Hitman: Season 1
Whether you love it or hate it, much of the discussion surrounding IO Interactive’s latest installment of Hitman has been focused on its episodic format. The decision to split the experience into individual levels and sell them piecemeal was a major focus (and criticism) in my review of Episode 1, and the slow drip feed of offerings since then ultimately led us to wait until the entire “season” was released before taking another critical look at the game. That time has come with the release of the final episode, and while playing through all six missions together does indeed offer a better experience, Agent 47’s latest outing fails to live up to his greatest hits.
Whether you’re just now jumping into the full game or have been playing every episode as they release, Hitman’s story doesn’t offer much to get excited about. Aside from a few flashbacks that reveal how Agent 47 met his longtime handler Diana Burnwood, the sparse narrative tries (and fails) to convey a vast, twist-laden conspiracy in a handful of short, rendered clips. The mystery of who is behind Hitman’s disparate missions doesn’t materialize into anything meaningful, leaving you six big sandboxes to experiment in as you replay the story missions and sample the side content.
Unfortunately, the locations are too big for their own good. Like previous games, the new Hitman offers up a bevy of creative opportunities to snuff your targets. However, the enormous areas exacerbate all of the series’ weaknesses. Pulling off an elaborate kill means learning the layout of a labyrinthine environment, finding the necessary items for your scheme (which is now like finding a specific needle in a stack of needles), figuring out guard routes, acquiring the right disguises, and oftentimes maneuvering your target into the correct location by completing some inane secondary objective. It’s an inordinate amount of prep work for a series that already demands a lot of patience.
The end result is you probably won’t stumble upon creative executions organically like the old games, and even if you do, you’re likely to miss a key component. In the Bangkok level, my attempts to kill a high-profile rockstar fell apart at the 11th hour. After obtaining multiple disguises to sneak past the hotel’s guards, infiltrate the band’s penthouse, and poison the doomed musician’s birthday cake, I found out my target wouldn’t even come down to the room to try the celebratory dessert because it was missing a topper. To get it would mean sneaking all the way back down to the ground floor, swapping disguises yet again, and then finding the actual object among the sprawling maze of kitchens and storage rooms.
The solution (besides just shooting him in the head) is to use the “track opportunity” function, which is basically a Hitman for Dummies guide that leads you through each assassination option step by step. The system works fine, but it also strips Agent 47 of his agency, and diminishes some of the magic the series is built on. Either you accept the guided tour or you waste a lot more time trying to find everything yourself. Either way, the thrill of discovery takes a hit.
Hitman’s later episodes only become more unforgiving. IO Interactive isn’t afraid to ratchet up the difficulty by loading environments with eagle-eyed foes. Episode 5 tasks 47 with taking out four targets on a militia training camp in Colorado, which means every NPC is armed and on the lookout for intruders. Episode 6 takes place inside a high-tech spa where every door is electronically locked based on your disguise, leaving you with few places to hide. I appreciate new wrinkles and challenges being introduced to Hitman’s gameplay, but they all result in more trial and error, which can quickly cross the line into frustration.
The gameplay also suffers from more ambiguity. As in Absolution, Some NPCs can see through your disguises, but you won’t know which ones until you’re wearing it. In the Marrakesh level, I jumped through numerous hoops to obtain a guard uniform, only to find out it had no effect on the majority of identically dressed guards in the embassy. Some wonky A.I. behavior also makes it hard to tell when NPCs will notice you or respond with force; performing the same actions on multiple attempts sometimes result in different outcomes. Rolling with the punches has always been part of the Hitman formula, but the longer the missions are, the more of a problem unpredictability becomes. I used to revel in trying to achieve the perfect hit and the coveted Silent Assassin rating that comes along with it. Now most missions are a slog just to get through, and I feel less inclined to repeat them.
While the six main missions still contain some classic Hitman moments, the bonus content is less compelling. Outside of the PS4-exclusive Sarajevo Six missions, Hitman’s other missions all revolve around killing random NPCs in less creative and more repetitive ways. This includes the Escalation missions, which task you with redoing the same assassination five times in a row with increasingly complex parameters. I enjoyed some of the extra content, but not enough to keep me consistently coming back. On the bright side, IO Interactive has finally added search options for user-created Contracts, making it much easier to share custom missions with your friends and find content you're interested in.
Unfortunately, some of Hitman’s other shortcomings have remained over the year-long release schedule. Diving back in, I forgot just how crippled the game is if you’re not online – lose your Internet connection while playing, and you also lose all the secondary missions, unlocked weapons and gear, bonuses challenges, and even your in-game stats. I also ran into some slow-loading texture problems, which rendered Hitman’s iconic barcode tattoo into an inky smudge for minutes at a time, along with other textures in the environment. IO Interactive continues to rely on the same small pool of voice actors for NPCs, whose lame banter about politics, economics, and philosophy will make you wish everyone was on your hit list.
Agent 47’s ultimate skill has always been patience, and the newest Hitman demands the same from the player more than ever before. Some may enjoy devoting hours to planning and pulling off the perfect hit, but the supersized levels have made 47’s latest adventure an overly drawn-out affair, above and beyond the initial episodic release schedule.
This review was originally published on November 15, 2016.