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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

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