Peter [Parrish]: Hitman 6: Hitman is officially released in full as of today, with all episodes (and bonus episodes) available in one tidy ICA pick-up package. With that being the case, we thought this would be a timely moment to provide a comprehensive review of the whole damn shooting (and pushing, and drowning) match. If you’ve read any of our prior Episode Reviews, or listened to any of the various Podcasts where Tim and I have discussed Hitman, you’ll have a pretty good idea how we feel about the game. A few specific reservations aside, we like it. A lot. In fact I even included in on my 2016 Year End Best Of list.
So, Tim, precisely how relieved are you that Hitman 6: Hitman managed to defy most of the pre-release worries and turn out to be rather splendid?
Tim [McDonald]: On a scale of one to extremely, I’d say somewhere around “very”. (Although my pre-release worries were also predicated on the fact that Hitman Absolution was absolution-ly rubbish, in addition to the standard woes about how it’s episodic and it’s sort of maybe a reboot and so on, so my woes may have been more woeful than yours.)
Peter: I’m not taking that obvious Absolution bait! … oh shit, I just did. Carry on.
Tim: But it transpired that Hitman 6: Hitman: Season 1: Hitman Begins was actually really good. Like, good enough that it deserves comparisons with Blood Money, which – as everyone who isn’t wrong already knows – is the absolute paragon of Hitman-ing. As you noted it’s not without its flaws, and not every episode is a total knockout, but by and large it’s really hard to hold those flaws against it.
I think one of the first things we should properly address is the episodic structure, because that’s a structure that really does not lend itself well to every genre. I actually think it worked in Hitman‘s favour, though: the wait between episodes meant I went back and replayed each episode again and again, which is honestly kind of the point. These levels are sandboxes with a lot of interesting things to play with and a swathe of unlockables to… unlock… and it stopped me from just playing one or two maps over and over at the expense of the rest. God knows there are Blood Money levels I’ve never really revisited.
Peter: Against all my expectations, yes, the episodic structure worked out fine. It’s a little weird praising “well none of the other missions are out yet” as a successful method of getting me to replay the ones which were out, but it did mean I played the maps more than I otherwise would. The added challenges and unlocks don’t always work as an incentive to keep replaying – on the less interesting maps, their appeal wears out faster (and the barely present ‘offline’ functionality was a bad joke at launch) – but there’s a reason I have level 20 ‘mastery’ in Sapienza. We’ll probably get on to Elusive Targets and the like in due course, but those were a smart way to get people back into a level for a quick bout of assassination too.
I’ll be interested, actually, to see how people who pick up the full season end up approaching the game. In terms of whether they play through in a linear-ish way, doing all the missions straight through, or whether they stick on playing Paris a few times before moving on. Then stick on Sapienza for a few hours, and so on.
For those absolutely unaware of how Hitman works, the basic premise is this: baldy super-assassin Agent 47 is sent to an exotic international location with orders to kill various unpleasant people. He must then use his flawless powers of disguise, stealth, and creative use of inanimate objects (among other things) to carry out his task inside a sandbox-type level.
Peter: As you’ve said, episodic structures will not work for every game, but having a monthly episode to dive into for anywhere between an hour to several hours felt satisfying. We’re in a pretty saturated videogame market, and I think Hitman’s promise of “hey, you can play this new episode in about an hour if you want” is quite alluring when it’s up against a bunch of 40+ hour titles in your backlog.
Tim: There is that, too. At release I only played Hokkaido once as I was quite busy at the time, and felt like I got a good “experience” out of that, even though I didn’t go back to it for a little while. That said, there were obviously lots of things I didn’t come across until a lot later.
Peter: I’ve kind of earmarked Sapienza as one of the best missions in the game (if not the best) already, but let’s get into location specifics. The great, and the not so great. Including the tutorials, which were neat little maps of their own.
Tim: Alright, so in order: Tutorial Land, Paris, Sapienza, Marrakesh, Bangkok, Colorado, Hokkaido. I don’t actually remember if Tutorial Land is given a proper location, but I do remember it’s in a hilariously implausible mountain fortress containing a balsa wood boat. As such, that is clearly the best level. More seriously, the tutorial levels do a pretty good job of teaching you the basics while also showing off the whole “there are about 19 ways you can actually do this” conceit that really does form the crux of what makes Hitman so much fun. They’re pretty decent levels in and of themselves, though; if they weren’t made out of balsa wood, they would probably have worked alright as smaller levels in a big Hitman game. I mean, hell, they’re a lot better than the tutorials in every other Hitman game combined.
