It’s the middle of the day, and I’ve spent the last couple of hours trying to p out how to kill this stupid cameraman. You’d think it would be easy, but I have to make it look like an accident and I can’t harm the newswoman he’s working with. Much harder than it sounds.
I’m on the fifth and final variation of one of Hitman’s “escalation” missions, and I’m beating my head against the wall. I’m also having more fun than I’ve had with almost any game this year.
I first saw the new Hitman game more than a year ago, at E3 2015. At that meeting, IO Interactive creative director Christian Elverdam was saying all the right things: the studio was taking the design ethos and open-ended levels of their beloved Hitman: Blood Money and bolting on the improved controls and mechanical fundamentals of the somewhat less-beloved Hitman: Absolution to create an ur-Hitman. It sounded great, except for the part where they released the game episode by episode. That didn’t just seem weird, it seemed like players were being asked to pay up front for what could turn out to be a disjointed, dissatisfying game.
Six months since the first episode launched in March, Hitman has become one of my favourite games of the year. It’s managed that in part because of the very distribution method that many of us were so unsure about. Spreading things out over a year now feels like it’s played to the game’s strengths, with modifiers and special modes stacking atop each other to remix each standalone assassination assignment into ever more interesting challenges. The drip-feed of updates and challenges has made Hitman feel alive and participatory in a way that few single-player games have managed.
If you fire up Hitman today, you’ll find an intimidating number of options in the main menu. You can do story missions, of course, where you’ll take out each location’s designated villains in a variety of ways. You can also try some user-created contracts, which usually make for a fun, wacky challenge. You can go make some contracts of your own. Or you can do escalation missions. My advice: Do the escalations.
Hitman’s escalation missions are the rug that ties the room together. It’s possible to play the game without doing them, but you’d miss what for me, at least, has become the heart of the game.
You start with a single target, a unique NPC located somewhere in one of the sprawling levels. You can’t save mid-mission, so if you screw up you’ll have to start over. Manage to kill them, and the game will layer a second objective or modifier onto the initial task. Maybe you have to kill them a certain way, or while wearing a certain outfit. Maybe there’s a second target. Each escalation has four or five stages, and by the final stage, what started as a simple contract will have become an elaborate, multi-phase operation.
Each escalation starts with just the objective on the far right, and adds new challenges each time you successfully complete it.
Here’s an escalation I just finished in Paris. It’s called “The Seeger Beguilement.” (They all have silly names like that: “The Wetzel Determination.” “The Perkins Disarray.”)
Your initial contract is easy: Kill a photographer named Olvan Shillingford and make it look like an accident. That means he needs to be, say, blown up by a malfunctioning gas lamp, or electrocuted, or killed by a falling speaker. I found the easiest way to take him out was to electrify a puddle he walks through.
No problem. For the next step in the escalation, a restriction: the model he’s with can’t be killed or even knocked out. Explosions and other violent accidents are out. Easy enough, though—the puddle method doesn’t affect her, so it should still work. This time, I pd out where to run to get a screwdriver…
Which I needed to set up the trap…
...which, if I moved quickly, I could prepare before he arrived at the patio for the first time. Done.
Next escalation level up: Now there are a bunch more “super enforcers” wandering the premises, and they can see through my disguises. Not too hard to deal with and plan routes to avoid them, though.
For escalation level four, I needed to hack into a downstairs laptop in addition to the first two things. That’s a more significant complication. The laptop rests in the middle of a crowded security room, which makes it very hard to stand still and hack for ten seconds.
Hey, it gets the job done.
My inelegant solution was to kill all the guards in the room. Over the course of the escalation, I pd out which order to shoot them in so there was no risk of discovery, but there was always a chance of something going wrong. Killing non-target characters also obliterates your score at the end of the level. Given how difficult escalations can be, my priority was simply to finish, not to score well.
Final round: The first guy, the laptop, the super enforcers, and a whole second target: a news cameraman named Jay Smart who also has to die by accident and also without killing or hurting the news anchor he’s working with.
You can’t save during escalations. This actually makes things both tense and relaxed, if that makes sense. It’s tense because a single mistake often means you have to start over from the beginning; it’s relaxed because you often have to let go of “perfect” and settle for surviving. Did you just screw up and get spotted by a guard? Might as well try to contain the situation. What have you got to lose?
By the final run, I had everything down to a science. Run to the end of the hall. Kill the guards in the room and hack the computer. Move two of the bodies so they aren’t visible through the door. Be sure to grab a fire extinguisher on your way out, then jog upstairs. Head straight through the bar, careful to avoid the super enforcer in the room. Jog directly to the screwdriver, grab it, and prepare the water trap. Leave the water trap be and trust that the first target will wander into it as usual. Drop the fire extinguisher near the far side of the van. Wait in cover until the second target comes up to the van. When he goes around the side to put down his camera, shoot the nearby fire extinguisher. It’ll explode, killing him without hurting her. Stroll to the exit.
