Hitman (2016) Review

#Video ReviewsMarch 17, 2016

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Carolyn Petit

Managing Editor

The latest entry in IO Interactive’s long-running Hitman series, simply titled Hitman, is here. Or, rather, part of it is here. Hitman currently includes two training scenarios and one full-fledged assassination, with new locations to be added in the coming months.

The game starts with a flashback section that serves as both a tutorial and an introduction to the mysterious Agent 47 for players who might not be familiar with him from earlier games. But the thing about Agent 47 is that there’s not much to know. He’s as unsure about his past as we are. In this new Hitman, he’s not ruthless. He’s not vengeful. He doesn’t seem haunted by his past or by the things he does. He just seems dispassionate and detached in the extreme. And the Hitman games are supposed to be a kind of assassination fantasy, a chance to play out the kind of perfectly executed hit that we see glorified in movies, pulled off by a killer for whom it’s all just business. But it’s worth asking ourselves, if extreme emotional detachment is part of that fantasy, why is that something that we admire? Why do we want to step into the shoes of a character who seemingly can’t feel much of anything?

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The latest entry in IO Interactive’s long-running Hitman series, simply titled Hitman, is here. Or, rather, part of it is here. Hitman currently includes two training scenarios and one full-fledged assassination, with new locations to be added in the coming months.

The game starts with a flashback section that serves as both a tutorial and an introduction to the mysterious Agent 47 for players who might not be familiar with him from earlier games. But the thing about Agent 47 is that there’s not much to know. He’s as unsure about his past as we are. In this new Hitman, he’s not ruthless. He’s not vengeful. He doesn’t seem haunted by his past or by the things he does. He just seems dispassionate and detached in the extreme. And the Hitman games are supposed to be a kind of assassination fantasy, a chance to play out the kind of perfectly executed hit that we see glorified in movies, pulled off by a killer for whom it’s all just business. But it’s worth asking ourselves, if extreme emotional detachment is part of that fantasy, why is that something that we admire? Why do we want to step into the shoes of a character who seemingly can’t feel much of anything?

Hitman’s two training scenarios serve to familiarize you with the game’s mechanics, but the most interesting thing about them is the way that they’re presented. They both take place on a large staging area in the Agency headquarters; they’re not supposed to be real. The ocean water is just the ground painted blue, the helicopter is made of wood. All the artifice in these scenarios makes it much easier to accept the quirks of the AI behavior. They’re all just actors playing a part in your training exercise, they’re not real people in real situations. But when you move on to Paris, currently the game’s only chapter that’s presented as a real event and not a training exercise, it’s harder to accept some of the strange things that happen.

One time, I served my target a poison cocktail, which made him sick. He rushed to the bathroom but stationed his personal guard right outside. However, that guard let me walk right into the private bathroom, drown his boss in the toilet, and then walk away scot free. Later, I tried to kill another target by dropping a chandelier on her. I missed, with the chandelier landing a few feet away. But nobody reacted to this extremely alarming thing that had just happened. Nobody came after me, even though I was standing a few feet away right by the chandelier winch.

And of course, games don’t need to be realistic. Games can create all kinds of worlds and situations. But the more effort a game puts into presenting itself as realistic, the more jarring it is when it becomes clear that the other people aren’t people at all, but just robots following very simple programming who often don’t know how to react in a situation. It’s difficult to get invested in a world that so desperately wants to look and feel human but is obviously just an elaborate clockwork mechanism with so many moving parts, some of which don’t always work very well.

For all of its seriousness and shadowy political intrigue, Hitman is still a pretty goofy game. In one training scenario, you can pull off the hit by sabotaging the ejector seat in a jet, then having your mark launch himself into the sky. It’s kind of hilarious, and really, the Hitman games have always tried to appeal both to those who like the idea of the elegant, stealthy kill and those who just want to see what crazy stuff they can get away with, and the game encourages you to try some pretty wild stuff via its challenges.

One challenge requires you to drop one target onto another from a few stories up. Another requires you to plant a bomb inside a camera and have it go off during an interview. As you complete challenges, you earn points that let you start the mission in different locations and in different disguises, and that let you smuggle weapons into the palace, which makes it easier to complete still more challenges. The sheer number of ways you can pull off the mission is impressive, and there is an appealing puzzle-like aspect to figuring out how to accomplish some of the more outlandish challenges.

The new Hitman makes the dichotomy between elegance and zaniness clear with its Contracts system, which enables players to create their own missions and upload them for other players.

The Contracts tutorial guides players to think about creating both Skillful Assassin contracts, which “focus on achieving the cleanest possible kill in the best possible way,” and Playful Assassin contracts, which “require accidents, explosives, or other creative ways to kill the targets, sometimes in a funny disguise.” So there’s no “wrong” way to play Hitman; its mechanics exist to be tested and interacted with, and the Contracts system encourages players to make the most of those mechanics when designing missions.

Disguises play a big role in Hitman, determining which areas you can walk around in openly. At one point, I was dressed as a stylist at a fashion gala, and one of the guards who blocked my way called Agent 47’s masculinity into question. And while perhaps we’re “meant” to think that the guard is a jerk and that his attitudes are wrong, it doesn’t really work as a critique of those attitudes because Hitman as a whole is a glorification of traditional, violent masculinity. So players who share the guard’s viewpoint won’t hear it as a critique at all, but as something that fits in with everything else the game is doing.

Unlike some earlier entries in the series, The new Hitman doesn’t turn women into sexual objects as a gameplay mechanic, which is good. But while its storyline presents Agent 47’s targets as people who are contributing to violence and global unrest and therefore suggests that his deeds are good or necessary, he’s actually just participating in, profiting on, and perpetuating the cycle of violence in his work. With several episodes yet to come, maybe we’ll see some exploration of this idea. For now, Hitman is an awkward game that aims to be both elegant and goofy, both human and mechanical, and in trying to do so many things, it doesn’t fully succeed at any of them.