Killing is my business… and business is good
It’s been nearly four years since we last saw Agent 47 in Hitman: Absolution. While not perfect, Io-interactive’s gritty resurrection of the series did a lot of things right, modernizing the franchise with smoother controls, a great sense of atmosphere and a welcome injection of depth to the game’s story. However, the game’s more cinematic approach to the level designs, combined with an over-reliance on Tarantino-esque goofiness (machine gun packing bondage-nuns, anyone?) felt like a bit of a departure for the series, one that had been long celebrated for its methodical pacing and cerebral blend of sandbox slaughter. Absolution eschewed some of the franchise’s core tenets in order to tell a more exciting story, and ultimately left many longtime fans wanting something more.
Now, Agent 47 has returned on a new generation of hardware, bringing an episodic bloodbath to the Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC. Fittingly titled Hitman, this subtitle-free sojourn into the ICA’s deadly world of intrigue and murder feels like something of a return to form for the series, despite its episodic nature. Hitman: Episode One manages to recapture the magic of 2006’s Hitman: Blood Money, setting players loose in a pair of large sprawling locales to stalk their prey as the series’ signature chrome-domed killer, looking for the best time to strike. Though it’s a bit light on locales – you’ll only find three environments packed within the episode, including a makeshift yacht and military base in addition to a palatial estate – they offer a tremendous amount of murderous possibilities, and serve as a great appetizer for the blood-soaked buffet to come.
The first episode of Hitman begins 20 years in the past and explores Agent 47’s beginnings as an ICA operative. The opening two missions serve as a nice primer to get players acquainted with the mechanics of murder as you skulk through the shadows, dispatching guards and other NPCs to steal their disguises and work your way ever closer to your targets. The possibilities offered in these two opening acts are just as impressive as you’d expect from the team at Io-Interactive, giving players the opportunity to kill their prey with an array of interesting methods including crushing a hapless spy beneath a life raft situated above a packed deck with a mighy yank of your crowbar, to posing as a bartender, which gives you the chance to slip some rat poison into your mark’s drink. This corrosive concoction will cause him to fall ill, leaving him vulnerable as he tosses his cookies into the commode, which you can then drown him in like the rat he is. Hell, you can disguise yourself as a flight mechanic and tamper with the ejection seat of a prototype aircraft to guarantee a messy mishap for a Soviet Colonel who’s found himself on the bad side of the organization. Hitman also introduces “Opportunties”, which allows you to eavesdrop on NPC conversations and gain insight into how to complete your mission. This can come from overhearing two mechanics discuss testing an ejection seat system of a jet you can sabotage, or clue you into a way to disrupt a secret auction by tampering with a computer system. While these clues may seem to take away from the thrill of exploration and experimentation that other games in the series offered, they’re a great tool for newcomers, and purists can choose to turn them off entirely. Simply put, the world is your ominous oyster. These are just a few of the options made available, but the possibilities are almost endless, and it’s great fun to simply meander around the packed environments, looking for new and exciting ways to cause take out your targets or just cause wanton mayhem.
The main course of Hitman: Episode One begins after these tranining missions and is set against the backdrop of a fashion show at a Parisian palace. It’s here that the impressive scope of Hitman becomes readily apparent, as you’re let off your leash and given free reign to explore an absolutely massive setting, teeming with ample ways to assassinate a pair of indusrious spymasters. There are literally hundreds of NPCs roaming the grounds, from attendees to set crew members and security forces, all of which present various ways to gain access to your targets. It’s here that Hitman really shines, giving players plenty of room to think outside the box. Picking up a screwdriver gives you the chance to strip a wire draped over a puddle, delivering a shocking surprise to the party’s host, and stealing the identity of a vampiric fashion model gives you the chance to strut your stuff on the catwalk like the undead frontman of Right Said Fred before getting your hands messy. If you’re feeling especially destructive, you can even bring down the whole lighting rig over the runway, crushing your target and dozens of innocent fashionistas and guests.
All of this is great fun, but some of the series’ usual quibbles do rear their heads, slightly marring the experience. The AI for NPCs is just as predictable as ever, allowing you to outwit guards and read the AI patterns of your marks as easily as ever. So long as you’re not wearing the wrong disguise or acting like a total buffoon, you can typically hide in plain sight without any real issues. Additionally, sometimes the physics can go about awry, causing corpses to hilariously dance their way through the environment and into the path of patrolling guards, which caused some frustration. Admittedly, this is so infrequent that it didn’t really take away from the experience, but it’s a shame when something so silly manages to bungle an otherwise clean hit.
Despite the fact there are only a handful of setting available, there’s still plenty of reason to keep diving back into Hitman thanks to Escalation Missions, which allow you to take on five challenges in one of the game’s existing missions, throwing new targets and objectives into the mix. These challenges range from breaking into safes and killing your targets with specific weapons, offering some welcome padding to the package. Hitman: Absolution’s online Contracts Mode also returns, which lets players design their own missions by playing through the levels and designating an NPC as the target. For now it works just fine, but with so few maps available, it’ll take a few more chapters for the Contracts Mode to become a truly worthwhile addition to Hitman‘s package. Even if the Contracts Mode is somewhat underwhelming for now, there’s still plenty of reason to replay the existing missions, as each stage offers a variety of challenges, and successfully completing them awards you with money which you can use to buy new gear – which can be smuggled into various locations in each map – and also unlocks new starting locations that you can take advantage of.
Graphically, Hitman is a marked improvement over Absolution. Character models are much more varied than previous games, and you’ll see much less duplication of faces and body shapes, which goes a long way towards making the world seem more believable. The game also sports some solid lighting effects along with real time shadows and reflections on mirrors, something previous games in the series sorely lacked. While Hitman’s Glacier Engine-powered visuals certainly look nice, and the game moves along at a steady clip even when hundreds of NPCs are on screen at once, it’s worth noting that the loading times are absolutely excruciating, at least in the PlayStation 4 version of the game we were provided with for review by the publisher. Just firing up the Paris mission or loading a save file takes upwards of a few minutes. Also, just bringing up the pause menu to listen to opportunities or adjust the game’s settings causes pretty major input delays. Thankfully, these kinds of dips in performance are almost nonexistent in the main game – with the exception of some slight stuttering as a mission begins – but we’d definitely like to see these load times trimmed down in future updates.
Slight performance gaffes and some predictable enemy AI aside, Hitman feels like a great return to form for the series, and I’m eager to see just what new settings are introduced in the near future. The three locations featured in Hitman: Episode One are each entertaining on their own, and the Paris mission is essentially a masterpiece that feels more ambitious than any contracts featured in Blood Money or Absolution. If Io-Interactive can continue to deliver episodes of this quality, Hitman could well be remembered as one of the best entries in the series to date.
Final Verdict: 4 / 5
Available on: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PC ; Publisher: Square Enix ; Developer: Io-Interactive ; Players: 1; Released: March 11, 2016; Genre: Action ; MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: This review was written based on review code supplied by the game’s publisher, Square Enix