Tim [McDonald]: I’m not going to lie: I hope that Hitman‘s quality continues to rise. This isn’t just because I want a lovely, wonderful, Blood Money-style Hitman game. It’s also because I really want to use a “greatest hits” pun in a full season review of the game once every episode is out, and I wasn’t doing this job when Contracts came out so I couldn’t do it then. (Not that Contracts deserved it.)
Hitman 6: Hitman: Episode 2: Sapienza, as I’m going to continue calling every episode of this series until that joke is as dead as the targets in my missions, is really rather good. Better than Paris, as far as I’m concerned, and I had little but praise for that. The Mediterranean area in which 47 is hunting his targets is gargantuan, comprising not only the grounds of a multi-storey mansion but the surrounding town, the sewers beneath, a hidden bio-engineering complex, and a whole hell of a lot of little buildings and rooftops that offer additional paths, routes, and ways to screw yourself over with hilarious consequences.
But before we get into that, I should note that I didn’t take the trip to Sapienza alone: I was joined by Peter Parrish, who believes that everyone should aim to dress like Helmut Kruger. Here he is now, where he will probably tell you a little about what this episode involves before we get into bickering about inflatable alligators and exploding golf balls.
Peter [Parrish]: Given the new disguise options, I now think everyone should aim to dress like a fancy Italian mime or possibly a plague doctor. I’m quite taken with the Hawaiian-shirt-over-wife-beater-vest combo sported by all the Miami Vice type bodyguards too. Lots of solid fashion options in this mission. 47’s Mediterranean holiday-formal gear is pretty swish too.
Tim: PC Invasion: your number one resource for fashion in video games and the video games industry.
Peter: The crux of this mission is shutting down a potentially lethal, DNA-focused virus that can cripple all of Manhatt … no, sorry, that’s The Division. You do still need to ruin a virus though, and kill the agoraphobic, Norman Bates-esque science man behind it; and his lab lead, because she’d know how to make it again. Hitman vaguely pretends there are ethical motivations for this, but the tone of Diana’s briefing makes it sound more like the Agency is just terrified of such an easy, targeted way of assassinating people getting in the hands of the general public. Stopping the virus because it’s a horrible weapon is one thing, but this is mostly about upholding the sanctity of the profession and preventing filthy amateurs muscling in on the art. I think it may have been written by a disgruntled taxi driver as an allegory for Uber, basically.
I’ve not played Sapienza for quite as much time as Tim, but it does kind of make Paris look slightly worse in retrospect (still good, just not as good as this). I barely touched some of the town stuff on my first run through, but there really is quite a lot of it. A little harbour, a beach, a bunch of shops, a church. All kinds of things. I actually hope they pop another ‘main’ mission into this location, because while a lot of this extra stuff is fantastic, and can tie-in to your hit if you make it work, it’s a bit out of the way of the mansion with the two targets inside.
Tim: That would be excellent, although I’m not going to complain if I have to resort to creating my own Contracts which have me murdering a gelato salesman with a pair of scissors pinched from the hairdresser. And yes, that is literally a thing you can do.
To be perfectly honest, there’s a tonne of stuff in the town I haven’t even investigated yet. There is, for instance, a retail outlet of the Sanguine fashion house (which you may recall as being the focus of the Paris mission) which I haven’t found a way into yet. I can crowbar open the door, but there must be a key somewhere. I don’t know why I’d want to go in there, but I apparently can, and there are dozens of little extra buildings like that.
Paris was huge, but Sapienza is bigger. I’m not necessarily talking about pure floorspace because I haven’t accurately calculated the exact size of each map because seriously who does that, but Paris was pretty much “one big building and some grass bits”, and – although that big building was divided up into very distinct section – Sapienza feels far more varied in terms of the environments it offers up. It feels, basically, like more of a living environment. Fitting, for a mission set in an entire coastal village.
Tim: We’ve talked about the environment quite a lot, but I can’t overstate how hugely important the environment is to any Hitman mission. It’s what gives colour (figuratively and literally) to every aspect of the mission. It flavours it. It fuels the variety and the style of basically everything you can do.
