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Looking at the position IO Interactive now finds itself in – a critically acclaimed and very well liked return to form for their flagship series finished, and moving onto the first 007 game in almost a decade – you’d be forgiven for thinking the last few years have been a ‘strength to strength’ story of triumph. In reality, that the World of Assassination Trilogy managed to reach its concluding chapter is a minor miracle.
Between Square Enix requiring the much-derided episodic approach to lessen the financial risk of making the first game and their subsequent dropping of IOI after the dust settled on the lukewarm sales (which everyone bar SE seemed to see coming as soon as the word ‘episodic’ was mentioned). To the shaky optimism of IOI managing to retain the rights to the IP completely and having to find a new publisher for a sequel whose now independent budget could be clearly seen in the cutscenes. Before the final surprise triumph of not only making their intended third game but doing so entirely on their own terms – taking over full development and publishing duties – and casually dropping the bombshell that Hitman 3 would be the last Hitman for a while because they’d be busy after having acquired the elusive Bond license.
Nonetheless, here we are. The third Hitman game in six years and another fine entry in this familiar format that doesn’t offer much in the way of altered gameplay but rather more new sandboxes in which to play with it. Honestly you’re likely well aware of what these games are like by now and if you’re into that or not. Everything that could have been said gameplay-wise about this game was also true of Hitman 2, this is still the definitive Hitman experience and immensely satisfying to converts of its action/puzzle/stealth machinations. So instead let’s focus on nit-picks.
Sadly the sense that the budget for these latter two entries just wasn’t quite there is as quietly noticeable as it was in 2. Now while we at least have full motion cutscenes back (sidebar: with the benefit of some distance, the animated still image cutscenes from 2 are actually rather stylish and quite pretty in their high-detail starkness), it’s the levels themselves that feel a smidge reigned in. In fairness, the initial maps of 2016’s Hitman were so strong and confident in their scale and ambition, that it would have been an impossible task to maintain that over the course of more than a dozen subsequent levels.
Still, you begin to notice how the main ‘fortresses’ at the center of levels are artificially scaled up by being placed inside much larger but quite empty (gameplay-wise) spaces. The moors and gardens surrounding the mansion in England, the forest-y wasteland outside the club in Berlin, the vineyard and guest-filled verandas in Argentina. Dubai lays this trick bare by being unable to let you leave the few floors of the skyscraper you’re in. This is not to say these levels aren’t still stunningly well-crafted, clockwork murder-puzzles where you can spend hours messing around, but with the exception of the China level there’s not much here that feels comparable to a Paris or Sapienza. And as for the final train level; we’ll get to it.
A difficulty that these three games have always faced is that the exact formula they offer is a tough one to sell and make clear to people. The first game just gave you a list of opportunities that felt intimidating and unclear, with the result that likely many people opted for more outrageously haphazard methods of assassination. The second game (and updated version of the first game within it) streamlined the process with mission stories which made the steps involved in the fancy and hilarious murders significantly clearer but arguably too easy. In both cases the goal was always to make players aware that the real meat of the game was trying out the variety of methods.
This time around we have a sort of two tier approach. The mission stories are back but on your initial play through – with the story more foregrounded than in the previous two – you’re pushed toward what could be called a ‘canon’ route of sorts with the map only fully opening up to you on subsequent replays of the level. It’s hard to say if this is better or worse but it should at least offer a more complete and meaty sense of the levels and the story to those who one-and-done the missions in these games.
Especially since there’s a lot more talking in Hitman 3; not just 47 but NPCs and side-characters in your headset (and in the case of Argentina, Diana being a very interactable-with NPC in the level for the first time). Being pushed down a pseudo-set route definitely makes a narrative thread more apparent than before and like your actions are more purposeful and less a series of elaborate setups to a punchline where your target is crushed below a perplexingly placed, roof-mounted moose.
The new approach does allow for some shaking up of the formula. This is most pronounced in the Berlin level; arguably Hitman 3’s and maybe even entire trilogy’s crowning glory. Dropped in with no briefing, no map, nothing in your inventory bar a burner phone and not even a target; you simply arrive at an eerie gas station on an empty country road and have to keep moving forward and adapting to the situation. It’s an exhilarating cat and mouse game against other assassins and a meaty test of your mastery of the mechanics you’ve spent three games learning the minutiae of.
