There's something endlessly satisfying about unpacking and mastering the Groundhog Day playgrounds of Hitman 3. It should get boring; watching the same guards patrol their patrols, or workers work and characters wander well-worn tracks you know so well. But it never gets old. Knowing there's the tiniest crack to slip through, or a moment to exploit that can leave a target oh so tragically killed is never dulled by the repetition of running and rerunning the scenario like a time traveler that can only leave the loop after meeting the right conditions.
Murder go round
Release date: January 20, 2021
Platform(s): PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X and Nintendo Switch
Developer: IO Interactive
Publisher: IO Interactive
What those conditions are depend on your choices as Agent 47. There's obviously an 'ideal' end to each of the six levels, defined by the story, but options unfold as you explore. It's easy to finish a path and get away cleanly, while discovering some new and more interesting way to kill a target along the way that means you have to go back and try again. I really like the tragic accidents - like a tragic fall after someone loosened a balcony handrail. Or tragic electrocution by your own art installation. Then there was someone being tragically crushed by a giant wine press. And those tragically sabotaged parachutes... What should be repetitive never is, as the reward of new opportunities constantly freshens up revisits.
It's also, for all the death, playful. There's comedy to burying someone in their own grave at a sham funeral they organised to try and hide from public view. At one point I was able to kill someone by sequentially firing key employees to chain a sequence of events together that led to a fatal workplace health and safety violation. I'm currently replaying a level because there's an option to get a target's wife to kill them that I haven't found yet and I really want to set that off.
All these options mean each location is a beautiful standalone moment of worldbuilding - from the gameplay relevant lines that tease and draw you in the directions of murderous opportunities, to throwaway dialogue that flesh out incidental characters and environmental details. It's easy to get distracted following threads just because it's interesting to find out more about some cleaner's petty grudge or a guard's troublesome relationship issues.
It's a story made of stories, then, but after two games of set up the main plot has a momentum behind it that makes for a coherent thriller from start to finish. You could wander through Hitman 1 and 2 loosely following the background plot of shadowy organisations and only really show up for the assassinations. You can do that here again here, obviously, but all the previous set up lands well, and there's a much more edge of the seat feel to playing the larger story as loose ends tie up and things start to get personal. Where previous games basically jumped between global locations with some arbitrary villain on-site to justify the visit, this has much more rhyme to its reason and has a stronger narrative flow to locations and story beats. There was at least one gasp from me near the start, and several 'oh I don't like where this is going at all' teeth clenches towards the end. The conclusion is particularly satisfying, and cements a far more movie feel to the events.
Don't worry too much if you haven't been paying much attention though, each level still works fine on its own. The game encourages you to play certain paths the first time you reach an area to better tell the story but it's optional - you can still treat each location as a completely self-contained world to exploit, with little regard to the overall plot, if you just want to drown random bad people in their own toilet.
Whatever your level of investment in the story, there's just really cool stuff to see and do. One of my favorite levels, set in a Berlin nightclub, is amazing not because of what you can do, but rather because of how it makes you feel. For reasons, Agent 47 is being hunted by multiple hidden enemies in Germany (I counted six but I can't be sure that's all), and you have to find and take out five to escape. In a packed European club. Filled with hundreds of oblivious party goers. My 'oh my God this is amazing' moment came when I located someone while on the dance floor - slipping through a huge crowd with music pounding and lights flashing, the camera panned hard left to watch the target tracking barely inches away, completely unaware of me in the throng of heaving bodies. It's an absolute rush to play that level in full secret agent mode, eliminating multiple adversaries, one at a time, without a warehouse full of party goers realizing.
Compels me, though
All the levels continue the series' abilities to create impressive locations for different reasons. Dubai is all about the wealthy elite, with a real Bond feel to its intro. Dartmoor channels a full Knives Out-style murder mystery for you to solve; Chongqing is a stunningly labyrinthian maze of dense neon streets to uncover. The wine villa of Mendoza is a classic callback to old school Hitman, and the final level I'll leave you to discover because it's got a great 'holy shit what?' moment. All are beautifully realised and packed with detail to make sure that every possibility feels like a 'main' choice.
This is, bar a few changes I'll get to later, mechanically identical to the last two games and that's not a criticism. The systems of stealth, and costume changes used to infiltrate levels has worked beautifully for years, and it feels like this instalment cashes in what the previous games have learned. Level layout and design, tool and gear placement, effortlessly pulls you through the action feeling like the greatest (pretend) assassin in the world. A basic playthrough is entertaining and exhilarating in equal amounts, with just enough risk and reward to keep an edge to subsequent replays. Plus, as you play, you unlock new gear, places to smuggle equipment into, and escalating challenges to really test your omnipotent knowledge of the timeline.
Where Hitman 3 makes any changes to its formula, it's in a way that adds to the experience without shaking things too hard. There are new shortcuts that can be permanently created in levels to allow quicker access on subsequent playthroughs. In the Berlin nightclub, for example, there's a fire escape you can open from inside that lets you skip the security check at the door forever. Tricky to reach areas might have a ladder to drop so you can reach the same spot again without multiple costume changes and 10 minutes hiding in a cupboard. When half the fun comes from rerunning scenarios to try out different options it's an unobtrusive addition that acknowledges you put the work in to reach the shortcut in the first place.
Another new idea is a camera that works well when it feels relevant, but is underused. While it lets you take actual pictures in a limited photo mode, it's main use is to scan items and hack electronic locks. It only really comes into prominent use for a couple of levels and never entirely feels entirely implemented to its full potential.
The one big game changer addition is a PS VR mode that, at time of writing, I've not had a chance to play as it arrives in a launch day patch. It's a shame I couldn't test it because it's definitely an interesting idea I'm excited to try. But even if the option was an unplayable mess there's still more than enough here to recommend Hitman 3 without it. This is a great end to the trilogy, with a satisfying conclusion made from enjoyable and endlessly entertaining levels. Well done 47.