Reviewed on PC
The Hitman franchise has been around a while now, sixteen years in fact, but until now it’s one that I haven’t taken a true deep dive into. Upon its announcement, the latest entry (which I will refer to as Hitman 2016 to avoid confusion) in IO Interactive’s assassination series did not seem like the one that would finally pull me all the way under. The idea of a rebooted, online-centric and episodic take on the series triggered feelings of disdain rather than attraction.
However, during my casual viewing of Giant Bomb’s let’s play-style video series for the game I started to notice a lot of different elements that appealed to me. So, once all six episodes of what is now retroactively being dubbed ‘Season One’ of this new Hitman incarnation had been released, I swiftly purchased the game on Steam. Having witnessed the many successes and failures of Giant Bomb’s attempted hits, I wanted to see not only if I had what it takes to become the perfect hitman but also what I’d been missing out on for sixteen years.
For me, the best thing about Hitman 2016 is how it emphasises planning and strategy over brute force. Of course, there’s something be said for a great action game. But in a title centred around being an elite assassin it does not make sense to allow the player to consistently succeed in missions solely via a guns blazing approach. To that end, the game asks you to slip into disguises in order to sneak inside places you shouldn’t be, set up ‘accidents’ and other orchestrated kills which don’t raise suspicion, and generally get in and out without leaving a trace. This fosters an almost a puzzle-like approach to the stealth, especially in the later more challenging missions which have you juggling many and often time-sensitive objectives.
The moment-to-moment gameplay itself is surprisingly streamlined, making the game easy to pick up but giving it almost an arcade-like feel. Most of your abilities come through inventory items and interactive elements in the environment, meaning there’s a clear logic and intuitiveness to the game that’s rare and refreshing. There are no RPG elements, no intrusive mini-games and hand-to-hand combat (should you ever get into it) is undertaken through just two buttons in quick-time style events. The open-ended yet grounded level design plus a Batman: Arkham Asylum-esque Instinct vision makes planning your next move simple and clean. When a mission does go south, 99% of the time it’s due to your ability (or lack thereof) to devise flawless plans and properly execute them, not down to speed, proficiency in combat or mastery of abstract game mechanics. A nice side benefit of this is that the game is simple and fun to follow for an observer, so having someone be your co-pilot/navigator/handler or watching let’s play videos become viable ways to enjoy the experience.
The complete Season One contains six main levels which, at face value, doesn’t sound like a lot of content. However, these stages are huge and contain enough in them to allow for dozens of ways to approach your objectives. Specific kill challenges, progressively evolving side hits known as Escalation Contracts, user created assassinations called Contracts and a level progression system per stage provide meaningful and substantial reasons to replay each many times through. I’m pretty sensitive to games reusing content over and over again but when the environments have so much to see and do in them, so much so that you probably won’t experience even a third of their content on a single run, Hitman 2016‘s approach doesn’t come off feeling cynical or repetitive to me. There are also two smaller side missions which are initially used in the opening tutorial plus heavily remixed versions of the Sapenzia and Marrekesh stages, each with unique contracts and sets of challenges.
Then there are the Elusive Contracts. These limited-time, regularly releasing unique hits are rather special. Since they can only be attempted once each and disable the use of your Instinct vision they force you to be on your assassination A-game. As a result, these fairly simple jobs become hand-sweatingly suspenseful, yet ever so rewarding, little events. In short, they are the Hitman experience distilled down to its simplest and finest elements and served to you in a shot glass every few weeks.
They are also one of the only aspects that justifies that Hitman 2016‘s troublesome always-online system. It makes sense that Elusive Targets must be played while connected to the game’s servers, not only to deliver new ones, but also to verify that players only get one attempt at them. It’s also logical to have such a system when new episodes were still coming down the pipe. But to lock out players from other content and features simply because they don’t want to or can’t get online is both baffling and annoying. Mission starting locations, equipment and level progression all require an active connection to the game’s servers. Players even get kicked out of the game if said connection gets dropped during a mission, which is outrageous for a fundamentally single-player game. Though a disc-based release of the game is coming to Xbox One and PlayStation 4 in January 2017, don’t expect those versions to be free of this irritating system.
There’s a fair bit more I could say about Hitman 2016. I haven’t even mentioned the overarching story that loosely ties together all of its stages, nor its charmingly absurd underlying sense of humour. However, I think you’ve got my drift at this point. The game’s smart and rewarding approach to stealth alone earns it a big thumbs up from me. I haven’t played enough of the prior entries in the series to judge how Hitman 2016 stacks up against its predecessors but it’s safe to say that this is a quality outing that may just creep into many peoples’ game of the year lists. Besides removing the obnoxious always-online system, I can’t really see any obvious ways in which IO Interactive can improve on the Hitman concept any further.