A colorful fireworks show is reflected in the Seine, triggered by a remote control wielded by your bar-coded assassin. His two targets make their way onto a balcony, coaxed by the dancing of the lights. Slowly and calmly, the assassin creeps out of his hiding place, readies his high-velocity rifle, and fires two shots. As the first cries break out of the palatial mansion he just snuck into, he tosses the rifle into the river, the ripples distorting the image of the lingering sparks in the sky. He strides past the approaching guards, making his way toward the helicopter that belongs to one of his targets’ honored guests, currently lying unconscious and naked in a closet, his clothes pilfered by this master of disguise. By the time security begins their search, he’s already gone, basking in his own audacity as the chopper he just commandeered takes him where he wants to go. Perhaps a martini is in order.
For all the throat-slitting, head-shooting, and rocket-launching that has defined gaming for decades and decades, only a scarce few games have tried to bring context to their carnage. IO Interactive’s Hitman series represents one of the more sustained attempts, tasking the player with walking a mile in famed assassin Agent 47’s patent leather shoes as you creep, climb, and carve your way through a variety of exotic locales, stopping only to terminate your assigned targets without a soul noticing. And while storming the gates armed with an M4 and a machete was always an option, a more subtle approach would bear more fruit, offering a greater cash reward and an altogether more captivating experience. Unfortunately, 2011’s Hitman: Absolution roamed far afield of this core competency, focusing more on the lukewarm lead-slinging of Uncharted and its imitators than the garrote-and-syringe routine of previous entries. Fans cried foul; clearly a return to form was in order.
Like most single-named reboots, Hitman offers very little in the way of surprise; it’s essentially 2006’s Hitman: Blood Money with a fresh coat of paint and the suite of persistent, ever-connected social features that every game above a certain budget is now required to have. While this would normally constitute a retread of the first and laziest order, it turns out that retooling one of the more cogent play structures in the medium—following the example of Blood Money, one of the best games ever made—is a far more successful enterprise than one might have initially figured.
The game itself is the cloak-and-dagger affair its name augurs, or more accurately dagger-then-cloak, as the series’s signature mechanic of knocking out security guards with hammers, fire extinguishers, and the like, so as to disguise yourself in their clothes, remains fully intact. The streak of black humor underlying previous entries still lurks at this game’s core; straightforward methods such as a bullet to the head or a knife to the back can be supplanted by falling chandeliers and poisoned glasses of champagne.
The writing still ranges from merely flat to downright dire. “The Sparrow cannot die,” declares the Sparrow, moments before you drown him in his own toilet. Unfortunately, while in previous entries the plot mostly manifested itself in skippable cutscenes and set dressing, the new “Opportunities” system sometimes demands one to sit through some truly tedious back and forth before you can learn of an important clue or disguise. In general, the clockwork nature of the game world can sometimes reveal itself a bit too readily, the gears mashing together as they turn the wrong way: guards failing to notice the pipe wrench clanging against their friend’s head, targets getting stuck in place, maybe even an alarm triggering for no apparent reason.
Still, when it all clicks into place and whirrs along like it should, the madcap micro-sandboxes of Hitman offer a blend of painstaking preparation and seat-of-your-pants improvisation that few games can match. The fiction of the series might depict Agent 47 as the world’s most dangerous assassin, but the character you control will come to resemble Inspector Clouseau more than Golgo 13 as you blunder your way through assassination attempt after assassination attempt, especially if you’re going for the coveted “Silent Assassin” rating at mission’s end. And while it can be hard to resist punching the load button the minute a guard trips over one of your unfortunate victims, blowing your cover in the process, trying to adlib your way out of one of your botched schemes can prove to be one of the game’s more lasting joys.
One might approach the release of this new Hitman with caution; after all, since the game’s episodic release schedule means content will be added as the year progresses, it can feel a bit like hiring an artist to finish the canvas you just bought. However, while the diversity and strength of setting that characterized classics like Blood Money remains to be seen in this entry, the act of assassinating has never felt this good. And though one locale might pale in comparison to the dozen offered by previous titles, the swath of challenges and scenarios the game offers—pushing one target off a balcony such that another target breaks their fall; performing the whole mission without ever donning a disguise—can keep you busy for quite a while, with more locations to be added in the months to come as downloadable content.
For all its veneration of Agent 47 as the consummate professional, the Hitman series has never really been about getting the job done, but about seeing what you can get away with. Regardless of whether or not you’re a fan of the series, the game will have the piano wire around your neck before you know it.