Hitman – PlayStation 4
Platform: PlayStation 4
Developer: IO Interactive
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: 2016
Nerd Rating: 9/10
I’ll admit it. I slept on the Hitman series throughout the majority of its life cycle. A fan of the Splinter Cell series, I always got the impression that Hitman was a more basic clone of Splinter Cell with some Grand Theft Auto aspects thrown in there for fan service. Boy, was I wrong. Safe to say, after picking up the latest installment, I’m filled with more than a touch of regret at my former folly.
Released in six installments over the course of 2016, the soberly titled Hitman was my introduction to the series. Playing as the iconic Agent 47, the player gets to live out their fantasy as the cold, calculating badass that travels around the world committing acts of international assassination and espionage. When you want someone dead but your target is insanely rich, extremely powerful, and hard to get close to, Agent 47 is the guy you call to get the job done.
The story begins with Agent 47 in the middle of some kind of job interview for an underground assassination agency, using its influence for making the world a better place. Cool. This may have something to do with the story of previous titles, but it also makes for a good entry point for any new gamer to the series, giving 47 a clean slate to work with. The player completes a couple of practice exercises to get used to the way the game works, and then they’re sent off to Paris for their very first mission.
Hitman’s gameplay is based around stealth and action. The core mechanic features the clever and original use of disguises, which the player finds hidden around each level or mugs from unsuspecting NPCs. Knocking out or killing most characters allows you to take their outfit and wear it as a disguise, helping you to access more places and perform certain context-sensitive actions. Agent 47 uses this to his advantage, collecting different disguises along the way during each mission in order to get closer and closer to his targets.
Hiding from guards in a crowded attic or knocking out a nearby waiter and stealing his disguise to get past a security checkpoint, Hitman’s unique blend of stealth keeps you on your toes. There are some moments in this game that have that type of Splinter Cell “nobody can see you” stealth, but the majority of Hitman features a more James Bond-esque “hiding in plain sight” kind of stealth, where 47 poses as a janitor, technician, body guard, etc. to give his enemies the slip. The feeling of just walking your way through a high-security checkpoint as a deadly chef, psychotherapist, surgeon, or even high-profile supermodel is simply awesome. Hitman is the only game out right now that really does this kind of stuff, which really helps it to stand out in terms of originality.
Of course, using disguises is not an infallible system, since some NPCs will see through certain costumes, making the gameplay in Hitman a constant juggle between selecting the right disguise and avoiding certain people that will recognize you. The developers did a really good job thinking about which characters would be likely to recognize which disguise, further developing the game’s credibility and lore. This also slows down the pace of Hitman a bit, sometimes making the player roleplay as a certain individual or break rules of decorum to get what you want or avoid certain NPCs.Sneak around all you like, but there come times when stealth is simply not enough. Sometimes you can’t figure your way around a guard, or you get caught while doing something suspicious, forcing you to make a choice between fight or flight. Combat in Hitman is pretty hard. It can be done from time to time in a pinch, but, much like Sam Fisher from the Splinter Cell series, Agent 47 is not built of steel, meaning a few good hits will get you killed. This decreased emphasis on combat helps to build a strong thematic consistency within the game, highlighting 47’s need to remain covert at all times.
In general, the controls are pretty solid. Buttons are typically mapped to sensible locations, and the general scheme takes plenty advantage of players’ natural gaming instincts. However, due to Hitman’s procedural nature, there are times when the controls aren’t quite perfect, causing you to open a door or something when you meant to pick up an item, or punching someone right in the face when you were trying to stranglehold them, and these errors will sometimes ruin entire runs. One of the coolest things about the controls is the dynamic way the button prompts will visually attach themselves to parts of the level. It’s really intuitive and I’m impressed with how well it works.
France, Italy, Morocco, Thailand, Colorado, and Japan all set the stage for Agent 47’s capers. From four-story mansions to sprawling villas and even a high-security hospital, each location is different from the last, providing an increasing level of challenge along the way that promotes the gameplay mechanics in sometimes new and surprising ways. The developers did a great job crafting these spaces, with significant thematic variation between each one, and the NPCs inhabiting the spaces add texture and personality that both serve to immerse the player and, at times, make them laugh their asses off. I know that James Bond games are a series in their own right, but the intricacy and feel of the spaces featured in Hitman cause me to wonder if IO Interactive doesn’t do it better.
Each location is structured with different zones, and inhabiting any of the zones either means that you are in the clear, trespassing, or in hostile territory. The NPCs’ reactions to your presence will vary greatly depending on which zone you’re in, and certain disguises act as fast passes that help you move from one to the next. The levels are filled with useful items and secrets hidden all over the place that you can use for knocking out, killing, or poisoning NPCs. Keys will be hidden around each area and some NPCs will carry context-specific items on their person.
