Well, this is more like it. We're at a heaving fashion show, where the marbled halls of a grand Paris palace that sits on the sun-kissed banks of the Seine is click-clacking with the heels of thousand dollar shoes while champagne glasses tinkle in the courtyards. What better place for a spot of dress-up? First there were the slacks and t-shirt smuggled from an unfortunate soul in a makeshift dressing room that helped us get past security and to the uppermost levels, but that was just the first rung on the ladder. What we found in the loft, though, is surely some kind of fashion end-game.
It's a delightful top hat and coat - blurring the lines for a second between this latest Hitman and Bloodborne - complete with a somewhat vaudevillian cloak. So we stand, waiting in the wings, waiting for our moment. Just as Viktor Novikov, the party's ostentatious host whom we're charged with killing, takes up his marks, we make our move. One simple pull of a lever and a chandelier is cut loose with a murderous tumble of crystal-cut glass and ironwork.
The only problem is it's the wrong lever and the wrong chandelier; behind us a gaggle of fashionistas soon lie crushed on the stairwell, while everyone stares on at the stranger in the top hat who's guiltily holding a wrench. Time to make an exit. Sneaking our way through the crowd while crouched, our shoulders rub against everyone's knees. "Sir, don't do that," says one party-goer in snobbish disgust. "It's strange."
If there's one thing I absolutely loved about the new Hitman after spending a couple of hours in its presence, it's the way developer IO Interactive is able to consistently respond to your mistakes in interesting, surprising ways. This is a game that perfectly wraps around your own stupidity, and the jet-black humour that once defined the series is back in the most delicious of ways, inherent in the dark slapstick of every fumbled hit.
Perhaps all you really need to know about the new Hitman is this: after the detour that was 2012's Absolution, an action game that broke free of many of IO's series most celebrated traits, this is the true follow-up to the much-loved Blood Money. There's nothing by way of linear corridor shooting, and the back-story has taken a back-seat. Instead this is a procession of ghoulish sandboxes filled with lethal toys and nearly countless ways to deploy them.
That message has been lost somewhat in the indecision IO Interactive and Square Enix have had over Hitman's business model. Where it's landed, though - a fully episodic release with monthly instalments, alongside a season pass that costs the same as a full-priced game getting you access to the whole thing - seems to be a fairly happy place, at least based on the prologue (which will be in the upcoming beta) and opening mission. Open world games like Hitman lend themselves well to episodic releases, where you've got a month to tinker with a small, densely detailed open world before a new playground comes along.
For someone who's inclined to think that Ground Zeroes, the bite-sized taster for Metal Gear Solid 5, may well have been the better game than its sometimes aimless follow-up, it seems like the sensible way to go. Hitman's design may even benefit from the decision; there's an emphasis on tightly packed levels, rich with options for the would-be assassin.
A training mission, set in a makeshift luxury yacht made out of panels of balsa wood stuck together with visible bolts, gives some suggestion as to what's possible. Swarming with a horde of half-cut millionaires - one thing this new Hitman has taken from Absolution is those impressively dense crowds - it's full of devilish possibilities as you take down your mark; smuggle in a machine gun and make for a messy kill, or poison the hit's favourite drink, following him into the toilet as he goes to chunder his chablis and making good with a stretch of piano wire. All the while you're swapping out of costumes, breaking line of sight with guards and trying to stay as anonymous as a bald man with a visible barcode on his neck can be. It's the social stealth of old Hitmans, basically, only it now runs that little bit deeper.
Given how many ways there are to approach any given level, the new Hitman offers an optional breadcrumb trail for new players. Dubbed opportunities, they're a racing line that shows you some of the hits available (and, it's worth reiterating, can be completely ignored), prompting you towards certain tools in the level, and when best to deploy them. It'll point you towards the checklist that shows a fault in the ejector seat of a plane in the hangar of a secret military facility, where to find the engineer's outfit, and how to guide your mark towards it until - ping - they're sent rocketing into the ceiling. Clean. Efficient. Kind of funny.
It's in hits like these that this really does feel like a return to the open-ended, darkly comic murder of Blood Money, all neatly updated for the modern era. Absolution - which, in my mind, was a good game, but sadly not the one fans of the series wanted - has been smartly culled from, too, with the Contracts mode that allows players to define their own hits for others making the jump. There's even a variation in the shape of Escalations, an off-shoot that sees IO's own tailor-made hits for you to attempt, clearing each new hit opening up a new, more challenging one with stricter restrictions; take down a certain character with a certain weapon in a certain outfit.
There are other modern concessions, too, such as elusive targets that will occasionally appear in the game for a time-limited period, another acknowledgment of this game's more connected world. In so many other ways, though, this is a throwback to a more classical Hitman; macabre and hilarious in equal measure, a murderous toy box that's a constant delight to prod and play with. How exciting it is to have Agent 47 properly back.
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