The last decade was an important one for me. It was a decade of disappointment in a lot of ways, but also one of growth and improvement for me. A lot of my tastes changed during that time. My taste in music, for example, changed from classic hard rock and the occasional pop song to the exciting world of electronic music, primarily house and trance, and that has now evolved into a fascination with liquid drum & bass. I'm ever-changing, always looking for something new to latch onto in the vastness of interesting art and media the world has to offer. My tastes in video games evolved as well, and one genre in particular opened my eyes more than any others: Stealth games.
Turns out stealth games are fucking awesome! My experience with stealth in otherwise non-stealth titles had tricked me into believing they were just games about weaving your way through slow guard patrols in order to progress, but I could not have been more wrong. Stealth games are playgrounds of tactical espionage hilarity that allow you to mess with your enemies in the most outlandish ways you can imagine. They deliver a mix of butt-clenching tension and belly laughs that no other games can match, and I have fallen in love with them. The best stealth games are the ones that offer plenty of replayability, comedy options, cool gadgets, clever level design, and a consistent sense of being able to outsmart and outplay everyone in the room.
Hitman (2016) was a triumph in almost every way. Almost. It would be dishonest to suggest that the game wasn't plagued with weirdness and confusion from day one. The always-online requirement is a substantial downside to the whole deal, and one that has somehow stuck around to this day. It's the most painful part of these games by a very, very long shot, and it deserves every bit of criticism it has received. I don't think IO really knew what form they wanted this new batch of Hitman content to take, seeing as the first one was branded as "Season 1" and released in episodes, while 2 and 3 were both sold as new games, so the always-online issue may come from the game once having a much larger online component that was eventually scrapped. This is just speculation though.
I do think that each game was priced fairly despite being a little short, because you won't find other games this replayable outside of ones with randomly generated levels. Hell, with that qualifier in mind, you probably won't find other games that even come close. This is because modern Hitman isn't just a series of open spaces with a bunch of systems that let you make your own fun. They have a lot of carefully designed content on top of that, which is one of the main reasons I find these games so damn impressive. It's a sweet balance of linear setpieces and open-ended stealth, and on top of that, the stealth itself takes such a unique shape from every other game in the genre by being all about disguises and social stealth - unless you don't want it to, in which case you can stick with a set of traditional stealth mechanics that are also excellent on their own.
The game is surprisingly simple to play. There's plenty to learn for new players, but the controls feel like any other third-person action game. Nothing is superfluous either. Hitman has no leveling, no skill trees, no crafting, no driving, no QTEs. You can put a coin into a vending machine to grab a soda can, but Agent 47 doesn't drink it in order to increase his maximum health by 5%. He keeps it around as a potential weapon or distraction because every little element of the game is built around completing the mission he's there to accomplish. Hitman does have systems that simulate leveling, but they don't affect the gameplay loop at all. They're either tied to automatic unlockables or bragging rights, and you can easily ignore both of them if you so desire. This is notable because most games like this aren't so tightly designed. I usually only see low-fat design philosophies like this in retro-style platformers and experimental indie games
Though I do have some criticisms, I doubt IO Interactive could have done significantly better than they did with these games. They are the trailblazers for this kind of ultra-ambitious assassination game, and I can only hope they inspire other developers to give it a different spin.
Before I get started, I want to disclose 2 things:
1) These blogs will spoil pretty much the entire trilogy. I'll cover every map and all the major story beats.
2) My preferred way to play is to turn off instinct and set the mission story help to "minimal", but this hasn't always been the case. Hitman 3 was the only one of them I played like this during my first playthrough, so my comparisons of different maps may not be all that consistent. To my knowledge, all first playthroughs were on Professional difficulty.
Hitman 2016/Season 1
The very first game starts on a helipad somewhere in the mountains, and we meet our protagonist: A mysterious bald man with a mysterious bald past who will come to be known as Agent 47. I don't know why this bit is playable, since it's super short and there's nothing to interact with. I assume something was cut here.
