This week on Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Hitman 3.
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And so comes yet another final installment of the series that has soft-rebooted more often than a melting ZX81: Hitman 3. I seem to remember Hitman 2 came out during a slow period in winter, as well; must be something about this time of year when we're stuck indoors with the family that makes people want to methodically plan brutal executions. So let's be blunt: Hitman 3 might be wrapping up the story of the last two games, but this definitely won't be the last of the Hitman series; obviously, it's going to be strung out with DLC for a while, like a diabetic rationing his jelly beans.
But that aside, what the fuck else has IO Interactive got to fall back on? Freedom Fighters? The fucking Kane & Lynch sequel that I, for one, would welcome like a snow shovel to the bridge of the nose? "They're making a James Bond game, Yahtz." Oh, a game about an unflappable dude in a suit pursuing secret objectives in a series of high-class environments? That'll be a fucking stretch; it'll just be like Hitman, won't it, except with forcible undressing of women as well as men?
Hitman's the only string to IO's bow, but hey, unless you've got two archery targets and three arms, you probably don't need more than one string on a bow anyway. And it's a string strong. I mean, it's a strong string. Fucking better be, the amount of games IO spent perfecting the formula, i.e., focusing on pouring more and more detail into the massively complicated open-ended missions, packed with NPCs and infiltration routes, and letting the story wither away to a tiny, malformed figure clinging to the rest of the game's trouser leg and mewling in the between-mission cutscenes, nay, glorified loading screens.
I mean, I could tell you every single plot point in Hitman 3 right now and hardly be spoiling shit, because storyline-wise, Hitman has spent its entire existence running its brush around the same toilet rim: Agent 47 was engineered by some evil dudes who secretly rule the world; he goes rogue or turns against them in some way when loyalty to his friends proves more important, and punishes his creators for treating him like a soulless assassin by soullessly assassinating a bunch of them. We've been around this merry-go-round like, five times, by my count, and this neo-Hitman trilogy does nothing new with it; there's always another secret world government to turn against, and they're all equally bad at screening their party guests.
Much like Hitman 2, Hitman 3 is really just a new mission pack for the established Hitman formula, to the point of using the same interface that's formatted like a furniture catalogue, and also lists all the missions from the last two games. Which I guess is fair enough, 'cos the formula is, as I say, pretty down at this point, but the handful of new missions still doesn't feel like enough new game to call a full instalment; all the missions from all three games probably only adds up to like, two Hitman: Blood Moneys, at most. And the last mission hardly counts as a mission; it's more of a gimmick level for wrapping up the plot, set entirely on a train, which isn't the best environment for multiple-path design unless you count going into the dining car and having to pick from the chicken or the fish.
As for the other new missions, there's not a whole lot that doesn't feel like treading familiar ground; the highlight is a mission set in a British stately home, where 47 can solve an unrelated teatime murder mystery, and it's like an Agatha Christie story that, for some reason, ends with Poirot hanging around after the parlour scene so he can fling someone off a balcony. But these so-called "mission stories" are, frankly, the worst parts of the game; I think that's the revelation I finally came to after speeding through all the missions, getting hand-held through a linear sequence of objectives where I follow my intended victim around for a while until the moment they say, "All security guards, leave the room so I can have some alone time with my new best pal. Would you like to admire my new pit full of rotating knives? I thought it would make a nice centrepiece."
It feels like Mum and Dad doing our homework for us, and it makes the bottom drop out of all the tension and immersion, especially since they very often hinge on Agent 47 disguising himself as someone famous or who the victim has already met, rather than a random background employee, and them somehow not noticing that this person they know is suddenly built like a gravedigger's shovel leaning on a tombstone and keeps responding to direct questions with veiled references to being an assassin. "Can I tell you a secret?" "Oh, I guarantee it won't leave this room." "Do you recommend the soup?" "I'd have to say it's... to die for." "Blimey, my verrucas are playing up!" "Perhaps you'd like to lie down... after I murder you completely to death?" Yeah, it was funny the first couple of times, but when it's pretty much the same routine for every mission story, things get a bit silly. And at odds with the story's tone when the cutscenes are full of slick behind-the-scenes manipulators controlling the world through growly phone conversations in huge, twilit offices, and then you meet them in gameplay, and they're standing over the shark tank at SeaWorld demonstrating their new line of tuna-flavoured aftershave.
But I think Hitman finally clicked for me after I made the conscious effort to resist my usual instinct; that is, play through to story end as fast as possible and then use the rest of the work week to practice throwing chocolate raisins into the air and catching them in my mouth. No, this time, I decided I would go back to the missions and embrace the sandbox malarkey by inventing my own assassinations; switch from the strict musical education to improvised jazz, as it were, and often with equally disastrous results, because Hitman gameplay is still a slave to the Cockup Cascade.
There's often no way of knowing if strangling a dude to the ground and ripping his trousers off is going to be out of view of his mates until you try, and they all spin around and act like they caught you shitting on the carpet. It's a lot like shitting on the carpet because, even if you get caught, you've got no choice but to finish doing it while furiously maintaining eye contact. So, you've still got to hit "Save" more often than the "Crouch" button. Also, because the enemy are rather unrealistically good at figuring out where bullets are coming from if you decide to go sniping; I headshot someone from the roof of a henhouse 90 miles away, and a dude still runs up, sees right through my fox costume and opens fire.
But generally, I was having a lot more fun seeking opportunities rather than being handed them by the mission stories. Shame you kind of have to do a mission story on your first attempt, 'cos these environments are really dense and sprawly with no directions, it's like looking for the one un-horrifying toilet cubicle at a BART station. You have to play a mission a few times and get a lay of the land before you can start really having fun with planning custom assassinations, and that means immersion takes another fatal hit. I mean, you don't get second tries in real life; Lee Harvey Oswald couldn't run up and go, "Sorry, I was going for no alerts; could we scoop your brains back up and have another crack?"
- The man with too many names: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- It would probably have livened up Poirot if an episode centred around him getting caught removing a waiter's trousers in a laundry room
- Shot a man in Reno just to get the achievement