Tutorial aside, there are a lot of little links between the levels, and even a fairly good difficulty curve. Paris is a big, open, fairly standard Hitman level set in one (admittedly huge) building. Sapienza is a little seaside town with a mansion, a church, a beach, a town hall, a load of shops, and a secret evil laboratory. Marrakesh is roughly split between a “hub” area, a bombed-out school full of angry soldiers, and an embassy. Bangkok is almost a return to Paris, in that it’s set in one huge building (a hotel, this time) but with a few quirks, like how the doors have electronic locks and can’t just be picked open. Colorado is one of the only truly hostile levels with no real safe zones for 47-in-his-suit, being that it’s a militia compound. Finally, Hokkaido basically puts you to the ultimate test by having you do your murdering without the luxury of taking any equipment in with you.
Tim: I’m not sure if you’d agree with me, but to my mind the weakest levels are Marrakesh and Colorado. The former feels like it’s two entirely separate (and not particularly satisfying) levels shunted together with a town in between; while the latter is a little over-long, with multiple required steps that pad it out, and not a huge amount of interesting ways of doing a bad murder. It also has the most targets out of any mission, and while Hitman targets are usually caricatures at best considering their limited screen time, I can’t even remember who two of them were.
Peter: Yeah, I’m on board with those two being the worst of the set. Colorado’s gimmick of everybody being hostile to you falls apart the minute you pick up any disguise, and it’s almost all on one plain. There’s a tower or two to climb, and the main house has a couple of floors, but that’s it. I like the idea behind it, and each target’s ‘faction’ having their own little distinct area means you get some decent dialogue about rivalries and in-fighting and stuff, but the spacial design just isn’t that interesting. Plus you have to do that whole, unskippable ‘plot’ part at the end every time you replay the main level which gets tedious.
Oh, and there’s a target in a Mike Myers mask but you can’t (at least when I played it) disguise yourself as him. What the hell, IO?
Marrakesh had the misfortune to follow Paris and Sapienza, which had started the game off with burst of quality and then got even better. I’m not saying it’s a misjudged level or anything, I do think it’s pretty ordinary (traversal is a massive pain), but for a while it looked even worse because it was the obvious runt of the initial three. It does have my favourite ‘fuck all bankers and military coups’ premise though.
Tim: Next up are Paris and Bangkok, both of which are entirely serviceable. These are the levels that are most easily damned by faint praise: they don’t have much in the way of actual concrete problems (and I’ll forgive Paris a few flaws, since it’s the very first level and needs to ease people in a little) but they also don’t do anything particularly exciting. Of the two, I probably prefer Paris, but that might just be because I know it better and a few of the game’s long-standing problems hadn’t gotten to me yet. And I’ve just damned them with faint praise, haven’t I? They’re good levels! I played them a lot! They’re not particularly exceptional, but they’re still good levels. I mean, if the entire game had been six levels like that, I’d have been happy. A little complain-y that there wasn’t anything staggeringly exceptional, but just pleased that there was a set of decent new Hitman missions.
Finally, the crown jewels are Sapienza and Hokkaido. I know you’re itching to talk about Sapienza, so go on. Do it.
Peter: I will, but first I’m going to give Paris and Bangkok a few more dues. Paris has Agent 47 strutting down a catwalk as Helmut Krugar, dressing up as a vampire, and dropping a shitload of expensive architecture on top of a fashion show. The kills hadn’t reached their creative peak yet (lots of fairly boring poisonings and the like), but there were plenty of darkly silly moments to enjoy. Meanwhile, in Bangkok you can pull off a drum solo and then murder someone with a birthday cake. I do know what you mean about them occupying the ‘solid, dependable mission’ spots in the roster, but they definitely have their own charms. Bangkok might be my second most played mission, even.
However, it’s eclipsed by Sapienza, which is the best. IO know it’s the best; they set a whole bunch of Elusive Targets, post-release challenges, and entire bonus missions there. Why? Because it’s the most comprehensive realisation of a ‘living’, functioning location in the game. That means there are (or were, they’re pretty much covered now) plenty of streets, buildings, and areas to base little side missions, like the Elusive Target that had you offing a prospective Pope in the town church. You can go to the church in the main mission – some of the challenges and specific kills utilise it – but it’s quite easy to just bypass it entirely and still finish the mission.
Tim: I think Bangkok is the one we most disagree on; I might rate it a little lower than Paris (which I really like!) but I honestly need to play it again. And I suspect you’re right and they agree Sapienza is The Best, but I also wonder if the sheer wealth of bonus content set there is simply the fact that it’s a wide-open location, which lends itself to a ridiculous amount of variety.
