Hitman is in its 16th year, but the stealth assassination game is going through a major reboot. Like Lara Croft with the 2013 reboot of Tomb Raider, Agent 47 is going back to his origins. This new Hitman is a very ambitious game that will have you searching for assassination targets in luxury locations such as a fashion party with 300 guests.
One of the most innovative things about the high-end console and PC game is that it will have new major episodes and territories debuting throughout 2016, well after the full game launches. The game has traditional multiplayer play, but the new installments are a unique approach to keeping players engaged. New major episodes and new story elements will come out on a regular basis that will offer players more places to engage in “assassination tourism.”
Square Enix will publish the first part of the game on console and PC platforms on March 11, and we’ve had a good look at the gameplay of the first levels in a hands-on preview on a PlayStation 4.
“We took this leap into making it fully episodic. I wouldn’t call it a massively multiplayer online game, but it is truly episodic with a very strong live component,” said Hannes Seifert, studio head at Io-Interactive, the developer of the game. “Every month, there will be new content coming.”
I haven’t been a consistent fan of Hitman games over the years. But I do like its style and ambition.
“If you think you can do something in the level, then most likely you can,” Seifert said. “It’s a procedural game, and it’s highly emergent. There’s no wrong way to play it.”
That is tantalizing, and it means this title has the makings of being an excellent game because it takes full advantage of the current-generation consoles and latest PC graphics to render scenes with hundreds of characters. There are six times more simulated artificial intelligence entities in the Paris level of the game that I experienced. You can truly get lost in a crowd and study numerous ways to make a kill without getting caught. That’s an essential part of the fantasy that just wasn’t possible on older machines.
Each area is like an open world where you can wander freely. You discover who your target is. Then you try all of the different ways to kill the target. That makes the game highly replayable.
“47 is back in his prime, traveling the world,” Seifert said. “This is assassination tourism. That is very important to us. This is a style and design that is something we can do better than ever before,” Seifert said. “It’s extremely close to the true fantasy of being an assassin. You get a mission. You get a location. You travel. You explore and then you execute it. Sometimes you know it’s coming. Sometimes it could be a surprise.”
The story starts out with a prologue that retells the origins of Agent 47. The bald-headed agent is an intimidating figure and he has a merciless, nasty, and dirty job. But his targets aren’t exactly sympathetic, and that’s what draws you into viewing him as a kind of anti-hero and pulls you into the fantasy of being a hitman. The prologue takes you back 20 years.
You learn a little bit about Agent 47 as a genetically augmented clone (which is why he has the bar code on the back of his head), and how he almost didn’t make it out of the lab. He excels at training, and one of his female overseers, Diana Burnwood, argues for taking him into the field. She becomes his official “handler.” After you play through this prologue, the game then skips ahead in time to a period after Hitman Absolution, which debuted in 2013.
Once you play the missions in Paris, you can go online and play multiplayer missions known as Contracts. And then you’ll be able to play more each month, coming back to the game for more regions and more of the story. It is, Seifert said, a “world of assassination.”
“We looked back at 15 years of Hitman games for their strengths and weaknesses,” Seifert said. “Looking honestly at the individual games, we took what we liked, creating a sandbox game with a lot of creativity. We also used the technology we developed for Hitman Absolution — the controls and replayability — and we’ll have a storyline that unfolds episodically.”
I’m intrigued by this approach. But I want to know if the story holds together across the episodes, and if it really lives up to its billing.
Boarding a yacht
Since this is a reboot, you have to start at the beginning. Once you find out the origins of Agent 47, you as the player are put to a test. The first mission is really just a simulation, where Agent 47 has to prove that he is ready to go out into the real world on real missions. He has to board a huge multi-level luxury yacht, find his target, and take him out quietly. When I started out, the way was blocked by guards who wouldn’t let me on board. I had to walk around the dock area and find an open path to the cargo area. There, I found a uniform of a maintenance worker. I also found a maintenance worker standing at a table. I could sneak up on him and strangle him (or put him to sleep). In this case, I had a clear choice between just stealing the clothes or choking the worker. I choked him, grabbed his clothes, and dragged him into a corner.
Then I board the ship and started wandering. I found that I could stay under the main deck. But dressed as a maintenance worker, I couldn’t get past the crew members who guarded the guest areas. In the meantime, I had to stay out of the sight of a particularly alert maintenance chief who could have discovered that I was a fake worker. I made my way to the kitchen, where I sneaked up on a cook and knocked him out. I took his clothes and now had a crew uniform that allowed me onto the upper decks. I dumped his body in a storage locker.
When I saw the target, Kalvin “The Sparrow” Ritter, I spooked him at first as he recognized that I was a suspicious character. He fled. So I started over. This time, I went to the bar and pretended to be a bartender. This time, the target took a drink from me, but he wasn’t concerned with me at all. He was having a conversation with another guest. They went upstairs and I followed. I pulled out my silenced pistol and shot both of them. I carried their bodies to a closet. And then I walked on out. I had to make it back outside without being discovered. It was easy, but it taught me everything I needed to know about being stealthy.
The chess master
In the next mission, I had to go after a bad guy, Jasper Knight. He was an international chess master who betrayed his country. And he was being guarded at an airport hangar by an Army of Russian soldiers. One of Agent 47’s overseers really wanted to see him fail the simulation, so he brought in extra guards.
