Killing people isn’t that difficult. You take a coin, throw it somewhere, and then you delicately crush the victim’s larynx before they notice you’re grinding up on them like a coffee machine. No need for all those ‘superior’ weapons and poisons, you just need a strong set of hands and a passion for the hit. Can’t be bothered going outside and terminating your betrothed’s life? Well, you can give HITMAN a go, but going out and committing a heinous act against the Commonwealth is still more rewarding. I won’t blame you for choosing the option that keeps you out of jail, but don’t expect the game to be anywhere close to reality.
Just in case you’re not a fan of killers with male pattern baldness, HITMAN has you adopt the role of Agent 47, the best gosh darned hired assassin you never saw! As a stealthy killer, it is your job to stealthily kill people in the sleathiest, killiest ways possible. Push them off a ledge, feed them lethal sushi, sabotage their surgery, or just shoot them in the head the good ole fashioned way. As you go around murdering your targets with unrivalled efficiency, the game reveals a conspiracy that’s unrivalled in its mundaneness.
The plot of HITMAN is like a blown light bulb. Nothing happens from the potential, so you’ll be sitting in the dark wondering whose face that is until next year. The story is divided into six missions, each accompanied by a cinematic to feed the conspiracy. The problem is that after the last cinematic, I felt like we hadn’t gone anywhere. There’s an obvious cliffhanger that season 2 will run with, but the standard of storytelling better raise itself if I’m going to take any interest in the narrative. Allusions are great when they’re dealt with, not when they are left to stagnate like the garlic bread sitting in my fridge. The story plays a minor role in the overall design of the game, though, but the opportunities system doesn’t help in any way.
Throughout the game, opportunities will reveal themselves by various means. You might overhear a news crew say they haven’t met their replacement camera guy, or you’ll stumble upon a schedule for housekeeping regarding your target’s room. You can then track the opportunity to its conclusion, but this becomes a crutch the more you adopt it. I found myself awkwardly running around the final mission going, “But where’s an opportunity?” because they popped up so much and worked so well. Opportunities are restricted to story missions, which makes everything else a scan gun away from a near perfect Hitman experience.
The story missions are enjoyable if you’re a barcoded infant, but the rest of the content is so much more satisfying. Each destination has escalation missions, which are short-form missions with additional requirements. For instance, you might have to kill a protester in Marrakesh, but you need to be disguised as a security guard while doing the deed. Each time you pass, more requirements are tacked on, like killing targets with certain weapons, starting from a particular location, etc. Most importantly, there are no opportunities that become available, so you have to learn the map and experiment to achieve a result. You don’t have to worry about trying crazy stunts either because the AI is inept enough that you’ll get away with shooting people in the head from a couple of metres away.
By the time you reach escalations and other contracts, you’ll start to feel familiar with the AI’s inability to exist. Part of the problem is how slow NPC’s react to anything. If I throw an object to distract a guard, it takes an awkwardly long couple of seconds before they start walking towards the noise. Apply that same breakneck reaction to hearing a sniper rifle being fired, and you’ve got yourself one hell of an exploitable system. The other big issue is that NPC’s can act illogically, like treating you as suspicious for bumping into them and standing still. The game seems very lenient towards the player’s freedom in this regard, and this same approach bleeds into the rest of the game.
It’s fun to exploit the brain-dead AI, but there comes the point where player freedom goes too far. There is no restriction on how many non-lethal takedowns you can do in melee, not to mention that it’s quick and easy to pull off. Throw a coin, subdue, hide the body, repeat ad nauseum. It’s fun to rack up the sleeping bodies, but you can just keep going. In fact, you don’t even need to hide the bodies, and the puddle pile demonstrates how far the AI will tolerate your shenanigans. Don’t get me wrong; the AI works brilliantly 90% of the time, but when you do something like lure a target upstairs from her set path, she might react to the baseball bat leaning against the wall as a ‘dangerous weapon’ and reprimand whoever’s nearby for leaving it discarded. Not smart. The AI isn’t a deal-breaker in of itself but detracts from the overall experience, much like Instinct.
47 also have access to Instinct, a slo-mo state that allows you to see useful items, who will see through your disguise and everyone’s position behind that pesky wall. I like Instinct to an extent, especially when I’m trying to find my target, but it feels a touch broken when you can see everyone in a three block radius. The mechanic works well for newbies to the assassination trade but takes away from the fun process of learning enemies paths, when events happen, etc. You can turn Instinct off, but maps are designed with it in mind, so, good luck memorising the hundreds of people in the sandbox.
The main positive for HITMAN is that the levels are expansive and free to explore. There are only a few levels to play through, but you ain’t seeing everything in one run. It is for this exact reason why I liked escalations and other contracts so much. Without opportunities being a clear way forward, I could wander around aimlessly and formulate a plan of my own. The escalations were also a great way of forcing me to explore more of the level, which made me appreciate just how many areas were hidden away. The sandbox design brings back the old Hitman vibes when you could find a sniper rifle in a back alley because Hong Kong is a dangerous place, but the graphics are very modern indeed.
If you haven’t noticed from the screenshots, the game is shinier than the back of 47’s head. There’s a sleekness to everything on display that oozes class, especially 47’s fashion sense. For the most part, animations look organic and fluid, but there are times where you notice how clunky and robotic everyone is, like the non-existent lip-syncing. The UI rocks a minimalist look, which also makes the map painfully unhelpful, but it just looks so damn cool. The key is that nothing feels crowded on the screen, which is crucial for a game where observation is paramount. With that, all of my thoughts have been written down except for one.
Who the hell in their right mind thought releasing the game episodically would be a good idea? More to the point, who thought that locking off the elusive targets after they were released was a good idea!? I forgot HITMAN existed after the first episode, and I had to be reminded that I was reviewing the game a couple of weeks ago. Coming into the game post-release, I can’t go back and try out any of the past elusive targets. Why? That’s just locked off because new stuff is coming out? Oh, yeah, that’s everyone’s favourite Netflix feature. As for improving the game between episodes based on feedback, you can’t completely overhaul a level in a month, nor can you find every bug in that level before release. There’s no compelling reason to hold off content that’s already been made, so just release everything so I get a full experience! The episodic nature of the game is its biggest weakness, but stupid marketing aside, the game itself has plenty of redeeming qualities.
Oh, and eff this always-online nonsense. Seriously.
There’s a lot to like about HITMAN. The sandbox levels offer plenty of choice and variety when it comes to how you’ll dispose of your target, which is at the heart of the Hitman franchise. The weak narrative and episodic release can be overlooked (now that it’s all been released, at least) when you delve into escalation missions and other contracts, but the brain-dead AI will persist. HITMAN brings back the most important elements of the franchise into an accessible yet nuanced game that you can keep coming back to again and again. Let’s be real, though; it’s nothing compared to the thrill of kicking your ex off a cliff.