At its core, the Hitman experience is attractive because of its simplicity. You, acting as the contract killer Agent 47, go to an interesting location to kill one or more people. There are many ways of locating these targets, getting to them, and then committing the deed. You might need to trade disguises or create distractions. You can wander through the environment to find the right hazards or create the perfect accident, or you could be more brutal about it. Then you have to leave.
It is this simplicity that made 2016’s Hitman, a pseudo-reboot for the franchise, so compelling. The game presented targets, gave small stories about them and their contexts, and created large clockwork zones for players to experiment with to complete their tasks. These fashion shows and hotels provide a deep sea for the player to swim around with, and Hitman 2 doubled down on this success by increasing the depth of all these things. Bigger levels, weirder weapons, and more complex situations gave that game real staying power, and I probably put more than 100 hours into it on my PS4 that sounded like it was launching into orbit every time I started a new level. These two games were about taking the simplicity of the Hitman concept and building more and more scaffolding around it, giving you more ways to create novel situations without obscuring the core mission.
I’m sorry to say that I think Hitman 3 has somehow managed to mess this up. Hitman 3 goes astray because it seems to have forgotten the core mission and doubled down on building out all these extra parts, bending the entirety of the game around the conceptual “World of Assassination” plotline that has stretched through this trilogy of games. The two previous instalments built on each other in slow ways: Hitman’s soft reboot of the series introduces Agent 47 and his handler Diana Burnwood who work for the International Contract Agency, which facilitates assassinations across the globe. Disparate contracts were revealed to be a conspiracy plot, leading into Hitman 2 where our protagonists had to make a choice between supporting nefarious global capitalist stringpullers Providence or 47’s own clone brother Lucas Gray. Choosing the latter, 47 and Burnwood end up in the thick of a global war behind the scenes between competing parties. Hitman 3 picks up there.
In the previous games, the narrative set the bounds for what kind of locations you traveled to and provided a throughline of rationale for them. The narrative was not the first thing in the priorities. In Hitman 3, the tail is wagging the dog; the plot of the Hitman games is driving this entire operation, and the whole thing is worse off for it.
While the gameplay still enables freeform experimentation to complete missions however you’d like, Hitman 3 is obviously itching to resolve the major plot threads in the previous two games. While I won’t get into specifics, that changes some of the ways you interact with levels. For example, a new camera gadget allows you to “hack” certain items in the Dubai levels with the help of a handler, but mechanically it adds nothing other than a different form of the interact button and a reminder that you’ve got a teammate with a grizzled voice. Similarly, certain ally characters appear physically in later levels, seriously altering the “one person with a mission” vibe of the game and turning it into something more like an ensemble.
The drive for narrative doesn’t stop with the interaction between the “big” plot and the levels. The micro-stories of the different maps, known as Mission Stories, have always been strong contributions to this Hitman trilogy. In the past, they existed to provide lightly sketched paths through each map, and they accomplished a lot of different things: they helped you learn the layout of the level; they got you close to an assassination target; they gave little story beats that were fun and funny.
Hitman 3 has no upper limit for what it thinks its Mission Stories are capable of in the game. One of the most publicized things about this game pre-release was its “murder mystery” about a family of wealthy elite, which conceptually seems to liberally borrow from Knives Out and its genre ilk. Conceptually, it’s quite neat. Agent 47 becomes an investigator, and the level transforms into an adventure game rather than a Hitman level. You run around and look for clues, then you try to solve the mystery. The problem is that Hitman 3 is not an adventure game. Without spoiling any of this, I can say that you can’t attempt to “solve” the mystery without finding all of the clues in several locations and speaking to all of the suspects, meaning that this mystery feels way more like trivial exercise in walking around and hitting buttons than it does solving a mystery. It doesn’t help that it is painfully obvious who committed the murder after you find just a few of the clues, meaning that the bulk of the mission really is just a painful, plodding exercise in walking around and picking things up to “prove” what you know. There are a few other “in depth” Mission Stories like this spread through the game, and I found them all to be about as compelling as that one. They take you down very strict roads that don’t have a lot of room to maneuver, and they’re all very standard genre fare with few surprises.