47 meets with his future handler and partner in crime, Diana Burnwood, as this turns out to be his initiation at the ICA (International Contract Agency (I had to Google this lol)), his employer throughout the series. I like this intro cutscene, and I think it was smart to let us start from the beginning in order to ease new players into the story.
I enjoyed the narrative in these games in general. Not only is it a drastic improvement over what the previous game (Hitman: Absolution) had to offer, but there's a lot about the presentation and framing of the story I find engaging. I only have one major issue with it, and no, it's not the inconsistent cutscene crap that happens between installments. It's a broader issue that I'll get to when I talk about Hitman 3.
I don't tend to care for tutorial missions like these, because they always feel like such a dry way to kick a game off, but I do think it's necessary here. While the controls are easy to get the hang of, new players might need a helping hand when it comes to the more nuanced systems. A more exciting, action-y tutorial would have been tough to pull off, so I can forgive IO for falling back on this cliché.
The map is small and easy to navigate, which is great. It'll let you get the hang of the basics without making you too much of an expert. The 'guided training followed by freeform training' approach also seems like the right way to teach a game like this. I can imagine that a lot of players go for mission stories on their first few playthroughs, and then get more creative later on. You get to see the big story kills first, and by your third or fourth go, you've learned the map well enough for you to start making your own plans.
The boat theme also helps this mission stand out a little bit compared to other basic tutorials.
The Final Test
Do you ever have this thing where you can't help but think of an early-game level as a late-game one, just because it took you so long to get there the very first time? That's my experience with The Final Test, because I didn't play this one until I had already played some of the real missions.
It's a better tutorial than the last in the sense that it's more thorough, and it's a better representation of what a regular mission may feel like. Still, I'd say these two tutorial missions are some of the weakest parts of the game. This is a good thing, of course, since you'd expect the game to only get better as it goes on. The problem is that I'm compelled to say "some of". In reality, there are a few later maps that I consider to be lesser than even these first tutorial missions, which is a shame.
I think these two missions, as well as the cutscenes that surround them, do a good job making you feel like you are being trained as well as 47, and they retroactively make the following missions seem more important. It's cool how the game makes you feel that you're starting an assassination career of your own.
The first real mission, The Showstopper, is a great way to begin this fresh career. It delivers on every promise made by the tutorial levels, giving you two targets that you can eliminate however you want. I love how the first target is introduced, walking down the stairs in front of a crowd. You could easily take him out right there, though the consequences would be severe for obvious reasons.
I also can't think of a better palette cleanser from Absolution's hillbilly crap than a modern, high-class fashion show in a city like Paris. This cultural aspect is a big part of what makes these games so damn cool. A lot of research and attention to detail goes into both the environments, the intel you can collect, and the dialogue of random characters.
Each map starts with a briefing cutscene and ends with a cutscene that moves the story forward. I think this makes a lot of sense considering the game's original episodic structure. The first few cutscenes seem a little disconnected from what's going on in the gameplay, but they pay off really well if you pay attention to them, which I appreciate.
Helmut Kruger, fashion model and star of the show, introduces another element that I love: Memorable side-characters that aren't targets, but whose presence will somehow help you on your mission. Kruger's opportunity is a strong start, and IO were not shy about showcasing it in their promotional material, which I think was the right move. I think it's easy for an outsider to mistakenly think Hitman is some kind of ultra-serious assassination simulator, which can be off-putting due to the inherent implication of a grimdark tone and a mechanical density that will take far more dedication than other games. It's the same kind of misunderstanding that kept me disinterested in Resident Evil and Silent Hill for many years. Those games were labelled as 'survival horror', so I assumed they had permadeath and worked more like a modern rogue-like, even though that style of game wasn't even popular back then. It was a dumb misunderstanding on my part, but people can easily make the wrong assumption. I think it was crucial for the marketing team to show everyone that Hitman is a fun video game first and foremost, and I wouldn't be surprised if that single screenshot of 47 walking the runway has had a significant impact on the entire trilogy's eventual success.
