Hitman Episode One PlayStation 4 Review: The Art of Murder

Hitman Episode One PlayStation 4 Review: The Art of Murder

IO Interactive tweaks Agent 47's world of creative assassinations for the best interpretation of the series yet.

Bob Mackey Primary Reviewer

I've always been a fan of those rare games that, instead of treating the player as a god, create a world where you're the outsider looking in.

That's always been the case with the long-running Hitman series: As Agent 47, you take on the role of a true imposter, donning a variety of different personas for the sake of carrying out some very dirty deeds. At their best, the Hitman games drop you into a world that keeps moving despite your presence (or lack thereof), even if its developers create this illusion through some effective sleight of hand.

In the series' newest installment since 2012's Absolution, simply titled "Hitman," developer IO Interactive definitely draws on their long legacy of voyeurism. Moments of action don't come very often during Agent 47's missions: Most of the time, you're watching, waiting, eavesdropping, and following. And while said missions can conceivably be finished in minutes, figuring out the many steps (and options) involved in taking out your target requires careful observation of Hitman's environmental theater from every possible angle.

In its finest moments, Hitman carries an exhilarating sense of freedom—one that's typically rare to see in a triple-A title. In each of this first episode's three missions, Agent 47 finds himself in an entirely new backdrop with only the slightest inkling as to how to approach his next target. In a sense, Hitman feels much more like an adventure game this time around: Most of your progress comes through the use of items—usually, the clothing of the unfortunate souls you choke out and shove into a locker—rather than stealth tactics. Of course, some sneaking around is necessarily, but Hitman relegates it to avoiding people who can spot 47 for a fraud—conveniently marked with a white dot over their heads—rather than predicting routes and sidling along walls a la Metal Gear Solid. That cop outfit might not turn the heads of, say, the wait staff and partygoers, but some of your fellow boys in blue won't be fooled so easily. Hitman also makes the reactions of its NPC feel pretty natural by giving 47 varying degrees of conspicuousness: Wandering towards a protected area usually provokes the authority figures in question to chide you, rather than draw their guns and effectively end your mission.

All screenshots are from the PC version of Hitman, taken via Steam.

Above all, Hitman places an emphasis on getting to know the intimate details of its tightly-crafted little worlds. While assassination remains the overarching goal, each of its missions offer optional objectives to encourage players to experiment in its murderous little sandbox. Once you know the final destination of your target, for instance, killing him with a remote bomb simply involves playing the waiting game. These extra challenges also do an excellent job of letting the player know the scope of creative solutions available, but not necessarily how to achieve these solutions. One of the more difficult outcomes in the first mission involves disguising yourself as the man who's soon meeting your target: If you focus your attention on this particular character, it's possible to follow him on his way there while listening to his interactions with others for some clue about his weaknesses (in this case, alcohol). Since many characters move and act whether or not 47 is there, nailing down some of the tougher objectives requires a thorough knowledge of the level, as well as some careful and clever orchestration.

To motivate players to make the most of these episodic chunks of content, IO has incentivized creative solutions by offering rewards like different starting locations and item drops for completing various challenges. Being able to begin the mission closer to your target, for example, can eliminate those first steps you've already repeated dozens of times, and having an item stashed at a specific location in the level means you won't have to scour the environment for another offensive option. And to get even more life out of its levels, Hitman offers "remixes" of sorts, which involve taking out specific targets in specific ways. One of the more potentially interesting modes, "Elusive Target"—which wasn't active during the pre-release period—drops a specific target into a level for 48 hours, giving players a single chance to kill or be killed. Since these exclusive missions yield equally exclusive rewards, I can see the stakes being high enough to produce some truly tense experiences.

Thankfully, Hitman doesn't take itself too seriously. While its episodic narrative strives to hit the dark notes of the Bourne series, the levels themselves take a more playful attitude towards professional murder. Since most of Agent 47's missions surround him with terrible people, there's a great deal of fun to be had in watching their sociopathy play out. And though Hitman strives to give its settings a sense of reality, they aren't without their tongue-in-cheek contrivances that allow the player to goof around. Episode one's main mission sends 47 to a fashion show, where he can discover a famous supermodel who happens to be his doppelganger—leading to the exact kind of situation you'd expect. It's a bit too convenient, sure, but IO Interactive isn't afraid to briefly sacrifice their sense of reality for the sake of fun.

Hitman excels in presentation as well: It's a truly gorgeous game, packed with a staggering amount of detail. Even if you think you've seen it all, wandering into a large room packed with dozen upon dozens of NPC is downright impressive—especially when you notice they aren't simply background decorations and will flee/panic en masse at the first sign of violence. With such technical wizardry on display, it's a shame that Hitman's straightforward UI can be so laggy. After experiencing the large, meticulously detailed environments built for 47 to creep through, it's a strange contradiction to see the UI choke on some fairly simple assets. This sense of lagginess extends to the loading times as well, which feel roughly three times longer than necessary. This wouldn't be such a problem if Hitman didn't emphasize rapid prototyping of potential solutions, but restarting levels can often be a real drag. Hopefully, IO can find a way to patch these annoyances out with future episodes.

