IO Interactive has, after several months, finally put a full stop at the end of the first season of Hitman. The experiment with episodic content drops has, for the most part, been a success, and now that the dust has settled and we've seen the credits roll, it's time to take stock and look at what it offers as a whole.
We actually reviewed most of the individual episodes as and when they dropped, so we'll not dwell too much on the little details, and instead we'll focus on the big picture. Hitman saw IOI take the series in a very different direction to previous game Absolution, and while its predecessor focused on a story linked to bald-headed series protagonist 47, and was much more linear than we've seen from the series before that point, this new six-part season offers up a variety of self-contained sandboxes to explore.
There's story in there, although it takes a back seat this time around. We thought that more could have been done to keep the player involved with the narrative, and once we'd finished the game we felt like we had to go back and watch cutscenes and mission briefings to work out what had actually happened. Episodic stories work when there's a meaty narrative to get stuck into, but our chief criticism of Hitman is that there's not quite enough there in terms of story. It starts off a little vague and feels a little disconnected at times. Although it comes together by the end, a recap of some sort with every episode would have made for a more engaging overall story. Having said that, those who pick up the game now that it's content complete will find a cohesive experience, even if the ending wasn't as strong as it could have been.
Then again, we haven't played this series throughout the years because of the story; we play it for the murderous action and the fiendish puzzle-like gameplay. In this respect, Hitman absolutely delivers, and there's a whole bunch of wonderfully wicked ways in which you can dispatch your many targets. Whether you go in guns blazing (not recommended and certainly hard to pull off) or aim for a more delicate, almost accidental approach, there's a huge range of ways for you to complete any given contract.
In fact, we'd call that one of Hitman's biggest strengths; there's a lot of longevity to be found in the many different ways you can go about your business, and each different approach gives you a fresh reason to tackle a level again. This is because they are so different and often quirky, and there's plenty of fun to be had from exploring your options. Opportunities present themselves throughout, and as you explore each level you'll stumble upon conversations between NPCs that give you new insight.
When it comes to the NPCs there's a lot of moments filled with character. People gossip and complain and in doing so reveal potential new ways to complete each assignment. This aspect could have been a little bit better though, and in our opinion the over-reliance on British and American voice actors had a detrimental affect on the atmosphere that IOI worked so hard to establish in other ways. In some missions it's not a problem, almost unnoticeable, but in others the lack of regional accents is at times hard to ignore. The market in Marrakesh is a good example; in all other respects it feels and looks convincing, but the voices are all horribly out of place and at times it makes you feel like you're wandering around a movie set.
For the most part it's not a big deal, or you can ignore it, and when that happens it's easy to immerse yourself in the various environments that have been built. Italian resort Sapienza is the series' undoubted high point, perhaps one of the best Hitman levels ever, but they're all really good (forgetting the aforementioned gripe) and refreshingly different. The sprawling American farm from episode five is populated with different factions and overflows with intrigue, the mansion in the opening chapter set in Paris is teeming with high society and offers quirky costumes galore, and the final episode set in the Japanese medical retreat is full of different areas and hidden secrets (and reminded us a little of On Her Majesty's Secret Service and Spectre). IOI has made some fantastic levels, and while each one stands up to scrutiny on its own, considered as a collection their construction and diversity is impressive.
There's a lot of good level design, with plenty of ways of moving about the various spaces. Different areas are gated via various means, and often you have to scout a location extensively before making a move and trying to sneak your way in. As always there's costumes that can be "borrowed" from around the world (usually taken directly from bodies of their previous owners) that allow you entry into previously inaccessible places. This setup governs a lot of your movement, although there are ways that you can get around without playing dress up, they do tend to involve extreme reserves of patience and cunning observational skills.
When observing each scenario you'll notice that Hitman is a decent looking game. That said, it won't win any awards and it's not a huge step up from Absolution. There's a lot of interesting detail in the environments and the characters you meet look convincing, although perhaps there could have been a touch more variety in terms of character models and costumes (although we acknowledge that this would make gating areas a more complicated process, and having standardised outfits solves that issue). There's a lot to see, a lot to interact with, and each of the sandboxes feels distinct.
The missions themselves offer plenty of variety, and IOI has done a lot to flesh out the overall game with additional things to do. Players can make their own missions and share them with ease, a feature that returns after success in Absolution. On top of that there's the Escalation Contracts, which are five-part missions that get increasingly complicated and offer a really stern challenge (and there's a huge number of them). So much potential has been built into each environment that they're easily repurposed, and the Escalation Contracts in particular are a really nice way of making the most out of the various locations.
You could say the same about the Bonus Summer Episode, which reworks Sapienza and Marrakesh into completely new contracts, and in the case of the former, drastically changes the dynamic of the game space by closing off large sections and turning what remains into a colourful movie set. If you're on PlayStation 4 the devs have even returned to each location and made a secondary campaign called the Sarajevo Six. It doesn't offer as much depth as you'll find in the main story missions, but it's a great addition that adds genuine value. Finally there's also the limited-time Elusive Contracts that must be completed at the first time of asking, which alone aren't a standout feature, but when considered as part of the whole package they offer up an engaging alternative where the pressure of knowing that failure is not an option makes for a more intense experience.
There's a couple of things that we're not completely sold on. We think too much cool stuff is locked away, and we'd have liked a lower threshold in terms of unlocking new starting points, costumes, and equipment. As it stands you've got to really grind away at a level to get access to all of the gear, and we wanted to have more options sooner, because Hitman is at its best when you're free to explore and experiment, and a lot of the fun is hidden away and needs to be earned. We also think they missed a chance to introduce a level editor; the opening missions take place on a custom built wooden set, and it would have been great to have been given the tools to build our own small maps. Maybe next time, right?
However, content locked away a touch too tightly, a lack of regional accents, and a story that for us doesn't have quite enough substance to sustain itself across the episodic setup, even combined aren't enough to derail our enthusiasm for Hitman. Thanks to regular online content updates and tons of additional contracts that have been added over time, IOI has ensured that 47's latest outing is greater than the sum of its parts. There's so much to do beyond the exciting and accomplished story missions, with hours and hours of bonus content to enjoy. It's not quite perfect, and we're hoping for more from Season Two, but we've had a great time returning to Hitman throughout the year and we can't wait for more.
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