Coming off the highly anticipated release of Hitman 3, this latest installment has been very well received and it's actually the tenth title in the Hitman franchise. If you're into stealth action, it’s not hard to see why the series has become so popular with gamers, building up a large following spanning 20 years. Each level is a puzzle to solve as the player-controlled Agent 47 seeks to assassinate a target (or targets) with minimal casualties and without drawing attention to the task at hand.
Playing as the genetically engineered and professional hitman Agent 47, players can use disguises to get unlock access within the levels, hide bodies to prevent suspicion, and use a variety of tools to complete the job. The Hitman series helped define the modern stealth action game, and while the early games appear similar to the latest ones, the formula has kept evolving with each entry bringing in new locations, new ways to dispatch targets, and impressive developments in artificial intelligence.
There are eight games in the main series, but the franchise also includes two mobile spin-offs, a pair of novels, and even two movies. Let's see how the series became a household name...
Hitman: Codename 47 (2000)
The Hitman series started its life as a Windows PC exclusive and a pioneer in many ways. In each level, players must assassinate a target. Taking control of Agent 47 from the third-person perspective, each location offers gamers multiple ways to complete their objective.
The game showed promise, but also a few oddities. For example, Hitman: Codename 47 was one of the first games with ragdoll physics and realistic cloth animations. At the time, many shooters had canned animations for deaths, but Hitman characters interacted with the environment when they died. It also allowed Agent 47 to drag a body out of sight.
The non-playable-characters featured sophisticated AI, reacting to the bodies left behind by and any noises the Hitman makes. Unfortunately, they could react in unpredictable ways breaking the immersion. Lastly, the game featured no mid-game saves. If you mess up, you deal with the consequences or start from the beginning. Critics found the game to be excellent yet flawed. It showed promise and a sequel was sure to be on the way.
Hitman 2: Silent Assassin (2002)
The sequel went beyond the PC and was made available on Xbox, GameCube, and PlayStation 2, presenting the stoic Hitman to a whole new audience. The game was also remastered and re-released for the PS3 and Xbox 360 nearly a decade later.
Silent Assassin committed to the stealth genre, removing some of the action-oriented sequences of the original game. This title also introduced a first-person view, and the ability for Agent 47 to incapacitate enemies instead of killing them.
Hitman 2 revamped the way enemies recognize Agent 47, with a suspicion meter and the ability to see through a disguise if he got too close. However, it was common for guards to shoot Agent 47 in the back after he walked past them despite being disguised.
Levels were a bit smaller in scope, but still gave players multiple methods to complete their objectives. These smaller environments were full of items and characters to interact with.
Players welcomed the challenge of Silent Assassin. Each level ends with a rating that factors how the level was completed. Top scores are awarded when there were fewer casualties, while low scores were given to those who treated the game like Max Payne, with a pile of bodies and little discretion. This rating system continues to be part of the series today.
Hitman: Contracts (2004)
The third entry in the franchise arrived two years after Silent Assassin, dubbed Contracts. IO Interactive revisited levels and ideas from the previous games and polished them up. Considering how innovative the first Hitman (Codename 47) was, it missed the mark in a few ways in terms of gameplay dynamics and level design.
Contracts had the chance to remake Codename 47 with the mindset of Silent Assassin. Half of the missions in this game are related to or remakes of Codename 47 levels. Interestingly, all of the missions now take place at night -- even remakes of past missions in the day -- which helps to showcase the game's improved graphics.
Each level offers multiple ways to kill the target, with some creative choices, including locking someone in a dangerously hot sauna. The opportunity to poison, sabotage or snipe a target is also present in almost every level.
As a result, Contracts was a bit darker in tone but had far more refined mechanics, especially in regards to how guards detect Agent 47 in his disguises. The AI works together and communicates with each other to find Agent 47. While nothing groundbreaking, Contracts helped to iron out the Hitman formula.
Hitman: Blood Money (2006)
IO Interactive was gaining momentum ever since the release of Silent Assassin and the refinement shown in Contracts helped to realize a truly dedicated fanbase. In 2006, we were treated to Blood Money, one of the most popular titles in the franchise.
