Hitman and its hero have come a long, long way. Born eighteen years ago, the original Hitman: Codename 47 was – like Splinter Cell and Metal Gear Solid – a pioneer of the stealth action genre, but where Metal Gear Solid went for sneaking and shooting and Splinter Cell for acrobatics and hand-to-hand combat, Hitman took a different path.
The point of Hitman wasn’t to infiltrate sci-fi bases and rely on gadgets, but to work your way through more open, real-world scenarios, using your own wits and whatever tools you could get your hands on to reach and kill your target. And why wander around in some super-high-tech camo-suit when you can disguise yourself as a guard, hotel busboy, waiter or dentist. Hitman: Codename 47 was not a shooter – you had to think your way through each mission if you wanted to get your man.
Codename 47’s cool style and unique approach soon won a following, but the gameplay wasn’t perfect by any means. The lack of in-mission saves made progress infuriating. The AI was cutting-edge for the time, but simultaneously dumb and supernaturally perceptive. Most of all, Codename 47 got a reputation for being the kind of game where you had to do what the developers intended in the order they intended or fail miserably and die. And while our hero had an interesting killer clone back story, there wasn’t much warmth or interest to the character.
Released two years later, Hitman 2: Silent Assassin went a long way to fixing all such grievances. Agent 47 became a man in search of peace in a remote Sicilian monastery, pulled back into the business when his friend and mentor is kidnapped. The AI was still challenging, but also human, while the level designs were more open and forgiving. Where Codename 47 often seemed to punish you if you hadn’t found the right solution, Silent Assassin gave you more routes, tools and disguises, giving you a chance to think through each mission your way. Agent 47 was still pretty useless in a gunfight – and worse hand-to-hand – but he was easier to control and more effective while sneaking. Silent Assassin felt more like the game that Codename 47 had wanted to be.
Silent Assassin pulled new fans into the franchise, but for many Hitman was still something of a marmite game. You either loved its slower-paced, methodical approach to action, or you yearned for a more easy-going action hit. 2004’s Hitman: Contracts was part sequel, part remix, reworking elements of Codename 47 with the polish of Silent Assassin. It showed the series moving in the right direction, but maybe not quite fast enough. Agent 47 deserved to go bigger. Hitman needed its breakout hit.
Hitting a high note
It got it with 2006’s Hitman: Blood Money, still revered as a classic stealth game. Where even Contracts’s levels had felt restrictive, Blood Money gave us more expansive areas to explore, each crammed with interesting characters and situations you could exploit to hit your targets. Here was a team firing on all cylinders, creating rich scenarios where a hot-tub can become a death trap, a barbecue a time bomb and an opera performance an accidental execution. The more you explored each level, the more opportunities you found for mayhem. Meanwhile, a more intelligent control system made it easier to slip in and out of windows, pull unwary guards from a balcony or tuck a body into a chest freezer.
Running on the relatively new Xbox 360, Blood Money didn’t just look amazing, it played superbly too. It felt incredibly ambitious, with sequences involving dozens of characters, crowds of bystanders and massive, fully-explorable locations. And, perhaps most importantly, it’s with Blood Money that Hitman hit a richer vein of jet-black humour, with often hilarious dialogue to be heard if you listened in to the supporting cast and some darkly funny killings to be carried out. You might have felt guilty, but your targets always seemed to deserve what was coming to ‘em. Agent 47 no longer felt like a cold, psychopathic killer – he’d become the assassin who appreciated irony; the hitman with his own twisted humour. His world had changed to embrace that, each level a playground of murderous possibilities.
Gone to Earth
For the next eight years the Hitman series went into hiding, as the team at IO Interactive worked on its darker, ultra-violent arthouse shooter, Kane and Lynch: Dead Men, plus its even stranger sequel, Dog Days. By 2014, though, the studio was back with a new take on hitman, Hitman: Absolution. Absolution gets a lot of stick from fans, but it had some strong idea, adjusting the disguise system to make it more realistic, creating areas that felt alive with busy people and background detail. Agent 47’s shooting had never been sharper, his close-combat skills more impressive.
Yet Absolution felt like a game where the ambition wasn’t matched to the hardware trying to run it, and where IO’s desire to make a more cinematic Hitman ran contrary to what players loved most about the series. Levels were sliced into pint-sized portions with frequent check points, and you couldn’t help but get the feeling that you were being railroaded along a narrative track. Agent 47 was as strong a presence as in Blood Money, but where that game let you create your own Hitman horror stories, Absolution seemed more intent at making you an actor in one already written. Its world looked amazing, but felt curiously hollow.
But Absolution also pointed towards Hitman’s future. Its Contracts mode opened up the levels, the cast and the props of Absolution for players to create their own scenarios, add their own objectives and conditions, then share them with the community. In doing so, IO created a near-perfect assassination sandbox. Hitman was ready to take the next step.
Back in business
2016’s episodic reboot gave us that and more. Each expansive level became a theme park for snipers, saboteurs, poisoners and stranglers, designed to be played repeatedly in search of different targets. Now that current console and PC hardware allows for levels as big and busy as Agent 47 deserves, there’s a sense that we’re finally seeing Hitman as its designers envisioned it: a sometimes gruesome, immersive playground where you can play the silent assassin or an artist of ‘accidental’ death, making macabre use of every toy in the sandbox to tell your own fiendish fairly-tale.
Can we expect even bigger, better and more brutal stories from the next game in the series, Hitman 2? Well, things are definitely looking up. Agent 47 is back in business and on top form, and his series has momentum on its side. The target’s in his sights and his finger’s on the trigger. There’s almost no way he can miss.