A decade since the acclaimed Hitman: Blood Money and a few years since 2012’s much maligned Hitman: Absolution, fans of this cult sandbox franchise have been hungry for a return to form.
So, last year, developer IO rebooted everything. Revisiting early notions of what this iconic series should be, but incorporating refined gameplay systems and an entirely new release structure – six individual episodes over the course of a year – it aimed to reassert shiny-pated killing machine Agent 47 at the forefront of the sandbox stealth genre.
Now that the season has come to a close and a Hitman: The Complete First Season collection is coming out on 31 January, we feel the time is right to give our verdict: 2016’s Hitman is the best the series has been since 2006. While the reboot’s episodic structure comes at the cost of a truly engrossing narrative, the game’s story does still manage to exist in the margins.
It’s just enough of a thread to pull you through what this game is really all about: rich, detailed and fabulously well-designed sandbox playgrounds, each of which takes place across lavish locations around the globe.
As with all the best games in the series, Blood Money chief among them, the new Hitman doesn’t forget that, at its heart, it’s a sardonic black comedy. Yes, it’s violent and yes it features some unsettling characters with dubious morals and troubling agendas, but the game doesn’t take itself too seriously.
You’ll spend time stealing disguises off hotel staff to stealth your way into kitchens to tamper with food, masquerade as a gardener to turn a golf ball into a bomb, and come up with your own superbly creative ways of dispatching your target – tipping their unconscious body into a woodchipper, poisoning them, sabotaging medical gear, snapping their neck while pretending to be a therapist… The only limit is your imagination, kids!
The game relishes absurdity just as much as it rewards experimentation. You’ll find multiple ways to solve the same problems, whether that’s through paying attention to the various “Opportunity” hints that the game offers, or by taking the purist route – turning off the HUD and simply exploring every part of each level to uncover its many secrets. This is when Hitman is at its best, allowing you the freedom to work everything out for yourself without feeling too nannied.
The presentation is fantastic, giving you a sense of thrilling invisibility as you keep close watch on goons and guards that could see through your disguise and blow your cover. The only notable flaw is the voice acting – no matter where you go in Hitman, even if it’s the sumptuous Himmapan hotel just outside Bangkok, you’ll find you’re surrounded by the same American voice actors. It’s not game-breaking, but it is jarring.
The variety of Hitman: The Complete First Season‘s missions are the real draw, and never has Agent 47 felt like more like James Bond. Missions are bigger than what we’ve seen in previous Hitman games, both in terms of physical landmass and what they ask of the player. Often you’ll be attempting to take out multiple targets at the same time, which ramps up the difficulty.
The high point, without doubt, is the game’s second episode: a trip to the mediterranean seaside town of Sapienza, wherein you’re tasked with breaking into a high security villa, killing two separate targets before destroying a virus that’s located in the rocky basement below the heavily guarded main facility. It’s an organic labyrinth of truly exciting possibilities – one that invites repeated playthroughs and swallowed up 10 or so hours of GQ‘s time, just on this one mission.
In the game’s other standout levels you’ll visit a fashion show held in a Parisian mansion to kill a designer and his wife; venture to a luxury Thai hotel to help a rockstar join the 27 club; and trek to a hi-tech medical facility in the mountains of Hokkaido, Japan, to complete the game’s finale.
Each offers moments of pure brilliance, but none quite hit the heights of that escapade in Sapienza, which stands tall as perhaps the greatest Hitman level of all time. The remaining two that complete the six – a trip to the Swedish consulate in Marrakech and the infiltration of a freedom fighters outpost in rural Colorado – are relative low points, without the visual prowess or inventive level design of their betters.
Where Hitman goes next isn’t set in stone at this stage, but these first six episodes demonstrate with strength that the replayable mold of the franchise is still exciting, still fun and without doubt at its best when the constraints are taken off and sandbox dynamism is given more prevalence than plot.
You won’t come away from Hitman feeling like you’ve played through a momentous story, but you will have made your own along the way; it’s a brilliant anecdote generator, the most entertaining murder sim in ages, and it lets you do it all in a goddamn midnight-blue tuxedo.