First Hitman hands-on: hand of classic design fits snugly within murderous episodic glove

Hitman gameplay

Planning is all important for a hitman. Understanding your mark’s movements and behaviour, the layout and characteristics of the given location, and your own strengths and weaknesses is vital rather than optional. Push hard and open yourself up to the risks of achieving an instant kill, or hold back and drip feed death. Make the right decision and you’ll succeed without anyone knowing that anything has changed. 

Beta details, release info, minimum specs – our Hitman guide has everything you need to know.

This year, these decisions of strategy apply to the hitman’s master as much as they do to the hitman. Developer Io Interactive left it until just two months prior to the promised release date to announce that Hitman will no longer be releasing in full on 11 March. Instead, an episodic structure has been opted for that sees new assassination locations released every month – with what is being called ‘season one’ due to conclude later in the year. The instant kill approached has been rejected in favour of the drip feed.

Batch one of the monthly content, the Intro Pack, is designed as the foundation for what’s to come, made up of a tutorial, prologue and the narrative’s first major location in the form a Parisian mansion. It’s this triple-shot cocktail that we’ve recently played through, although to say we’ve seen everything it potentially offers would be a fabrication.

Hitman gameplay

To absorb everything contained here would take many hours of dedicated, and logically planned, attention. Even then, the nature of the AI system – that sees individuals react, adapt and take influence from one another, as well as you – means that it’s entirely likely that treading the same path twice would yield different results. It’s that uncertainty that has always created much of the mystique around the best Hitman games, and much of the focus has clearly gone into the provision of that here.

Because of that uncertainty, the smaller-scale tutorial and prologue are ferocious in their encouragement for you to experiment and embrace a mindset of always being ready and prepared to think on your feet and react instantly to a change in events and/or atmosphere. By asking you to play through it at least twice, the tutorial (assassinate your target during a party on a mid-sized yacht) acts as a simple representation of how the game’s many different systems can be used and intertwined to created a vast array of results. Whilst this is not a sandbox game in the truest sense of the word, there are so many different mechanics in play that you’re never stuck for option.

Coming up with a means to deal death is not a problem, narrowing your focus to a single path sometimes is. Given the variety of executions on offer, sticking to one vision can feel like you’re only opening yourself up to one tiny slice of a panoramic picture.

Hitman gameplay

This must be why Io is so confident that it can pull off the deft art of the episodic release. Whilst we’re only getting one location per month, if each of these settings is as densely packed and as complex as the Paris of the Intro Pack then players intent on digging into their games to uncover every nook and secret are going to have their hands full.

We’ve known about the Paris episode for a while, having seen it behind closed doors at Gamescom last year, but this is the first time we’ve been let loose on it with control pad in hand and the deadpan Agent 47 under our direct command. Taking an active part in proceedings reveals just how full of possibilities this world is.

The setting is a fashion show hosted within the aforementioned Parisian mansion and its surrounding gardens. Extravagant, obnoxious and populated by the great and the good of narcissistic society, it’s a location that exudes the kind of power and wealth that can only come from corruption and exploitation. The place has the suffocating stench of blood money… ahem.

For a game that sets you up as a killer it makes for the perfect introduction in that you don’t feel the slightest bit of sympathy for the two egomaniacs you’re here to put in the ground.

Hitman gameplay

Viktor Novikov and Dahlia Margolis can be dispatch in whichever order you wish, with the former taking an active part in the party-like shenanigans occurring on the ground floor and the latter preferring to stay in the exclusive, VIP-only upper levels. Their different behaviour patterns force you into an embrace of multiple tactics. For Novikov you must become the master of silent death, removing him without others suspecting your involvement. For Dahlia the difficulty rests in getting initial access to the heavily guarded areas she inhabits, and subsequently remaining unnoticed once there.

Depending on your outlook, the volume of AI entities is either a blessing or a curse. Io can populate a location with 300 of these ‘intelligent’ avatars, each with their own objectives, senses and outlooks. A waiter and bodyguard, for instance, both share the same AI technology but their roles are very different. You can take advantage of these, or you can try to avoid their attentions.

You might try poisoning some food and then having a waiter unknowingly offer the tampered sushi to your mark, or you might make use of a bodyguard’s natural suspicions to tempt him away from colleagues so that you can take his clothes and disguise yourself in a secluded area. There are other more elaborate means of achieving your task, but to ruin them here seems like sacrilege for a game that rests so heavily on personal endeavour and experimentation. Plus, there are always the guns to fall back on if all else fails but that feels like failure.

Hitman gameplay

These skills of disguise and deathly invention are familiar and consistent with other Hitman games, of course, but it’s the potential offered by the structure of the mansion and the 300 AI entities within it that transforms this into something that we’ve not seen before. There are so many domino effects that it’s difficult to keep track of everything.

Overheard conversations provide hints regarding how you might secure a kill, interacting with important guests whilst disguised as someone else alters their behaviour in your favour, remembering seemingly pointless information can open doors for you much further down the line. How much of this you engage with, and to what degree, depends on what kind of player you are.

If you’re the sort that takes pleasure and pride in seeing everything the creators have crammed in then you’ll have plenty of work to do between each monthly release. If you’re the sort that likes to take that initial playthrough as gospel and not ‘taint’ a concise narrative by consistently replaying it then you’re still looking at a few hours play to work out how to silently succeed just once.

You can make things easier on yourself by tracking objectives on your mini-map when you come across a potential way to kill one of the two. This causes icons to pop up that can be investigated and acted upon, creating a breadcrumb trail that eventually leads to an assassination. Of course, purists will turn their noses up at such as idea but the reality is that Hitman is a mainstream series that must accommodate those parts of its audience with less interest in giving themselves up to acquiring full mastery of the systems on offer.

Hitman gameplay

For the purists, elusive contracts exists within represent assassination targets that are (we’re promised) far more difficult than the main objectives.

Creating a blend that works for both sectors of the audience is going to be tough, but the episodic structure allows Io the best chance possible to do exactly that. The time between location releases provides valuable opportunity to listen to player feedback, and act upon it, in advance of the next batch of content.

Hitman might be treading new ground as far as the triple-A space is concerned, but in all likelihood it’s at the forefront of a trend that is likely to gain traction over coming years.