Slow, silent, and kind of gloomy. Being Agent 47 doesn’t immediately suggest fun to anyone. But then the mischief begins...
"IO intends to introduce Elusive Targets on a regular basis, each with their own back story, testing would-be assassins to the limits of their own imaginations."
Just as the original Hitman: Codename 47 went against the grain a little over 15 years ago, Hitman in 2016 looks set to stride powerfully through a crowd of team-oriented first- and third-person shooters. Indeed, since 2000, IO Interactive has been among the very few big studios to pursue the art of completing objectives while remaining unseen while most AAA titles have favoured a more Hollywood approach to player heroics.
The Contracts mode introduced for Hitman: Absolution has since proven a terrific showcase of IO’s current ambition for the series, a world in which the butterfly effect reigns supreme, providing what appears to be countless ways to eliminate key targets. Success across social media (30 million contracts played) has inspired IO to push this concept harder this year.
There is also a new Escalation mode, built upon the Contracts theme, in which IO issues its own menu of hits to encourage mastery of locations and gameplay mechanics. The series is dubbed Escalation owing to the stakes being raised each time a player manages completion.
Most notably though is a completely fresh addition, Elusive Targets, that players may only track down for limited real-time hours. This is for the most hardcore fans that are likely to dip into the world of Hitman on a daily basis. IO says it intends to introduce Elusive Targets on a regular basis, each with their own back story, testing would-be assassins to the limits of their own imaginations and while pushing the game’s stealth-oriented mechanics.
Our recent hands-on time comprised four missions, initially a tutorial while the third and fourth became impressively staged ‘live’ situations. A new sense of player freedom really struck home almost every second minute during the session. Agent 47’s skills to manipulate situations proved varied and surprising, not just in the planning stages but in containment.
For training purposes, Agent 47 infiltrates a mock-up ocean liner, bustling with passengers that include unsuspecting target Kalvin Ritter – a shady dealer in reactor technology. With direct instructions to 47’s ear, the basic task is to enter and leave undetected, bamboozling the crew below deck into accepting 47 as a mechanic, before working the party atmosphere above to sneak unsuspected into the VIP area. This whole routine takes a good hour to size up and execute, since private security guards are on the lookout for anyone that doesn’t fit in, and won’t let anyone out alive if the passengers resort to screaming.
Somehow the mechanic guise proved acceptable enough to walk freely around the ‘ship’, though it was immediately considered out of place in the galley where a cook was promptly strangled unconscious to steal his outfit. Clues as to where Kalvin Ritter was to meet his partner in crime, a very dapper Mr Norfolk, were overheard while ‘blending in’ as bar staff.
The plan comes together… sort of
Playing strictly by the rules, this first operation went quite smoothly with 47 creeping into the room where the deal would take place. After silently shooting Ritter in the head, Norfolk – distracted by his supposed view outside and his own monologue – kindly donated his suit and hat to allow 47 safe passage to the outer decks. However, instead of finding a crowbar to leave via a security gate, a little improvisation was needed to claim a guard outfit and eventually walk away to the distant sounds of yells.
Before letting Agent 47 loose on the real world, the above mission was recommended again, only this time as a Free Training Module. Here is where the game helps you appreciate that there are several specific Feats that lead to assassinating Ritter in more style. It is possible to drown the target in the toilet for a ‘Hold My Hair’ performance boost, murder them with rat poison (‘Cheesy’) or discover a yacht crew disguise to check ‘Hello Crewman!’ off the list.
Without in-ear suggestions from HQ, the agenda is shaped very much by first figuring out which disguise is the least likely to raise suspicion. Props such as a coin to toss, or explosive to place that will raise the alarm and/or incapacitate pursuers, require several attempts to fully integrate into any kind of strategy. A lock-pick, however, is much more obvious. As things turned out, the Free Training effort became very messy, with Ritter being dumped over a railing and the (fake, wooden) helicopter being 47’s ride out of there. Given so much that went wrong, we were still in sight of those elements that could’ve made it smoother. Although aching for another attempt, it was time to accept a live situation Final Test.
Our one-man assault on a Russian airbase illustrated how the free-form nature of Hitman 2016 can turn even a calamity into a great opportunity. A clumsy, and very noisy, altercation at a guard house gifted 47 with a Soviet army uniform, inside of which he was able to march undisturbed around most areas of the base. Suspension of disbelief is certainly required to get along with Hitman at the best of times; so what if their comrades ignored the gun shots.
In this guise it was even easier to gain access to the jet fighter in the hangar and sabotage the ejector seat. In another attempt 47 adhered more closely to direction and stole an engineer’s overalls to blend in, but colleagues recognised him more easily as an imposter.
"Hitman does a rock solid job of keeping the mind bouncing around possibilities, wrapping up suspense in lavishly depicted scenes."
Similarly, uniformed guards protecting a KGB officer knew their own staff very well. This made snooping around the offices upstairs to observe stolen slides on a projector or gather notes from desktops very awkward. But to prevent this, and later scenarios, from becoming too rigid the game also presents optional ‘Opportunities’ to follow that may lead you into all kinds of trouble, but result in gaining helpful knowledge while getting closer to the prize.
Paris when it sizzles
In a military scenario roles are relatively clear, which is why the Paris-based showcase that followed struck like such a delicious curve ball. So far we had learned how eavesdropping conversations, some narrative-informative while others might lead to Opportunities, could help guide progress. Overhearing a hair stylist talking about this and that? That’s… hmmm.
Before even entering the Paris mission taking place around a star-studded fashion show, featuring (bald) supermodel Helmut Kruger, a quick browse of the possible Feats gets the mind racing. Approaching this same scenario multiple times in the manner of Duncan Jones’ movie Source Code, even the least intrusive encounter can lead to big change of fortune further along. The show takes place inside a huge stately home, 47 approaching the red carpet, tuxedo clad. He doesn’t need to walk right in, he can stroll around the car park or peak at the palatial gardens of the fictitious Palais De Walewska.
First we had 47 track a valet that had gone for a smoke, snatching his uniform in order to gain access to backstage. This didn’t present any great advantage, so next time we stayed with the guise of legitimate guest, stopping to watch the target, Sanguine fashion house owner Viktor Novikov, descend the grand staircase to greet photographers. Though crowded, this was much too early to take a shot. We did, however, overhear Novikov tell one of his aids that he would later join Dahlia Margolis for a drink – another target, potential two for one.
Hitman does a rock solid job of keeping the mind bouncing around possibilities, wrapping up suspense in lavishly depicted scenes. The Sanguine fashion house party and its conversation hotspots encourage you to consider ‘what it?’ no matter how bizarre. 47 bears a striking resemblance to Helmut Kruger. Perhaps that make-up area isn’t just for show after all…
IO claims “over 300 fully simulated NPC characters in Paris alone”, in addition to presenting an almighty conundrum for the main mission, any one of these NPCs can be targeted by players to issue their own Contract. Ambitious in scope, and meticulous in execution, the new Hitman embraces all that has ever made the series great, showing huge potential.
The Prologue and Paris missions of Hitman are released on Hitman 11 March, available for PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4. The Hitman beta begins on PS4 February 12