As old-school stealth video game protagonists go, three characters stand out in particular from the crowd. Super spy Sam Fisher (Splinter Cell), legendary soldier Solid Snake (Metal Gear Solid) and of course Agent 47, the sharply-dressed, bald-headed, blue-eyed killer for hire.
In a series spanning 5 core titles, 2 smaller offshoots and 2 admittedly terrible films, IO Interactive’s Hitman: Codename 47 was more game than I ever could have hoped for back in 2000. Now with a 6th core title on the way, it made sense for me to revisit classic Hitman gameplay in its purest form.
Beginning with Agent 47’s awakening, training, and subsequent escape from the subterranean cloning facility in which he was “born” to be the perfect killer, 47 quickly takes to the only calling he knows, contract killing. Over the course of the game’s 12 missions the player must hop around the globe carrying out assassinations in elaborate environments ranging from a Hong Kong brothel, to a South American cocaine compound, to a Hungarian hotel & spa. Moving as a wolf among the sheep, 47 must blend into the crowd, stalking his prey and waiting for the perfect moment to strike.
Each new level is littered with a variety of enemy and civilian NPCs going about their daily schedule, mostly oblivious to the presence of a killer in their midst. Each NPC type will react to your presence and your influence over the level’s events differently. Cause too much upset and NPCs may run, go on the offensive, or just cower in the corner. So too may your target flee the level, or barricade themselves somewhere safe if alarmed.
47 can appropriate the clothing and uniforms of many NPCs as disguises, using them to either infiltrate areas or shed some of the heat off his back. Also available is a wide variety of equipment choices both loud and silent that can be purchased before each mission. Pistols, assault rifles, shotguns, knives, a collapsable sniper rifle, a goddam mini-gun, and the now famous fibre-wire garrote are just some of the tools of the trade.
On top of your assassination targets, there are also additional objectives such as meeting up with a contact, or retrieving a guarded item. Achieving these are often necessary in gaining access to your target, or can make getting to your target a little bit easier.
With each level so rife with possibility, every hit becomes a kind of puzzle. Players can choose to carefully and methodically snap the pieces into place as the perfect silent assassin, or ham-fistedly ram them home with gun-toting reckless abandon. Of course even the most intricate plans can often go astray, leaving you to try to contain your mistake before too many enemies are alerted. In this way, each level becomes a process of: plan, execute, contain, escape. Or at least ideally it should be, with some levels taking multiple playthroughs to pull off the hit just right.
As 47 kills his way across the world, the truth of his mysterious origins are unfolded and a sinister plot revolving around himself begins to take shape. This culminates in what is admittedly a disappointing and crushingly difficult final level that is not very true to the spirit of the rest of the game. In spite of all this, the game is still incredibly well rounded, providing a myriad of ways to complete each level.
The gameplay, while solid, was still finding its feet compared to modern Hitman titles. The now standard suspicion meter would only see its way into the game in Hitman 2: Silent Assassin, meaning players can still run around like a mad fool without drawing too much attention to themselves.
Special mention goes to the physics system. Hitman was one of the first games to include ragdoll physics, a mechanic that makes sense to the core of the game’s stealth, as leaving dead bodies lying around is an obvious giveaway. It’s incredibly satisfying to see a body go limp, or watch the lifeless corpse of his victim flail around grotesquely as 47 drags into sneaky hiding spots, dropping them down manholes or stuffing them into abandoned rooms or alleyways. The graphics were very crisp for the time, still holding solid under today’s standards.
Many of the details introduced in the original title have carried on throughout the Hitman series. The musical score by Danish composer Jesper Kyd is sublime, a performance that has made him a staple of the series, proudly advertised in the opening sequence of every iteration so far.
Another stalwart detail is the voice and likeness for 47 provided by fellow South African David Bateson. Bateson’s performance stands head and shoulders above the rest of the rather poor voice acting, especially when it comes to the often terrible portrayal of accents.
And finally there are the loading screens with the same kickass artwork that has become synonymous with the Hitman titles.
Solid Snake and Sam Fisher may be the masters of the shadows, with richer and deeper narratives, but 47 delivers death with style and sophistication that his espionage counterparts could only ever dream of. Hiding in plain sight stealth has become a little more ubiquitous these days with the likes of Assassin’s Creed, but its impossible to doubt that Hitman did it first and did it best, long before Altaïr or Ezio ever came to the table.