With IO’s World of Assassination trilogy about to conclude, let’s appreciate how we got here.
HITMAN is a miracle. The stealth series, one of the longest-lasting in all of gaming, started in the very first year of this century with 2000’s Hitman: Codename 47. It was a janky, obtuse Eurotrash sort of game in a lot of ways, but offered a level of open-endedness in its design that almost nothing else at the time offered. It had a revolutionary fabric system and was well-regarded for how much it embraced player freedom, still a relatively new concept at the time. Through its sequels — 2002’s Silent Assassin and 2004’s Contracts — the series, made by an essentially unknown Danish developer named IO Interactive, won a fervent and very dedicated fanbase of PC gamers who enjoyed it for its challenge and its complexity.
It wasn’t until 2006’s Blood Money that the mainstream at large (of which I am one) was introduced to the series properly, and we couldn’t have chosen a better time to jump onboard. While still just as janky as its predecessors in small ways, Blood Money brought a sense of scope and interconnectedness the other games simply couldn’t provide. Though it still fell very much into the early-mid 2000s craze of Very Serious Games about Very Serious Men, Blood Money occasionally flashed a dark, almost adolescent humor that wouldn’t be entirely out of place in a Tony Hawk game: a playful streak where the most inventive and creative ways to take out one of series star Agent 47s targets was often rewarded with something really silly or really surreal. It was a great game, especially to someone like me in the early days of the Xbox 360 with nothing else to play but Perfect Dark Zero. It has not aged well visually, and is sometimes too hard to figure out, but mostly holds up in a way a lot of those early-generation games simply don’t.
Unfortunately, someone involved had had enough of the average gamer not paying their series any heed, and nearly ran the whole thing off the rails with 2012’s Hitman Absolution. In a vacuum, Absolution is not a bad game. But in the effort to attract a larger, more action-oriented audience, the game was designed more linearly, with more QTEs and a bigger emphasis on “storytelling” (ie, long cutscenes).. The end result was something in between the classic Hitman experience and a straightforward stealth action game about a Grim Action Man. Stuck in absolute no man’s land between Tom Clancy and Metal Gear, nobody who didn’t already like Hitman played it, and the people who already liked Hitman hated it. “Press X to Hitman” was a common joke about the game, and though there is some strong level design to be found in it, it seemed for years afterward that one of PC gaming’s biggest success stories had burned itself trying to cross over. (Also, like a lot of early 2010s games, it just looks awful visually — really desaturated and harsh.)
That is, until HITMAN 2016 (I’ll refer to that game and its sequel, HITMAN 2, interchangeably from now on since they’re essentially the same experience). The 2016 game was a true reboot, rebuilding the series from the ground up and honestly examining what did and didn’t work about it in the past. Gone are a lot of the empty, open spaces between setpiece areas of the old games; gone is the linearity of the new ones. In their place is a series of smaller (in raw square footage), more intricate levels that are filled to the brim with secret areas, hidden routes and points of interest, each one feeling like a small city more than a discrete video game level.
Sapienza, the second level released (HITMAN 2016 released episodically over the course of that year), is a particular standout, an expansive and shockingly intricate Italian seaside town complete with its own secret manor, itself holding a secret lab. Gone were the obtuse interfaces and confusing layouts of old games, replaced by a persistent map screen, a gorgeously simple interface and an easy-to-read inventory. Instead of just setting the player off in a sandbox with no guidance, IO managed to find the exact right amount of handholding and feedback that allowed for kinetic, adaptive and exciting solutions to every target. The best example I have is in Sapienza, where a thorough examination of target Silvio Caruso’s yard will find a golf tee that highlights the phrase “Explosive Golf Ball required” when you get close. Hard to pique anyone’s curiosity better than that.
Despite some hiccups with the episodic format, the 2016 game was a complete masterstroke by IO, garnering by far the best reviews of the series to that point and cementing the HITMAN experience as something completely unique in the industry. More puzzle game than stealth actioner, it relies less on quick-twitch skill and skulking in the shadows than it simply standing back and moving around the pieces on a chessboard, waiting to see what happens, like a Rubix cube where you control all the squares. It’s the rare stealth game where the best place to hide is often in the middle of a crowd, standing in plain sight.
This is where the last piece of the HITMAN puzzle snaps into place. Starting really with the 2016 game, this series endeavored to start making a point with the people Agent 47 has been sent to kill. Whereas the original few games targeted a mostly unaffiliated series of cartel bosses and drug kingpins, the scope of the rebooted series expands outward, and with it comes a newfound signature storytelling flair. While the macro story of the new HITMAN games certainly exists and is a thing you can experience, it’s is filled with the same cliches that even this series is tired of by now. It’s hard to argue that even IO themselves care all that much about it (especially given how the 2018 game didn’t even bother with having animated cutscenes). It’s the stories in the levels themselves, both of the targets and all the people surrounding them, that give the game flavor. Thanks to the contract creation system, which lets users create their own custom contracts for every level by marking any NPC, we know that every NPC has a name and a schedule. Some of them hide secrets even juicer than the people 47 is supposed to kill. Some of them can get into trouble all on their own during a mission. Some of them you might never even know exist.
