Hitman wants to be a stealth purist’s dream come true. As other games attempt to be more freeform, it further caters to perfectionist tendencies, giving you enough tools and approaches to challenge yourself to kill your targets without getting spotted, then do it again while finding new tricks to pull. When I followed along with this plan and played by the rules, I experienced stories that felt like I’d written them myself. But whenever I deviated from those rules, Hitman reminded me that I was simply telling my version of someone else’s story.
As an episodic release, Hitman works well enough. Doling out each location individually means you spend more time in each of them, allowing you to appreciate the placement of every room, stairwell and guard the way Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes did. There might not be much to see if you’re just interested in plot, but you can screw around its playground for hours without getting bored. Releasing the first episode now instead of dropping the entire game later this year also lets the user-created mission platform grow over the course of the year, though right now it’s plagued by missions titled “Easy,” “Test” and “pls delete.”
Still, Hitman’s greatest strength has always been the way it builds these intricate locales and turns them into an avenue for stories that feel both bespoke and improvised. The largest of the episode’s three locations, a fashion show hosted in a Parisian palace, plants you outside the main hall and lets you find your way to your target however you want. My first run had me following one target to a secluded room and strangling them, then setting up an outside interview between a reporter and my second target, who I shot from an overlooking balcony. It wasn’t a perfect run by any means, but I got to walk out without anyone noticing.
But Hitman is as much about repeating levels to get a better score or finding new ways to kill the target as it is finding the one solution that works for you. Every time you finish a level, you unlock new weapons to use, entry points, and hidden weapon caches scattered throughout the level. It also isn’t shy about letting you save and load your way to your outcome of choice, which, save-scummer that I am, is fine by me.
Wander the halls of the palace long enough and you’ll also find some interesting sub-plots that key you into new avenues of approach. The best one I found had to do with one woman asking another to infiltrate the same group of people you were trying to in order to save a magazine one of the targets owned. Dangling the prospect of over 200 people losing their jobs over her, the woman convinces her friend to risk her life. She then heads to a nearby bathroom to call her friend as she agonizes over what’s she’s been asked to do. These stories build that sense of place Hitman’s always been great at creating, and they make you want to continue exploring.
But the longer I walked around Paris, the more it felt like a well-built rat trap than a real place. Many important events that seem to happen independently of your actions actually revolve around them. The reporter I used to kill one of my targets will stand in the same spot until you hand her the lens she needs in her camera even though she could easily find it if she went outside and looked in a nearby van. I once murdered a guard as a bystander walked into the room and alerted the guards; I reloaded my save and waited for the bystander to go away, but he always waited for me to enter the room before walking in himself. These kinds of moments happen more often than they should, and they remind you that everyone is running on your clock instead of their own.
Hitman also never feels as adaptive as its contemporaries. It lacks Assassin’s Creed’s fluid physicality, Metal Gear Solid’s penchant for improvised solutions, or Splinter Cell’s ability to transition from stealth game to shooter in seconds. By the end of my time with the game, I began thinking more about why solutions I’d thought of didn’t work. Why do I have to use a crowbar to break a speaker loose from its binding? Why can’t I dislodge it with a screwdriver or explosive?
The answer is because all of Hitman’s options are more keys than tools. Every relevant object you find in a level has its one specific use; the crowbar opens the speaker, the rat poison you find in the kitchen (!!!) is for the wine glasses. You can’t actually write your own answer to the question of “how do I kill my target?” Instead, you fill in one of many predetermined answers. Challenges guide you to attempt more creative kills, but that only reinforces the idea that the game has already thought of every possible solution. By prescribing all your options at the outset, the game says, “here are your pieces, here’s where they fit, now follow through on the plans we’ve laid out for you.” There might be more ways to kill targets than the challenges suggest, but why look for them when you’ve already been shown all the ones you’ll be rewarded for?
Playing by the rules can still be fun, and despite my misgivings I’m interested in seeing more Hitman in the coming months. Its lavish environments allow for enough outcomes and stories that I can’t dismiss its decision to trade real freedom for bespoke scenarios out of hand. And most importantly, the illusion it offers of getting in and out without being seen and on your own terms lingers just long enough to be worthwhile. I’m just disappointed it was an illusion in the first place.
Suriel Vazquez is a freelance writer who has written for ZAM, GamesBeat and many others. You can follow him on Twitter.