We go hands-on (and hands-off) with the second and third episodes heading to Hitman.
Hitman is an episodic game, which means that at release the intro pack with the prologue and the first episode will be all that's available, with the rest set to be published afterwards in monthly increments thereafter. While we're doing a traditional review of the first episode (you can read that here), a few days before its launch we were invited to IO Interactive's studio in Copenhagen to get a preview of the next two episodes that will be released over the next couple of months.
Together with the review, the following impressions will hopefully offer a picture of what you can expect from Hitman in its entirety - and help you decide whether you want to invest in the entire game from the start, or just try it out with the slightly cheaper intro package (and then top-up as and when you can).
Episodes and seasons: these are terms and concepts that the people at IOI have mentioned regularly when they describe the latest Hitman game. It may give a false impression, though, of what one can expect from their latest, murderous offering. Games have, with increasing frequency, used the episodic format as a publishing method, but often these games are smaller and more story driven than what's on offer here.
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Each episode of Hitman brings the next chunk of the overall story, but also much more than that. Each new episode adds a completely new level, each one a sandbox of opportunities where the overarching story forms the background to the narrative that you as a player end up creating. There are continuously added contracts and elusive targets, and you can even create your own contracts and then share them with other players. IOI has been focusing on creating levels that not only offer a lot of content, but that are ready to receive future updates and content created by the players themselves. Each level has a wealth of characters, and occasionally one may overhear a conversation which will later make sense in the wider story, as the season goes on. This way the story will be told indirectly through each level, rather than just in the cutscenes.
The two episodes we saw at the presentation - the next to be released by IOI and Square Enix - were Sapienza and Marrakesh, located in Italy and Morocco respectively. Sapienza was the first we got to take a look at, and the only one we had hands-on with. It's a small fictional Italian coastal city with monuments, tourists and a beach. Tourism is generally a key word in this level. Despite the fact that it's not a real city, it feels authentic. The Paris level, which is included in the intro package, is large and comes with plenty of options. It might have shown the potential variety of options found within the framework of the game, but didn't give clear evidence of what IOI had in the pipeline, and if it was able to follow through on their promised concept.
As soon as we took our first steps in Sapienza, we instantly grew more excited about the game's future. The sun beats down on the square in front of the village church, there 47 is reading a newspaper whilst sitting on a bench. We went on to move through cosy streets, visiting a butcher shop, enjoying the view at the beach, and suppressed the desire to sit at a small sidewalk café with an espresso and enjoy the Italian summer, rather than go on a killing spree. The level oozes atmosphere.
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However, we have a contract to uphold. In the middle of the city lies a large mansion: Villa Caruso, where a bio-engineer named Silvio Caruso lives. Unfortunately for him, he is developing a super virus, and some people want his research to come to (ahem) a dead end. We can't reveal more about the opportunities and background stories that take place in the sandbox, but it looks like there will be plenty of opportunities for exploration and murderous experimentation.
The city is also a good example of what the developers call 'Swiss-cheese' level design. There are no dead ends, and there's always a new strategy to explore, a new method to try. For example, we ran into an apartment building, climbed through windows and balconies, and disturbed a lot of people who were having their afternoon naps (and had fun with clogging their sinks). Supposedly, there is also a secret laboratory somewhere in the level, and a system of catacombs beneath the city. We had an hour with this level and didn't even come close to getting a look at of all of the possibilities. If Sapienza is the standard for the next few episodes, we have much to look forward to. Judging from the third episode, Marrakesh, this seems to be the case.
We weren't allowed to try Marrakesh, as it's still in the fine-tuning phase, but we were given a virtual tour. There is unrest in the city, a military coup is brewing and in the middle of all this, our target, a Swedish banker who has taken a lot of money from the government, has fled to the Swedish Embassy. A large group of angry protesters have gathered on the street. Despite the chaos, the local market is still crowded with tourists and just like in Sapienza, the location is filled with small streets and cafes where guests are sitting and smoking shisha.
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The variation appears to be considerable when comparing the different levels. Each one seems to be built around a genre. Paris is a classic high-society James Bond setting, Sapiens reminded us of a '70s spy thriller, and Marrakesh unfolds against the backdrop of a political thriller. Military personnel are present everywhere, and you can feel the tension. Something big is about to go down. How you'll be able to exploit this tension for your own benefit is difficult to say from what we saw, but the atmosphere is strong. TV screens show breaking news, while tourists haggle over the price of Persian carpets and helicopters fly over the city.
The embassy seems well designed and has multiple floors, and there will certainly be different opportunities when infiltrating the building. The local military has made a small base at an abandoned school, and here there will also be options to explore. The soldiers have different ranks, which will be possible to exploit, so if you disguise yourself as someone with a high rank you will be able to dismiss guards from important positions and so on. Perhaps we might even be able take advantage of the protesters and create attention-diverting chaos? It looks like there's going to be plenty of options to explore and experiment with.
Our impression of the upcoming content for Hitman was extremely positive, and has removed any nervousness surrounding the episodic format. That fact that a month goes by between each episode means you can't complete the game in one binge over a weekend, and we hope that the various scheduled live events can maintain interest in the meantime. Still, we might not be fans of the format, but so far it's not a hinderance to our enjoyment of the game (beyond the fact that we've got to wait for the next content drop). When the season is over, we reckon that we might be able to look back on the best Hitman experience so far.