Overall, Paris is a great introduction. It's a tad intimidating at first, but I think a single playthrough will give most players a confidence boost big enough to make them realise that they can overcome any mission the game will throw at them. The first mission is also a perfect introduction of the mix between scripted events and freeform gameplay, as well as the seamless relationship between the two. You can follow the Helmut Kruger story all the way through, or you can stop as soon as you've stolen his outfit to take advantage of his celebrity status and gain easy access to every floor. The game doesn't break if you do stuff like this. All it does is give you more opportunities, and it's something I adore about it.
Sapienza is iconic for a good reason. It took the ideas of the Paris map and expanded upon them in ways that could easily have backfired. While it must have been hard to turn one building into a fully explorable space that also happens to work as a video game level, I can't even imagine the amount of thought and effort that has to go into something like this.
I'm not even sure where to begin with this one. The fact that you technically can't explore the whole town, but always feel like you can, is a masterstroke by itself. You can visit the local church, several shops and cafés, the town hall, the beach, the mansion, the secret lab below the mansion, and even the sewers. It has so much going on and is so densely packed with detail while also being tied beautifully together, and it becomes very easy to navigate once you realise how many shortcuts there are. The cleverest bit is that one part on the roof behind one of the buildings that face the main square. This spot is not only good for sniping, but will lead you to two different apartments, another building, the mansion grounds, the mansion kitchen, and even the beach if you slide down a drainpipe. That's a lot of paths going from one small location, yet the spot looks natural. Nothing about it screams 'Shortcut Central'; you'll have to figure it out on your own, and most people probably won't give it much thought before they move through it. This is the kind of slick design that makes Hitman so accessible despite its overwhelming scope. While most games reward exploration with treasure or side content, the rewards in these games are shortcuts, items and opportunities. As I said, it always comes back to the mission.
The targets, Silvio Caruso and Francesca "Franny Desanny" De Santis, are two of the most memorable across the whole series. They're a team of mad-ish scientists working on an evil virus, and they both happen to distrust each other. Silvio, in particular, has a surprising amount of backstory, which somehow makes it even more entertaining to put rat poison in his spaghetti and kick him off a ledge when he goes to barf.
The underground lab feels different from the rest of the map, but you can still see the sun reflected in the Amalfi waters through the cave openings, and the fact that it's even there is an exciting thought even when you're not physically there. Some people dislike the virus, but I don't think it's that bad. You can just snipe the thing, you don't have to go into the lab in a hazmat suit every time. It's only a big deal on the first few playthroughs, and I appreciate that we get a small taste of IO's experimental side this early on.
Design and characters aside, I think a major reason I like Sapienza so much is that I'd love to go there in person. The real-life inspiration for this town is a place I want to visit one day, and this virtual version has provided me with some quality in-game tourism many times during the pandemic. The map is so good that it received three bonus variations, including the gorgeous and atmospheric 'Landslide' mission, in which you get to see the beautiful town at sunset during a concert.
Marrakesh might be the most forgettable map. It lacks a lot of the tight design seen in Sapienza and later maps, but it's not one I'd consider "awful" either. It feels a bit like filler; a standard contract to ensure the story can establish a "safe" routine before it starts to shake things up. The first four maps are all like this, but it feels like this one had the fewest ideas put into it.
Both previous maps introduced something that would become recurring concepts throughout the trilogy, but Marrakesh just repeats what Sapienza does. I think this creates an impression that you've already seen every surprise the game has to offer, and that the rest of the game is just a mix of Paris-style levels and Sapienza-style levels, with little new to offer aside from new targets and opportunities. I think the games could've gotten away with doing this, but there are plenty of more interesting ideas coming up.
I think it's the school part of the map that drags it down the most for me. This building is not at all interesting to explore. It's too much of an actual school and not enough of an engaging video game level, which I think showcases the delicate balance of fun and believability that these games have to achieve. This school does have the opportunity I see people bring up the most, which is the one where you kick a toilet onto a target. It's funny but not as incredible as the runway walk or the therapy session from previous missions.
The night version is better, but I struggle to explain why. I think it has to do with a lot of subtle changes that make navigation more interesting. Cutting off the consulate part also makes it feel tighter.
