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Review: ‘Hitman: Episode 1’

Deadly Agent 47 returns in IO Interactive’s brand new video game reboot that tests your skills as a stealthy assassin.

Developer: IO Interactive

Publisher: Square Enix

Release Date: March 11th, 2016

NOTE: This was played on the PlayStation 4

The legacy of the Hitman franchise on the PC stretches back into the early 2000s, when it ushered in a different brand of stealth than the Metal Gear Solid and Splinter Cell games. The crux of Hitman play has always been social stealth and blending into the crowd to assassinate a target. The Assassin’s Creed series does its best to emulate this type of gameplay but it really is Hitman that reigns King. In a given sandbox, the player is encouraged to use all measure of assassination methods including: poison, “accidents,” silenced pistols, snipers or explosions.

Hitman, however, has gone through something of an identity crisis in the past decade. With the release of Hitman: Absolution, developer IO Interactive made a more cinematic and narrative-focused experience and to do that, the game had to be more loose with its social-stealth/experimental gameplay and adopt a more linear playstyle. Despite selling 3.6 million copies as of March 2013, it was met with mixed critical and fan reception. And despite those numbers, publisher Square Enix still deemed Hitman Absolution, along with Sleeping Dogs and the Tomb Raider reboot all failures for not meeting corporate expectations. IO went back to the drawing board for the series and they seemed to have hit the nail on the head with the latest reboot, simply dubbed Hitman.

Hitman begins, in media res with the charismatic and talkative Agent 47, being trained in Central Europe 22 years before the events of Hitman: Absolution. You meet with a “handler” who advises and informs you of targets and environments that may be useful for your mission. And while this handler is greatly impressed with Agent 47, her director sees the agent’s potential as something of a liability and strongly suggests that they need leverage to keep him in line. What this means to the player is that the narrative falls to the wayside. Since the game has been broken into separate episodes, as I mentioned in a previous piece, the narrative never gets a fair shake until all of the pieces are put together.

The gameplay involves a process of hiding in plain sight and doing your best not to get caught -- the game gives you a wide array of tools to do so and in this respect, Hitman shines. You can distract guards with coins, puncture a dock worker with a syringe or slap an IED on a car if you’re not the strong-silent type. The game also allows you to don outfits you find or take by force while moving about the world. If this all sounds confusing and daunting, that’s because it is. But, Hitman does an excellent job of easing you into these concepts with the tutorial mission, where you sneak onto a boat and assassinate the target. The following mission takes off the training wheels and lets you kill your target the way you see fit. The first time ended with a silenced gunshot to the head, the second attempt ended with a fatal swirly.

After another training wheels-free mission in a larger map than the boat, the player is taken to present day Paris where the operation size expands into a multi-level building and double the number of targets that have to be eliminated. Agent 47 has to murder a fashion mogul, during a fashion show, while an auction for MI6 secrets is hosted by the other target on the top floor. Both are part of an organization called IAGO that will no doubt be unfurled as the episodes are released. Hitman drops you into the front courtyard of the sandbox but the multitude of options are mediated with what are called opportunities. For anyone too worried about all of Hitman’s moving pieces, the game offers waypoints (markers on the map that tell players where to go) and tells you what to do to succeed in the assassination. Some waypoints become unavailable based on how much time passes or what events take place. But, they’re all available from the get-go.

Opportunities point players in the right direction but with all the NPCs (approximately 300 in the Paris level alone) going about their business and complaining about their dull lives, things gets a little claustrophobic. Not only that, the game allows the player to choose what weapons to bring into a given level as well as a spawn point within the level. This means you will fail again and again because you need to learn the level through trial and error gameplay. It can get frustrating having one person catch you as you carry out your meticulous plan. However, that makes success that much sweeter.

What isn’t particularly sweet are the long and aggravating load times if you find yourself dead or in need of restarting a level. Get used to seeing a red map of the globe as you wait patiently for the game to figure out where to put 300+ people within the level. Perhaps this will be patched at a later date or improved upon once future episodes are released. But these kinds of load times are borderline unacceptable for a trial and error game like Hitman. Additionally, one shortcoming in Hitman is that when there was a way to complete an assassination, trying alternate routes resulted in failure and frustration. Hitman feels like an SAT exam: There are multiple answers to the question but one is more right than the others.

Hitman is a niche franchise with gameplay that is unlike most games within the video game industry. Even when compared to other stealth franchises, Hitman is its own beast. It’s rewarding to carry out an operation and successfully walk away without anyone the wiser. But that comes at the cost of multiple attempts through the intricate and spectacular levels, as well as egregious load times. Luckily, Episode 1 only costs $15 with subsequent episodes costing $10. At that price, who can resist dipping their toes into the dangerous waters of intricate and unscrupulous assassinations.