The Hitman series has always been comfort food for us. Throughout the years they've endured as familiar, absorbing games that owe just as much to murderous puzzle elements as they do the action-infused moments where it all goes wrong and guns - or in this case, Ballers - must be drawn.
And so here we are again. Agent 47 is back once more, and the bald, bar-coded killing machine is doing his usual thing in this, the first of several episodic sandbox murder simulations from IO Interactive and Square Enix. It's a new format for a new age. Hitman not only sports a slimline title - the suffix no doubt garrotted and dumped into a helpfully positioned man-sized container - but it has also been broken up into singular missions, and this first Parisian excursion is our starting point.
Actually, that's not strictly true. There's also a prologue that some people will have played during the recent beta, which acts as the opening chapter of the game, giving us an insight into 47's first dealings with The Agency. For longterm fans of the series, it's interesting background to a well-established character. To everyone else, they're a well put together tutorial.
Straight off the bat, the relative linearity of Absolution (which, incidentally, we still liked a lot) is gone, and in its place is a return to the sandbox structure of old, where players are presented with large areas to explore and experiment within. In Hitman areas are no longer gated with checkpoints, and instead we're given more room to manoeuvre. Of course there's no free-running around the place; you still need to dress up appropriately and there's guards posted here and there who'll stop you if you're not wearing the right outfit.
As we mentioned before, the prologue mission offers insight into the origins of Agent 47, and his recruitment into the shadowy organisation that we come to know better in later games. There's two missions (although you're told to play the first one at least twice) in this part of the game, and they're purpose built simulations, almost like movie sets, that the player must explore and exploit as they look to take out their targets.
As is the tradition, IO has planted lots of different options in the environments, opportunities to grab ahold of whenever they might come your way. Discovering these has, up until now, been at the heart of the experience, with 47 stumbling upon poison or whatever, and then working out how best to utilise these discoveries. Often the solution presents itself after a little poking around, and when you see a glass that invites you to add something extra to make a deadly cocktail, or when you hear two NPCs talking about the safety checks they've got to complete, you get the hint as to what it is you're required to do.
Whereas before we were more or less left to our own devices when it came to working out what to do, Hitman now gives you challenges to complete within the sandbox. We're still not convinced by this, as reading through them is effectively a series of spoilers for the hidden secrets that before we had to unearth ourselves. While this 'to do list' does give repeat plays focus, it also removes that sense of discovery. (It's also worth noting that the text in these menus is small, which is fine if your playing on PC or sat close to the television, but not so great if you're playing from a sofa a fair distance from the screen.)
The challenges extend from the prologue missions through to the first full sandbox in Paris. The first proper level is dauntingly huge, and at first we even thought it was too big. Then, once we started working out what we were doing, the size became less of a problem. Later, when we were replaying the mission and trying alternative ways of taking out our targets, the extended scope of the sandbox turned out to be a boon, offering real flexibility in terms of how you go about your business. The only downside of the increased scale is that it can be hard to find the the clues you need for some of the more exotic assassinations, so you have to either explore these spaces for hours, or you need to read up on the spoilerific challenges to know what your options are.
That's a minor gripe in the grand scheme of things, but we should also mention the long loading times (if you're the kind of player who likes to restart from a save after every screw up, this will be of significance). Another negative - for us at least - is the episodic structure that Square Enix opted for. Regardless of the reasons behind the decision to chop up the game and sell it off in chunks, we wanted to see new environments and carry on the campaign, and we're not too pleased that we've got to wait before we can jump back in. It'll be interesting to see how they handle the story side of things, because the narrative came to the fore in Absolution, but the episodic setup here suggests the focus is now going to be on sandbox level design; not necessarily a bad thing, we just don't like the fact that we've got to wait (of course, if you don't mind the episodic format, this won't be a problem for you).
Our biggest issue with the new Hitman is actually a longstanding one. Once again, as we've done countless times before in this series, you'll regularly find yourself manipulating and gaming the AI in order to progress. On this front it's perhaps getting a bit better, but the AI is still a bit dopey at times, and often it's hard to resist the urge to exploit it so you can get on with the mission at hand. There's no way around this problem (realistic AI wouldn't likely be much fun); this is a quirk of the series that we've all had to live with for years, and it's not one that's going away any time soon.
Looking past these minor shortcomings, what you get for your money is a Hitman that looks back as much as it does to the future. The return to more open sandbox environments is a welcome one, and the old feeling of exploration and experimentation returns after it hit a checkpoint in Absolution. The prologue is solid, and the main Paris mission is vast and full of entertaining detail. It looks great, with nuanced environments and realistic character animations, and the audio is decent (the NPC conversations and the chatter from guards while they're looking for you can be a bit hit and miss, but on the whole the VO is well done).
Adding additional longevity is the Contracts mode, which appears here as more central part of the offering after its success in the previous game. Players can revisit the levels and take out new targets as chosen by fellow players (there's a couple in there already), as well as set up their own via a system that allows players to enter the environments as they please, choose mission parameters, and then select (potentially multiple) targets. These missions can get quite complicated, and for dedicated and creative digital killers, this mode will represent a lot of replay value both in terms of content creation and taking on player-crafted challenges.
Best of all this is a game that encourages exploration and adventurous play, and even if the long loading times slow the pace and the challenge system signposts things that are best discovered organically, there's still plenty of reasons to play this through again and again (and maybe even again and again), such is the depth that IO has managed to weave into their world. It's just a shame we've got to wait for the next episode to land, because this is a promising start and we already want to play more. We're going to have to wait and see what the rest of the game has to offer before we adjust our score (or not, as the case may be) come the final episode, but if the quality remains similarly high or even improves, don't be surprised if the number below creeps up.