Hitman 3 is the pinnacle of a story and gameplay design philosophy that has defined this trilogy since 2018. At its best, this gives rise to some truly spectacular sandboxes to play in, and dozens of tools to do that with. At its worst? It becomes a quagmire, signposting the path of “how to have fun”. Hoping you’ll glean enough enjoyment from the six levels of the game to justify the story dragging them down.
First up, a caveat to everything below. Hitman 3, like the other two games in the Modern Hitman Trilogy developed by IO Interactive, is built to be played online. This is a puzzling choice, considering there is no multiplayer component. The game uses this connection to store saves, track challenges and update leaderboards. The issue is that if you go offline, you get none of those things.
Happen to have an unstable connection? (either on your end or IO Interactive’s), you’ll be forced to revert to your last save, or switch to an offline playthrough. The offline playthrough will then be ineligible for all of the online features from then on. It’s a frustratingly implemented system that gets in the way of the rest of the game. There are justifications for this to be this way, it’s true. There’s a lot of moving parts in the background, with IO Interactive having to deal with a lot behind the scenes including matching the game services across eleven systems and a publisher change between games in the trilogy. It doesn’t change the fact that the always on connection is still a frustrating implementation though. If you’re not willing to play online, you’ll miss out on a significant amount that Hitman 3 has to offer.
Otherwise if you enjoyed Hitman 1 and 2 you will more likely than not enjoy this game. It is broadly more of the same. That is not an insult, because this Trilogy has been spectacular.
If you’ve been missing out (and judging by sales figures, many of you have) it’s worth noting that you can import the levels from the first two games into this one. Each will have graphical and engine improvements to match the maps for 3.
This is the way Hitman 3 was clearly meant to be played. The final collection of all work to date. Each game building on the previous and bringing them all up to the same high standard. But Hitman 3 also has to stand on its own. And that’s where things stumble just a bit.
But let’s take it from the top. You’ve decided to jump into Hitman 3. It’s the third entry in IO Interactive’s “World of Assassination” trilogy and eighth Hitman game in the series proper.
It’s a third person action game, that I broadly describe in terms of a puzzle game built around assassination. Each mission will see the player attempt to take out a number of targets via Assassination. This will be using tools and disguises that populate throughout the level.
It’s actually incredibly easy to walk up to a target and just shoot them. It’s much more difficult to do so in a manner that avoids detection or suspicion in a multi layered game world filled with hundreds of NPCs watching your every move.
You play as Agent 47, a conspicuously bald man with a barcode on the back of his head. According to the story of the game, he is the master assassin. He can wear any disguise, use any object as a weapon and reach the most protected targets. Super cool, suave and unflappable.
On at least one occasion though, I made him run around the map, wearing a chef costume, slapping an entire level’s worth of guards with a large fish. Loved that fish, actually. Excellent reach.
Because there are in fact two Agent 47s in this third person puzzle game wearing the disguise of an action game. There’s the canonical Silent Assassin. The man who ghosts through a level, killing only who he needs to in unfortunate “accidents” which leave the high and mighty fearing him.
And there’s the other 47. A man who is right now dragging yet another guard onto a pile of bodies in an alleyway. They just keep wandering round the corner at the wrong time!
A man who did in fact kill his target, but did so by haphazardly hurling a stolen Fabergé egg when detection became unavoidable. Because he was caught changing into a waiter’s costume and pushing that body into a meat locker.
There’s a dichotomy between story and experimentation. The story is hyper po-faced serious business. The experimentation runs the gamut from that serious business all the way to farcical slapstick.
Partly this is what makes Hitman as a trilogy great. It’s fun to make mistakes and flail to correct them. It’s fun to have 47 switch costumes four times and pass the same guard on the way through the level with no comment. But it’s also fun to learn from those mistakes and do better next time.
You are encouraged to experiment. Encouraged to make mistakes. You’ll always be able to return to the level afterwards to find new pathways, new ways to take out your target. Even the worst case scenario of reloading a save doesn’t have any impact loss other than time. It’s a franchise staple that you can replay these levels over and over again.
Hitman 3 creates new problems for itself with how the focus on an overarching story impacts this replayability in these levels though.
The game is built around a set of open world levels. 6 in total, though again you can also import the levels from Hitman 1+2 to be played with the additional engine and graphical improvements of this game.
