Here’s how a classic Hitman level used to play out first time: you poke around, looking for ways to your target, probing boundaries for alarms, maybe taking out a waiter and trying on his uniform to get in somewhere. Then you cock it all up and the victim dies with all the subtlety and craft of a bowling ball dropped in a bucket of jelly.
But you learn. Was there a window open at back of the room? Is that a security guard nipping out for a cigarette via the backdoor and possibly exposing himself to a light murdering and clothes swap? Armed with this new knowledge start again and head back in.
That’s the essence of classic Hitman: you don’t play in the levels, you play with them – finding new routes and opportunities, expanding your understanding of potential ways to access areas and end enemies. It’s something the new game nails on a dauntingly huge scale. Anyone worried about the idea of its one-level-a-month episodic structure simply needs to spend an hour or two wandering around the first stage’s Paris fashion show to get an idea of just how big it is, and just how much you can do.
There are the usual options: guards and waiters to pose as, food and drinks to tamper with, precariously hung chandeliers and other accident spots waiting to happen, guests that might have certain agendas or destinations. This time however there’s a massive sense of depth as you replay and learn it all, peeling back the layers to see what’s possible.
My first successful attempt at taking out Paris’ targets, spies and information brokers, Victor Novikov and Dahlia Margolis, highlights just how satisfying the interplay of systems can be. Following a guest out for a smoke on a balcony I am able to knock him out and steal his clothes, getting me into a VIP area and within striking distance of Dahlia. However with no (apparent) way of getting her alone, I slip a knife out from the kitchen and throw it at the back of her head in a bar, legging it as security goes nuts.
Not exactly 47’s finest kill, but it gets the job done, and it takes time for bad news to spread – the security in any given area work and search their zone before radioing out to warn other areas. So, while they sweep and scoured for the knife throwing man, I scale a drainpipe, hop through a window, and join the blissfully unaware party in search of Novikov. Trouble is, while the news takes a while to spread, it does spread eventually. Which is why I hear a guard repeat my exact outfit into a walkie talkie as he approaches me. Without even thinking, I punch him square in the nose, steal his uniform, and throw his body in a box. Problem solved. Novikov finally meets his end via a neck snapping in a stairwell I can only access thanks to that security uniform.
In the tradition of the series, a horrible first run, then. But it’s what that failure gets you that’s important – knowledge of the kitchens, new routes and paths through areas. Each playthrough opens up options that beg another go as you master the location. There’s also a new thing developer IO is calling Opportunities that can help. They’re optional but act like mini-quests. You might overhear a conversation, or see a chance to act and, if you accept a prompt, the game lays out a series of small objectives that lead you through one possible way of completing a level. A way such as taking the place of a model and walking the catwalk in full fashion show get-up in order to get near your target.
Perhaps the most impressive thing, on top of the varied and open world, is just how confident it all feels. The AI works beautifully: aware enough to pursue and pressure, dumb enough to give you space. That’s no mean feat considering the size of the Paris level – a large, lavish party involving hundred of guests, guards, technicians, stage crew, make up artists and more, all creating a believable bustle of life. The patterns are still there to let you sneak, steal and kill between the gaps, but this time the layers and density create an interesting and undulating backdrop.
There’s also a satisfying physicality that the series hasn’t seen before. 47 throws items and punches in a brutally effective way. There’s nothing clever about swinging a spade full-tilt into a man’s face without warning as you approach him, but oh God try it and see how it feels. It’s not really anything you ever want to do but it’s superbly empowering to have that reactiveness in a pinch. It opens up the world in a way the series never really managed before. You still need to plan and search out opportunities if you want to succeed, but the chance to blindside a guard and slip through a door in such a tactile way really opens things up.
The easiest way to explain what playing this feels like is that it’s the most Hitmany Hitman yet. Obviously that only speaks to fans of the series, so to point a finger at a more familiar face then, hair aside, this makes you feel like James Bond. Confident to the point of arrogance in your abilities as you play around in a more murder-focused take on a world of secret espionage and glamorous death. This Paris location, along with two prologue levels, arrives in March and demonstrates a meticulous polishing of what’s made the series great in the past – things like clever stealth, interesting locations, stylish violence and dark humour. If the monthly updates – places like Morocco and Italy – can match the promise shown here then this could be a peak for the series.