For a game that stars a deliberately aloof and detached character, there has always been a curious sense of intimacy about Hitman, arising not from Agent 47 himself, but rather the sandbox-style playgrounds in which he goes about his murky business.
Sure, Hitman games require considerable stealth-gaming skills, but they equally reward observational skills, requiring you to develop a deep familiarity of the tableaux in which the game takes place, finding seemingly trivial but nevertheless crucial details which can be used to perform clean, unnoticed hits – you're playing the environment as much as the characters in it.
And with the clever move to an episodic structure in the latest 2016 Hitman – and, we would contend, best iteration of the series yet – developer Io Interactive has gone to town on that aspect of the game.
Hitman review: New Opportunities
Hitman's action starts with a prologue set 20 years in the past at the headquarters of the ICA, the organisation from which Agent 47 takes his orders. From the start, evidence abounds of a rich vein of humour that runs through the game: although the training missions are moderately elaborate and peopled by extended casts of interesting characters, they take place on sets apparently constructed from plywood, and the different characters are actually actors.
It instantly becomes obvious that Io Interactive hasn't tampered with the core gameplay though: Agent 47 must still avail himself of countless disguises, classic weapons and objects such as a silenced pistol, his fibre-wire garrotte and guard-distracting coins, and must dump bodies in convenient crates and cupboards in order to avoid detection.
But concessions have been made, this time around, to those who don't necessarily possess the preternatural instincts of an international hitman. Most notably in the form of Opportunities, which arise as Agent 47 eavesdrops on conversations, and which point him towards methods of disposing of targets.
For example, in one prologue mission where Agent 47 must eliminate an American chess master before he defects to Russia, you discover that you can disguise yourself as a mechanic and persuade him to test out the ejector-seat protocol in the fighter jet in which he plans to escape. A bit of tampering, and you can get him to eject through the roof of a hangar, with hilarious results.
In the fully realised story missions, such Opportunities abound – and if you're so hardcore that you disdain such hand-holding, you can tone them down so that they don't, for example, highlight the whereabouts of the objects you need to collect in order to capitalise on them. But it makes sense to at least have them fully turned on the first time you play through a mission, as there are so many that it's unlikely you'll find them all, and it's nice to be aware of your options.
Hitman review: Episodic delivery
The story missions are so gloriously rich and detailed that you'll end up playing them – or variants on them, with different targets and conditions – many times: Hitman's structure endows them with levels of replayability which are perhaps unprecedented in any game.
The first story mission – which is included in the launch episode – is called The Showstopper. It takes place in a huge chateau in Paris, where Viktor Novikov and his other half, Dalia Margolis, are holding a fashion show, as a front for auctioning a list of MI6 agents which their Spectre-like organisation, Iago, has acquired. You must take both out – which amounts to two separate hits – in a huge and highly stratified environment where, for example, if you're dressed as a security guard, other security guards will recognise you as an interloper if you get too close to them. As ever in a Hitman game, the artificial intelligence which powers the characters you come across is very much towards the rigorous end.
Some delicious scenarios arise in The Showstopper. You can, for example, send Agent 47 down the catwalk disguised as a male supermodel, or kill targets by causing chandeliers to fall on them.
And, if anything, the missions delivered episodically will become even more elaborate. We played about two-thirds of the next one, which takes place in a sleepy fictional Italian town called Sapienza, in a huge villa overlooking the town on side and the sea on the other. You must take out its owner, Francesca De Santis, and Silvio Caruso, a scientist who has been developing a deadly virus in a lab somewhere beneath the villa, plus destroy the virus. Even locating the lab requires a large amount of ground-work.
We also had a glimpse of the third episode, which takes place in Marrakesh – a hugely different environment to the previous two. There, a palpable sense of tension was evident, as a Swedish banker, having ripped off the Moroccan government for billions, took refuge in the Swedish consulate, while a Moroccan army general prepared a coup and helicopters circled overhead. The contrast between the ultra-modern architecture of the Swedish consulate, and the vibrant, rickety depiction of its Marrakesh surroundings emphasised the ambitious scale of the mission.
Hitman review: Replay value
Completing the story missions in Hitman feels like a mere curtain-raiser, thanks to some clever structural work which Io Interactive has conceived for the game, as a result of the move to episodic delivery. For a start, you can create your own contracts, by going through existing missions and tagging characters for execution, then setting conditions that can be as stringent as you want.
But the two cleverest new modes are Escalation and Elusive Targets.
Escalation marks a return to Hitman at its hardest: unlike in the story mode, there's no checkpointing; you can't save and reload missions at any point, so if you mess up, it's back to square one. Escalations involve replaying existing missions, but with different targets and, with each play-through, extra conditions added. Each Escalation has five levels of difficulty. These proved incredibly moreish, and end up giving you an incredibly detailed knowledge of the environments in which they take place, really bringing out the puzzle aspect of Hitman and testing your stealth-skills to breaking point. You might have to take out particular targets dressed in particular outfits with particular weapons. Level 5 of the first Escalation demands that you avoid knocking out or fighting any of the characters you meet, and each Escalation is designed to jolt you out of any set approach you might have taken before.
Sadly, we weren't able to play an Elusive Target within the window of writing this review, due to the mode's very nature. Elusive Targets will pop up for just 48 hours, and you will receive only cryptic hints about who they are and where to find them. Enormous bragging rights will be afforded to those who take out Elusive Targets before anyone else in the world, but there's a catch – you only get one shot at each one, so if you blow that chance, you'll have to wait for the next one to be flagged up.
It's clear even from playing just the first episode of Hitman that the move to an episodic structure has proven a liberating experience for Io Interactive. The whole exercise would not have worked if the missions themselves had been in any way half-baked, but they have turned out to be the richest, most detailed ones ever seen in any Hitman game.
The addition of Escalations, user-generated hits and the like really allows you immerse yourself in them to an almost startling degree. For Hitman fans, therefore, it's a must-buy, and the same applies to anyone with an affinity for stealth games. If you're unsure then you only have to lay out £11.99 for the first episode, and while £45 for a season pass sounds a bit steep, you'll get an awful lot of gameplay for that. A disc version of the game won't be released until January 2017.
Agent 47 has never had a better starring vehicle. Episodic or not, Hitman in 2016 features some of the series' stand-out moments.