Hitman 2016 is Blood Money 2 in all but name – a smirking playbox of death with a sadistic streak running ten thousand miles wide, a return to the days when 47 had devils on both shoulders instead of a surrogate daughter in his arms. If Absolution was a clash of styles, a roaring grindhouse movie made by a studio more known for icy, very european assassination thrillers, then new Hitman is a return to the values which made the series so beloved by so many, albeit with some of Absolution’s best bits factored in.
Both the prologue/tutorial and the Paris mission – which form the basis of the first instalment of the game’s episodic model – are built, to a lesser or greater degree, to be replayed, tinkered with, exploited, bent and moulded to the player’s will, just like in the older games. The difference here is that IOI seems to have finally nailed its stealth systems, adding in common sense UI tweaks to the tiered levels of authority in each NPC class (waiting staff, security, etc), removing unnecessary uncertainty and frustration in the process. Like MGS 5, the player almost always knows where they stand, and where they can push their luck. Alert phases are more clearly defined and communicated, and the NPCs themselves feel less like walking mannequins to take clothes from and more like actual people.
It’s a huge improvement over previous games, particularly Absolution, where the disguise system was broken in places. Each NPC class has two sub-classes within it: grunts and enforcers. Take a disguise and the lower-level members of that group will let you pass unobstructed, but the higher ranking members – each marked with a small circle above their player model, as well as the same thing on the minimap – will become suspicious if they see you. It makes sense: security staff may not know each other, but the head of security probably knows you’re not one of his guys. The closer you get to your target (in terms of both proximity and the people you’re impersonating) the more enforcers there are: dressing as a high-profile individual – say, a VIP known to the target – obviously increases the amount of people who can bust you.
These changes free the player to focus on the task at hand and not fret about being spotted when they really shouldn’t be, and while the system isn’t overly-lenient it is flexible enough for players to get themselves out of a situation they’ve gotten in, by accident or design. Getting seen by an enforcer isn’t always the end: it takes them a while to figure out you’re not legit, and even then there are various phases where you can escape or hide. I never once wondered how I’d been spotted: I knew exactly what had done it, and when. At a glance you can enter a room and know who to avoid: as a consequence there’s far less patrol-watching, leaving you to figure out exactly how to do that rather than fighting against the AI.
Which means the player can get on with admiring IOI’s sterling work elsewhere. We’ve already seen a lot of the Paris fashion show level and its two targets, so much so I was worried there would be no surprises left. Fortunately, the level is vast – imagine a mix of Hitman 2’s Invitation to a Party and Blood Money’s Curtains Down, with hundreds more NPCs – and filled with ways to get to (and through) your target, ranging from the expected – sniping spots, drainpipes which can be scaled, etc – to the more imaginative.
One of these more inspired ways of killing your target is classic Hitman. Present at the fashion show is Helmut Kruger, a high-profile male model who just so happens to look like 47. Subduing him and taking his clothes means that the player can go pretty much wherever they please, and walking the runway triggers a little Zoolander-esque cutscene. (You can also sit down and have Kruger’s distinctive makeup applied.) But the most important element of the Kruger costume is his phone: you can use it to set up a meeting with one of your targets, a spymaster running an illegal auction on the building’s second floor.
She’s usually difficult to kill without being caught in the act: the sheer number of people in the building (300) means someone is always around. The Kruger disguise, however, means she invites you into a private room, where you can easily shoot, garotte, stab, or poison her.
As ever, though, actions have consequences, and her body is soon discovered (even if you hide it). Still, it can be used to your advantage: upon hearing the news your primary target opts to end the show and clear everyone out. Appearances must be kept, however, which means he takes to the catwalk to thank everyone for coming. The perfect opportunity, then, to use a crowbar on the winch that holds the rigging in place above his head and make it all look like an accident.
Hitman 2016 is rammed with these sorts of opportunities, as was Blood Money, but this latest version feels a lot more dynamic, more reactive than its predecessors. As you move through the ballrooms and basements of the grand Parisian building you’ll often overhear people talking about things relating to your targets, the building, or its guests. You’ll eavesdrop on two people in a bathroom chatting about the secret auction upstairs, or perhaps someone may remark that 47 looks suspiciously similar to a certain fashion model they admire.
There’s a lot more dialogue this time around, from both NPCs and 47: guards still warn players when they’re trespassing, but also compliment them when they’ve been fooled by your disguise, and otherwise missed opportunities can be found from responding to NPCs calling out to you to talk to them or do something they want.
Like with most of Hitman 16’s best moments, these elements have been in the series for decades, but rarely have they felt this well integrated. Garnering information on hits from eavesdropping or engaging in actual conversation is a lot more fun than seeing a cryptic note appear at the bottom of your screen, and taking a glance at the minimap to see enforcer positions and exit routes is more intuitive and enjoyable than seeing through walls or opening three menus to see a blueprint of the building. (Instinct is still present, but I rarely used it.)
Opportunities are everywhere in Hitman’s Paris level. So too in the prologue, which is a miniature yet fully-fledged series of maps with accidents to engineer and various NPC classes to exploit. Concerns have been rightly raised over the content model, pricing, and messaging of new-Hitman, with studio head Hannes Seifert acknowledging it by telling me “[it] caused some of the confusion that I’m personally really sorry for”. But any concerns about the quality on display, or the replay value (particularly with the various kill challenges and escalation contracts, where users have to take out a marked NPC in a certain way), can be laid to rest. New Hitman takes the best of both the classic and Absolution-era games to create the best-playing title in the series yet.
It’s great work so far, with the only real worry being some rather glaring technical issues. The PS4 version’s frame rate is poor, and the PC build I played, which looked superb, crashed on no fewer than four occasions. Assurances were made that these would be fixed, as they always are. That said, given Hitman’s bumpy road to release IOI simply cannot afford to ship this first instalment in anything other than near-perfect condition. If it does – and the rest of the stages match Paris – then Hitman 2016 will be the game the fans have been waiting for since 2006. If not, then it – and IOI – will be in trouble.