I spent an awful lot of time dying while trying to get into the compound. I tossed coins to the guard, and watched him come out to figure out what the noise was. I’d sneak up behind him and strangle him, but then I got discovered by another nearby guard. I had to finally lure the guard out much further into the darkness with a couple of coin tosses. Then I finally didn’t get noticed when I took him out. I put on his clothes and walked into the compound.
As I walked inside, I saw Russian soldiers and police guards everywhere. I tried to walk upstairs, but the Russian soldier stopped me at the top because I was dressed as a security guard. So I had to walk around the side and lure a Russian guard out with a coin toss. He fell for it, and I got my Russian army uniform. I walked around downstairs a lot and scoped out the area. It was still crawling with guards. Then I went upstairs with no problem getting permission this time.
As I walked around, I found a very tough problem. Every guard was within view of another. If I took one out, the other would see me. So I had to find a guard that was walking a path, and take him out as he was out of sight of another. I died a lot doing this. But I eventually succeeded. While upstairs, I stepped out a window onto a second-story ledge. Then I walked around to the main office of the chess master. I took him out, but I made a lot of noise. The guards were alerted. I took some of them out with a very loud machine gun. Then I jumped out the window and made my way to the side. Then I sneaked out the gate. It was not a very elegant execution, but I survived, barely.
Encounter in Paris
The Paris level was the awesome mission. As Agent 47, I was assigned to assassinate Viktor Novikov, a Russian oligarch who was throwing a fashion show at an elegant palace dubbed the Palais De Walewska. It’s a fictional building in the heart of Paris, and a museum by day. This party had over 300 guests, and the billionaire was heavily guarded. He was roaming around in the spotlight, and then he left to go have an argument with his fashion designer, who was refusing to go out on stage. I tried to follow them into a back room, but there were multiple guards who politely told me I wasn’t allowed.
This was a living, breathing world. Every non-player A.I. character had a name. Some were talking on cell phones, or they were having conversations that I could overhear. Some were plotting against the target themselves. Plenty of stray guests and service staff roamed around. I found one who was walking a patrol to an isolated corner. I knocked him out and dragged him into a service room. I took his clothes and dumped his body.Then I began wandering around some more. I was allowed to walk behind the bars and other service areas. But I still couldn’t get past the guards. I found that I had to wander the whole palace. I had to avoid the suspicious supervisors who could discover that I was a fake bartender. You can also take on the identity of a supermodel and walk out on the runway.
The cool part was that it seemed so real. I could walk in crowds and get lost. If I ran into suspicious minds, I would have to quickly get lost and move away from the suspicious person. The palace, the guests, and the fashion show were really well done. I felt I was in an exclusive event, as if I were a guest at a really cool party. I almost forgot my job. I don’t know how to take out Novikov, since you have to do it while wearing a uniform of someone at the party. Once you succeed, you have to take out another spy, the supermodel Dalia Margolis.
The trailer for the game shows you can kill the Novikov in multiple ways. You can bring down a giant chandelier on him or hand him a poison drink. I tried charging in with a machine gun. That didn’t work so well, as I was taken out by guards coming from three different directions. I ran out of time before getting to kill the billionaire. But it really hooked me. I can see how I could replay this level over and over again, hoping for a better result.
After the game launches on March 11 with the Prologue Mission and Paris, it will be followed by more releases. The next location is set in Italy, and it will be available in April. The Morocco location will debut in May. Other locations will include Thailand, the U.S., and Japan. All of those locations will be released in 2016. In between monthly updates, you can participate in weekly live events and additional content drops. The full experience costs $60 for the full year of content. The first Prologue and Paris levels cost just $15, and each new location will cost $10. The disc version will be available at the end of 2016.
One new feature of the game is Opportunities, which gives you an idea of the different tasks you can do in order to get on the path of the assassination.
When you come back to the game with each episode, you will continue with the story. In some ways, the game resembles a Call of Duty game, which comes out as a full single-player game and then releases downloadable content (DLC) map packs a few times after the launch. It can keep you engaged and coming back, even after you thought you lost interest. But these episodes of Hitman will be very juicy, with big new levels and new story material that will keep you more engaged throughout a year, if done right.
The Hitman beta starts on Feb. 12 on the PlayStation 4 and Feb. 19 on the PC. PlayStation users will get access to unique content, including six bonus contracts for assassinations. The game supports DirectX 12 on Advanced Micro Devices Radeon cards.
I have a lot more to explore to see if Hitman really lives up to its billing. I can already see that you have complete freedom of approach in how to handle each assassination. But I don’t want to bang my head against a wall, failing 99 times and succeeding on the 100th try. I want to be able to succeed in a variety of ways using different solutions. I hope that the game truly embraces emergence and creativity as it promises.
When asked how many ways can you succeed in Paris, Seifert said, “That’s a very good question. I can only give you a real answer once people have played it millions of times. But we try to make sure that in a level of that size, there are at least 10 unique ways to take him out. That excludes all the emergent stuff you can do, the opportunities that guide you. And people always come up with crazy stuff, stacking things up or combining weapons or mixing up different gameplay elements. Things wind up in dumpsters. People go to sleep and wake up and try to get dressed again.”