Three years have passed since Square Enix abruptly cut ties with Hitman 3 developer IO Interactive. The good news is that there appears to have been some measure of reconciliation. Though IO is self-publishing Hitman 3 in many territories, Square Enix is the publishing partner for Hitman 3 in Oceania.
Without getting into specifics, reconciliation is one of several themes running through Hitman 3. Another theme is that of shifting allegiances. It’s a game aware that it has a specific job to do — conclude a high-octane, five-year Spy-vs-Spy story. The World of Assassination trilogy has seen Hitman undergo a transformation in design and delivery (Hitman 2016 began as a monthly, episodic series — remember that?). It nearly came to an end amid Square’s decision to downsize its portfolio of western devs and IP. This left IO with little choice but to become an independent studio, later partnering with WB Games to launch Hitman 2.
I’m saying some of IO’s real-world travails might have seeped into this one.
The end of the road
The plot of Hitman 3 begins shortly after the conclusion of Hitman 2‘s Last Resort DLC. Arthur Edwards aka “The Constant” has escaped. Despite this, Agent 47’s plan to dispatch the upper echelons of the Providence group has not changed. He is aided in his bloody endeavour by Lucas Grey (aka “The Shadow Client”) and his longtime handler Diana Burnwood. As established in Hitman 2‘s Golden Handshake DLC, his primary targets are the Partners. The Partners are the Ingrams, the Carlisles, and the Stuyvesants — the three old money families that are Providence’s financial backbone. Cut off that funding and Providence crumbles.
From soup to nuts, Hitman 3 feels like the third act of a Bond film. It’s a rollercoaster where the stakes rise often, and sharply. Villains twirl moustaches and trusted friends reveal terrible truths. Defiant targets attempt to justify grotesque behaviour even as the reaper closes in. As a powerful cabal anticipates his every move, Agent 47’s legendary skill is put a final, brutal test.
The thing about Hitman 3‘s campaign is that it’s not actually supposed to be played in isolation. It will be hopelessly confusing to anyone that hasn’t played the first two games and their respective DLC. In the World of Assassination trilogy, IO has constructed a video game Voltron, with all three games slotting together to form a single massive experience. As in Hitman 2, IO has made it so that Hitman 3 is effectively backwards compatible. If you own Hitman 2016 and Hitman 2, all you have to do is install Hitman 3 on the same platform. The entire trilogy will be available to you from the Hitman 3 app. You can play through the entire World of Assassination story, from beginning to end, with all the older content upgraded for modern hardware.
Make sure the job goes smoothly
Hitman 2 was already a bit of a visual knockout on previous-gen, but the Xbox Series X hardware really gives IO the bandwidth to go big. Hitman 3‘s environments are more dense, complex, and layered than any in the series to date. Certain levels, like a shipping container warren of underground nightclubs in Berlin, feel as though they couldn’t have been accomplished on anything less than next-gen. The Berlin level is the kind of space that should be performance hell. It boasts large crowds, thousands of light sources and lasers, numerous reflections, and dense environmental effects. And yet, it never dings the game’s 4K60 frame rate. Sensational work.
Beyond that, it feels like IO very much had Hitman 3‘s look where they wanted it. All of the game’s visual bells and whistles are gravy on an already flavourful meal. Animations, models, even textures don’t seem massively improved from Hitman 2 — its the extra room for fireworks provided by next-gen hardware that takes it over the top. IO is clearly aware of this because it takes several opportunities to guide the player’s eye toward an especially beautiful reveal. Like I said, the meal was already sumptuous. IO just had a bit of garnish left to sprinkle.
I shot a man in *checks passport* Dubai
The biggest draw for fans of the World of Assassination trilogy has been IO Interactive’s superlative level design. The ability to pluck a string somewhere in the level and watch the consequences reverberate outward in real time remains one of the great magic tricks in the history of video game design. The studio set the bar with Paris, the intricate opening level of Hitman 2016, and have sought to clear it ever since.
Hitman 3 introduces several new spins on the concept. Its opening level, Dubai, sees Agent 47 tracking a pair of wealthy building magnates amidst the opening of The Sceptre, the tallest building in the world located in Dubai. Though most of the action takes place on one of two main floors, the heart of the experience is still focused on exploration. 47 can slip down service corridors and discover sections of the building not immediately obvious or available to anyone without security clearance, opening shortcuts as he goes. These discoveries open up your assassination options and help fast-track your progress on future runs.
Shortcuts are a new addition to the Hitman formula. They are sealed doors, locked from one side, that can be found strewn throughout each level. Opening one up creates a new shortcut that 47 can use over and over. Shortcuts are permanent alterations to each map — once opened, they’re open for good, no matter how many times you want to replay each level.
They’ll be ready for you
What’s different is that the game feels much harder. It seems IO has been watching the pros on YouTube because I found many of my favourite tricks were quickly foiled by smartly placed guards, cameras, and civilian witnesses. I learned to be much more thorough in searching each area for unexpected witnesses before making a violent move. It worked surprisingly hard to thwart me, even on lower difficulty levels, and I appreciated the game pushing back like that. Many levels in Hitman 3 are also far more spread out.
Levels like Chongqing have a lot in common with Sapienza and Miami in that they are made up of several very disparate biomes placed far apart with a lot of connective tissue in-between. On the other hand, while even relatively tight quarters maps like Dartmoor feel very similar to Paris or New York, there are extra layers of complexity to its floorplan that make it all the more challenging to get around.
Indeed, Dartmoor may be the game’s standout level. An Agatha Christie inspired locked-door murder mystery casts 47 in a role he does not expect — solving an inexplicable murder for which he is not responsible. His target lives, and he’ll get them in a minute, but someone’s been cutting his proverbial grass and he must get to the bottom of it.
All of Hitman 3‘s six levels are examples of IO at its best. Having taken two games to fully master its own puzzle box design, IO now looks for interesting ways to play with it, flip it on the player, or otherwise deconstruct it. Levels like Dartmoor, in particular, give a sense of the delicate balance required to build these levels. They are tightly-wound and infinitely complex, crafted with a watchmaker’s delicacy and care.
I’m sad to see this chapter of the Hitman franchise come to an end because I’ve enjoyed it very much. IO have reinvented their longtime anti-hero in a way I think will change him forever. It’s a triumphant finale and an exclamation point on what is now over half a decade of work. IO have much to proud of. The World of Assassination trilogy is its masterpiece, and Hitman 3 is the jewel in its crown.
Great work, 47.
FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Highlights: Great mission design; Backcompat with older titles rules; So much replayability
Lowlights: Story shouldn’t be played in isolation — maybe get a refresher before you start.
Developer: IO Interactive
Publisher: IO Interactive, Square-Enix
Platforms: PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, Nintendo Switch, Windows PC
Review conducted on Xbox Series X using pre-release code provided by the publisher.