Few will argue that Hitman: Absolution was a major misstep for the long-running series from iO Interactive. Trying to shape the tried and tested strategic stealth experience into a streamlined action adventure went completely against what the title stood for, and what made it popular with players. After losing the faith of these fans after that release, the developers needed to do something radical to revive the franchise, and – thankfully – we can say that with Hitman: The Complete First Season, the series has more than returned to form. In fact, by approaching their release in an episodic manner, it has possibly proved to be their strongest title yet.
Title: Hitman: The Complete First Season
Developer: iO Interactive
Publisher: Square Enix
Available on: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC (Xbox One version reviewed, PS4 codes provided by publisher throughout season 1)
Hitman has never been lauded for its deep storyline, and whilst there is an ongoing plot thread concerning a killer who is undermining the famous assassin agency which Agent 47 works for, it is very much a background to the individual stories told in each level. Originally released online, spread out throughout 2016 as six individual episodes, each stage is a sandbox for creating the perfect murder. The half-dozen worldwide destinations tie together in an overall arc, but also have their own story-based targets, as well as a plethora of additional targets, challenges, and bonus contracts.
Before continuing, we should touch upon the episodic format. By releasing levels in bimonthly chunks, iO drip-fed gamers different playgrounds to spend their time in. Yes, you could complete the story mission in a matter of hours, but the very open-ended nature of each scenario lent itself to experimentation and replaying the level in different ways. By having a gap between each release, the player is encouraged to keep trying new ways to kill their targets, completing different challenges to gain XP, and in turn, master each level. This of course can still be true of the disc release, but without that breathing room between each stage, a little of the pacing is lost from this Complete Season retail release.
But that is a minor issue, and not one that will even become apparent to late-adopters who are only jumping into the action now. There is a plethora of content to keep coming back to in every level. Each story contract can be approached from an endless number of ways – choice has been brought back to the series after the linear experience of Absolution, you really do feel free to create the perfect kill in any way you wish. Whether that is all guns blazing, or super-stealthy – there are always different options in taking on every situation. You can go in blind, and try to design your own plan, but to make this easier for newcomers to the series, trackable opportunities can be discovered, giving you ideas of how to take out your targets.
This can all be ignored for the more seasoned hitmen among you, and there is also the newly-introduced extreme difficulty that has arrived with the disc-Based version. This makes tweaks such as advanced AI, disguises becoming ruined by bloody kills, trickier CCTV and even more new advancements to challenge players even further. This is certainly fan service to the hard-core series mainstays, and with it, iO have catered for the entire spectrum of players and difficulties. In fact, you can choose to self-inflicted restrictions and tackle extra challenges on your own free will, as each level has a set of optional objectives that award additional XP. These range from killing methods, to route of escape, to more creative tasks such as killing multiple targets with “accident” kills, whilst wearing a particular costume. These go on and on, and are often humorous – which all adds to the longevity of the base game – and there are even three bonus missions thrown in for the complete season release.
On top of the immense replayability of the main contracts, there is an ever-expanding catalogue of extra missions and challenges. Escalations are five-part contracts which go from a simple hit, to much more complex instructions, culminating in a fifth mission to really test your skills. There are a countless number of these in each location, and iO keep adding more and more. These add entirely new ways to look at levels – with new targets and much more stringent objectives that need to be met to call the mission a success. Escalations are in addition to the Contracts mode that returns from Absolution (the only redeeming feature of that title), where all players can easily create and share their own contracts for anyone to enjoy. This social aspect is a welcome additional challenge, but the professionally-made Escalations have more allure and more complexity, so you may well find yourself rarely visiting Contracts mode.
The next ingenious addition is possibly the most addictive however, and really poses long-term appeal. Elusive targets are new contracts that iO add to the game randomly, across any location. They usually have specific contract instructions such as method of killing and escape, but the caveat being that these are all time-limited. Having the hitman app downloaded is useful for this mode so that you know as soon as a new Elusive target is added, as not only do you usually only have forty-eight hours to complete the hit, but you cannot save mid-mission, and any death is a permanent fail. Sounding tougher? Well you also can’t use your hitman vision (like a Spidey-sense) to locate your target either, you just must work that out based on your briefings. This was especially tricky on a contract where one twin was the target, but it definitely adds more tension and excitement to proceedings.
It should also be said that on top of all the new mission types and the fantastic open world levels, this new Hitman title plays so much better than its predecessors ever did mechanically. The early Hitman games were famously janky and glitch-ridden. Simple tasks like interacting with items in the game world and dragging bodies would often result in the wrong result or just not work whatsoever. The new Hitman has a refined and easy to pick-up control system, and although bugs are present here or there, feels a much more polished product than ever before. This shines through in the music and graphics too, with some locations in particular looking especially stunning and immersive.
After the huge letdown that was Absolution, iO Interactive have emphatically delivered by returning to their most successful formula – giving players the choice to kill however they want to. Cinematic gameplay and complex plots work well for some games, but Hitman certainly didn’t need it and the overall experience was diluted by it. The Complete First Season of Hitman successfully reboots the series by going back to its roots, but also by making it at once both more accessible than ever to newcomers and also a deeper and more challenging experience for seasoned fans – a thoroughly difficult balance to strike. The fact that the missions are constantly evolving and growing with added content and variations only expands its appeal further and provides hour upon hour of murderous play. This silent assassin has returned with a bang.