Many new features helped make the game a bit more forgiving and intuitive. Agent 47 can now climb obstacles, engage in unarmed combat, disarm enemies or use other characters like a human shield. There are even ways to distract enemies with coins, and players can use improvised weapons like screwdrivers or knives.
Adding to the immersion of the series, the AI was completely revamped, with the ability to warn the character about restricted areas, see blood splatters and follow blood trails to discover a poorly hidden body. The game also introduced a notoriety system that encouraged players to erase traces of Agent 47's actions recorded on surveillance equipment or tracking down witnesses. If Agent 47 notoriety increases, enemy AI will be able to identify him in proceeding levels. Alternatively, the player can use the money earned as a reward for finishing missions as a bribe to reduce his notoriety.
Like in Silent Assassin, players are graded at the end of each level, encouraging multiple playthroughs to get the coveted “Silent Assassin” rating. Additionally, along with the mission’s results, the game displays a newspaper article, covering the events portrayed in the level, describing the weapon used, how accurate it was, and information about casualties and witnesses.
Hitman hits the big screen for the first time (2007)
Seven years after the first game's release, the franchise welcomed the development of the Hitman movie. Vin Diesel was reportedly attached to play Agent 47, but ultimately it was Timothy Olyphant who nabbed the leading role. He shaved his head and became instantly recognizable as the cold-blooded assassin.
While the film was directed by French filmmaker Xavier Gens, the version Gens submitted to 20th Century Fox wasn’t up to the studio's standards and required reshoots and some significant edits. Critics weren’t particularly harsh but didn’t take too kindly to the violent movie, and nonsensical plot. Granted, these are typical complaints about almost any game-to-movie transition. Others noted that given the source material, the movie managed well enough.
While critics said one thing, the audience said another. The movie earned over $100 million at the box office which compared favorably to its $24 million budget. Throw in the DVD sales that accounted for nearly $28 million in the US alone, and the movie was a commercial success, even if it wasn’t fit to win any awards.
Hitman: Absolution (2012)
Gamers had to wait a whole six years for a new game, and the 2013 iteration Hitman Absolution was an uncomfortable moment in the series. Publisher Eidos was purchased by Square Enix in 2009, and upon announcing Absolution, declared the upcoming game to be more accessible and easier to play.
The result was a graphically beautiful game, though it seemed to betray the roots of the original entries. Levels are far more linear in Absolution, with multiple mini-missions or objectives to complete. With more cinematics, the newspaper-style debrief disappeared though ratings remained, and Agent 47 had several skills that made the game easier.
The Instinct ability allows the player to easily spot enemies, and a slow-motion aiming ability called Point-Shooting allows for easier kills. While missions are more linear than before, an innovative online mode called Contracts, allowed players to create their own missions and objectives for others to complete adding some replayability to the title.
While these changes seemed to alter the original formula, Absolution also included more gameplay elements to challenge players and allow for more creative kills. The ability for items to break after using them, as well as quick-time-event oriented hand-to-hand combat, were new wrinkles to the series. Civilian characters could sometimes report suspicious activity to Agent 47 if he was dressed as an official, like the police or a guard.
Critics and players had a lot to talk about the changes. Improved graphics, design and new gameplay mechanics helped seal the deal for the game, but many were still disappointed by the linear fashion of level design.
Hitman Go (2014)
The Hitman franchise went down the rabbit hole of alternative genres and mobile platforms, starting with Hitman Vegas back in 2007. However, Vegas was designed to promote Hitman: Blood Money. A full mobile experience arrived later. The turn-based isometric game known as Hitman Go was released in 2014 for Android and iOS and helped to broaden the franchise audience.
The clever game design proved to win over skeptics and was nominated for a slew of gaming awards, even taking home some hardware for Best Game Design and Best iOS Game categories at the 2014 Canadian Videogame Awards. The format worked so well, that Square Enix Montreal continued the series with Tomb Raider Go and Deus Ex Go.
Hitman: Sniper (2015)
In 2015, Square Enix Montreal released Hitman: Sniper, another mobile game, focused on shooting targets. This shooting gallery game is played through the viewpoint of a sniper scope, letting players assassinate one to ten targets in each level.
