Developer IO Interactive Publisher Square Enix Format PC, PS4 (tested), Xbox One Release Out now
PC, PS4, Xbox One
While IO’s plan to drip-feed its latest
Hitman was met with unease initially, the studio’s experiment in episodic delivery has proven a good fit for the assassination-focused series. But while the first season boasts some memorable highlights, the six-mission collection is characterised as much by inconsistency as it is murderous creativity.
In Sapienza, the setting for Episode 2, the season’s peak came early. That’s not to say it has been on an entirely downward trajectory since then, but the expansive Italian town and surrounding Amalfi coast was always going to be hard to top. Its sense of scale, along with some remarkably organic level design, makes it the perfect setting for Agent 47’s return to Hitman:
Blood Money’s values as he oscillates between precision planning and tumbling improvisation in a wide-open, deadly playground. The level somehow manages to blend a beautiful coastal settlement, sizeable mansion and underground lab into one seamlessly flowing space that continues to make sense even as camp sci-fi silliness elbows its way into an authentically sleepy collection of villas and cobbled streets.
It dwarfs Episode 1’s solid Parisian mission to the same extent that that mansion does the tutorial level’s mocked-up yacht, and does so without straining or diluting the intricate web of possibilities that characterises 2016’s series refresh. It’s understandable, then, that IO chose to get Sapienza into the wild early, shoring up the stability of its playerbase by immediately unleashing its most spectacular creation. And while there’s an argument to say that holding it back until later in the season would have spared subsequent episodes the indignity of existing in its shadow, its position in the running order has been carefully chosen to reinforce the rising tension of Hitman’s storyline as each subsequent level dials up the danger, claustrophobia, and difficulty.
The tipping point for this strategy is Episode 5, in which you infiltrate a militant hacktivist compound in Colorado. There’s no grace period in which you can wander around to assess the location, or lock down targets’ movements before making your move – here, tellingly, you start the mission crouched behind cover and must figure out how to close the distance between you and your marks in a location that’s immediately, and wholly, hostile to your presence. It’s a smart reversal of the experience of brazenly walking up to the main entrance of a Parisian fashion show, invite in hand, and serves to showcase the remarkable flexibility of Hitman’s stealth mechanics.
But that flexibility is counterpointed by an uncharacteristic gameplay bottleneck that can’t be tackled in the free-wheeling, experimental way that most other tasks can. And while Agent 47 still acquits himself well when his options for dressing up are limited to camo fatigues and baseball caps, the reduced opportunities to get into character, combined with the oppressively hostile environment, inevitably result in a mission that feels flat in comparison to the others.
Episode 3, set in Marrakesh, suffers similarly, albeit for topographical reasons. Immediately following on from Sapienza’s grandiose spectacle does it no favours, but Marrakesh’s rigid layout is obstinately compartmentalised, resulting in a collection of districts and building interiors that feel disjointed. It does, however, serve as a high point for the engine’s crowdhandling tech, and the busy market stalls and groups of angry protestors are an astonishing sight. Even so, the comparatively heavy-handed partitioning of each area exposes the nuts and bolts of the game’s design in a way that simply doesn’t happen elsewhere – nothing breaks as a result, and there’s still plenty of enjoyment to be mined from the scenario, but it’s all a little more clunky.
Such problems are absent in Episode 4 and the finale, however. The former deployment takes place in a luxury hotel, recalling Blood Money’s House Of Cards mission, and offers up a particularly odious pair of targets – a spoilt rockstar and his family’s manipulative lawyer – one wandering around in plain view for the duration. The latter, meanwhile, checks you into a luxury Japanese hospital with dubious ethical standards and asks you to target a heart-surgery patient and another lawyer. Both missions present a tight warren of public and service areas that demand frequent changes of disguise and an ability to alter tactics quickly as situations shift. And while they’re necessarily more compact than Sapienza, both are almost as memorable – even if not quite as convincingly organic.
Ultimately, the quality of Hitman’s locations doesn’t really matter, such is the potency of the interlocking systems at its centre. IO has set about delivering six unique sandboxes crammed with possibility, humour and surprises, and the sheer imagination with which it has set up some of the scenarios is dazzling. Each episode cheerfully accommodates dozens of attempts without ever feeling repetitive or restrictive – from your first clumsy, brutish foray into the space, to those perfected Silent Assassin runs in which the spectacular showmanship of your targets’ demise is only rivalled by your cool-headed efficiency.
But it’s the game’s flexibility that drives its enduring appeal, complemented by its granular UI and difficulty settings that enable you to make it as easy or as hard as you like – whether through developer-prescribed challenges or personal rules imposed as a matter of pride – without ever adjusting a slider. In Sapienza, IO has created the series’ best level, while the complete package represents a powerfully convincing case for the potential of episodic delivery.
IO has set about delivering six unique sandboxes crammed with possibility, humour and surprises