I dropped a chandelier on his head. I couldn't help it. I knew that there'd be collateral damage – three others, merely fashion fans here for the Sanguine show, would ultimately die in the "accident". But it had to be done. He was just hanging by the bar, directly beneath the contorted mass of metal and crystal that was his undoing in waiting. The opportunity was screaming at me.
I paused, just for a few seconds. Could I do this? Could I, as the Hitman series' iconic Agent 47, take innocent lives to achieve my remaining objective, to kill Viktor Novikov? While he was the fashion host with the most to the majority of partygoers assembled at the Palais De Walewska, Paris, to see new designs on the catwalk, I knew differently. He and his ex-supermodel partner, Dahlia Margolis, were ringleaders of a spy organisation, IAGO, selling government secrets to the highest bidders. He had to be eliminated. This was the moment.
He'd eluded me once already. I'd lured him away from the festivities to meet with a corrupt Russian FSB agent, but in my haste to take him out I loosed a silenced round at the wrong person. I escaped the attention of security easily enough, slipping out of a bodyguard's outfit and into a waiting staff uniform. Nobody batted an eyelid as I mingled with the other workers.
Between then and now, 47 standing beside the winch that'd bring the lighting crashing down, I'd taken care of Margolis. I discovered that a certain Sheik was on the premises and was planning to attend an IAGO auction upstairs, away from the hustle of the show. I found where he was in the Palais, and gave him the evening off. In his place, I registered my intent to exchange cash for no-questions-asked information, and we retired to Margolis' office. There, I took my chance – I strangled the life out of her. Nobody noticed. I returned to my waiting clothes, and the party. Target one of two, down. Simple.
But Novikov wasn't simple. He was being followed everywhere by a bodyguard. He refused to duck into any side rooms, to any space within this expansive, ornate building where an assassin with a little stealthiness to their craft could take care of business, quickly and quietly. No. This would have to be very loud, and very public. Thankfully, I had an exit strategy. The tuxedo that I'd arrived in was nearby – I'd passed it on the way to the bar – and if I could make it there without attracting too much attention, I'd likely be in the clear to stroll right on through the main gates, job done.
I pulled the winch. The chandelier fell. My plan worked. Straight out the front door, no heat on me at all. Mission accomplished, and I felt cool as fuck.
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But you could play Hitman's first stage proper, the "Showstopper" mission, in any number of different ways. I spy fire axes just waiting to be buried into skulls, foolishly positioned electrical wires that could so easily prove deadly, the potential to poison drinks and to get up close and personal with Novikov by assuming the identity of the Sangine show's star male model, Helmut Kruger. (We pass each other in a hallway, and I'm sure that the virtually identical NPC does a double take.) This is sandbox gaming at its most potential-rich – all you are told is who your targets are. You can switch on aids to assist you – objective markers that help place the people, the pieces, in such as way as you can best exploit them; "instinct" mode, which highlights your targets in red, wherever they are in the level, through however many walls – or turn everything off and go it strictly solo.
Most players, the first time, will tackle the mission with help enabled; but such is the replay value here, even within a single miniature open-world, that with each restart the situation can be edited. You can stash weapons and equipment in certain locations. You can combine solutions to each problem at hand to produce literally explosive results. Being a completely amateur contract killer myself, I need all the help I can get. And not just in Paris – I fail multiple times on Hitman's first prologue stage before finally doing away with my target, Kalvin Ritter, a master thief. But losing, dying and restarting is all part of the process – rushing in, guns blazing, will always result in disappointment. Which is why Hitman feels so strange, so alien, compared to the majority of triple-A releases in modern gaming.
Hitman demands patience, planning and study. It doesn't offer a fanfare for completion. Execute a perfect kill and there's no fireworks, no fist-bumps; it's your job, you do it, and then you go home unmoved, emotionless. In Paris, you can lose an hour, two, maybe more, just exploring the Palais and its grounds, learning the layout, the most effective routes of escape, the best hiding places. This is vital, as even the smaller prologue areas can leave you spun around, disorientated. Novikov and Margolis will go about their business, but they won't leave. You'll always have your chance, assuming you're calm and controlled enough to carry out a waiting game. Let them come to you; always let them come to you. Agent 47 isn't Marcus Fenix, Master Chief or anyone else with body armour and recharging health. He might be a clone, but he's still a human being beneath his frosty exterior. A few bullets and it's goodnight; so always creep, always crawl, and never let your trigger finger get too itchy.
Because of big-budget gaming's typical blockbuster speed and style, some will quickly be turned cold by Hitman's methodical mechanics, its many ways of doing things not accommodating raw brute strength. I know that I struggled, early on, with my inability to play this master assassin as anything more than a bumbling chancer, a gun for hire that got lucky. But sticking with the game will lead to some astonishing rewards.
Hitman is an episodic title – all you can play today is Paris plus the two-mission prologue, as well as a few more modes within each main sandbox. Escalation, Elusive Targets and Contracts were outlined in our preview piece, which you can read here. But what's most exciting, to me, is where Agent 47 is heading after Paris. Mastering your skills in the Palais De Walewska is recommended, because it's a child's bucket in scale compared to the incredible sandboxes that are coming next.
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First up is the coastal Italian town of Sapienza in April, a sun-kissed stage that sees your primary target ensconced within a well-guarded mansion. Just like Novikov, he's not all that he seems to the townsfolk; and just as in Paris, there's also a second target that needs to be silenced. The town's old buildings provide useful sniper points, assuming you can reach them; there's a crypt to explore, and many shops and residences open for access; and many player-aiding opportunities that will present themselves by exploring the sizeable area. The scale of Sapienza is awesome, the level of detail that makers IO Interactive has achieved surpassing all expectations given previous experience of episodic releases. It's a beautiful location, from the boats bobbing in the bay's crystal sea to the brilliant, almost Sega-blue sky above. It's a postcard from somewhere you'd love to holiday in – a postcard that you're here to stain red.
But more impressive still is Hitman's third episode, set mostly within the medina of Marrakesh, which sees Agent 47 uncovering a dangerous plot between domestic military forces and the Consulate of Sweden in the Moroccan city. To say any more about the reasons for 47's arrival would be to spoil a chapter in the game that really moves its story onwards with no little force – while each mission seems like a standalone operation, it's clear even from the ending of the Paris contract that something massively shady is going on, something beyond a straightforward series of hits. Marrakesh comes out in May, followed by missions in Thailand, the United States and Japan. And once every episode's been released digitally, Hitman will come out on a disc, in early 2017.
Since the days of the arcades, gaming's been about the quick turnover, the fast completion, the high score. Hitman tempts you to always improve the latter while resisting the need for speed, asking you to retry the Paris hit over, and over. Try not to be compromised, next time. Maybe take to the catwalk yourself, to earn a new achievement. Why strangle when you can garrotte? But to see everything that this game has to offer, in its Paris stage and beyond, will take a long time. Perhaps too long for some, but then, what's a little waiting when the payoff is so very satisfying? And getting it all wrong sometimes is not only the point, but also another step towards perfection.
Hitman is released on March 11th for PlayStation 4 (version tested), Xbox One and PC. Find more information on upcoming episodes and game modes at the official website.
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