The episodic murder marathon of Hitman [official site] takes us to a luxury hotel in Bangkok, Thailand, where the rich and privileged are moaning about gourmet food and inadequate room service. We sent Brendan to murder everyone and find out wot he thinks.
It’s not as good as Morocco. That’s the question that’s probably burning in the minds of all the Hitman faithful, who have been following Agent 47’s deadly trips to Paris, Sapienza and Marrakesh. It was always going to be hard to follow the protests and crowds of North Africa, but it’s the standard I'm now holding the series to. One of the curses of releasing your game in episodes is having to endure as we hacks compare each level piece-by-piece (although, in terms of publicity, this is also an obvious blessing). Suffice to say, the Himmapan Hotel isn’t as interesting a playground as the two previous misadventures. But it’s still pretty good.
You're here to kill two people connected with a billionaire's corporate empire - his fussy bow-tied lawyer and his rock star son, an uppity indie rich kid who pushed his girlfriend from a balcony but was well-connected and famous enough to get away with it, mostly thanks to dad's help and the aforementioned lawyer. The luxury hotel is a palatial, multi-storey building with a lot of security guards and a bad case of cockroaches. And while it looks imposing to begin with, I soon got the feeling like it just wasn't big enough. Having explored each floor thoroughly and killed all the requisite poshos, I think this has less to do with the objective size of the map, and more to do with the atmosphere.
The Morroccan jaunt felt big because it was a warren of markets, alleys and riads, all clustered around a big glass embassy. In reality it was a miniature labyrinth packed with people. Meanwhile, the Italian level felt big thanks to its distinct split. A summery town complete with tourist shops, cafes and churches, giving way to a mansion and underground complex that, in any other series, would have been granted its own level. Bangkok feels more like a return to the simplicity of Paris. It’s still a huge place – the hotel has multiple floors and a large grounds outside – but it is also broken into two mostly symmetrical wings (one for you, 47, and another reserved for the band and stage crew). It’s easier to get your head around and finding lone staff to knock unconscious is a much simpler task.
Part of that is down to the intuition of a hotel guest inherent in all of us. My first reaction as a Video Games Man was to wander around, trying to case the joint. I got cornered in the concrete corridors of the basement and was subsequently shot in the back. The second time, I decided to do whatever I would really do if I went to this hotel. I stopped at reception, got the keycard to my room (reserved for one “Mr. Reiper”), then lured a staff geezer to my room by phoning room service and saying the bed wasn’t made. As always, these interactions are limited and overly contextual, but it still felt good to be able to correctly guess what the game would allow the player to do. I went downstairs, was revealed as an imposter by the hotel manager, and was shot in the back.
Mr Tobias Reiper does not give up that easily however, and after a few hours I felt I’d uncovered most of the possibilities. I won’t go into the opportunities (Hitman's micro-managed deathscapades) in any great detail because part of the joy of being the barcoded baldy is in checking everything out, infiltrating restricted areas – the recording studio, the lounge reserved for crew, the bedroom of a famous actor – and eavesdropping on all the idiots who love to gossip about famously dangerous items.
I still don’t know how I feel about the series’ new approach to holding your hand through these opportunities. I previously tried playing with the markers switched off and quickly discovered that it was often impossible to interpret where the game was keeping some disguises or key items. I’d walk around the medina or the banks of the Seine wondering where the hell I was meant to be going. Eventually, my own impatience led me back to using the on-screen lightbulbs and the direction of the HUD. But I’m not satisfied with this either, since it removes some of the joy of discovery. In terms of design, I wish there was some balance between the two.
I’d also be interested to see what a Hitman with more consequence looked like. The series is still about the methodology of murder and pulling off the perfect hit, which essentially makes it a game about achieving a high score, as if it was any old shmup. Even in the post-murder cinematics, there’s nothing mentioned about the particular way you carried out your kill. You could run in, guns akimbo, killing all round you and leaving a messy web of witnesses, evidence and CCTV recordings, but the most you will ever suffer for this is a penalty to your score – a bad grade on your report card. There is no ongoing narrative impetus to keep things clean. The police will never knock on 47’s door, security will not be beefed up in later missions. The possibility of a score with 20,000 less points will only motivate me so far. The knock-on effect of bad decisions or sloppy kills would make things much more interesting.
But perhaps that is something best left to a Hitman game many years from now. After all, we don't even have a fully complete version of this one. The bigger issue I have with Bangkok in particular is that, although it has just as many odd opportunities to overhear, I can’t help but feel it lacks some of the imagination and atmosphere of Italy or Morrocco. I had a good time creeping around in the Himmapan, pretending to be a famous musician or an insect exterminator, but I also missed the tension and crowds of the medina, the cobblestone streets of Sapienza, both of which had a much greater sense of place, even if all the shopkeepers and waiters spoke with American and British accents – something which continues here, as baffling and jarring as ever.
However, it does makes up for this lack of 'place' by assaulting you with the inane conversations of the super-rich, delivered by NPCs dotted around – the banal anecdotes of tech bros and other holiday-makers with an overwhelming lack of self-awareness. It’s a good effort at replicating that natural distaste you might feel when you overhear two strangers talking about their trip to Venice, or their demands for a meal that fits their paleo diet. At one point you hear a man lamenting in a smug, self-aggrandizing tone that he wishes he could get up and go to work “like an average Joe” instead of being “a world famous artist”. Likewise, one of your targets, frontman Jordan Cross, throws a tantrum when daddy sends him a birthday cake, exclaiming that it is his father’s way of exerting dominance over his life and angrily cursing him because “he even got the dates right”. He goes on to eat many slices of the cake.
Despite my reservations, it’s still a decent addition to the assassination gran torino. Although this is probably aided by the sordid memory of Hitman: Absolution, which still resounds loudly in the back of my skull, waiting to be excised by time or the sweet release of death. The fact that Squeenix are continuing to grant us the role of a surrogate James Bond in playgrounds as varied and swish as a luxury Thai hotel, is good enough for me.
I only wish that one day, long after this incarnation, there’ll be a Hitman game with true narrative consequence, where a breadcrumb trail of slip-ups might lead the police or some other organisation straight to my door, while another player might produce such smooth and clean “accidents” that no such fate awaits them. That player – the silent assassin - will leave through their front door and disappear. Whereas I’ll try and climb out my window and get shot in the back.
Hitman Episode 4 is out now.