With their latest attempt, IO Interactive has created the best interpretation of Hitman yet. While three missions may not sound like a lot of content, the amount of ways to approach them and possible solutions will keep most players busy for 15-20 hours. Even if your attempts end in failure—and they will—gaining a sense of mastery over these self-contained, interactive narratives makes for some truly rewarding moments—and some downright hilarious ones as well. Though I'm not completely sold on the overarching story as of yet, I'm eagerly looking forward to Hitman's next installment of deadly sandboxes.

Mike Williams Second Opinion (Played on PC)

When I previewed Hitman, I found myself pleasantly surprised with IO Interactive's updated take on the Hitman formula. Hitman: Absolution was the studio's last title, but fans of the Hitman series felt the game diverged a bit too much from what they enjoyed in previous titles. The biggest problem is trying to keep those fans happy, while also reaching out to new players.

Hitman 2016 does this through the use of waypoints, opportunities, and challenges, all of which point you towards the right direction, but can be ignored and turned off if you so desire. Hitman gives you room to play how you want to play, which can be daunting for the neophyte, but IO Interactive has done a great job streamlining the experience. Despite that streamlining, Hitman 2016 feels every bit the successor to Hitman: Blood Money that it should be.

I found myself impressed with the beta levels, but I was wondering if IO Interactive would be able to expand that dense level design with tons of assassination and infiltration options. The answer is yes.

Paris is huge, beautiful and detailed, a massive four floor complex with a ton of challenges to undertake. I actually tackled the basic Paris mission three times in three different ways before I found out there was an whole basement that I had been missing up until that point. While some of the assassinations are straight-forward, there's still the chance to get really creative. You can shoot your target with a sniper rifle, but you can also drop a chandelier on them, push them into the Seine, get them into a mock interview and blow up the camera, or dress as a model and use the good old fiber wire when their guard is down.

It's good that Paris is so detailed and massive, because you only have the levels available in the beta and Paris at launch. The episodic nature means everything else is getting doled out over time. Hitman wants you to replay all of its levels again and again, finding new assassinations and undertaking challenges. To that end, there's your Mastery level, which is region-specific. This keeps track of the challenges you've completed and as you finish those challenges you unlock further options during your planning phase.

When you start Paris for example, you're given a single entry method, disguise as a guest of the fashion show. Finish a few challenges though, and you can start disguised as a crew member or kitchen staff. You can also unlock additional agency drops, offering extra weapons and items during your run.

And that's just the missions IO Interactive has made. The studio understands that players will probably burn through what's here rather quickly and they need to keep us occupied until the next map releases. To do that, they're added player-created Contracts. Making a Contract is simple: head into Contract Creation and play a level like normal. Mark your target, kill your target. The game records who you killed and how you killed them, using that information to create a contract other players can play.

Like any other user-generated content, this runs the gamut from insultingly easy to absurdly hard. One Featured Contract (presumably highlighted by IO staff) makes your second target a guy who sits in a corner the entire time, with a female companion behind him and guard at the end of the room. That one was painfully hard due to the lack of real opportunities presented to you and it took me a while to figure out my assassination vector. And that's the point of Hitman. It's a gigantic puzzle and the Contracts are just other players creating new puzzles for you.

I am a very bad hitman.

The drawbacks I noted in my preview remain here. Non-marked NPCs - the ones that don't appear when you use Instinct - don't really react like they should at times, because the game's AI only applies to guards and marked NPCs. The game is glitchy, with bodies falling through walls and floor occasionally. There is some odd hitching that popped up occasionally on PC. I have no clue what causes it; it was infrequent, but essentially brought the game to a halt when it happened before return to normal service. These issues don't bring down the game for me though.

This is the Hitman some players have been waiting for since 2006. I wish it was released all at once, but what's here already is good enough that I'm willing to let IO Interactive slide this time. If the following levels are equally as great, the studio will have pulled off the update Hitman deserves.

Now excuse me, I have to go figure out how to kill two people in a safe room.

A bit too laggy. This doesn't ruin the experience, but it's still an unnecessary annoyance.

Lasting appeal
Episode one's three missions are meant to be replayed multiple times, and offer incentives for players who find the most creative solutions. If you're looking to get the most of of Hitman, expect it to take up a good 15-20 hours of your life.

With 47's missions, audio clues are just as important as visual ones—thankfully, Hitman communicates these effectively.

Hitman is a truly gorgeous game, packed with detailed locations filled with dozens of NPCs milling about.

If you haven't yet entered the deadly world of Hitman, IO Interactive's newest installment makes for the most approachable take on the series yet. The amount of content may seem undersized for an episodic series, but the sheer amount of ways to approach each level will have you playing them over and over again to perfect the art of murder.


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