Episodic games have proliferated in recent years but, until now, have broadly conformed to a specific blueprint in which storyline has taken precedence over gameplay.
High-profile examples such as Life is Strange, the Walking Dead and Game of Thrones have myriad merits but underneath their visuals belong to the most archaic of genres, the point-and-click adventure. So when a major franchise such as Square Enix’s Hitman makes the move to a piecemeal structure, it amounts to a noteworthy change of tack. You might not have flagged Hitman as an obvious candidate for such an experiment but it turns out to have been an inspired move.
While the series is ostensibly about stealth it also offers meticulously realised environments, providing its taciturn star Agent 47 with all manner of ingenious means to fulfil his sinister business. In Hitman games, you are really playing your surroundings. Having experienced the prologue and Paris-based mission that constitute Hitman’s first episode, plus most of the following mission (set in the fictional Italian town of Sapienza), it’s clear that putting Hitman out in this format has given Io Interactive a newfound freedom to craft missions that explore the intricacy and richness of these environments in new ways.
The need to provide gamers with something to do while they wait for the next episode has motivated the studio to develop a clever structure that immerses you in those environments to an impressive extent.
Hitman kicks off with a prologue, set 20 years ago at the ICA headquarters, the organisation that issues Agent 47’s orders. There he undergoes two training missions which, while nowhere near as baroque as the full-story quests, are still pretty interesting. Amusingly – flagging a rich vein of humour that is never far from Hitman’s surface – those take place on sets apparently constructed from virtual plywood and populated by actors. You instantly discover that Io Interactive hasn’t tampered unnecessarily with Hitman’s much-loved stealth gameplay: Agent 47 has stalwart tools such as a fibre-wire garrotte, a silenced pistol and a coin for distracting guards. He must also enact a bewildering amount of costume changes. Furthermore, he remains adept at sneaking up behind people, knocking them out and dumping them in crates.
But new concessions have been made for those who may have found past Hitman games frustratingly difficult. Most notable are the so-called opportunities, in which Agent 47 overhears conversations that lead him to discover offbeat ways of taking out his targets. For example, in the Paris level, he learns that his target Viktor Novikov has a favourite cocktail called a Bare-Knuckle Boxer so he seeks to find the recipe, plus emetic rat poison and a barman’s outfit. This way, he can send Novikov rushing to the nearest gents – an ideal venue for a head-flushing hit.
The story missions are also essentially checkpointed. The game autosaves frequently and you can manually save, so you don’t have to start from scratch if Agent 47 is caught surreptitiously preparing a refreshing rodenticide chaser. Hardcore Hitman fans are given the chance to turn off the hand-holding that opportunities afford at the beginning of the prologue, but those mini hints are so inventive that it feels a shame not to have them highlighted.
There are vast amounts of such hints, which offers a pointer to the depth and breadth of the missions. The first one (included in the opening episode) is called The Showstopper, and takes place in a huge, multiple-floored Paris chateau where Novikov and his girlfriend, ex-supermodel Dalia Margolis, are holding a fashion show as cover for auctioning a list of the identities of MI6 agents acquired by their international crime syndicate, Iago. The next episode takes place in a fictional Italian seaside town called Sapienza, in a large villa overlooking the town with grounds that run down to the sea. Underneath is a network of sewers housing a lab where chemist Silvio Caruso is concocting a deadly weaponised virus. Even locating the lab requires much snooping; both missions feature two targets and hundreds of ways in which they can be eliminated.
If anything, the third mission (currently unavailable for play) is even more elaborate. Set in Marrakesh, it is divided between the city’s outdoor souk and surrounding buildings, and the Swedish consulate, where a banker is holed up after ripping off the Moroccan government for billions. Meanwhile, a Moroccan general is plotting a coup; no prizes for guessing who Agent 47’s targets are. Except this time, he must be extra-discreet due to tension in the air, which manifests itself in the form of helicopters whirring overhead. Each environment is a treasure trove of assassination possibilities. There is an overarching storyline but in true Hitman fashion it’s very cryptic and pretty incidental.
Beyond the story missions
While the prologue and story missions constitute the basic building blocks of Hitman, completing them for the first time merely fosters a sense that you’re just getting started.
Io Interactive has developed some clever new modes, which endow the game with playability levels that are unprecedented in the series. Chief among them is escalation mode. This involves playing through existing missions, but with different targets and added conditions, during the course of which you will inevitably discover huge areas that you never knew existed. Each escalation has five levels. When you accomplish your mission, the next level adds extra conditions and occasional targets. In the first escalation, you must accomplish the fifth level by taking out your targets without “pacifying” anyone – that is, knocking them out or even engaging them in fisticuffs.
All of which cleverly knocks you out your Hitman comfort zones because you’re forced to modify your strategy with each escalation. By the time you’ve accomplished all five levels of an escalation, you’re left with an incredibly intimate knowledge of the environment and an intuitive sense of the rhythm according to which everyone moves.
Hitman has a nicely developed user-generated element. For, example, you can create your own contracts simply by playing through existing missions and tagging new targets for elimination, then adding extra conditions. Those contracts can be published for all-comers to take on and, without any briefing beyond the targets’ names and appearance, are usually hard to enact. Even pre-launch, there were hundreds of such contracts to carry out.
But the most innovative new addition to the Hitman blueprint is elusive targets. Sadly, we weren’t able to sample any of those as due to their very nature, they are time-specific. Elusive targets will crop up for just 48 hours, and any clues as to who they involve and where they might be, are extremely cryptic. Once you work out what they entail, you’ll have one shot – if you fail to eliminate your elusive target, you’ll must wait for the next one. It will be all about being the first Hitman owner in the world to take them out – global bragging rights will be yours.
Visually, Hitman is OK, rather than astonishing (although it’s noticeably more impressive on the PC than the consoles). Like its predecessors, it demands an adeptness at stealth gameplay if you want to get the most out of it, which might be beyond the abilities of those who lack patience. But even hamfisted gamers can try the first episode and see if they like it, for only £11.99. What they will discover is that the structure has given the game new levels of immersiveness, bringing out the puzzle-solving elements that were previously somewhat latent.
There has never been a better way to confront, or indulge, your inner assassin.
As this review is only of the first chapters of the Hitman episodic series, we have not provided a score.
This article was written by Steve Boxer, for theguardian.com on Friday 11th March 2016 12.09 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010