Fans were dubious when Square Enix and Io Interactive announced that the next Hitman game would be the “first digital AAA episodic game”, releasing with just a single level and promising more in the months to come, but they have done it. This is the best Hitman experience yet - but there's one big catch.
If you’re unfamiliar with the series, the hint’s in the name. You play as Agent 47, the famously blank-faced, suit-clad, barcode-tattooed protagonist. He’s actually a clone (guess which number) that was crafted to be the perfect killer, and fulfills his purpose exceedingly well, sneaking in and out of tightly-guarded locations and taking out his marks with ease. The series’ strength has always relied in the many options afforded to you in killing your target - while you could take out anyone with your silenced, completely overpowered hardballer pistols, there were always some “accidental” methods of death you could explore. The last installment, Hitman: Absolution, changed things around a bit by dumbing things down and focusing on the story, making it a more linear experience as a result. While it’s a great game in its own right, longtime fans balked at a simplified experience that didn’t afford you the freedom a giant bald man with a barcode on the back of his head should naturally be afforded.
But you’ll be pleased to know that here is the sandbox experience we love from the Hitman games, one that gives us dozens of methods of taking out your target even in the three levels included in this intro pack. I detailed the first two short tutorial levels in my preview of the beta and they haven’t changed at all, so if you played the open beta you’ll know what to expect.
The Showstopper is the first real level and is set in Paris during a fashion show, where you have to take out the power couple that is throwing the party. This husband and wife duo are actually the ringleaders of a spy ring called IAGO, and while they’re dazzling the crowd with models, drinks, and haute cuisine, they’ve got all kinds of background dealings taking place. One of them has an auction with some choice items on the forbidden second floor, while the other schmoozes with senators and other nefarious individuals, always walking around with his personal bodyguard.
Of course, security is tight, and there are highly trained bodyguards, cameras, and hundreds of potential witnesses everywhere, along with all sorts of potential weapons. The level is yours to explore. Do you want to try and poison one of the targets? Drown them in a toilet? Snipe them from a distance? How about triggering an emergency evacuation and getting them in their (supposedly) safe room? You can even drop the entire lighting rig on the runway when your target comes out to introduce the fashion show, although there sure are a lot of innocent people in the audience right underneath it….
This level is absolutely huge. There’s a level in Hitman: Absolution that was stunning when you saw the dozens of characters rendered onscreen at a single moment, but this puts it to shame by so many degrees. There are hundreds and hundreds of people attending the fashion show, as well as numerous staff - cooks, waiters, security, bodyguards, crew, etc. Kill or knock out the right people and you can take their uniforms and disguise yourself in their roles, and that includes a famous model about to walk the catwalk. (Yes, that’s right, Agent 47 can strut his stuff down the runway.)
The sheer amount of variety is what makes the game work. You can eavesdrop on conversations to gain new opportunities and find out where your targets are going to be most vulnerable, but even the best plans can change in an instant. Unless you are outright killed you generally have some other method you can try, and escaping a messed-up attempt in order to try something else can sometimes be just as fun. In one of my favorite attempts, I was setting up a shady meeting with one of the targets, which required me getting a security outfit in order to do so. I overfilled a bathroom toilet to prompt a guard to check out what was going on, who I promptly knocked out and shoved into a closet. I had just finished putting on his outfit when who was to walk into the bathroom, unaware? The very target I was working on seeing. I garrotted him and shoved him into the closet alongside the hapless guard, walking out of the bathroom and resisting the urge to stop and stare at the target’s personal bodyguard who stood outside it, waiting for the guy to finish up.
Planning is everything, but so is thinking on your feet, and that’s what keeps you entertained while playing the same level over and over again, trying to kill the targets in different ways in order to complete challenges. Every time you achieve a certain challenge in a specific level you will increase your Mastery level, which will unlock new weapons, agency drops (places that have a weapon or item stashed when you start), and even new start points. In the Paris level, for instance, rather than walking in the place in a tux you can start the level having infiltrated the place as a cook, or a stylist for the fashion show, or even security. Each new point allows you to more easily access sections of the gigantic level, and as your knowledge of the mansion increases you’ll know just who to pick for each different assassination attempt. The game does feature waypoints and hints in order to guide you around the environment but hardcore fans will be pleased to note that you can turn it all off, although I personally love the ease of icons showing me where to go.
To vary things even more, IO is creating live content that changes week-to-week. The first addition is the Escalation Contracts, a series of contracts which start off fairly simple but appropriately ramp up the difficulty with each new mission. Mission One might have you taking out a target with a certain weapon, while Mission Five might have you taking down multiple targets, while wearing different outfit for each one, while hiding the bodies within a certain period of time. This is certainly a great way to learn the levels and the patterns of all the characters. The other big live events are Elusive Targets. This hasn’t launched yet but once they do you will be afforded a limited amount of time to log into the game and take down a specific target - and you will only have one shot at it. Don’t throw it away.
Then there’s the Contracts mode, which allows you to make your own missions and share them online. You can play other people’s creations as well. As long as you can kill a target and make it out of the level you can create one, and folks are making some fun and inventive contracts already, only adding to the fun of the game.
So despite some lengthy initial loading times, this really is the pinnacle of the Hitman experience.
But hang on one second, because there’s that big issue to talk about. They’re attempting to sabotage all this wonderful gameplay with an always-online system. Remember when SimCity came out and you had to be online at all times in order for it to work? Remember how well that worked out for Maxis? Remember when they finally released an Offline mode and it was too late because players had already moved on, never to return? Well Square Enix certainly doesn't, because they've made the same mistake here.
This is a single-player game but you have to be connected to the online servers at all times in order to play any of your unlocked content. Have you earned lots of weapons and gadgets and challenges? You have to be online to play with them. Are the servers down? Too bad - you can't use them. What’s even worse, if you’re in the middle of a game and the servers go down (something that happened frequently over this launch weekend) your game would just quit on you, kicking you out to the main menu with no option to continue. Once this happened to me directly after I successfully completed my mission and was on the way to the exit, and to say I was infuriated would be an understatement. Fortunately the game autosaves after every major event that takes place (which is wonderful for completing challenges), allowing me to go back and just finish the final kill - but still. If they’re smart they’ll remove this requirement from the game ASAP because it’s the only thing holding it back. I shouldn’t have to be connected to the internet just to play my damn single-player game.
If they correct this (and there has already been a patch that has at least stabilized things a bit) there would be nothing to stop me from recommending the game to you. It’s an absolutely incredible experience and they have finally nailed just what makes the concept so compelling. You’ll genuinely want to keep mastering the level, nailing every challenge in order to gain new toys to play with. With them focusing so much on each individual level and offering live events there's so much potential for the future of this game.
But that may be too big an “if” for your liking. The servers issue truly is a major one, even if the time I’ve spent playing this game is some of the best gaming I’ve had in months. Let's hope they don't kill this one before it's had the time to open up a bit.
Hitman was reviewed from a PS4 code provided by the publisher. It's available now as a Intro Pack for $15, while each subsequent location will be priced at $10 as an add-on item, or you can just buy the whole thing for $60 up front.