Good afternoon, 47…
Let’s face it, Hitman Absolution wasn’t exactly what people really wanted from a title that’s famed for its stealthy approach and execution (pun thoroughly intended). From the outset with its “nuns n guns” trailer, it seemed to be going through a reinvention that was neither asked for, nor needed. Thank the gaming gods, then, for the 2016 reboot of Hitman.
IO Interactive’s vision for the reboot was a bold one, but it made sense. Taking a franchise that’s all about planning the perfect kill across a number of elaborate locations and turning into an episodic game seemed like a fantastic idea, but would the model work in an industry that was focusing more and more on “Day 1” sales than anything else? Unfortunately, IOI and Square Enix didn’t help themselves with the pre-launch chatter. Up until around a few months before launch, the game had a very confusing release strategy, but course-corrected into a full episodic system with only a few weeks to go.
From a creative standpoint, it immediately paid dividends. The opening level, set in the grand fictional Palais de Waleska in Paris, was an absolute masterclass of introducing a game’s systems without it ever feeling “hand-holdy”. Having one target that roams the entire map and one that stays rooted to the top floor forces the player to investigate the palace with focused determination and caution, donning disguises and engaging in the multitude of new mechanics that IO put into the game. Of course, the primary benefit of the sprawling map is that the player is presented with a beautiful, yet brutal, sandbox of toys in which to carry out the elimination of their targets. Do you want to slip in and out, completely unnoticed, making the kills look like an accident, or do you want to go loud, filling the hallways with enough gunfire and explosions to make Michael Bay think “That’s a bit much, mate”? The beauty of Hitman’s reboot is that it lets you do either, and have every step in-between, and they’re all as equally viable.
The problem with previous Hitman games, for me at least, was that I’d rarely go back and replay many of the levels once I’d completed them. There were a few, like The Jacuzzi Job in Silent Assassin, which I played for hours, but I never really wanted to delve into them the way that I did with the levels offered up in 2016’s game. The beauty of the episodic nature of “Season 1”, however, did away with that concern, by simply forcing players to replay the mission over and over until the next one dropped if they wanted to play any more Hitman. It allowed players to explore different paths, try out even more disguises, and create their own “contracts” in a game that is as pure “Hitman” as it comes. The more time that was spent with the game in the wait between episodes benefitted the player not only in terms of unlocking more weapons, suits and gadgets to use for the next trip out, but also by learning the mechanics of the game more intrinsically. Finding out that trespassing in an area could potentially lead to a guard being on his own and completely exposed in Paris, for example, could pay dividends when you eventually set foot in Marrakesh.
I could quite happily talk about Paris until the cows come home, but the true jewel in Hitman 2016’s crown is Sapienza. A simply wonderful construction, it’s beautiful mansion sitting at the top of a narrow set of shopping streets, which twist and turn before spitting you out into a picturesque beachfront location, complete with church and seafront apartment buildings. However, underneath the urban innocence lies a dark secret in the form of the laboratory, home of a deadly virus being developed by a shady corporation. The multitude of methods available to 47 to take out the targets on this map is simply absurd. You can shoot one of them with a cannon while they’re playing golf, you can poison them with the air inside the lab, or you can scare one of them into having a heart attack by dressing as their dead mother and sitting up inside a coffin. No, I’m not making this up. IOI injected a sense of dark humour into Hitman that elevated it beyond a simple assassination simulator into something much, much more.
Unfortunately, not every map was a hit. The penultimate map, Colorado, had a frustrating “100% hostile” stipulation, which made a Silent Assassin/Suit Only run an unbelievably difficult challenge. The instant you were spotted, a gunfight would undoubtedly soon follow. With four(!) targets in one map, it was made infinitely more difficult to get to each one, complete the contract and then hide the bodies. Thankfully, when the maps got it right, they got it almost spot on. Marrakesh introduced an astonishing number of NPCs into the equation, while the hotel in Bangkok had the feel of a development team really getting into the groove with their creative juices, and not just for the epic drum solo 47 knocked out in the recording studio!
Perhaps the biggest surprise with the Hitman reboot was just how much of it all worked together. Usually, throwing this many systems into a blender together will result in something not clicking into place, but the way that everything fits with everything else is just brilliant. The “by clockwork” nature of the targets’ movements, the scripting of certain events, and the helpful “opportunities” that gently nudge you into some of the canned “blockbuster” eliminations all intertwine with the game’s mechanics with such precision that you could put most watchmakers to shame.
Another fantastic element that IOI put into the game were the Elusive Targets. These were one-off, time limited challenges that has you take out a specific, unmarked, target on the map, but with only one chance to do so. If you fail, that’s it. Done. No saves, no restarts, nothing. This concept was thrilling to fans, and a real community built up around the Elusive targets when they dropped. With only getting one shot to try it, how would you go in? Which starting point in the map would you take on? Of course, there were workarounds to playing them (Restarting was only disabled after the target is eliminated, for example), but the thrill of walking through a doorway and seeing your target stood right in front of you on their own is something that I’ve not experienced in many other games. They stuck with the promise as well for the vast majority of season 1, only allowing replays at a certain time late on in the game’s lifespan. It showed the dedication to IOI’s vision, and was a truly standout example of how “Games as a Service” should work, particularly for a title that is so heavily designed around a single player experience. In addition to the Elusive Targets, there were also highlighted community created Contracts, in-house ones, and new “escalations”, which were multi-stage missions set across one map, with ever-more demanding criteria. There was definitely plenty of content for you to get stuck into with Hitman!
The only truly disappointing thing with Hitman (2016) is the way that it performed commercially. Unfortunately, the episodic nature dented sales, and for whatever reason, ended up with people passing on the game, at least until the full series release in 2017. Even with all of the content available though, it didn’t set the world on fire. This ultimately led to Square Enix allowing IOI to go their own way, but crucially, they let them take the Hitman IP with them. This then led to a new partnership with WB Games, who then proceeded to publish the next game in this rebooted franchise, released as “Hitman 2”, rather than “Season 2”. The sequel was still excellent in its own right, but it suffered from not having quite the same time to breathe as the 2016 title. I found myself steamrolling through the campaign, not taking as much time to soak in the atmosphere and learning the little side-streets and intricacies of each mission area, and as much fun as I had with it, it didn’t quite ‘click’ in the same way that Season 1 did. However, they did include a version of the original game’s maps so that owners of Season 1 could download and play them with the new graphics engine, physics and mechanics, making Hitman 2 one of the best value propositions in all of gaming right now.
Quite often in our group chat, I will mention one of two games, to the point where it’s become a bit of a self-parodying prophecy. The first of those is a title I’ll come onto later in the year, but the second one is undeniably the rebirth of Hitman. IO Interactive looked at their creation, found out what made it so successful and stripped it back to its roots. By embracing the core fundamentals of what made the original Hitman titles so good, while also taking on board the advances in technology that this generation has afforded, IOI delivered two games that, when placed together (as I believe the initial intent was), provide an unparalleled level of content, near infinite replayability and the perfect blend of mechanics, story and fun that is so rare in games today.
Good luck, 47.