Ken Morgan can fuck off! I don't know why this target has to be so excruciating to deal with, but some of his opportunities are just downright painful to set up.
Aside from that, I'd say Bangkok is about average in quality for the World of Assassination games. It's a step up from Marrakesh but now quite a return to Sapienza. I think the map being one big hotel makes it a little less interesting to explore than most.
On the flipside, the map's biggest strength might be that both variations feature some of the more interesting missions. Jordan Cross, the less infuriating target from 'Club 27', is both one of the scarier and more sympathetic targets. He has this murderous temper that feels genuine, but he's also capable of grief and remorse, and there's a fantastic story mission in which 47 confronts him personally. The other variation kicks off Patient Zero an intriguing side campaign about a death cult and their plan to spread a horrific virus. Yes, I know they've already done the virus thing, but this one feels much more relevant to what's been happening this past year since there's a real threat of a pandemic this time.
The game changes in a lot of ways after the main mission is complete. The cutscene at the end is the first one since the tutorial to feature 47 and Diana. They've gathered in an airport to discuss the fact that the last 4 contracts have apparently been connected. This is where the story really kicks off. 47, Diana, and the ICA are suddenly aware of everything that's been happening in the background for the last 4 missions. I love how this is paced. It's just the right amount of intrigue mixed with anticipation when the moving parts begin to clash. The story early on feels like watching a good crime/detective show with just a hint of James Bond, and while I wouldn't say it's a masterpiece, I can't stress enough how much better it is than Absolution's story. It's just infinitely more engaging than the quest to save some teenage girl and the magic necklace that gives her superpowers from villains like Limp-Dick Lenny and Skurky the Kinky Sheriff.
The bigger change, however, comes from the fact that the maps and missions begin to experiment a lot more. After a bunch of straightforward missions, this is a welcome change of pace, but the first experiment is a bit of a disaster.
Plenty of great games have a level or section that's considered much worse than the rest, and I often find myself disagreeing with that assessment. Some examples include the Water Temple in Ocarina of Time and Blighttown in Dark Souls, both of which I enjoy. I'm not always as sensitive to little frustrations as some other players are, so I tend to be more forgiving as long as the game is at least trying to do something cool.
Colorado is an exception. This is pretty much universally considered the low point of Hitman 2016, if not the whole trilogy, and I must agree. This is the first map without any public areas, which means you're trespassing even at the edges of the level, and almost every single NPC is an armed guard. The context behind this is that 47 is on a mission to eliminate the heads of a militia group that may be connected to whoever has been manipulating the last bunch of ICA contracts, and while I don't mind that premise at all, this was not the way to execute it. The map is just too large and too open for a more traditional stealth level. It's a bit like Camp Omega from Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, except built in an engine that was made for something different, and a lot of technical shortcomings burst to the surface as a result. I managed to crash the game on this map by trying a guns-blazing approach because it couldn't handle the number of hostiles rushing to my location. There are flaws in this engine I would have never noticed if not for this map.
The technical problems and messy design mean that I can't bring myself to place this one anywhere but the bottom. I haven't played it in ages, and I don't think I ever will again unless it's part of a full playthrough. A lot of the problems here could have been avoided by making the map smaller and more linear. Thankfully, IO learned this exact lesson with later maps. Maybe they even learned it a little too well...
At the end of Colorado's story mission, we learn about Providence, the world-dominating organisation that the mysterious shadow client is trying to bring down. We're also introduced to Olivia Hall, the most underutilised character in the trilogy. A lot of video games (and movies and shows) feature hacker characters that are endlessly smug and confident, because their skills are just too mad to be contested by anyone. This doesn't apply to Olivia. When we first see her, she's scared out of her mind, and for good reason. Despite her best efforts, the ICA has tracked her down, because she's not some sort of unstoppable hacking deity. She may be good, but she's still up against a whole team of professionals, and this becomes a continuous struggle for her throughout the trilogy. In addition to this, nothing scares her more than Agent 47, and that's an angle I find really interesting. The character has a lot of going for her conceptually, but very little of it is explored. This is not the Colorado mission's fault, however, as I don't think this was the time for that exploration to take place. The character is only teased at this point, which works. It's the lack of a follow-through that's the issue, and I don't think Colorado does anything wrong in terms of narrative; it just fails to deliver a very good murder sandbox.
