Fans were taken by surprise last year when IO Interactive revealed their soft reboot of the popular Hitman series. After Absolution’s somewhat controversial focus on plot, combat and linear mission structure, the Danish studio instead decided to return to the sandbox-feel of older Hitman games; huge open missions where the player can craft their own experience. In case the digital-only availability of the game had put you off buying, it might be good news that you can finally enter the world of assassination through the physical boxed edition, available from January 31st.
My first venture into the new world of Hitman brought me to a fashion show staged in a fancy Paris mansion. I was tasked with assassinating two ringleaders of a large spy network; Russian businessman Viktor Novikov, and former supermodel Dalia Margolis. As I entered the mansion, blending among the crowd, I was greeted by a complacent Novikov descending the main staircase. It would have been a bad idea to unload a pistol magazine into him right on that spot, so I decided to explore the building. I paced through a busy bar, went through the basement and ended up in the garden area which is strictly off-bounds. Of course I was caught a few times and had to use my wits, and more importantly, my fists to avoid having my cover blown. During my exploration of this sprawling mansion, I was teased of many ways I could take out Novikov, including collapsing the stage lights on him, poisoning his cocktail at the bar, or blowing up a camera as it records him giving a press interview. Each of these methods seemed fun enough, though by this point I had already knocked three guards unconscious, killed a supermodel and blown up a car, so suffice to say I wanted to take a less conspicuous approach to killing the target.
In the end, I took out Novikov’s bodyguard and managed to get him into an isolated place. Knife slashed across the throat. I finished the Paris mission with a less-than-average score, mainly due to the other fatalities and screw-ups I made along the way, but despite that I had a lot of fun exploring the mansion and uncovering the many ways of playing through it. Although my mission could have gone better, I definitely had fun. I took in the knowledge I’d learnt from my first run to make the next one go smoother, and when I returned to Paris, I experimented and found new, unique ways to get around and kill the targets.
This is the beauty of the Hitman games. They manage to present a deeply complex open environment, fill it with hundreds of distinctive interactions and throw the player into the mix. Agent 47 has agency once again. There’s just no better feeling than sneaking into a compound, stealing a waiter disguise and poisoning the target’s drink without being caught. Every time I finished a story mission, I had a compelling urge to go back and do something differently. It’s a game that takes repetition and turns it on its own imaginative heels.
IO Interactive have carefully paid attention to how players perform, through submitted heatmaps and stats, to YouTube videos and forum comments, and are actively working on making it their magnum opus. The live component of Hitman is what made it such a unique game to appear almost out of nowhere. The sense of familiarity with each level is done away once you begin to digest the weekly published side content. It means that you can spend two hundred hours completing everything in the game, then take a three-week break only to come back and find a surplus of new missions waiting for you. One such feature is the “Elusive Targets” – time-exclusive missions that appear only for a small period of time and can be attempted once. When the comfort of being able to reload a save or restart a mission is gone, the game becomes nail-bitingly tense, and forces you to use your wits to succeed.
While they perfectly nail the gameplay, Hitman’s weakest link is in the sound department. The score by Niels Bye Nielsen is fitting, but lacks the same ambience that Jesper Kyd provided in his scores for the older games. The voice acting also makes little sense, with characters native to Morocco, Thailand and Japan all speaking in full-blown English and American accents. An understandable shortcoming, given the scope and budget of the project, but it does have potential to break your immersion.
Buying the boxed edition gives you access to the entire first season of Hitman, which includes six locations, three bonus missions, the soundtrack and a bunch of smaller bonus content. Originally, Hitman featured a heavily restrictive “always-online” DRM system, which may have swayed many against buying it, but more recently the developer has moved away from that system, allowing most features to be available to play offline. If you had always been on the fence about it, the game’s current state is still remarkably accessible. If IO Interactive can keep up the same standard in Season 2, Hitman could go on to become a long-time classic.
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