I’m sipping a glass of expensive wine and tapping my foot to the too-loud techno music. As I drink, I scan the bar for a man in a tailored white suit. From the middle of the crowd of dancers and tipsy gossipers, I spot his handsome face and my heart picks up. I abandon my drink and casually step away from the bar, slipping through the crowd to trail after this man who’s caught my attention. And his bodyguard. I’m not surprised, because I’ve read extensive case files on him, and I know that he’s Viktor Novikov; he’s the host of this extravagant party and an influential Russian oligarch. He’s also the moneyman of the morally bankrupt intelligence network IAGO, and the man I’m here to kill.
No, I’m not confessing my dark, secret identity; I’m playing Hitman. The first mission, set in a Paris fashion show, is a bold introduction to the first season of the rebooted franchise, and boasts of great things to come.
Hitman is full of moments like these, powerful narratives that build from tiny moments of observation and chance. As professional hitman Agent 47, I trail Novikov and learn his habits, and begin to plan. In the end, I sneak past his bodyguard and garrote him without him ever knowing I’m there, and slip back into the party to get another drink.
This is just one of the ways to take out Novikov, but there are multiple methods that are all tailored to different play styles and moods. If you’re feeling stealthy, lure him away from his bodyguard and drown him without him ever knowing you’re there. Feeling destructive? Drop a chandelier on him and watch the mass panic below. Don’t like getting your hands dirty? Sneak in a sniper rifle and take it to the top of a tower overlooking the party. The possibilities seem endless, and the fun of this game lies in planning and executing the perfect plan to pull them all off.
The thrill of pulling off your best-laid plans is dependent on the world around you reacting to your actions. The NPCs in Hitman deserve abundant praise for making you feel responsible for your actions. They follow diverse paths and play out their own interconnected narratives, but react instantly and believably to disruptions. The crowd and the innocent bystander feel like main characters in Hitman, filling out levels that would otherwise just be 47 and a few bad guys.
The stories you create for yourself are the highlight of Hitman. They’re endlessly engaging and motivate you to keep playing — which is a good thing, because the main narrative of season one is pretty forgettable: you’re hunting down a mysterious shadow client who stole information on all of the ICA’s agents. There are all the elements of a good spy thriller here, but they never reach a point. Hopefully season two will pick things up, because it’s such a waste to throw away these kinds of characters and settings on a half-baked conspiracy.
Despite this, the episodic format works in Hitman’s favour, and continuing the game in seasons is a great way to maintain a player base. At the completion of each level, a short cinematic plays that tells the next part of the story and sets up the next mission. If you’re playing as the episodes come out, this format keeps you on the hook for the next installment; if you’re binging the entire first season, it gives you a reason to keep playing. I hope IO find a better way to connect the gameplay to the overarching narrative, but I think they can do great things with this story structure.
To keep you busy between missions, IO have introduced Elusive Targets. These are custom targets inside existing levels that are only available for a short period of time. Wait too long to play, and they’ll be removed from the game again and you’ll miss your chance to take them out. To add an extra thrill, you only get one chance at these targets. Mess up your plan — spook the target, give yourself up or get killed — and you’ve lost your one and only chance to complete your mission. This adds an element of roleplaying to the game, placing you in a day in the life of Agent 47. They’re a fantastic addition to the episodic storytelling and one of the reasons I bought the game on day one.
The missions themselves are diverse in targets, location and aesthetic. The glamorous Paris fashion show is a glitzy party filled with supermodels and playboys; Sapienza is colourful and relaxed; the streets of Marrakesh are crowded and dirty, but lead you to the eerily sterile Swedish embassy and then onto the rubble of a bombed school building; the indulgent Bangkok resort is peaceful; Colorado is rugged and gorgeous at dusk; and Hokkaido is icy cold in temperature and decor. IO have done an amazing job at making all of the locations unique, and you can’t help but lose yourself in the view at least once per mission.
Each mission has multiple targets, and they all evoked different reactions in me. Some I disliked, some I hated with a passion and others I put off eliminating because I wanted to turn them to our side or even let them escape. Here again is where the micro-narratives absolutely make the game: everyone has their own story tied to their environment, and no one is just dropped into a level.
Season one of Hitman is an exciting new start for the franchise, and a bold step for storytelling in games. A lackluster overarching narrative stops it from being perfect, but complex personal and micro-narratives mean that it’s always an engaging gameplay experience. When you immerse yourself in the detailed case studies and subtle hints in the environment, you’re rewarded with a living world to play with and endless stories to explore. If IO can keep up the stamina they were starting to build at the end of season one, then the second season will see Agent 47 travelling to more exotic locations and testing his skills against more devious and morally grey targets. Just like my favourite TV shows, I’m going to need to replay these levels a few times to get my fix in between seasons. Now, my biggest question is whether I want a Netflix binge or a Hitman binge.