“Hitman” fans need not worry. Our bald, bar-coded protagonist isn’t running away from boulders or fireballs like Nathan Drake. Rather, it’s how the score swells when the game knows you’ve entered a grand ballroom. It’s how levels now actually go through great lengths to set the mood for Agent 47′s next assignment.
For example, in the game’s third level, 47 is walking alone through a dark wooded area. For once, he’s unsure of his bearings. The voice on the other line is offering no real backup. He has no weapons. For the first time since I started playing this series 20 years ago, I felt a little scared, despite the fact that I am Agent 47, a genetically enhanced superhuman created to be the most efficient killer of man.
Yet, 47 leaves the trees and sees where he needs to go. It’s a gigantic warehouse, housing the most elaborate club setting ever featured in a video game. He sees a crowd of people outside waiting in line. He sees employees milling about. The game’s objective becomes a little less fuzzy, and suddenly, I remember the title of this chapter. “Apex Predator.” As the player, the game reminds me through its environments, pacing, music and lighting: I AM Agent 47. I always have what I need as long as there’s something to hunt. That’s why I’m the apex predator.
The early trailers for “Cyberpunk 2077” promised non-player character routines and an immersive world that reacts to your decisions. While the “Hitman” games are not complex open-world titles like “Cyberpunk 2077” is, IO Interactive’s masterful series has always been about chiseling the best open-world experiences down to its essential parts. It’s all about the place, the people, what to do, how to do it, and the ultimate objective. The levels all provide various tools and circumstances for you to finish your hunt, and it’s up to you how to solve it.
New players often get hung up on the “correct” way to complete a mission, but my advice as a longtime player is to let go of this need for control. The levels are all about discovering opportunities to strike, even when you least expect it. The grand fun of “Hitman” runs are just how it all goes wrong, and how 47 is able to make lemonade out of lemons and spilled blood.
It can be hard to explain “Hitman” to the uninitiated. “Kill anyone, any way you want to” doesn’t sound like an attractive hook, especially when so many games already offer this. Such an explanation only belies the amount of tools and stories on offer to help the player achieve these goals. To describe a “Hitman” game is not to focus on the objective, as 47 or the player does, but how 47 goes about achieving this. In past games, sometimes he’d cut sushi the wrong way to poison his mark. That’s what “kill anyone any way” means in a “Hitman” game.
I’ve already talked at length about how the brilliant second mission alone, based on “Knives out” or Agatha Christie’s “Poirot” murder mysteries, already justifies this game’s existence. But it’s far from the game’s final trick. Chongqing is another highlight, a deliberate throwback to the old Hong Kong levels of the original PC release. It’s a rain-drenched district that once again illustrates the kind of grand interconnectivity and neon sheen that “Cyberpunk” tried to achieve, and “Hitman” does effortlessly. Rain slithers off his leather-coated back as he waits outside his mark’s building, assessing the place. In the meantime, he can open an umbrella and make small talk with a woman waiting for her girlfriend, just one of the series’ many small but important storytelling flourishes to make each level feel more alive than you’ve seen in any action adventure.
As a stand-alone, “Hitman 3” doesn’t find these smaller moments as often as in past games, mostly because the narrative thrust of this coda is moving quickly toward a decisive end. I won’t spoil the plot details here, but 47′s longtime working relationship with his “handler” Diana Burnwood is put to the test. It’s actually familiar ground to anyone who’s followed the series from the start, but IO Interactive still managed to introduce new storytelling twists even during gameplay sections. Even when veterans think they know what’s going to happen next, they might still end up surprised.
But for anyone wanting a more gradual introduction to Agent 47′s world of espionage and white-collar intrigue, the previous two games are a better on-ramp. As a trilogy, “Hitman” has traveled from fashion shows to NASCAR races to American suburbia, and now all the way out to China and a sleazy lawyer’s vineyard party in an idyllic countryside.
Now that it’s over, I can confidently call IO Interactive’s “Hitman” trilogy one of the most consistently great series of games ever created. No other trilogy has expressed this much confidence and consistency in its execution. Agent 47′s story may be over for now, but these three games offer countless ways for you to tell your own stories.