Peter: But that’s why it’s the best! Anyway, the premise is great; a mother-obsessed eccentric and his increasingly frustrated chief scientist, both of whom are working on a deadly virus grown in a James Bond lab underneath a mansion. I love pretending to be a Ghost Mum. I love posing as a private detective working on behalf of the scientist lady. I love being able to dress up as a crafty mime artist or plague doctor. I love that all the mansion guards (on the top level at least) are straight out of Miami Vice. The only part of Sapienza I don’t especially love is having to destroy the virus every single time; but luckily that’s very, very easy to do.
Hokkaido was designed by the same guy who made Sapienza, and also has a strong sense of place and purpose. I’m guessing we’ve both played that the least, since it came out recently-ish, but what I’ve played of that has been pretty terrific.
Tim: Pretty much. If I’m starting to get bored of Sapienza – and I kind of am, because I’ve done 2,557 Elusive Targets there – then that’s okay, because Hokkaido still exists. It’s interesting that it’s got the same designer as Sapienza, because while there are similarities (as you noted, the cohesive sense that it’s an actual living location rather than a set of rooms slapped together) they’re also two of the most diametrically opposed missions in the game.
Peter: To clarify, it has the same design lead or level director or whatever. I’m not trying to credit him with everything, as I’m sure each map had loads of different people working on them.
Tim: To go backwards a little way, Sapienza is a sprawling area full of stuff to do without ever setting foot in the mission-critical area that is the mansion. You can take a sniper rifle and find an opportune nest, or sneak into the church and nick some priestly garb, or dozens of other things. Start off in the kitchens if you like, and have some remote mines smuggled in. Conversely, Hokkaido’s sci-fi clinic is one of the most beautifully constrained levels in the entire game: no equipment but what you find, and a very limited degree of freedom in terms of where you can initially go. 47 is posing as a patient in this super-secure surgery, and doors only slide open if the computer detects you’re wearing clothing with the correct authorisation to be there.
There are still plenty of ways to do things, of course (and posing as the yoga instructor to push one of your targets off the edge of the building is one of my absolute favourites) but there’s more to it than that. The shiny veneer of the public areas gives way to the corridors and bedrooms used by the staff, and the labs and surgeries below. While Sapienza was an exercise in building an open area that feels real, Hokkaido goes in entirely the opposite direction and focuses its attention solely on one smaller location. The fact that it works as well as it does is almost absurd.
While we’re on the topic of levels, I do want to throw out an obligatory mention to Blood Money‘s suburban A New Life mission, and note a touch of disappointment that there’s nothing quite like that here. That mission felt like one of the smallest Hitman levels, in that almost all of the action took place in one small house, despite the surrounding street and neighbouring homes offering up yet more possibilities. Nonetheless, that tiny amount of space had an absolute raft of stuff to do and all sorts of possible ways to kill your targets. This is maybe one of the problems with Hitman 6: Hitman‘s episodic nature, in that a level like that simply wouldn’t have offered a satisfying release. Being that it’s probably on par with the tutorial levels in terms of size it probably would’ve had to have been part of a pack of mini-missions, and I can understand IO preferring to spend their time on wider levels with more possibilities for Elusive Targets and the like, but still.
Peter: The tutorial boat level is probably the closest in terms of ‘self-contained but quite a lot to do’, really. But it’s also a tutorial level so it doesn’t go the whole way like A New Life did. I think there’s a way open for IO to do something like that within the episodic framework, but they may have to release two smaller levels at once or something. It’s a shame that some might see A New Life equivalent as lacking ‘value’ (when it really doesn’t). They probably don’t want to risk that backlash, though.
Tim: Yeah. A New Life is a very small toybox, but a toybox in which every toy is a whole lot of fun. It’s a very different design approach to what Hitman 6 has been doing, but no less valuable. I think they tried to do something like this with the little pack of missions that actually had a new layout in Sapienza and so on, but those didn’t really come close to it – they were still somewhat constrained by the pre-existing level.
Peter: While we’re on things that aren’t so great in Hitman, I’ll revisit the poor excuse for an offline mode for the 300th time. For the first few months it was pathetic; you could play offline, but nothing would be unlocked if you did (and it wouldn’t ‘remember’ anything you’d done online either, so you were always playing the levels at 0 mastery). The servers were also pretty sketchy throughout Paris’ release period, so a lot of people got to experience just how rubbish offline play was. Things have improved a bit. Outside of scheduled maintenance, I’ve not found many problems with the servers since the release of … oooh, around Marrakesh or so.[Edit 31/1] I really ballsed up the description of how Offline play now works, so here we go with a better version. As of November 2016, Offline play will now remember the unlocks you’ve ‘earned’ through Online play, but it won’t let you unlock any more.
Anyway, the bottom line is Hitman really does need to be played online basically all the time. That’s not going to be a problem for most, but it’ll still be an issue to a minority out there.
