Episodic games have been on the rise in recent years but, until now, they have been largely confined to modern riffs on one of the games industry’s oldest genres: the point-and-click adventure. Hitman, however, is an altogether more ambitious beast. It’s a full-blown Hitman game, setting the series' bald, barcode-headed killer to the business of murder, but one that reaches us in small chunks rather then a single, bloody slab.
As it transpires, the piecemeal approach suits Hitman well. Firstly because it has enabled developer Io Interactive to focus on making the sandbox-style levels in which Agent 47 operates richer and more varied than ever before. Secondly because it has forced them to think of a hundred clever ways in which to keep players occupied while they wait for the next missions to drop.
For an initial £11.99, you get a prologue containing training missions plus one full-blown assignment, entitled The Showstopper. A season pass will cost £44.99, which is on the steep side considering a question-mark still hangs over precisely how many missions will be produced for the game and when they will arrive. The prologue starts 20 years ago with a young, fresh-faced 47 poised to embark upon his louche new career. As such ,the training missions are precisely that: set in the ICA facility, they take place on elaborate plywood sets and see you bumping off actors, who can be occasionally overheard making wry comments about the whole charade.
Gameplay-wise, Hitman offers exactly what we’ve come to expect: Agent 47 sneaking around, making more costume changes than a teen-pop star while learning the habits of his targets, then taking them out in a variety of elaborate and often amusing ways. There is a new concession to those who require a bit of hand-holding, in the form of Opportunities. As he sneaks around, 47 will occasionally overhear conversations that flag up specific ways to achieve his goal. Each of these can then be tracked, giving neophyte killers an idea of how to proceed.
Hardcore players can turn off Opportunities early on, but that would be a shame as many of them prove wildly entertaining. For example, in the final prologue mission, Agent 47 can dress as a mechanic and persuade his target, an American chess player defecting from Cuba to Russia, to 'test' the ejector seat in a stationary fighter, propelling him through the roof of a hangar. Later, in the intro pack's finale, 47 can find himself dressed as a male model and strutting his homicidal stuff down the catwalk at a fashion show, showing off the spring/summer wetwork collection.
That particular mission takes place in a Parisian chateau with several floors, in which Viktor Novikov and his girlfriend Dalia Margolis are holding said fashion show as a front for auctioning the secret identities of undercover MI6 agents. Since both must be eliminated, it constitutes two missions in one, and a number of challenges, which reward you for executing hits wearing exotic costumes and using imaginative means, offer a vast amount of replay value and this compulsion to explore new avenues of attack makes up much of Hitman's appeal. The missions are loosely connected by an overarching storyline but, as ever in a Hitman game, it’s cryptic and incidental – perfect, in other words, for an episodic release.
The supporting game modes are surprisingly inventive, and encourage you to develop intimacy with every mission.
The supporting game modes are also inventive, and encourage you to develop intimacy with every mission in the game. Escalations see you playing through missions with new targets and, after each completion, new conditions added, which force you to modify your approach. There’s an engine which allows you to create your own contracts, by playing through missions, marking targets for dispatch and setting extra conditions. Which has already generated a sizeable library of one-off contracts. And the most intriguing new mode – which wasn’t available at launch since it's time-specific – is entitled Elusive Targets. Elusive Targets will appear for just 48 hours, with only cryptic hints about their identities and whereabouts. Plus you only get one shot at taking them out – fail to kill one or get rumbled and you'll have to wait for the next one.
Hitman doesn't look quite as polished as many of its videogame rivals, but clever structure, wry humour and an immense attention to detail more than compensate for the lack of visual polish. Lose yourself in the game's byzantine missions and it's hard not to feel like you could actually become a real-life assassin – albeit one whose victims all conveniently share the same size clothing. Whether subsequent episodes will sustain long-term play remains to be seen, but this is a strong start and, if successful, may herald a sea change in the way publishers approach episodic titles in future.