You can watch the first and last stages of The Seeger Beguilement in the video at the top of this post.
It took me a lot of time to crack that final phase. It eventually stopped feeling like an open-ended Hitman game and became more like Hitman Go, the first of Square Enix’s line of terrific “Go”-themed tie-in games. Like Hitman Go, an advanced escalation mission severely constricts the game’s otherwise vast possibility space. It forces you to approach it like a board game with a limited number of possible moves. You move your piece from place to place with careful planning and precision, clearing objective after objective on your way to the exit.
I spent four or five hours on The Seeger Beguilement, and that’s just one escalation. There are currently 16 in the Paris level alone, with more being added to the game regularly.
While escalations are plenty rewarding to complete for their own sake, they also train you for an even harder challenge: the next elusive target. As you’ve probably gleaned even if you aren’t playing the game, Hitman elusive targets are limited-time events that give you a day or two to track down and kill a target hiding in one of the game’s levels. Usually you get a briefing and a photo, and that’s it. If you get yourself killed or fail to escape after you take out the target, you fail the event. You can’t try it a second time.
(Apparently, that will hold true even once the final version of the game is released. IO’s Torben Ellert tells PCGamesN that this year’s elusive targets will truly never repeat, even in 2017. Certainly an argument for playing the game now rather than waiting.)
The most recent elusive target, “The Black Hat,” happened to be in the Paris level, same as The Seeger Beguilement. I played it shortly after completing the escalation, and was immediately impressed with how much more prepared I was than the last time I attempted an elusive target. I knew the level cold and knew two or three effective ways to infiltrate every area in the building.
The elusive target was a hacker who’d set up shop somewhere inside the main building. I didn’t have a picture; the only clue I had was a hint that he was located on a higher floor. Because of how familiar I’d become with the level—I spent a fruitless half hour exploring the heavily patrolled attic in search of a way to kill that second cameraman—I immediately said, “Yep. I know where they are.”
Turns out I was right. Things went a bit pear-shaped and I had to kill a handful of guards on my way out, but I got out alive.
Guy was taking a piss in the corner. Note the strategically positioned UI prompt.
Elusive targets put a bow on Hitman’s overarching design. They’re the final exam that every other mission in the game has been building toward. Few games with this many different modes and challenges manage to feel so cohesive—one thing leads to the next thing leads to the next—and the end result is a game that I can play in any of a variety of ways while always learning and improving.
- Story missions are a lower-key way of learning the level. You can save your game and experiment, and if you complete story-mission challenges you’ll unlock better starting locations and disguises. (Those can be invaluable during more challenging escalations and elusive targets.)
- Contracts let you screw around, and if you feel like getting creative and making your own, they can be a fun way to challenge your friends.
- Escalations force you to get extremely familiar with a single corner of the map, and each one you complete leaves you that much closer to having everything memorised and mastered.
- Elusive targets sit atop the whole heap, forcing you to rely on everything you’ve learned and unlocked in all the other modes.
No bloat; no wasted space. 47 would approve.
In the past, I’ve played Hitman games like I played most other big games: go from start to finish, replay a few levels with alternate strategies, then go play something else. This new Hitman’s episodic formula forces me to go back and really replay old levels, which is something I’ve actually only rarely done in past games. Thanks to the constant stream of challenges (and some terrific, well-designed levels), I actually want to go back and revisit everything, and I want to master as many escalations as I can. I want to be ready for the next elusive target, sure, but I’m also just having a great time.
None of this is to suggest that the game doesn’t have some problems: The online requirement, which bails on your game if your internet connection goes out midway through, is still overly stringent. It still runs like unoptimized ass on PC, and my humorously powerful rig can’t maintain 60fps no matter how far down I lower my settings. The pricing scheme is still confusing, and as far as I can tell it’d be possible to buy two standalone episodes and essentially lock yourself into buying them one at a time, missing out on the bonus missions given to people who bought the full game up front. And so on.
IO has started calling this the first “season” of Hitman, which suggests that this model will continue into a second season and beyond. Two new locations remain for season one: a Colorado militia outpost hits at the end of September, and an unnamed location in Japan will arrive shortly after that. There will doubtless be plenty more escalations and elusive targets across those and the other maps, along with (hopefully?) some sort of season-ending surprise for players who’ve diligently been keeping up all year. (An elusive target in more than one location? Some final mission that spans the scope of the game? We’ll see.)
For now, it’s safe to say that the episodic approach that raised so many eyebrows at the outset has in fact helped encourage a better, more satisfying way to play Hitman. The experiment has been a success.