I’ve also never quite found the right balance between lots/minimal/no guidance for Hitman 6: Hitman’s Opportunities. The happy medium should be minimal info, where it’ll give you details like ‘hey, you should go do [thing] now’ and leave it up to you to figure out what that means. But there are enough instances where, actually, having some idea where on this gigantic map a tiny, vital object for your plan might be, is pretty crucial. Turning on FULL QUEST ARROWS FOR EVERYTHING is definitely too much for me, but I’ve made temporary use of them when some of the more obscure Opportunities have felt like bullshit treasure hunts.
Tim: I’ll note that this is a problem even with guidance on, at times. I’m not sure who the hell decides where wrenches and screwdrivers should be kept in the Hitman universe, but I wish they’d start thinking about garages and toolboxes rather than the utterly random places they keep leaving the bloody things in this game. Season 2 had better deal with the conspiracy of asshole plumbers and electricians who keep hiding their tools in weird places, or I’m calling bullshit. (Unless they’re fed up with getting the blame for all these “accidental” electrocutions, so they’re trying to keep the tools hidden… but I digress.)
That said, there is some joy to be found in this. I mean, once I discovered I could murder someone by dropping a toilet on them, I spent my immediate future playing the level in question a few times to figure out exactly how to do this, because who doesn’t want to drop a toilet on someone? This was one of the examples that was never really spelled out – I just noted that it was a possibility and figured it out from there. And it was great.
Peter: As you can tell from the voice acting, all of those plumbers are actually the same very eccentric person. That’s why the tools are all over the place. I’ve kind of gone back and forth on Hitman’s limited voice cast. By the end of the ‘season’ I’d pretty much settled on it being weird and charming that every single international location is populated by the same five people. It gave a bizarre kind of stagey continuity to everything. Like each mission was another season of American Horror Story or something.
Tim: Those six main missions aside, there’s also a raft of extra content. There’s the obligatory Challenge Your Friends To Murder mode in Contracts, as well as the Elusive Targets which can only be attempted once and only crop up for a few (real-time!) days, plus the Escalation missions. The latter challenge you to do the same hit multiple times, but with increasingly stringent requirements each time. “Murder this guy” followed by “Murder this guy with a spatula” followed by “Murder this guy with a spatula, while dressed as a clown”, etc.
This might just be me, but I don’t have a great deal of love for these bonus things. I’m happy it’s there, if only because it makes everything feel a lot more “complete” and continuous, but none of these things are really as good as the base missions themselves. That’s purely subjective, of course: I’m sure there are those who only play it to create their own Contracts, and those who consider mastery of all the Escalation challenges to be of paramount importance. And that’s fine! I just find it to be mildly repetitive bonus stuff, but I don’t think there’s anything remotely bad about it.
Peter: Like some of the other things we’ve mentioned, Contracts have improved over the last few months in terms of adding specifics and being able to search for and share them more easily and stuff. IO have been fairly consistent in making improvements to the game as they’ve gone along (even if those improvements aren’t always what people have been shouting the loudest for), adding things like the ability for Agent 47 to pull someone over a ledge from below. Granted, it took three patches and probably should have been there from the beginning; but hey, that’s the sort of bonus you get for waiting on the full season.
Tim: And none of this impacts how much I like the base game, anyway. Six missions (plus the tutorial stuff, plus all the bonus content) might not sound like much, but it really, really is. Even noting that a couple of the levels are a bit duff still adds up to four incredibly entertaining and replayable murder sandboxes, and they’re far more replayable than most of the levels from past games. Blood Money had a lot of superb levels that everyone remembers, but it also had Death on the Mississippi, and even the worst levels from Nu-Hitman still have a fair bit going for them.
Peter: Yeah, I think it’s pretty likely most people will play Colorado and Marrakesh a couple of times through, even if they don’t warm to them as much as the others.
As people had hoped, this is the best Hitman has been since Blood Money. It’s arguably straight out the best Hitman has been as a series. When it’s doing the murdery-sandbox thing (as opposed to the third-person stealth shooter Absolution thing), there isn’t really any other game like it; so when it’s doing it well, that’s something of considerable note. It beat out my pre-release cynicism and won me over across the course of the whole year.
If you want to find out what this Hitman business is all about, this title (especially now it’s available in full) is a great place to give it a try. If you already know, then the missions and design structures here should be ample sustenance for your assassination-tuned brain.
Tim: I still can’t decide whether I hold Hitman 6 in quite as much acclaim as I do Blood Money, but the fact that it’s even up for contention says an awful lot about this latest globe-trotting murder-venture. This darkly comic, icy cool stealth/brain-teaser/drop-a-toilet-on-a-target’s-head-’em-up is, taken as a whole, a fantastic package.