How does one go about committing the perfect crime, especially without getting caught or even raising suspicion?
This question is all I can consider as I walk calmly toward the scene of my first assassination mission in Hitman – a massive fashion show, hosted at an exquisite Parisian mansion filled with socialites and the “one percent.” I am armed with little more than a garrote, some basic intel on my targets, and my own wits. “How can I do this effectively and also get away with it?” I ask myself.
I wander around for a few moments, hesitant to saunter into the show. I overhear a conversation between two bartenders about one of my targets: he apparently enjoys a very specific cocktail, and it’s not exactly your standard rum and Coke. I think to myself, “Duly noted.”
After this brief interaction, one of the bartenders wanders off, and the second walks into a restricted area below the mansion. Now, I should be going through security and the front door like everyone else, but opportunity is fleeting, and I’d be a fool to pass it up. I look around to make sure the coast is clear, and I sneak into the basement behind the unsuspecting bartender.
As he reluctantly returns to his post, I take the chance to subdue him, hide his body, and disguise myself alongside his fellow event staff. I am now the bartender, dressed in his clothes and shoes, but I still have a mission to carry out. Now that I know the recipe for this special cocktail, I’ve got an opening to poison his drink. So I casually make my way to the open bar, unphased and unsuspected by event security, as my target slides up to the bar for his beverage. Unbeknownst to him, the rat poison I found moments before in the cellar is about to ruin his night and send him rushing to the restroom.
The mark begins to get sick, causing a distraction. I slip away toward the restrooms and I wait. I’ve now effectively transformed from a fly on the wall to a very deadly spider.
Sure enough, my target bursts in, rushing straight to the commode and violently vomiting up his drink. In all the rustle and bustle, I have the perfect chance: with his bodyguard standing post outside, I drown him in the toilet and hide his corpse before walking out as if nothing happened. “One down,” I say to myself, and continue on my mission completely incognito.
Without describing the entirety and specifics of Hitman’s first episode, this very sense of free-form, opportunistic, emergent game design is what truly defines this soft reboot of the classic stealth action franchise, and sets it apart from similar titles.
Rather than forcing players to obey strict stealth rules and follow a carrot on a stick, each sprawling locale in Hitman puts you into a lively, interactive, virtual sand box full of deadly toys and opportunities to discover. Even better, the level design is so expertly crafted that I often felt compelled to jump back into the same mission for a different approach, time and time again.
Instead of rat poison in a cocktail, what if I can isolate my target and shoot him with a silenced weapon? What if I watch his movements closely enough to notice that he lingers just below a giant chandelier, which begs to be dropped on his unsuspecting head? What if I just forego subtlety and place an explosive somewhere in his private quarters, or use a sniper rifle to take him out from a distance?
All of these choices and more are possible. Hitman practically begs you to learn more about each stage and target. It rewards creativity and makes you feel like a high-functioning assassin, whether or not you’re armed to the teeth or simply carrying a lock pick. In the life of a professional killer such as Agent 47, sometimes your best tools aren’t made of lead or steel; they’re words, a good distraction, perfect timing, or a simple ruse.
Organic game design such as this has been achieved before in previous Hitman games and other great titles, like Dishonored and Metal Gear Solid V, but there is something still so undeniably satisfying about the options at one’s disposal in this reboot. For example, there is an “Opportunities” mechanic that displays, in real time, certain events within each episode that can set off other chains of events and ultimately lead to the death of your targets.
The Opportunities system also lets you know if you’ve taken too much time for certain things to happen or if your actions negate other events, allowing you to adjust your mission plan on the fly. This is a level of polish and execution that few stealth games employ, leading to an experience that still involves some dabbling, exploration, and trial and error without driving you absolutely insane. For once in a stealth game, making mistakes is not a mandatory Game Over, and more often than not you can weasel your way out of problems if you just use your brain a little bit.
Further driving its shocking amount of replay value, each mission in Hitman features dozens of “feats” and in-game rewards for assassinating targets in nearly every possible way. Before each mission, you can set up how you’d like to start: you’re able to select from multiple weapons and tools such as a lock pick, syringes filled with deadly poison, and even stage-specific gadgets like an explosive golf ball and an explosive rubber ducky.
Upon completion, your mission debriefing breaks down your performance and awards bonus points for stringing together clever methods of killing people. You’re also rewarded for discovering the aforementioned opportunities, feats, and special assassination techniques. Of course, you’re penalized for sloppy mistakes, such as being caught on surveillance cameras or raising alarms. These penalties don’t necessarily discourage any style of play, but as one would expect, staying true to the professional skills of Agent 47 is always a good bet for a great score. Ultimately, your points unlock mission bonuses such as new weapons, disguises, and even different starting points to begin the episode on your next attempt.
Perhaps the only real stumbling block for Hitman was its episodic release schedule: each episode was released individually and spread apart throughout 2016. This graciously gave players a lot of time to fully explore each mission, but it also segmented the full experience in a bit of a clumsy manner. Luckily this issue is no longer a factor, as the entire “season” is now available for purchase online or at retail stores. We saw this episodic structure rightfully change with the release of Hitman 2 in late 2018; it’s just too bad the original title wasn’t quite as cohesive at launch. Let me be clear, I am strictly mentioning this for informative purposes – don’t let the “episodes” turn you away from what is a collectively fantastic stealth game.
My only other criticism of Hitman is that its overarching plot didn’t exactly engage me quite like the specific events and situations that unfold within each individual episode. For example, I was far more intrigued to learn the salacious background of one of my female targets, whose affair with a golf coach can be used to dispatch her unnoticed. It’s too bad that Agent 47 isn’t the most personable character, but on that note, he wouldn’t be the ideal assassin if he stood out everywhere he went. Nevertheless, Hitman is absolutely brilliant as a stealth game, and fans of the genre or the franchise should find a lot to enjoy within each of its episodes. I came away enjoying a few of the missions more than others, but my experience with the game was like enjoying a fine wine and tasting the different notes, not just plowing through the entire campaign. Players lacking patience may want to look elsewhere as this is certainly not a mindless shooter, and it directly caters to the type of player who loves to plan, pays attention to detail, and is not afraid to experiment.