It's the middle of the day, and I've spent the last couple of hours trying to figure 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.
Note: A version of this article ran on 9th September 2016. Since then, Hitman's final two story missions came out and the first season came to a close. Rather than rewrite everything from scratch, I've expanded my previous thoughts into a review and added discussion of the last two chapters and of the game overall.
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.
Eight months after the first episode launched in March, Hitman had concluded its first season. In the process, it 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.
The new Hitman game follows most closely on the heels of 2012's Hitman: Absolution as well as the unexpectedly brilliant 2014 mobile game Hitman GO. You once again assume the role of Agent 47, a cueballed superkiller with a barcode on the back of his head. 47 works for an organisation called the ICA, travelling the globe and assassinating on demand.
The story, such as it is, unfolds in brief cutscenes after each mission. It fails to manifest as a coherent narrative until the end of the penultimate chapter, and even then I'd be hard-pressed to really describe it as coherent. After watching each story cutscene multiple times, I don't think I could tell you what happened.
Fortunately, it doesn't matter. Hitman succeeds on the strength of its exceptional mission design, which usually lets you approach each new challenge as creatively as you like. As with many of the best games, the best story is the one written by you, the player.
Over the course of the game, 47 will visit: A party on a dry-docked ship, a military installation, a grand Parisian fashion show, a sprawling Italian villa, the dangerous streets and alleyways around an embassy in Marrakesh, a posh Bangkok hotel, a well-guarded Colorado militia compound and a ridiculously high-tech hospital in the mountains of Japan.
Each level is an open-ended sandbox filled with NPCs going about their day-to-day. At any moment you can activate 47's tactical vision, which shows you your red-highlighted targets walking around somewhere in the level. As often or not you could just walk up to a target, pull out your gun, blow them away and hope to run out of the level without getting killed. However, a more methodical approach will get you a higher score, and the best players will exit each level without ever being spotted or harming a single NPC who isn't their target. If you'd like, the game can helpfully inform you of various "opportunities" that lead to unique, level-specific kills. I found that I most enjoyed turning off these notifications and working things out for myself.
47 has a variety of weapons at his disposal, but none are as useful as his skills of disguise. Every security guard, waiter, busboy or kitchen staffer is just an outfit waiting to be stolen. Even without a disguise, you can usually walk around large parts of each level, casing the joint without arousing suspicion. Knock out a security guard and steal his outfit, and you're clear to go and enter more restricted areas. Snag any of a few unique costumes in each level, and you can move even more freely. Just don't get spotted doing anything untoward, or you'll be compromised and have to quickly vanish and change your clothes.
Each level has a similar fundamental challenge — kill the target — albeit with a slightly different flavour. NPCs in Marrakesh and Colorado are more hostile and so the levels require more traditional stealth-game maneuvers. Other levels set in public spaces let 47 snag costumes and freely move about in plain sight, often dressed up as the hired help. On the balance, I prefer 47's more opulent adventures in open spaces, rather than his stealthy treks behind enemy lines. Plenty of video games let me sneak through military complexes, but only Hitman lets me navigate beautiful hotels and sun-dappled Italian manors as a wolf in waiter's clothing.
Each Hitman level is meant to be played and replayed, and each story mission has multiple targets that can be taken out in a variety of ways. A clever challenge log tells you which ways you've managed (push this lady off a roof; drop a speaker on this second guy) while locked challenges give you an image or a clue indicating methods you've yet to discover (push this lady off the roof and directly onto the second guy). It would be possible to download the complete game today and blast through all the story missions in a few hours, which would almost surely be an unsatisfying way to play. The joy of Hitman comes from repetition and mastery.
When you first fire up Hitman, 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 starts you over, this time with a second objective or modifier layered 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.
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 figured 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 10 seconds.
My inelegant solution was to kill all the guards in the room. Over the course of the escalation, I figured 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.
Unlike in regular story missions, 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 will explode, killing him without hurting her. Stroll to the exit.
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. At the time there were 16 in the Paris level alone, with more being added to the game regularly.
While escalations are plenty rewarding on their own, 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.
(IO's Torben Ellert tells PCGamesN that this year's elusive targets will truly never repeat, even in 2017. That likely means that Hitman will continue to get new elusive targets into its second season and beyond.)
One 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.
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 forced 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.
Hitman's first season certainly has its share of 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 unoptimised arse on PC, and my humorously powerful rig can't maintain 60fps no matter how far down I lower my settings. The pricing scheme was confusing throughout the first season, though that should be alleviated now that the game can be bought as a complete product. Hopefully all of those issues will be addressed in time for the confirmed second season.
Hitman: Season One has it where it counts. Its 10 missions consist of far more hits than misses, and its open-ended levels are able to sustain hours of obsessive repetition and mastery. The overarching narrative may be unimpressive, but each location is well-conceived and believable, full of fascinating details and hilarious overheard conversations. The artificial intelligence is a workable blend of smart and stupid, which punishes careless play but still allows for daft, Hail Mary strategies. And its escalations and elusive targets provide a terrific endgame for those of us dedicated enough to master every other challenge.
Throughout eight months, Hitman has gone from an enjoyable dalliance to a minor obsession to a bona fide stealth classic. The episodic approach that raised so many eyebrows at the outset has in fact helped encourage a better, more satisfying way to play. We can hope that subsequent seasons refine and iterate upon the many things that the first season got right. For the time being, I'm content with having a really good new Hitman game.