Now six levels is in theory a short experience. And it could be? If you play each level once, finish the story and are done with the game, it would be fairly disappointing.
But Hitman 3 leans on two pillars. One, Experimentation. Two, Level Design. You should be playing these levels dozens of times. Each time you’ll either explore and find new narrative elements or some new shortcut to your eventual goal. Or you’ll decide this playthrough will be the loud and violent route. The next will be about trying to engineer the perfect “accident”.
The level design and overall challenge system supports this.
As you play through a level, there’s a guidance system to encourage you towards certain end goals. You’re given one sentence challenges to accomplish, paired with a relevant picture.
These are great design work from the team. For example, one of the challenges in Dubai is “Kill both Targets as they parachute from the building”.
It’s incredibly unclear as to how this situation would even come about at first glance.
But as I worked my way around the level, exploring, I overheard two separate conversations on separate floors. One had a Guard telling someone on a phone call that the evacuation key card was kept in a nearby safe, and there was no risk of accidents because both alarms needed to be pulled. A conversation overheard on a later playthrough mentioned that the guards were guarding this alarm specifically, and that they could evacuate the guests from the tower roof if necessary.
The pieces began to click into place. A complex but incredibly satisfying assassination attempt followed.
This is referred to as the mastery system in game. The more activities you accomplish in a level, the more experience you earn for the mastery of that level. Completing challenges gives even more of a boost. Mastering a level gives additional tools to the player to expand their approach. New starting locations, new points where gear can be hidden ahead of time and new disguises to start with. Those are the functional, material mastery rewards.
Equally though, players develop knowledge as they master a map. I know exactly where to go in Dubai to get a waiter’s outfit with little bother. I learned about the method for accomplishing that challenge above. The code to open the safe in the security room is in my head.
There’s a sense of freedom that comes from playing these maps over and over again to get a higher score or the more elusive challenges. This is why I refer to Hitman as a puzzle game. Half the fun is that it’s immensely satisfying when all the pieces click into place in just the right way.
The levels themselves then need talking about, as they are what the game will ultimately succeed or fail on.
Every level opens with a staggeringly well framed opening shot. The setting and tone of each level are communicated immediately through the first few seconds. The grey English manor which starts hidden behind bushes then looms into view. The rain soaked neon skyway of Chonqing with hidden depths.
Hitman 3 delivers a masterclass in this type of framing for each map. It’s just when you get into the levels themselves that they start to mar a little.
The main issue with the base levels of Hitman 3 is that they feel restricted compared to previous efforts. One of the story missions is usually accessible from early on and leads to the next. But there is a reduction in formalised story missions overall. Rather than the half dozen or so that appeared in each level in previous games, now there’s rarely more than three. The distinction between “Story Missions” and the challenges above is the level of detailed gameplay on offer. A story mission may involve several minutes of voiced conversations and a very specific, involved mechanic to accomplish an assassination. A challenge “could” be just as involved, but will not necessarily meet the other criteria.
There are still other means to allow for assassinations, especially in the challenges. But the formal missions feel significantly reduced which is a shame.
It’s odd because in theory this should be great. Letting the player explore and make more out of the opportunities granted by the level, rather than following one of many highlighted paths.
The distinction here is that the levels in Hitman 3 feel built to take advantage of these Story Missions more than ever, and thus it feels like there’s a correct way to play and thus more “wrong” ways to play. It ends up being made even more uncomfortable because of the focus on specific set pieces in this game compared to the previous two entries.
For example, the first map is Dubai. A lavish golden skyscraper filled with party guests. Multiple floors with different populations ranging from two types of security, maintenance staff, and different tiers of guests. There’s a lot of fun in navigating the side corridors and maintenance tunnels then stepping out into the lavish party going on. So far, so Hitman.
Dartmoor – This feels a little like showing off how clever IO can be. A Poirot/Agatha Christie/Knives Out style manor house, complete with a solvable murder mystery and private detective.
As a theme for a level and on a first play through, Dartmoor is incredible. But there’s a lot of focus given over to that murder mystery. It’s a brilliant set piece, effectively a mini adventure game of its own, but it really only works once. There’s little reason to return to it once the case is fully solved the first time. Which is heartbreaking because Dartmoor has some deeply engrossing narratives going on with the various NPCs scattered around the place between the wealthy family and the serving staff of the manor. It’s also lavishly detailed, with a smaller interior space giving IO’s environmental artists room to flex their creative muscles.
