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Hitman 3 review: a fitting finale to one of gaming’s best trilogies

It's not the most friendly game for newcomers, but Hitman 3 is a great finale to one of gaming's best trilogies.

The best moments in the Hitman series are always right before the kill. If you’ve played these games, you know the feeling - when, after much preparation, players find themselves face-to-face with their target. Instantly, they’re given a paralyzing choice - stick to the plan and the obvious path laid out by the narrative, or improvise for a quick, efficient kill?

In a sense, I imagine the creation of Hitman 3 provided a similar quandary for developer IO Interactive. The easy, simple thing to do would’ve been to just stick to the plan and do more of the same, which is arguably what the excellent Hitman 2 did. But this third entry isn’t quite like that; it spies opportunity and peels off in a few interesting new directions along the way - just as the player might snatch an entirely unplanned kill half an hour into the mission.

IO wanted to focus more on the story this time around, and that brings with it a naturally more in-depth and occasionally more directed experience. The intricate, clockwork level designs that players can master the mechanisms of are still there - but the first time you run through them plainly marked intel and the handler’s guiding voice are more present, aiming to make this feel more like an epic story rather than a silly sandbox. It works.

The silly sandbox stuff is still there; Hitman takes great glee in its dark humor, be that in 47’s deadpan dialogue or in costumes he can don and weapons he can use - but between and during missions, the narrative runs more fluidly. Where before it felt like more of a wrapper, now it feels deeply baked into Hitman 3’s identity. For the first time in this trilogy, the overarching story beyond the little tales in each individual level gripped me. I consider that a big win.

I want to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, but given that many people will be coming to this game with a knowledge of the previous two, I want to contextualize what I mean in talking about IO taking a different path. So let me vaguely summarize the game’s content, without getting into any specific story spoilers.

Hitman 3 has six locations, just as the previous two games. I would say that two of those six are entirely traditional World of Assassination trilogy levels, following the template set by previous games closely. Two more are also traditional, but in the later stages of the mission pivot into more heavily narratively-focused events, the sandbox giving way to more directed, absolute objectives once certain milestones are reached. One is a wild twist on the basics of the series - more on this in a moment. The remaining mission is a more linear level, albeit with player agency and choice in how you approach it.

What you see in this structure is confidence. Like I said, each level is still built as a playground, as each is still designed to be home to alternative game modes that play on the emergent, AI-driven nature of Hitman’s locales. But each story mission and its core objectives feels more distinct than in previous games.

Dartmoor is one of the more traditional levels, but it still shows IO’s ambition this third time out. The level’s core opportunity sees Agent 47 take the identity of a private eye, summoned by 47’s target to investigate a murder on her private English country estate. 47 can use the murder investigation simply to get closer to her, guessing the perpetrator or framing an innocent. He can also properly solve the crime, scouring the estate looking for clues and interviewing suspects. Alternatively, of course, you can ignore this storyline and find another way to complete the hit. The choice is yours, but as in most levels the game keenly tries to nudge you towards this impressive slice of open-ended storytelling. It’s a slice that deserves to be experienced. Dartmoor is the greatest single-level story IO has ever told, incidentally - though as a sandbox it’s also unlikely to topple Sapienza, the perfect second level of the 2016 game.

One less traditional level is exciting because of how it doesn’t obey Hitman’s traditional rules. Usually you enter a mission after a briefing all about a high-profile client - but in one mission, you don’t know who your targets are. Instead, it’s a deadly game of cat-and-mouse between 47 and rival assassins - each trying to uncover and kill the other first. This takes place in a vast level, packed with bystanders - and any one of them could be one of the assassins. This almost feels like a love letter to the most hardcore of fans, stripping the game down to its most basic elements - which cannily matches 47’s status at the time.

I know some elements of this will inevitably get a mixed reception from fans. The most linear level, in particular, is likely to get some flak. But, honestly, I don’t mind. That mission is built the way it is as a direct result of the way Hitman 3's story is structured. The level is designed to be a more simplistic sort of catharsis. At that it is successful. Further, Hitman 3 is the conclusion of a trilogy that already provides a raft of excellent sandboxes for players to experience - and of course, those levels can carry forward to live ‘inside’ the Hitman 3 package, should you own previous games. That last point will be useful for newcomers, too, since some elements of Hitman 3’s story will be relatively indecipherable without at least a passing knowledge of its predecessors. The same tutorial level from the previous two entries is available here, but beyond that, you're thrown in at the deep end.

What hasn’t really changed, obviously, are the core mechanics. This is the best-looking entry, and there are small quality-of-life improvements, but generally everything performs as it did in the previous two games - which pretty well nailed the things that matter.

Taken individually, Hitman 3 feels like great value, with plenty of variety and lots to do. When taken as a whole, the World of Assassination trilogy is hands-down one of the best and most complete-feeling trilogies in video game history. It’s a fitting finale for 47 - at least for now - and it has naturally left me thrilled to see what IO does with James Bond or whatever else comes next. It might only be January - but I can pretty much guarantee this will end the year as one of my 2021 favourites.

Version tested: PC [Specs]. A copy of the game was provided by the publisher. Hitman 3 is available for PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One and Xbox Series X/S, Stadia, and later Switch, via streaming.

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