Originally designed as a premium mobile game, its price has dropped substantially and instead offers plenty of microtransactions. Good graphics, lots of challenges, and accessible gameplay helped make Hitman: Sniper a clear winner in terms of mobile games, but when was the next big Hitman piece coming?
Time to go to the movies again! Hitman: Agent 47 (2015)
A reboot of the Hitman film was announced in 2013, with Paul Walker slated to play Agent 47. Following Walker's death in late 2013, Rupert Friend took the lead role, with Zachary Quinto, Hannah Ware and Thomas Kretschmann taking on supporting roles. The film was released in 2015 with many critics calling it a generic action film that somehow failed to surpass the original. It still generated $82.3 million at the box office, from its $35-million budget.
Hitman and the World of Assassination Trilogy (2016)
Like Hitman's second film in 2015, IO Interactive rebooted the franchise with Hitman, the first title in its World of Assassination trilogy. Uniting the gameplay of Absolution with the sandbox-like openness of previous games, Hitman was poised for a big comeback. Each level was a massive simulation, with tons of non-playable characters operating with or without Agent 47s involvement. Social stealth and interaction were encouraged, using disguises to get new information about a target. Opportunities to kill a target arose depending on the outfits or intel gathered, and Agent 47 could choose different starting positions to begin each level.
There were new challenges for each level in two different sets: Escalation Contracts were set by the developer, requiring players to fulfill certain objectives such as killing a target with a specific weapon or disguise. This mode removed the ability to save and progressively increased in difficulty after each completion. The player-set Contracts mode returned, with the ability to mark up to five NPCs for assassination and dictate the terms on how to kill them.
Vitally, those modes added replayability to each level since each environment was released episodically. In March 2016, Hitman had just two levels: a tutorial and The Showstopper in Paris. By November, the game had added five more playable levels and offered a few more bonus episodes as well. This episodic release format allowed the developers to receive feedback and improve level design for the next release. However this format was misunderstood at times, with critics calling the title unfinished at first, but slowly warmed up to it as more episodes were unleashed.
Following a buyout by Square Enix, IO Interactive, who retained the rights to the Hitman franchise, released the first level for free and encouraged a free-to-play format which brought many curious gamers to the title without having to invest a single cent. After a taste of the new engine, challenges and game style, players could go buy the rest of the game or the newly released Game of the Year edition.
Hitman 2 (2018)
Hitman 2 was not released in the same episodic format and didn’t include many changes to the core gameplay. Instead, gamers received eight new locations from the get-go with two additional downloadable levels offered in 2019. Locations from the last title were also available in Hitman 2, letting players experience them in the improved engine. That still might not sound like many levels, but with the various challenges like Elusive Targets and Contracts mode, Hitman could last hundreds of play time hours.
A pair of additional multiplayer game modes were offered (until the release of Hitman 3). Sniper Assassin was similar to the Hitman: Sniper mobile game, with gamers tasked to use a sniper to complete various objectives. A competitive Ghost mode was also included, where gamers raced against one another to take out randomly placed targets on the map.
These small tweaks were enough for many critics to call Hitman 2 a perfected version of the series vision. Refined, challenging, and with lots of replayability, it seemed like the Hitman franchise had reached its full potential.
Hitman 3 (2021)
Released in January 2021, Hitman 3 has further perfected the series while landing on new generation consoles and Nintendo's Switch through a cloud-based game-streaming format. Hitman 3 is the final entry in the 'World of Assassination' trilogy introduced in 2016.
While the multiplayer modes introduced in Hitman 2 are now missing, Hitman 3 offers VR support on PS4 while PlayStation 5 players got enhanced features through the new DualSense controllers. With various new graphical improvements, including ray tracing, the developers also offered the opportunity to import locations from Hitman and Hitman 2 into the latest engine.
Critics have shown their high regards for this latest entry as much as the last, with many wondering what’s next for the franchise. While Hitman 3 is the final game in this story, IO Interactive have stated their intention to bring Hitman back, but first they’ve been tasked to work with MGM and Eon Productions on a new James Bond-based game.
It's clear that IO Interactive has perfected the stealth genre with the Hitman series, so it'll be interesting to see if and how things change when 007 tags in as the main character. Suffice to say, gamers everywhere have high hopes.
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