There are glimmers of the previous two games in Hitman 3, and when they show up they’re amazing. One level takes place in Berlin and tasks you with finding a few other assassins in a massive powerplant that has been converted into a club. It has outdoor party zones, dense dance floors, an extensive backstage area, and an entire other building where another organization is doing something entirely different. All of these things flow into one another, and completing the level really forced me to stretch my Hitman reflexes to lure enemies into traps and to keep my conflicts away from large, panic-prone crowds. It’s one of my favorite levels from the trilogy, but even this one is predicated on an unexciting metaplot setup, which drags it down.
Of course, I have been discussing all of this from the perspective of playing through the campaign mode and how it situates these levels. Many of us might do these a few times, but the Hitman games know that the joy of the game is in revisiting levels under different circumstances. The developers have made an interesting concession to this reality by adding “permanent shortcuts” to the game, which once activated will stick around every time you return to that map. These are, as far as I have experienced, doors and ladders that can be opened or extended in order to make access to certain areas easier on further playthroughs.
The different ways that you return to levels make a comeback here as well. The Contracts system allows you to design and play user-created missions in the game levels. Escalations are tightly-wound assassination missions that gradually get more complicated each time you complete them. While there were no published Contracts for me to play on the Hitman 3 levels during the review period, I did try out all of the new Escalations, and I thought they were just as solid and hard as the ones in Hitman 2. They’re challenging, they stretch your knowledge of the levels, and you feel like an absolute fool when you beef it on accident. It’s good stuff, and it highlights just how much fun it is possible to have with this game when it gets out of its own way and just hands you tasks to complete.
Hitman 3 also has the capability of playing all three of these games together in one package (if you have purchased them all), meaning that you can play them as one extended experience that shares items and unlocks across it. I haven’t had a chance to do that yet, but I can say that scrolling through them all as a unit and looking at the vast amount of stuff that you can do is pretty overwhelming. It’s also unfortunate that I can look at Sapienza, the critically-acclaimed wide-open second level of Hitman, and the final level of Hitman 3—which leans so hard into stale adventure game mechanics on one hand and a Hitman Skills Challenge Run on other other that it is one of my least favorite game levels of all time—on a single screen. The wide gulf between my enjoyment of one and my absolute mind-bending disappointment with the other is massive.
Throughout the process of playing Hitman 3, I kept thinking about Hitman: Absolution. In 2012, Hitman was briefly converted into a franchise that cared as much about mimicking grindhouse exploitation cinema and navigating through linear puzzle encounters as it did about traditional Hitman stuff. It was not well received, and as someone who has played through that game several times, I can confidently say it’s because it focused too much on Agent 47, his story, and the in-game repercussions of the plotline that had traditionally been an excuse to cart him and his skills around the globe. It is wild to be playing Hitman 3 nearly a decade later and watching this franchise fall right into the same hole again, pretending as if the excuse for gameplay is the primary reason we’re here. And, hell, I liked the plot of these three games until the game started telling me that it mattered the most. It was good pulp work, and it crammed Hitman into the political thriller genre in a nice way that didn’t ever seem to negatively impact the moment-to-moment of following targets or setting up weird scenarios for mission completion.
It’s unfair to IO Interactive, but it is hard to see some of the characters in Hitman 3, or to hear the sweeping musical score at the top of the stairs in the Dubai level, without thinking about how they have announced a James Bond game. The more restricted scripted NPC sequences in this game, and the grandiosity of certain character or sabotage experiences, are all what you might expect from different Bond game prototypes. By the time I had to make another linear escape from a laboratory with a limited set of tools and the use of my hacking telephone, I had a vibe that I was getting a preview of what that next project is going to look like, and I’m now very unsure about how interested in it I could possibly be.
Hitman 3 ultimately succeeds at delivering some of the things that I really enjoy about these games, but those highlights keep getting overshadowed by inflexible Mission Stories, or the way the main plot kept putting more constraints on the game's possibilities. Maybe I’ll enjoy everything so much more by the time I do each of these levels five or six times and the actual story is far back in my memory, buried by how many ways I can use grapes to decimate my enemies. But the entire time I was playing for this review, I kept scrolling back to the levels for Hitman and Hitman 2, thinking about simply going back and exploring those all over again, and I’m not sure that desire is going to go away.