2021 has seen the launch of the epic finale of the Hitman “World of Assassination” trilogy with Hitman 3.
It’s a trilogy which has seemingly only improved as it has gone on, increasing in both scope and review aggregates as it went. But thinking as far back as Hitman: Codename 47 which launched on PC in the year 2000, how far removed from its great (x4) grandfather has Hitman become and how has it changed over the years?
The focus of the first entry in the series, Codename 47, was mostly on simple gunplay than the more recent, highly-complex and layered level design and across-the-map sniper assassinations. This was likely due to the hardware limitations at the time, and these limitations also meant areas were smaller, more intimate affairs in general, with minimal draw-distance preventing you from seeing much further than you could shoot your pistols.
Brief, text-based mission parameters with small accompanying video clips were dished out at the start with simple instructions. Often, you’d have little more to go on than “Eliminate Person A, eliminate Person B and return to the rendezvous point”. There was no word on those multiple escape routes, “accidental” eliminations or dozens of optional objectives to test your skill on each level.
Ending with something of a family reunion, the first real show of the Hitman sense of humour was demonstrated by falling at the last hurdle in Hitman: Codename 47; be stunned by Ort-Meyer’s taser and you’d wake up at the start of the game with all of your previous efforts having all been “just a dream…”.
A major upgrade then arrived in 2002’s Hitman 2: Silent Assassin. It remained the highest-rated iteration (according to Metacritic) for almost 20 years. Having played and loved Hitman: Codename 47 on PC, when I found out a demo for Silent Assassin was included with an issue of Official PlayStation Magazine, I couldn’t be more excited. The Villa Borghese was, and still is, an exceptional level and made the perfect choice for a demo. It gave players numerous options to start with; the most obvious of which being to disguise yourself as the Postman, delivering flowers.
Even within Hitman 2: Silent Assassin‘s demo, numerous improvements to the Hitman formula were clearly showcased. There was a greater focus on stealth, and “Silent Assassin” score ratings encouraged players to replay levels in different ways. The additional disguises in levels added to that, as did the more advanced AI, which created a greater challenge for players. The technological advances in the two years between development of both games helped too; Silent Assassin‘s greater draw distance not only created better immersion but allowed players more advanced planning of their approach to missions. The cherry on top was perhaps the introductory cutscenes before each level, allowing for a more involved storyline.
Silent Assassin‘s St. Petersburg level remains another fan favourite all these years later, thanks to its layout encouraging multiple approaches. At one point, assassinating a General via sniper rifle becomes genuinely tense, as the meeting he is in wraps up while you are slowly passed information, leading to a ‘Guess Who’-style elimination of attendees at the meeting.
Arriving in 2004, Hitman: Contracts was also critically well-received, although notably less so than Silent Assassin. This was perhaps due to the mixed messaging behind it; was it a sequel, a reboot or a remaster of the original? Many of the levels were the same as Hitman: Codename 47, and this came at a time when remakes and remasters weren’t all that common. For those, like me, who’d enjoyed Codename 47 just four years earlier, playing many of the same levels again left us feeling a little cheated.
Once again, it was another two years until the arrival of Hitman: Blood Money. It presented a more refined and confident Hitman, with an all-new story and levels. Blood Money had all the technology of Contracts and all the nuance and quality of Silent Assassin, with every drop of this being squeezed into every level. The clearest stamp of things to come in the franchise was in “Murder of the Crows”, the New Orleans level set during Mardi Gras. Its huge, bustling crowds filling the streets was an accomplishment we’d not seen before in the series, and something we’ve seen constantly improved upon since. Every level of Hitman: Blood Money was nigh-on perfect, allowing for multiple approaches, providing numerous disguises and once again the unique sense of humour; you could disguise yourself as a clown or a giant bird before taking down your targets.
But it’s here where the franchise hit a roadblock. Following Blood Money, it was a full six years before Hitman fans had their next chance with the fibre wire. Finally, in 2012, Hitman: Absolution released to a warm reception from critics, but drew the ire of the die-hard Hitman fanbase. It seemed the shift in focus to a more mainstream, linear Hitman was unwelcome and served, despite record sales, to ultimately damage the franchise’s reputation in the long-run. Absolution was undoubtedly something of a technical marvel, with gorgeous backdrops to 47’s shenanigans, but it lacked the soul of the earlier games; the tongue-in-cheek humour brought into Silent Assassin was notably absent and the deep and intricate level design of Blood Money was gone, in favour of a more action-centric iteration.
It was then another long wait of four years until Hitman rose again. The intervening years were filled only with mobile puzzle game Hitman Go for mobiles and eventually other platforms (alongside basically identical Tomb Raider and Deus Ex versions). It was clear there was still interest in the franchise and in 2016, the “World of Assassination” trilogy began, rebooting the series with the simply-titled Hitman. The launch, however, was a confusing one; initially, levels were released episodically, leaving ambiguity around exactly what to expect from it. Eventually the game launched as a single package and its inclusion as a PlayStation Plus game helped to pull old fans back into the fold.
The World of Assassination trilogy feels much more cohesive as a whole than the series ever has before, with each new title upgrading its predecessor’s levels for free, with more recent improvements and polish applied, adding a new lease of life and collating your games in a single package, ensuring more bang for your buck.
The difference in the gameplay is notable too, with the focus now very firmly on “accidents” rather than straight assassinations. Each level has been painstakingly crafted to allow hundreds of different approaches, whether you cause one of dozens of accidents, lure the target and perform a classic garrotting or snipe them from afar. The Miami level is the best – an excellent video from Game Maker’s Toolkit goes into detail on the making of the level, and it’s well worth a watch. The World of Assassination Trilogy takes very much a “make your own fun” approach, which can be tough to get into, but worth the perseverance. (It’s also worth saying how fantastically they play on new hardware; a fixed 60fps really makes a difference on Hitman 2‘s “bonus” sniper levels.)
With developer IO Interactive currently at work on an untitled James Bond 007 title, it may be a little while until the studio returns to its own iconic, sharp-suited agent, but there’s no doubt it eventually will. It’s safe to expect more carefully-planned sandboxes full of toys and opportunities for 47 to capitalise on.