All this means that in order to do well at Hitman, you gotta learn and internalize the levels. Listen to conversations, observe the layout, and practice, practice, practice to see what sorts of things you can get away with. You may fail the first couple of times (or even more), but with more and more tries it becomes a breeze, truly making you feel like the resourceful, intuitive killer that Agent 47 is. YouTuber Mark Brown notes this in what he calls the “art of repetition.” Over time, this repetitive play turns the player into a better and better killer as you begin to view each level as a puzzle waiting to be solved, just like that scene from The Matrix where Neo finally sees through the matrix and reads it as a bunch of green code. Once you’ve learned that there’s a secret entrance via Rocco’s apartment, an easily retrieved disguise from the chef if you turn off his radio, and a can of expired spaghetti sauce hiding in the pantry, it’s really just a straight shot towards realizing your goal of poisoning your target and then waiting to discretely push him over a ledge.
Probably the coolest thing about the levels is that each one features built-in “opportunities” that give the player avenues towards killing their targets. These opportunities take the form of scripted scenarios that the player can track in-game. If the player satisfies the requirements for an opportunity, they’re essentially put on a fast track for killing their intended target. I don’t know if previous Hitman games had this feature, but it’s an excellent inclusion, since each opportunity is completely optional while also giving less experienced players a way to complete their objectives as they struggle to learn a level. And some of them are just downright funny as hell.
On top of all this, Hitman is built over a procedurally-generated system reminiscent of the Deus Ex series, allowing for the most chaotic shit to happen sometimes. The world features a handful of interwoven systems that all work together, and the developers provide the player with a plethora of ways to break those systems’ rules, in essence encouraging them to break the game. Lead a character all the way to the other side of a level, or just start blowing shit up to cause as much mayhem as possible. The world is yours, leading to a variety of imaginative ways to finagle or bumble your way through any assassination.
In order to encourage repeat playthroughs, the developers implemented an achievement feature, challenging the player to kill their targets in a variety of ways, each of which opens the player’s eyes to new things about the levels, unlocking new equipment as they complete them. These challenges are sometimes hard, sometimes bizarre, and often downright hilarious. If you’ve ever fantasized about killing someone with a lawnmower or smothering them in their own birthday cake, then Hitman might just be the game for you.
On top of that, a Professional Mode was recently added as free DLC, which alters each level in enormous ways, adding extra guards, security cameras, and changing the ways NPCs detect and interact with you. This significantly increases the challenge, and it’s the perfect thing that offers even more content for the well-practiced player.
Further play is offered via the Featured Contracts and Elusive Targets, which offer player-made or one-time-only tailored assassination scenarios that recycle the levels in creative ways. Personally, I don’t really mess with these a whole lot, since there’s so much many other things to do, but I’m really glad that they’re in there.
The story is rather good. Agent 47 and his agency are playing a game of cat and mouse with some other agency throughout the game, and this story arc progresses in the background with the completion of each level. From what I can tell, the overarching story doesn’t have any direct impact on the gameplay, but its inclusion isn’t unwelcome.
The real star here is the lore and world building. Random characters are surprisingly well-fleshed out and textured, featuring individualized routes and patrol patterns with unique conversations that help the player understand how the levels work and lend insight into the larger world that surrounds the events of Hitman. People will often talk at Agent 47 as he walks by or offer reactions to things that he does, and it’s just downright funny.
The soundtrack doesn’t have a whole lot of tracks, but there is one featured song that lets you know when a mission is done. Aside from that, the sound design in general is pretty spot-on, helping to build a holistic and consistent atmosphere that keeps the player immersed.
And that immersion is essential to help the player roleplay as the master assassin that is Agent 47. Despite his shaky moral ground, the player is really able to visualize themselves as Agent 47, and that is the real success of Hitman. If you can’t empathize with your protagonist or put yourself in their shoes, then a game simply won’t hold your attention. Hitman manages to do this through its compelling atmosphere, as well as 47’s stoic nature, peppered with a latent, quirky sense of humor, which finds itself reflected in the goofy and ironic world that surrounds him, all tied together with an uncanny sense of realism, keeping the player immersed throughout while not afraid to break that fourth wall on occasion.
Agent 47 is the calculating killer that you cannot escape from. He’s done the research, he’s done the preparation. He knows where his targets will be and when they will be there. He knows the lay of the land inside and out, and he knows a million ways to kill you with it. He can be anywhere and anyone, armed with a supernatural intuition. When the going gets rough, he can think on his feet and disappear around the corner in a moment’s notice, or take out those that stand in his way. He’s not invincible, but his composure, situational awareness, and combat prowess all provide evidence to the contrary. He is the most frightening adversary, because when he comes for you, you won’t even know it.
Hitman strikes a delicate balance between realism and satire, constructing a world that follows specific rules of engagement while often encouraging the player to break those rules, and even breaking a few of those rules on its own. The world is believable and textured, with plenty of fun things to do and interesting dialogue to listen to. Each area is intricate in its own way with a significant amount of variation, and the available methods for killing your multitude of targets are even more complex. This is all tied together by the central gameplay element of Hitman: hiding in plain sight.
No stealth game so far has even come close to capturing the thrill of infiltrating a high-security compound by just walking in through the front door. Hitman gets a coveted 9 due to its insane attention to detail and incredibly unique gameplay, all wrapped in a world that’s believable and immersive while also managing to reflect the absurdity of real life. After playing this game, I’m saddened that I’ve missed all the other titles that came before it. Nonetheless, I’m happy that I picked up Hitman, as it just may be one of the best games from 2016.
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