After a four year sabbatical, Agent 47 returned to our screens in 2016. While this iteration of the franchise saw a return to the series’ more traditional, sandbox-puzzle roots, the title’s business model saw significant alteration. Gone was the single, boxed release; replaced instead by a model that staggered episodes over ten months. Unsurprisingly such a model, normally the reserve of narrative-driven titles, drew the ire of fans and critics alike; it appeared to be an unnecessary and cynical exploitation of the series for financial ends, and would surely hamper the quality of the title. However, after ten months of content and the boxed release arriving at the end of January, IO interactive have surprised many by making a great success out of the formula, and a worthy addition to the Hitman franchise.
With 2006’s Blood Money often regarded as the pinnacle of Hitman’s stealth puzzle formula, it comes a little surprise that IO returned to their roots with 2016’s iteration; ditching the linear levels and melodramatic story in favour of the open ended levels and black humour that the series is known for. While the narrative appears slightly threadbare initially, it does an effective job of tying the individual targets and locations into a cohesive plot, and the environmental storytelling employed throughout these levels does an effective job of fleshing out this story. Small details, such as NPC conversations or visual clues help to create the effect of a seamless and shared world, rather than a set of self-contained levels, and such details enhance the overall experience. It won’t win any awards for it, but the narrative is a notable improvement on past entries’ attempts, Absolution notwithstanding.
Likewise, Hitman‘s gameplay reaches a high point with 2016’s entry. IO made a wise choice in retaining the more fluid stealth cover system used in Absolution, which helps to make direct stealth a more enjoyable and viable playthrough option. Disguises are, naturally, still an essential part of the game’s DNA, but players looking for a greater challenge post-completion will find not only multiple ways of eliminating their targets, but also multiple playstyles for 47. On a similar note, mastery levels serve as a welcome addition to the franchise, unlocking different weapons, gadgets and starting points for missions as the player discovers more of level. This not only ensures a continued stream of playthrough options, but cuts out a lot of the early legwork in setting up kills once the player has completed the mission several times. It’s a small and avoidable change, but a welcome one at that.
On this note, it’s necessary to address the elephant in the room with regards to Hitman’s accessibility. The inclusion of the ‘opportunities’ system, which essentially walks players through the setup to a kill, does damage the discovery element of the series, however this can be turned off from the get go, as can the returning ‘instinct’ system and various other tooltips. While such systems will undoubtedly be beneficial to new players, long-time fans of the series can take solace in the fact that these systems can be removed at will. Hitman is, at its core, designed with player enjoyment in mind, and the scalability of its gameplay is a testament to this.
I came into Hitman with a great deal of skepticism, having been disappointed by Absolution and wary of the businesses model. But IO surprised me at every turn, providing a visually arresting, tense and often hilarious addition to the series that has been well supported throughout its run. While I will maintain that the title makes more sense as a complete, boxed release, fans of the series would be foolish to miss out on this entry when it releases at the end of this month.