The targets themselves are a trove of neat little moments of world building and characterization. In the first game, this mostly surfaces in little references to past and future levels scattered throughout, a few names here and there. Starting with HITMAN 2, things begin to become more interesting. The game’s first two targets, arms manufacturer and probable war criminal Robert Knox, and his entitled, thrillseeking daughter Sierra, are the tip of the iceberg. Following them we get a series of extremely enjoyable adversaries, like the flamboyant slumlord and movie producer Dawood Rangan, the retired spymaster Janus, the oafish PMC contractor Nolan Cassidy, the corrupt bank director Athena Salvalas, and of course the entire population of the game’s final level, The Arc Society, a cadre of super wealthy businessmen all attending the meeting of their elite secret society on a fortified island in the North Atlantic, wherein they’re discussing their plans to avoid the fallout of climate change and selling each other timeshares in their secret bunkers. If any group of people deserves to be assassinated, it’s certainly these.
There is a certain type of enemy in this game, usually one of every profession, who holds enough authority to act as an Enforcer. They can see through any disguise of their type that 47 has on. For example, the chief of security for a secluded mansion on a tropical resort can tell if you’ve taken out one of his guys and dressed up as them. The head chef at a French chateau can recognize all the other chefs who work for him, and knows that you aren’t one of them, and so on. There is a certain logic to it. One of the game’s great jokes is that the targets are themselves are never Enforcers. They don’t know or care enough about the little people beneath their feet to ever recognize when one of them is holding a knife behind his back. The other great joke of HITMAN also ties into the disguise system, and it’s that someone who looks and acts like Agent 47 could ever blend in anywhere. Yet he does, and he does so while managing to never blow his cover no matter how ridiculous it is, and everyone around him just takes it in stride. There’s a 30 Rock joke that I think plays here about how an officious-looking white man in a suit can just about go anywhere he pleases as long as he looks like he belongs there, and I feel as though that’s the joke of 47.
IO Interactive is in on it, too. They made sure to give David Bateson, 47’s now near-legendary voice actor, as many creepy line deliveries they could, whether he’s pretending to be a realtor or a muffin salesman or a racetrack medic. They want you to find all this stuff, and they want you to enjoy it. Where the first few Hitman games could have been described as cold and distant, HITMAN wants to take you into its warm embrace and stab you to death. Soon after the second game released, players found a bug in the way that certain objects, namely briefcases, lock onto NPCs after they’re thrown. It makes them into homing missiles that will curve around corners and go up staircases to hit their targets. Instead of immediately patching it out and moving on like some developers would do, IO released an official statement apologizing that the briefcases weren’t strong enough, and then moved forward making the briefcase toss into an official mechanic going forward.
The final piece of this puzzle that I think makes this series work so well as to perhaps be my personal favorite of this entire console generation is how gradually you build up in it. Not with levels or experience, per se (though there are newer and more sophisticated items you can unlock, the best loadout is usually a lockpick and some coins), just your personal comfort and knowledge of the game.
The venerable Mark Brown did a video about this a while back and I think he picked up on the gist of what makes this game stand out. Your first run through of most levels will almost certainly end with either a pile of bodies you’re desperately trying to hide in a broom closet, a desperate shootout and a dead 47. You’ll get better and better as you experiment with new angles and new gadgets, but progress can be slow. Eventually, if you put enough time in, you’ll learn advanced techniques like interrupting guards’ walking animations to slow them down enough to block their vision later as you shoot their bosses from across the map. You’ll learn people’s exact movement patterns and how to predict their behaviors, and you may even figure out your own path through the vaunted “Silent Assassin; Suit Only” runs. The key to HITMAN is that, no matter what end of this spectrum you’re on, you’re still having fun. It’s just fun to ruin everything and have to fight and think your way out of a tricky spot as it is to perfectly execute a plan and escape like Danny Ocean. HITMAN at its best plays like a Rube Goldberg machine of death where the slightest variation can send the entire thing careening off a cliff. There’s nothing else like it in the entire world, and it’s a miracle.
The final miracle of HITMAN is that it’s still going. After two decades on the fringes of the gaming mainstream, the missteps of Absolution and the failure of 2016’s episodic model, IO found themselves without a publisher after Square Enix decided the investment wasn’t quite worth it. After a brief partnership with WB to get the second game out the door, IO managed to pull off something almost no other Triple A studio in the world has: buy the rights to their own IP. They now create, publish, market and produce HITMAN. All of it. A bunch of northern European weirdos who think the funniest thing in the world is flinging a briefcase at someone’s head have managed to create an entire little World of Assassination, all on their own. As exciting as this is for me and every other HITMAN fan, it brings up the very real possibility that, if the upcoming HITMAN III doesn’t sell well enough, it could put the entire studio under. This is, as of now, their only game.* In a landscape where everything is sequel bait, or drowning in microtransactions, or just another yearly installment with little-to-no improvements, the sheer existence of HITMAN is, well, miraculous. Please buy HITMAN III. It’s out tomorrow.
*Though thankfully they did recently announce that they’re working on whatever the next official James Bond game is.