The fact that Hitman 3 is as good as it is - and that it exists at all - feels like something of a miracle.
Think for a second about the journey that this series has been on since Hitman 2016, a minor reboot for the adventures of Agent 47.
Yes, Hitman is big enough to have had two different Hollywood movie adaptations, but Hitman 2016 had an interesting, difficult launch nevertheless. Its episodic release format was poorly messaged by its publisher and thus hugely criticized, but then something magical happened: the game shone through.
Regardless of what you thought of how it was released, IO Interactive had managed to create something magical and compelling with its new formula. It took the best of the past Hitman titles and dialed it up to eleven, injecting the series with supercharged emergent mechanics where level design and AI systems would clash and interact in interesting ways. Sometimes this just led to a cool challenge, while other times mechanics would spin out of control in glorious ways, like a Catherine Wheel firework gone magnificently wrong.
The second game doubled down on that, and after playing the first couple of locations of Hitman 3 extensively, I can confirm that it does likewise. In that sense this is one of those dead easy sequels to write about. How much did you enjoy the last two Hitman games? ‘Cos this is absolutely more of the same.
There are subtle differences, however. After perfecting the rest of the template, IO has turned more to focus on the stories around Agent 47’s bloody work and the overarching conspiracy-driven narrative of these three games. This entry is described as darker and more serious - and there’s a more in-your-face execution of the story right from the off, with a significant exposition dump ahead of the first mission.
This isn’t to say that the silliness of the previous two titles has been abandoned, nor that the story is overbearing, as in the pre-reboot Hitman Absolution. Instead, IO has focused down on one particular thing: the first time you play each of Hitman 3’s new levels.
Each stage is still structured in that wonderful open-ended way. There remains a huge number of options for tackling mission objectives, and plenty of scope for each lavishly-crafted location to be used differently for alternative missions. However, the game works harder to point you in the direction of more hand-crafted storylines, moments, and kills on that first time through. There’s more dialogue delivered to 47 by mission handlers to help with this, but it doesn’t feel intrusive to the experience I’ve come to love over the past two games.
“We have a sort of focus on the first time you play through a level,” IO Interactive Communications Manager Travis Barbour told VG247 in an interview. “We want that to feel a little bit more handcrafted, a little bit more so you get a sense of the story. Afterwards, it opens up into complete freedom.”
The beauty of Hitman 3, as with its predecessors, is there’s a great deal of joy to be found in learning about how its levels are constructed. The routine of NPCs, the location of keys and disguises, the least-disturbed hiding places - each level is designed to be learned with the same sort of intricacy that one might learn the move lists and match-ups of the most well-balanced esports endeavour. After multiple adventures, you can come to understand the unique machine-like construction of each mission location like a highly qualified engineer - and those qualifications then give you the freedom to break that machine in glorious, explosive ways. It’s crucial to understand that the third entry is no different in this, even though it offers a more curated path for players, especially on the first play-through of a level. Once that first play-through is over, Hitman 3 offers as much open-ended mayhem as you'd expect - and these levels are arguably the most detailed and intricate IO has managed yet.
You can, of course, ignore that guiding hand, even on the first run. On my first time through Dubai, I gave one target a deservedly cinematic death after following hints and directions. The second I killed my way, opportunistically drowning him in a toilet after subduing a bunch of guards and bumbling my way into his private area. Both ways are equally valid.
The story that Hitman 3 is presenting is interesting, by the way. Hitman 3 continues and concludes an intriguing story that feels a good fit for the 47 character. He does feel like more of a real person across these games, too, not just a cool voice, a skinned head, and some piano wire. One thing that remains impressive across all three of these games is how much their stories intersect in less-than-obvious ways - calls back and forward between the different locations, targets and events that many won’t notice at all, but that will reward those who dig deep into each location, experiencing all it has to offer.
Those looking for a satisfying conclusion should find it here both in terms of the escalation of the complexity of Hitman 3’s systems and the continuation of the trilogy’s narrative.
Sometimes being more of the same isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I don’t think IO could really stretch to a fourth game in the same style without a more significant overhaul, but the 2016 Hitman reboot was announced as a trilogy, and there’s an excellent natural evolution and growth across these games that it’s easy to embrace and enjoy. That’s especially true when past levels and content will continue to fold ‘inside’ the Hitman 3 package - meaning newcomers could potentially play it all from within Hitman 3, even if it’ll mean picking up the other games as well.
Back in 2016, the first of this series surprised me. I said it “could be a series best” on release, and by the release of its sixth episode declared it one of the best games of that year. IO Interactive clearly understood it was on the right path, and it hasn’t messed with the formula very much since. Based on this, it’s perhaps not surprising that the deeply iterative Hitman 3 also has me feeling fulfilled - but it’s nevertheless pleasing to see a sequel, and a trilogy finale, seemingly stick the landing so confidently. We’ll find out how well in just a few weeks, when we can play the final game to completion.