Berlin – If Dartmoor is IO showing off their cleverness in a set piece, Berlin might as well be a seminar on how to put a spin on building a Hitman level. Multiple targets, all hidden inside an Underground Industrial nightclub where the massive crowd mingles with security guards and a biker gang. Hundreds of NPCs in a huge map filled with potential methods of assassination. The trick, you have no identifying features for the targets. And they’re all assasins out to kill you.
It’s a last minute twist on the formula, but a welcome one that really rewards exploring and experimentation to track down the targets.
Chongqing – Just utterly stunning. A rain soaked, neon lit map built around the verticality of high-rise buildings and multiple layers of apartments. I do very much appreciate the visual and geographical complexity of the level, as it’s actually really unique in terms of navigation. What’s less entertaining is that 50% of the level is tied into the overarching story in such a specific way that it feels restrictive of the potential playstyles available. Especially the ending for that plot thread. It’s especially telling that when replaying the level, you’re not required to accomplish one of the objectives that ties more heavily into the story.
Mendoza, Argentina – A return to a classic style Hitman map. A sun dappled mountain vineyard where one target is hosting a retirement party, the other is mingling with the guests. Glamour, wealth and prestige with the hints of seediness and corruption underneath. Much like Dubai, this is just a really robust design that stands up to any of the playstyles the player throws at it.
Carpathia, Romania– This mission ends up feeling like a bit of a dud, an unfortunate position for the final mission of your story. It’s got a fun hook to the design, but for story reasons, plays out in an awkwardly linear fashion.
Just before release, the news emerged that IO Interactive were being given the James Bond license to make a game with. Half of Chonqing and this last mission in Carpathia feel like the forerunners to that game.
They play in a very different style, feeling much more mechanically like a linear action-adventure game.
While there may in fact be multiple solutions for the determined player, the obvious playstyle is highlighted to a much greater degree. Mostly the issue is that these are framed very heavily in service to the story of Hitman 3, rather than to the breadth of mechanics of Hitman 3.
It’s frustrating, considering the relative lack of missions in the non-trilogy compilation version of Hitman 3. There’s still good in those levels to admire, but having issues with half of the game in this manner feels like a cheat. It’s especially irritating because doubling down on cutscene based story elements is messily implemented, rather than the much more admirably executed narrative design work in each level.
What Hitman 3 does exceptionally well is in-mission storytelling. In particular, the game explains in great detail why your targets are explicitly the worst people. They want you to enjoy taking these people out, ideally in an Ironic manner.
In Chonqing especially, I was furious when I worked out what exactly one of the targets was doing. The first run-through of their side of the mission? A rampage through their underlings, delivering righteous justice for their callousness.
Everyone is slimy and awful, with the exposition being presented diegetically in snippets of overheard conversation or dotted around the level in collectible intel features.
It’s a feature of the franchise that is ubiquitous to all of the games, but here especially there’s a righteousness to it that feels deliberate and planned. The themes of the overarching story are implemented really well in this regard, it’s just that the overall narrative playing out in cutscenes feels so much more clunky and forced by comparison.
As stated, Hitman 3 is the third part of a trilogy. More than that, it’s intended to be played as a compilation of that trilogy. The mechanics and design of the whole thing are just a joy to experience. There’s a sense of workmanlike confidence that the developers are happy to just give the players a variety of buckets and spades for playing in their sandbox.
But on its own especially, Hitman 3 has problems. Levels that are over designed into restrictiveness and a story that’s trying to cram just a bit too much narrative and pathos in.
It should be said, these critiques are levelled in the full admission that the other aspects of the game are spectacular. In terms of both technical visuals and artistic direction, it’s among the best the series has looked. The mechanics for tools/disguises/stealth and information gathering have been refined down with three games worth of learning. The narrative issues are frustrating mostly because the rest of the game does play so well by comparison.
Hitman 3 is a really impressively designed game, being dragged down just a little in telling the player a story rather than letting them experience it.
Hitman 3 is now available on the Epic Games Store for PC (with Steam to follow after an exclusivity period expires), on Xbox and PlayStation platforms and as a streaming cloud version on Nintendo Switch.