Hokkaido is a monumental step up, however, and it begins a very long stretch of maps that all range from good to excellent throughout the trilogy. This map is a real return to the quality of Paris and Sapienza, which is already good, but it also begins a trend of unique, experimental maps that work. It's the map that proves Marrakesh wrong.
This is a luxury hospital high up in the mountains, and it's just as cool as it sounds. It's pretty, it's interesting, it's well-designed and it's more varied than you might expect. The costume gimmick is a cool way to switch up the usual gameplay loop, and that HAL-like AI running the place gives it an extra layer of personality.
Hokkaido is my second favourite map after Sapienza, and that comes down to personal preference more than anything. The main reason it misses out on the top spot is that Sapienza is a place I'd much rather visit in real life, but the fact that something like this is the deciding factor shows how brilliant both these maps are.
But I can't talk about the Hokkaido map without mentioning its best feature: The ninja playthrough. One of the starting locations sees Agent 47 descending from the mountains, dressed in black and with a katana by his side. You can play the entire mission like this, which is amazing and even has a challenge based around it. The rest of the trilogy continues to embrace this kind of fun, squeezing many different types of gameplay out of the core mechanics without having to change much. You get to hunt for treasure as a pirate, solve a murder mystery as a private detective, and even infiltrate a man's nightmares in order to torment him. These are the parts that make me overflow with adoration for these games. They will fulfil even the wildest fantasies as long as they can be done within the game's mechanics.
The mission 'Situs Inversus' ends with the death of Erich Soders, the villain of the "season", and we get an atmospheric cutscene that takes place on a train. Diana is approached by a mysterious man who happens to represent Providence, and we get a tease that the story will involve 47's past. It's an okay story hook, if not quite as intriguing as the mystery of who the shadow client is.
Of course, it's possible that you've played the game and still have no idea what I'm talking about here, because Hitman 2016 lets you engage with the story as much or as little as you want, which is just one of its countless qualities. It's a game that stumbles a bit in places but still realises an impressive vision. It was also the exact game that I needed in order to get into the Hitman franchise, something I had struggled with until then. I'm pretty open-minded when it comes to older games and their little quirks, but the original Hitman titles are not only rough to play; they're downright confusing at times, and I often find it impossible to understand what the games even want from me. Absolution, the only one that both plays well and communicates its goals in a clear manner, strays way too far from the identity of the series to stand out. The series needed a game that could do it all, and this game is exactly that.
The controls are the kind that can feel a little stiff before you get used to them, but they click hard once you do. If you know exactly where and when to press which button, you can make 47 move with the kind of flawless, elegant determination you'd see in one of those pre-rendered trailers that I bet were very expensive. Mastery of this game looks as great as it feels. I also appreciate that the shooting is snappy and easy on my filthy console peasant fingers.
I have two nitpicks I'd like to get out of the way, both of which are noteworthy as neither was addressed in the sequels. One is the way 47 snaps into another model when he changes clothes. I don't expect (or want) any game to have 100% realistic animations, but this one looks bad. I think it could've been fixed by fading to black for a bit every time the player puts on a new disguise, but maybe this wouldn't work. I just think it looks a little unfinished.
The other one is the addition of regenerating health. Every game before this one had a health bar, and I think this should have followed suit. I also think there should have been medkits scattered around each level. It would've fit well with the inventory system the game already has, and it would have provided yet another motivator for exploration - one that many players have been familiar with for decades. I suspect they just copied the Uncharted games instead, which is a little weird. It does help that 47 can't take too much damage at a time, but some gunfights can still be a little too easy at times. The action approach is meant to be a self-imposed challenge. Hitman is not a shooter and shouldn't need to be balanced like one.
All that said, I love the hell out of this game. It has managed to reinforce my love for stealth games in a way I never expected, and I'm thrilled that it kicked off a whole trilogy, especially since the second game turned out to be even better...