There’s also been noticeable cutting down of challenges and mission stories (a strict three per level this time and only four of the six levels even have them). It’s hard to know if this was another victim of budget/resource issues or a simple acknowledgement that only frighteningly patient psychopaths insisted on completing everything in these games and presenting a more manageable smattering would turn less people away from trying more of them. Like the level-scale criticism above, this isn’t necessarily a negative as there’s still plenty of content on offer, it simply feels unusual to have a trilogy-capping finale feel quite so noticeably smaller compared to the likes of the – arguably overstuffed – first instalment.
So it may sound like Hitman 3 is a game of things that have been reduced or taken out, so what’s been added? Well, a story. Now there was always a story present but in the first game it was a faint noise in the background until the final moments and while 2’s started gaining momentum, it still all felt like setting up the pieces for Hitman 3.
Now that it’s here, how is it? Decent. With the grand scope of it on display it’s now apparent that the trilogy is a retread of sorts of Blood Money’s plot but with global stakes and a subtly more interesting and personal twist on it’s return to a status quo should there be any future games. (Interestingly there’s a secret ‘bad’ ending that would actually be just as viable to take as the canon one going forward. It’s a surprisingly neat, perfect inverse of the main ending but they could take either as the basis for future sequels and not tell you which if they wanted. Sorry, I have no broader point to make with that. Insert Marge Simpson “I just think it’s neat” meme here.)
This more story focused approach absolutely bleeds into your playing of Hitman 3. For one thing the score is significantly more overwrought with the familiar themes of the previous games rearranged into more exciting, triumphant and occasionally funereal tones. Musically the game always sounds like it’s building toward an end…even if this amounts to the music frequently just sounding like it escaped an Arkham game.
In gameplay too, the story pushes through. There aren’t really any random targets in this one. Everyone feels like a more personal mission to 47 and even when they are slightly more random such as in China or Argentina, the levels around them are still driven by personal stakes for 47.
I suppose we better talk about that train level. While the Berlin mission feels like a fitting conclusion to the game on a mechanics front, and the appropriately titled ‘The Farewell’ level in Argentina feels like the most narratively involved level of the trilogy with a Diana-heavy and (in this fan’s eyes) well-earned if fan-service-y wrap up, the actual last level is a ‘make your way to the front of the train’ one.
On top of feeling simultaneously too short as a level for this trilogy while also overstaying its welcome for what it is; does the idea of having a level as linear as this not seem like a bizarrely counterintuitive move given what these games sell themselves on? It’s not the worst thing in the world and once you’ve a handle on it, it’s quite trivial as either a shooting-gallery murder-fest or a suit only silent assassin run. But when they’ve just displayed such a clear understanding of how to appropriately end things in Berlin and Argentina, it’s a strange choice. It also means Hitman 3 is only really five levels long with a strange reverse-tutorial coda.
What is interesting is how much more overt Hitman 3’s vague – but oddly bold in the modern games industry – political stance has gotten over the trilogy. There was definitely always a gesture toward the notion of the brokenness of the world and how the wealthy abuse their power. But aside from some sly shade being thrown with targets clearly modelled on Jared Leto or Trump-like figures in previous games, it felt like more of a wink and a nudge. By the end of Hitman 3, the characters are nearly staring down the camera while telling us that there will always be power-abusing monsters of capitalist excess and the world will always need assassins like our protagonists to kill them. This, friends, is why we need more AAA games from countries other than America.
Your mileage will undoubtedly vary and as a full price game on its own, Hitman 3 does feel a tad anemic compared to the previous two. But with the legacy function carrying on into this one (along with, thank Christ, progression carryover this time) and the ability to play all 20 main missions alongside the various bonus and side missions, to say nothing of the escalations etc. in one game, the World of Assassination Trilogy will hopefully stand the test of time as one of the most satisfying and consistent trilogies in gaming.
It essentially perfected its formula in the first entry and while there have been tweaks, the remaining two entries were happy and correct to simply give the players more of what they wanted and knew they liked. Hitman 3 can sometimes feel like a marathon sprinter gasping for air as they force their body over the finish line but when you look at where this franchise was immediately before the 2016 reset, this exercise has been a resounding success and Hitman 3 is a very satisfactory sticking of the landing.
Agent 47 has earned a period of deserved retirement. 007; you’re up.