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As a fan of classic stealth games like Thief and Mark of the Ninja, I never took much note of the Hitman franchise. Hiding in plain sight seemed like such a radical departure from lurking in the shadows and blackjacking city watchmen that I thought it a poor fit for my tastes. But I was encouraged to broaden my horizons with the episodic 2016 release of Hitman, and after dropping a moose on a banker and blowing up a scientist with an explosive golf ball, I’m ready to call my horizons broadened. Hitman has taken a traditional stealth formula and spun it into wide-open playgrounds of chaos, encouraging me to find the most entertaining ways to complete the grimmest of contracts.
Agent 47 is a stone-cold cypher of a man, an assassin of peerless skill and shrouded past recruited to one of the most secretive agencies in the world. Through his prim handler he travels the world, executing targets without fail or question. But the effects of his actions ripple across the world, threatening the interests of yet another clandestine group of operators. With every assassination, 47 learns more of the shadow war between agencies and finds more and more reasons to begin selecting his own targets to take down.
The story presented here is solid, a classic tale of spies and secret societies turned on their heads by one man who’s simply too good at his job. But it’s the action that takes center stage here, because of how much control you as the player have over how each mission plays out. Each of the six episodes comprising the main game is a sprawling map in which to find your targets, as well a creative methods for disposing of them. Wandering the halls or streets of your location, you may overhear conversations that clue you into special opportunities to reach your marks. Or, you can survey the area to find environmental hazards or key moments to swoop in and strike them down. Or you can poison them and drown them in a toilet, your choice.
Take the first episode, Paris, for example. Your targets are running a fashion show at a stately palace, with the party and runway on the ground floor and a secret auction being held in the upper floors. You might pick up on conversations about a special access pass to the auction, or a special drink one of the targets orders, or a one-on-one meeting you can crash. Alternatively, you can watch your targets and drop chandeliers on them, electrocute them with exposed wires, poison their food, push them off balconies, or just shoot them if you find a good point to snipe from. The game tracks all of this as mission stories and challenges to tick off, and awards you location mastery that unlocks new starting points, equipment, and gear drop-offs to help you pull off even crazier assassinations.
I say crazy because Hitman is more about the spectacle than the authenticity. Despite his chiseled appearance and distinctive barcode tattoo, Agent 47 can disguise himself as just about anyone he meets, from waiters to bodyguards to hippies to clowns. Each disguise has its own rules about where you can go, what items you can use, and who you can interact with, as well as who might recognize that you’re not who you say you are. Most missions come down to finding the right disguise for each step, but they’re somehow still designed to be entirely doable in your starting suit or Halloween costume or whatever. It’s this freedom to be as clever or as crazy as you want that makes Hitman such a pleasure to play, and such a compelling experience to return to over and over again.
There’s not much to complain about with this release, honestly. Any stealth game takes some getting use to as far as its particular rules are concerned, and while Hitman is more lax than most you’ll still need to learn its quirks. On occasion you’ll have characters bug out and get stuck or walk through objects, or interaction points not register correctly. Usually you can get around this by reloading but you need to be making manual saves, as the autosaves sometimes wait far too long between snapshots. The graphics are certainly not a weak point here, with impressive vistas and detailed locales that look strikingly similar to their real-world counterparts. The sound design is fine as well, though I must point out that they cheaped out on voiceovers, using the same handful of Americans to voice an international cast to pretty jarring effect.
The Game of the Year edition contains all six episodes of the original release, as well as several bonus missions and a very clever four-mission bonus campaign on the same maps. You can also take on escalation missions, which challenge you to complete the same assassinations multiple times with strict, increasingly complex rules. Best of all, the GOTY edition allows you to play improved versions of the missions in Hitman 2 even if you don’t own the latter, just by running them through the demo. You’re essentially guaranteed hours of mayhem and entertainment here as long as you keep chasing challenges, and with so many creative ways to kill there’s really no reason to ever stop.