Thursday, February 25, 2021

‘Hitman III’ is a series best that twists the familiar into something new

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Make no mistake: Hitman III is a victory lap.

Yes, it’s absolutely a “full” game that is ready to thrill you for however many hours you spend in it. Its six assassination destinations are comparable in size, scale, and flexibility to each of the two games that preceded it in IO Interactive’s reboot trilogy. You’ll spend at least an hour or two in each one, and much more than that if you start digging into the various mission paths and unlocks.

But there’s more happening here. Hitman III is quite literally the end of an era, as the title of one story mission explicitly states. Not only is it the capper on a story that’s been building over the past four years, it’s also a showcase of everything IO has learned during that period.

Let’s start with the plot, as this is maybe the most story-forward Hitman game after 2012’s exceptional and deeply underrated Absolution. Multiple times over the course of Hitman III, the big picture journey inserts itself directly into the levels. But rather than robbing the levels of their replay value, the approach fills them with loads of added texture.

This manifests in various ways. In one early level, a possible end point involves engineering a meeting between two targets and then offing them both in one go.

When 47 ends up cut off from his allies and operating on his own at one point, the level that follows becomes a platform for flipping the pre-mission briefing, a longtime Hitman standard, into something that’s delivered only after you’ve entered the play space.

'Hitman III' is a series best that twists the familiar into something new

What does a Hitman level look like when there’s no rundown up front of who your targets are and why they have to disappear? How do mission stories take shape? What’s even possible when you’re not given the option of choosing which tools you bring along?

Across every intricately designed play space, Hitman III demonstrates how it’s operating from a mindset of subverting expectations.

Or the one where everything suddenly goes off the rails, leaving 47 stranded deep in hostile territory with no help, little in the way of resources, and a difficult path to making his escape.

There’s even a level that gives you permission to go completely wild and slaughter everyone. Where Hitman missions are traditionally an exercise in improvisational stealth with an eye toward minimizing collateral damage, this one tells you up front that everyone is a disposable threat. It fundamentally changes the way you approach and interact with that level’s sandbox.

In typical Hitman fashion, each space you visit has its own personality and hidden life that unfurls as you access previously forbidden areas. The opening stage, set at the top of Dubai’s tallest skyscraper, is bright and open at first glance, but explore deeper and you’ll find a labyrinthine set of access corridors and balconies, as well as a whole network of outdoor window ledges for you to shimmy along.

Hitman III is a victory lap for IO Interactive.

The very next stage sends you to a manor in the marshy English countryside. It’s one of the more straightforward locations you visit in Hitman III, just an old-money mansion that feels a bit more like a museum than it does a family home.

Dartmoor deviates from Hitman’s typical target hunt by giving you the option of also solving a murder mystery, in a clear nod to Knives Out. As you hunt for clues and interview suspects, a new and thoroughly engaging game-within-the-game takes shape. It feels like a dare from IO, like “Hey, we’re so good at this now that we can get you completely invested in solving a murder mystery for the person you’re here to assassinate.”

And reader, let me tell you: I was invested. I knew solving the mystery would eventually put me in the room with my murder target, but I felt downright inconvenienced when I finally outed the murderer and still had murdering of my own to do. Finding that kind of narrative and mechanical complexity sprawled out across just one level sure does get me hype for whatever IO’s cooking up in the upcoming James Bond game.

Again and again, Hitman III sticks players in familiar situations built around unfamiliar challenges. Even the checkpoint-focused mission stories that set up each level’s more elaborate kills dial down the hand-holding compared to previous games. Sometimes they’ll simply put you in a room with your target but leave the specifics of how and when to score the kill entirely vague.

It’s a subtle shift that newcomers and casual fans of the series may not even notice.

By easing up on the guardrails and leaving more in the hands of the player, IO has managed to deliver a set of levels that immediately feel like some of the best the 20-year-old series has ever known.

'Hitman III' is a series best that twists the familiar into something new

Of course, Hitman III is also much more than just the six new levels. IO has developed this whole trilogy as a sort of “World of Assassination” platform, meaning all the levels (and add-ons) from the two previous games are playable in Hitman III and benefit from its various improvements, provided you own them already or buy the Access Passes to unlock them. 

(All platforms let you carry over content from the games you own there already, but take note that the situation is a bit more complicated on PC specifically.)

It’s a blast to run around all the old levels again with slightly fancier graphics and minor updates to 47’s various tools and options for interacting with the world.

I’ve got nothing. My biggest gripe is 47’s new camera tool, which you can use to interact with and scan certain objects — such as murder mystery clues or electronic locks. Scannable objects aren’t always easy to find because you need to be pretty close and also center the viewfinder right on the object in question. But this purely a balance issue that IO can — and likely will — address in a post-release patch.

I can’t speak positively enough about this game. At nearly every turn, Hitman III puts itself out there as the best version of itself. In so many ways it’s the same game we’ve been playing since 2016 (and really since 2000). There aren’t many games that can make the same boast: relatively unchanged and better off for it after two whole decades.

But Hitman isn’t any other series. These games are all built on the idea of tossing players into a massively interactive world and asking them to complete assigned tasks using whatever skills, tools, and wits they can muster. As long as there are compelling levels to run through and elaborate assassinations to engineer, there will be first-class Hitman games.

Such is the case here. The talented IO team is at their most creative and playful in Agent 47’s final adventure (for now).

20 for Windows (via Epic Games Store), both current generations of PlayStation and Xbox consoles, Google Stadia, and Nintendo Switch via streaming.

WATCH: These are the best beginner-friendly video games for your coronavirus lockdown

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