If you thought Hitman’s first Paris location was big then episode 2’s Sapienza is going to be quite the surprise. It lacks the hefty bulk of that first mission’s blocky palace which concentrated its many paths into a dense package, and instead, here, replaces it with the sprawl of a sunny coastal Italian town.
There’s something about this idyllic scene that feels different to anything Hitman’s tried before. It’s done public places but often with a gimmick - a street party for example. But this? It’s just a little holiday town and there’s a wonderfully unassuming depth as you look into shops or the local barbers; wander through cafes or pop down to the beach to watch street performers (somehow I will kill wearing that mime’s outfit).
As a world it’s lovely and unassuming which somehow makes all the little clues you uncover feel so much more rewarding. Your mission - a villa containing two scientists that need to be made not alive - is sat there right in front of you at the level’s opening, but it’s best to wander off and see what you can find before you try the front gate. Is that a new member of kitchen staff over there about to report for his first day of work? What about that private detective they mentioned in the barbers who’s due to meet with a target? And where was that florist’s van going before it had that fender bender.
Just exploring these little sleepy street feels like a world in itself but there are people to kill and that villa isn’t going to infiltrate itself. In many ways the holiday town preamble feels like a vacation in itself - a place to have fun with the idea of being a professional assassin without too much pressure to actually kill. Even seeing 47 wander about in a summer shirt and sunglasses feels exciting - you’ve seen films like this. Now you’re playing one.
Get inside the villa though and it’s time to work. The building is modest compared to Paris but still full of winding corridors and a few wings to explore and mine for opportunities. This builds on the established toolkit of sinks to block and rat poison on with more environmental distractions like scooters to tamper and other ways to disrupt guard patrols or sneak past overly observant house staff.
The two targets, bioterrorist scientists Silvio Caruso Francesca De Santis, aren’t that hard to reach individually but you’re also tasked with destroying their DNA-targeting virus in a really tricky underground lab (which is a brilliantly Bond-style mountain base job). This third level of challenge adds a whole new layer of difficulty and it’s hugely rewarding as a result. These three tiers mean you’re much more committed to your plan of attack. Sure you can load and reload to your hearts content, but having to get through all three objectives means you’re more likely to roll with the blows and think ahead more. There’s no fudging a hit and legging it to the exit here.
As a follow up to the already impressive Paris this is a great progression. That first level showed what the game could do with a grunting scale. Sapienza, on the other hand, demonstrates subtle ambience. The placid setting with milling tourists and locals really invigorates Hitman’s well testing mechanics while the later villa stages really test them.
EPISODE 1 REVIEW: It took me about 15 minutes to finish Hitman’s main Paris level. Okay, let me just back up there a second. It took about five hours to perfect that slightly scrappy speedrun. Five hours of poking around, exploring and discovering before finding one possible route through a busy high class fashion show.
Even now, about eight hours in, I’m still finding new things, previously unrevealed options, entire areas I didn’t know about and racking up more and more ways to be the perfect assassin: to kill with stealth, style, violence. And, occasionally, a well-thrown wrench. Just because you’re a pay-as-you-go murderer doesn’t mean you can’t have a little fun every now and then.
Hitman’s episodic structure might only contain one initial level (as well as two not insubstantial prologues) but it’s a perfectly crafted mechanism - full of patterns to find and exploit, and opportunities to create and abuse. For a single playable space, Paris is a many-layered spectacle to unravel, and a chunky piece of game to play with. A huge glitzy party in a palace packed with rich guests, staff and security. It looks fantastic as well, lush and detailed to the point where ‘just looking at stuff’ is a legitimate in-game activity. Even if I stopped playing now, I’d have got my money’s worth, but there's still so much to do.
You see, killing a target isn’t just a case of finding them and shooting them - although it’s an option if you’re heathen - no, in the world of Hitman, murder should be done with style and planning. You’re not just there to kill someone, you’re there to make sure all the ones you let live think ‘Holy shit, that guy’s good’. Closely followed by, ‘I should rethink all my life choices up until this point’.
It’s all about the setup. Do you find a lone guard, throttle them and use their uniform as a disguise to reach restricted areas? Can you cause a distraction and make your move in the chaos? Does that chandelier look like it might tragically fall on someone? Will those scissors come in handy later? (Pro-tip: Yes. Yes they will.)
There are a multitude of difficulty options to tailor depending on the kind of challenge you prefer, with the top level involving almost no onscreen tips or guidance. Playing blindfold is the only step up from that. However, on default the game guides you with a magic X-ray ‘Instinct’ and a new Opportunities system. This highlights useful… er, opportunities should they arise, laying out a breadcrumb trail to your target, built from overheard conversations and observed activities. It’s a lovely way of getting started and learning what’s possible in an initially overwhelmingly dense and impenetrable noise.
Despite the overtly murdery overtones no other game so perfectly captures the feeling of a Bond or Bourne type of character. The genetically-bred Agent 47 is trained to perfection and there are few gaming highs better than double tapping Johnny Security unseen, stashing the body, and walking calmly and unnoticed past the guards sprinting to investigate. Killing targets completes the level but the real reward comes from mastering the possibilities and honing your skills to do the character justice. Early playthroughs end in blood and screaming. So much screaming. But with practice you can glide in and out without anyone, even the targets, knowing what happened.
This is due in part just how beautifully it’s all crafted. As well as looking spectacular, systems and mechanics are tuned till they sing. The AI, usually the series’ most twitchy aspect, is almost faultless here. The new trespass system, judging where you’re meant to be, and/or if you’re wearing the right outfit, lets you slide silently through levels if you get it right. Take a few steps into the wrong place though and you’ll actually be asked to leave and escorted out before anything hits a fan. Really mess it up and guards search in realistic patterns, spreading out from the scene of the crime before radioing around to expand the circle.
The results of this can be amazing. After a botched murder involving a thrown knife at a buffet table, a swift dodge around a corner saw me escape pursuit. A few moments later, walking unnoticed through a different part of the party, I passed a guard just as he recited my outfit into a walkie talkie. Almost instinctively I punched him full in the face, stuffed the body in a crate, and walked off in his jacket, leaving everyone else chasing down ‘some guy in a suit’.
There’s a clear and understandable vocabulary of tools aside from the guns and explosives here. Wrenches and crowbars can be used as thrown weapons, as well as to tamper with fittings and valves. Flipped coins send guards obediently into corners, while rat poison can taint drinks and send people puking alone to the toilet. (Although, if I’m honest that last one feels a little OP currently as it’s so guaranteed to work.)
At this point I haven’t even mentioned the extra stuff - menus full of challenges that unlock new equipment, the ability to stash things in the level for later retrieval, or even start somewhere already undercover - in the kitchen as a chef, for instance. There are also Contracts - user made kills set up by players taking out any NPC and challenging you to match it - and Elusive Targets - victims that only appear for a limited time and can only be killed once.
It has a few issues, like weirdly unpredictable frame rates. It actually speeds up in places, although there is the option to lock it down. It’s connected nature is also a little confusing. You can play it either on or offline but the two don’t join up, and I was kicked out of a playthrough once because my internet went down.
As a debut for an episodic series it’s a confident and enjoyable start that bodes well for the subsequent levels (one a month for the next six months). I’ve played an early version of episode two which takes place in the fictional Italian setting of Sapienza, and that’s huge. An entire idyllic sunny mediterranean town to play with. Episode three jumps to Marrakech which is a city on the brink of war. If Paris’ palatial setting feels weighty and satisfying already, things can only get better.
This game was reviewed on PS4.