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Hitman Episode 1: Paris Review - Intricate, smart and brutal

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The most fascinating aspect about the Hitman franchise has been on everything but its killing. Targeted murder is the conclusion to a series of solved puzzles, not all of which even need to be solved or completed in a perfect way. Assassination as conclusion, rather than as the only means of progress, indicates players have far more breadth in how they engage with the world. When so many games rely on killing as the only means of progress or interaction, it’s pleasant to realise Hitman - of all games! - is more than that.

Hitman (2016), like previous games in the franchise, is a third-person, stealth assassin simulator.

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The spy who killed me

You play “47”, at once a mysterious, monosyllabic monster and agent of destruction. The tone is more reminiscent of classic spy genres, especially James Bond, than any gritty stealth ones. Players are given a large map, gear to aid you - from knives to coins - a target to eliminate and an extraction point. How you go about eliminating your target is up to you. And that freedom, as well as the various excellent mechanics designed to aid that freedom, make this more than murder.

Through some easy-to-understand tutorials, you're shown the relatively few interactions that eventually branch out into various possibilities.

The most popular, of course, is the ability to disguise 47 using various uniforms. You can either find these lying around or find a lone uniform wearer and steal their clothes (and, yes, video game logic says these all fit 47 perfectly). Once in disguise you are then able to blend in passively anywhere and actively at key locations. For example, if you wear the uniform of a barman, you can interact with the bar to clean glasses, making you invisible to (mostly) everyone. As Diana, your handler, says, people don’t see faces, only the uniform.

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You can access key locations depending on your uniform: Serving staff can go through this door but not that door, while security can go through more, and so on. This is what I mean by the game being a series of puzzles. It’s not just a matter of swapping uniforms on the fly. Bodies need to be stashed or they’ll be discovered, so that needs to be kept in mind. You need to remember where to find uniforms you’ve swapped out. Perhaps you use one disguise to get into an area, only to need a new disguise to go further.

And, note, using a disguise is entirely optional. Everything I’ve described isn’t necessary to complete your objective of assassinating your target. There are many challenges in the game asking the player to kill without ever changing. But using a disguise one mechanic the game allows that creates such a varied playthrough.

Detective mode and opportunities

47 has what everyone playing modern games just calls “Detective Mode”: that ability to highlight important and interactive objects, see patterns and targets, and so on. This is incredibly helpful and fits the theme of 47 as a perfect killer who knows his environment to every corner. (I liked that the game slows a little when in this mode, helping you to further plan ahead). But, like the disguise mechanic, this is entirely optional. Players who want a tougher experience need never use it.

While playing missions, 47 will overhear conversations allowing access to various side activities. These activities feed into reaching your target. For example, you might overhear guards talking about an old general, who likes vodka, planning to meet your target. The game then allows you to track this side activity: stealing the general’s uniform, getting vodka and meeting the target (alone). There are all sorts of examples of these I won’t spoil, because part of Hitman’s enjoyment is discovering these surprising encounters. Some provide unique kills - which, again, I won’t spoil - while others simply allow easy access to the targets.

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Again, what’s wonderful is that all of these well designed mechanics are not essential to completing the mission. The game is big enough to allow for varied responses. You can also browse through Challenges, sometimes from IO themselves or by players, letting you play with the world in unique ways.

One challenge, to give you an example, involved assassinating the first two guards at the Paris location. They stood facing each other with no way to sneak behind them. The challenge was to strangle one, but I could dispose of the other how I liked. How would you do it? You could distract one using coins, wear a uniform to lure one or both away, shoot one in the hand and knock out the other, and so on. This is still the same map, but the challenges are varied and challenge you to respond in interesting ways.

Visuals

If you’re wondering, the game is one of the most stunning I’ve played - running sometimes above 30FPS on PS4 (sometimes 60 FPS according to tests). The environment is beautifully detailed, with stunning lights, animations and texture effects. Sound design hits the right chords, with guns and fights and stabbing. Music is sparse but does a good job of creating mood, depending on the environment.

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So much is happening on screen at once - various conversations, literally hundreds of NPCs, some going about unique animations and actions - it’s a wonder how the game holds it all together. Truly it’s a marvel and IO’s artists and engineers must be congratulated.

Load times and episodic content

I haven’t said much about the overarching story, because I don’t really know what’s happening. That’s pretty much a combination of IO decision to turn this into an episodic release and the very few cutscenes. While it’s all extremely well-written, and it’s clear this is a sequel of some kind, the overarching story was unclear to me. (I’ve played almost all the Hitman games and I couldn’t tell you what is happening.)

The game is one episode, but the asking price matches. It’s not a full retail price, but it’s still incredibly fulfilling. Any complaints about it being “only one map or mission” don’t do justice to what you can do and what you’re able to do in this game. As soon as I’d completed the mission, I wanted to go back, find alternate routes, see what I’d missed in terms of side-activities.

My main issue is the load times (on PS4).

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Considering this is a puzzle game, one mistake changes everything. It’s like removing the wrong block in Jenga. This means any tiny slip up undermines a plan you might have - this, in itself, is fine and part of solving any puzzle. The game also lets you quicksave whenever - the problem is loading any save after you’ve messed up. Expect long load times, even if you’ve just loaded a game. This made it a little unpleasant and can be discouraging if you want to experiment - which is what makes the game enjoyable.

Be aware that, though it doesn’t require online connection, there are large parts missing if you’re not connected. Thankfully I had little issue connecting and staying connected, but that’s never going to the case always.

Hitman Episode 1: Paris provided hours of fulfillment. It’s intricate, smart, brutal, punishing and oh so fulfilling. It’s not a full retail game so the asking price is lower than most. But I highly recommend this for anyone who enjoys stealth games.

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