glory of glories, an open-air hot spring where you'll gaze out at prayer lanterns drifting along a distant valley.
I'd love to spend a weekend in a spa like that. I doubt I'll ever have the pleasure, and that's why all of the map's residents need to die so urgently. Striding through crystal-clear water whose warmth I could all too readily imagine, I glanced at the billionaire playboys and power-brokers lounging on the rocks nearby and felt a sense of resentment no cackling villain has ever provoked. Look at you all, you lucky bastards. Look, at you all - happy as pigs in slurry. Well then, let's see if you're still smiling after I set off this landmine in the sauna.
Hitman is a game for the times because it's essentially about taking revenge on the impossibly rich - not just by killing them outright, but by breaching their sanctums, winding your way into their routines, impersonating their most trusted confidantes or protectors and, in general, hollowing their lives out until the final blow comes to seem like an act of mercy. It's not just a question of murder, but dethronement, as you sniff out various bankers, generals, celebs or black market gun-runners at the height of their affluence and bring them rudely crashing earthwards.
The key break from tradition in this, the sixth game in the series, is its episodic release strategy, which has helped developer Io Interactive and Square Enix introduce a new generation of players to the age-old practice of replaying maps to slaughter different targets in ever-more underhand, gruesome or just plain stupid ways. With months to burn between map drops, and a wealth of optional objectives, more challenging "Escalation" hits and player-created Contracts to carry out, there's never been greater reason to dip back into a chapter.
If you're worrying that you've missed something by waiting for this week's on-disc release, however, know that Hitman holds up superbly as a traditional all-in-one package, and remains a tremendous return to form for the series. The maps are larger, busier and, with the possible exception of 2006's Blood Money, more entertaining to abuse than those of previous games - each studded with secret routes, distractions, hazards, disguises and sequences of interactions you might trigger, then gently steer to a lethal conclusion. If each map's greater scale and bustle may daunt, the initial approach is much as it was in previous titles. You fumble your way around the outskirts of restricted areas, searching for outfits (most of which must be "borrowed" from an unconscious bystander) that allow you to enter those areas unchallenged, and gleaning clues about your target's location, activities and weaknesses as you go.
Io has reworked Hitman's social camouflage system following 2012's unwieldy Hitman Absolution - it's a lot less ambiguous, but still capable of surprising you. Optional HUD aids - white markers over heads, and a rising note like a boiling kettle when you're attracting attention - make it easy to spot characters who can see through a particular disguise. Even without them, though, there's a consistency to the world's behaviour that older instalments have occasionally lacked. It makes sense, for example, that a hotel's head of staff would notice that one of her flunkeys has been supplanted by a weird bald guy with eyes of frozen steel, whereas the waiter folding sheets in the laundry might just assume you're a new hire.
Should you be caught doing something disreputable, it's thankfully often possible to retreat and replan without reverting to an auto-save - there's a grace period in which disturbed NPCs are curious but not actively hostile, and breaking line of sight for a while is usually all it takes to lull suspicions. You'll want to avoid a gun-battle, if you can - Agent 47 can lock to cover and peek-shoot, but he's a strangely lethargic duellist, and you'll be swiftly overwhelmed if you try to dig in.
There's a decent spread of spy gadgets, from silenced pistols and poison syringes to bulkier toys such as sniper rifles, but the choicest implements of death are those you discover (or in a handful of cases, unlock for use in subsequent playthroughs) - be it a nicely hefty cowboy bust, a garage car lift, an antique cannon on a cliffside fort or just a humble screwdriver, plucked from a shelf as you close in on your victim. Many of the more esoteric killing implements are tethered to Opportunities, which see your trusty radio contact Diana Burnwood walking you through a hit, waypoint to waypoint. The heavy-handedness with which Opportunities are introduced continues to be Hitman's biggest blemish, robbing scenarios of their intrigue, so you'll definitely want to turn off some or all of the associated prompts on the first attempt at least.
The same goes for certain pieces of incidental dialogue - I've sometimes congratulated myself on noticing some minor detail, only for nearby NPCs to bring it up relentlessly in conversation, reminding me that I'm following a script. These overheard chats are just as often charming or amusing, however - one of the joys of the Bangkok hotel map is listening to hard-pressed kitchen and janitorial staff moan about your quarry, a hipster rockstar who insists on eating apples that are no more than "25 per cent green". And if certain lethal variables and set-ups are shoved down your throat, there are dozens more per map that are vastly less obvious to the eye.
The overarching plot does a fairly weak job of tying the game's chapters together - it's a muddle of illuminati references in which cadaverous men glare at each other as though trying to assign blame for a fart. The maps themselves form a robust arc, however, paying out the game's core concepts in ways that suggest this was a fully-integrated campaign before it became an episodic series. The first one's Parisian fashion show is a grandiose yet unambiguous statement of intent, its layers of security spread readably across the floors of a massive palace. Sapienza is just as packed with detail, but more relaxed and diffuse - a district rather than an event, with apartments, shops and catacombs to poke through away from the fortified manor where your initial targets are found.
Marrakech cranks the intensity up a few notches in the form of a crowded, colourful urban centre on the brink of civil war, its sense of imminent chaos cleverly amplified by in-world TV coverage, while Bangkok's luxury getaway mixes the structure of Paris with Sapienza's more placid ambience. The Colorado paramilitary camp is probably Io's least impressive offering so far - too flat, too open and with relatively few secrets - but Hokkaido is a great end to the season. Spa facilities aside, it's home to a building-wide AI whose wits you might scramble for the sake of a particularly hideous assassination.
It seems a very long time ago now that we were worried about the Hitman series. Io has resurrected its flagship property with astonishing grace and dexterity, creating its own, particular genre of episodic gaming in the bargain - one other stealth sandbox offerings such as Arkane's Dishonored might well learn from. If this Hitman has a design limitation, it's that maps don't evolve as much in response to assassinations as they could - it strains credibility that you can bump off three of four targets in Colorado without plunging the fourth into a panic. That aside, this is among the most expertly-made, engrossing stealth simulations of recent years, and a tale of A-listers meeting their comeuppance to give any Fortune 500 member the shivers. Agent 47 is back with a vengeance, and vengeance has seldom tasted sweeter.