And holy hell, but there’s a lot you can do in Sapienza. It’s not as tight as Blood Money‘s A New Life – which was a pretty small level, proving that size isn’t everything – but it matches it in terms of manic absurdity. As an example, while you’ve got some boringly standard assassination methods like “poison some food”, you can take out the socially awkward scientist via exploding golf ball or by firing an antique cannon at him. After the teaser image showing an inflatable crocodile/alligator/something popped up, I demanded Square Enix add in an assassination method in which you bludgeoned your target to death with that exact prop, and demanded it should take a few minutes of real-time to complete. They did not add this. There is, however, a Challenge to find and shoot the numerous inflatables dotted around the map. Hitman at its finest, everyone.
Peter: Why would you ruin somebody’s holiday by shooting their inflatable crocodile? That’s awful. Almost as awful as poisoning some rats in the virus lab purely as a distraction. Who can honestly bring themselves to do such a horrible thing?
Anyway, back to tales of using a guy’s dead parent to scare him into submission. … Hey, what hypocrisy?
Tim: I think it says something that when you told me about how you first completed the mission, my response was “What, that’s a thing you can do?” I admit I didn’t look through the Challenges and Intel all that thoroughly, but hey, it’s great that after we’d each spent a few hours with it, your experience was vastly different to mine.
Peter: The mechanics of how disguises and opportunities work are identical to the first episode (so no explanation of those necessary, I’d hope), but I think it’s worth mentioning how challenges have changed a bit. For a start, you can now tell Hitman to ease up on how much detail it gives you about a given challenge. You can hide them entirely, or reduce the amount of text on show. This is great for people who were a bit upset that a visit to the challenges page could accidentally reveal about three different assassinations might’ve been better left discovered through play.
You also get to ‘keep’ all the challenges you’ve unlocked in a run now, even if you reload a prior save. I think that’s new. I’d rather that was an optional toggle, personally, because it seems a bit cheap to complete a challenge and then rewind time to before you even did it but have it still count.
While I’m talking about things IO have improved between episodes, it’s good to see that you can now instantly try to reconnect to the game’s server when it drops you (rather than being booted to the main menu). Having single player progress restricted when offline (no unlocking new starting positions or gear) is still utter insanity, but at least they’re somewhat improving the online situation.
Tim: Yeah, that stuff was largely added in recent patches. I’m sort of glad for challenges unlocking immediately rather than on finishing a mission, if only because it can save a lot of time for a few of them (do I really need to do these 20 steps to get everything setup and lure the target and then deal with the rest of the mission objectives just to unlock one challenge?) but I certainly hope most players will have the willpower to only do this later, when unlocking the last few. There’s a lot to be said for just going with the flow and completing the mission “fully” the first few times.
I didn’t expect to say this, but I’m also kind of enjoying the between-episodes story. That could still fall apart entirely, but right now the little bit of extra mystery behind every assassination that 47 undertakes is quite pleasant. Again, it’s reminiscent of Blood Money, with the actual missions providing an interactive backdrop to the real plot (and/or framing device) going on behind the scenes.
Peter: I really liked the cinematography of the parking lot scene in this episode, but I’d be lying if I said I had much of a clue what’s going on yet. That’s probably by design though, I imagine.
Tim: I’m struggling to think of more to say about Sapienza without just repeating the words “Ooh, and I really like this” over and over again in different contexts. Like, um, the fact that a little musical sting plays when you descend into the secret bio-engineering lab in a coastal cave, and it lends a very triumphant, James Bond feeling to what could easily have not even been a “moment.” Sapienza is full of fantastic little incidental bits and pieces like that.
Peter: I’m going to butt in and play Bad Cop now, because while I liked Sapienza a great deal, there were a couple of things that were less wonderful. There’s a persistent bug where subduing a person can sometimes count as a kill; not a huge deal, but it can ruin your otherwise ‘perfect’ run if you somehow don’t notice in time to reload a save. Also, I’m not sure what’s been going on with Hitman’s performance on PC, but this episode ran a whole lot worse than Paris did (in either DX11 or DX12 mode). There are sections out on the golfing lawn, and in Caruso’s mother’s old room, which seem to absolutely tank the frame-rate no matter what settings you’re using. It’s a little bit annoying.
Tim: I’ll play Dick Cop in a second too, but I’ll quickly add that I didn’t hit that particular bug. I did notice the lower framerate, but I mostly put that down to “I’ve installed Windows 10 because I’m a big ninny.” It was never unplayable, or anything! But at a guess, it was probably running at around 40FPS at times.
That aside, what I’ll say is this: Sapienza is yet more classic Hitman, and if Paris was a level that could’ve slotted firmly into Blood Money, then I think Sapienza would fit somewhere into that game’s upper echelon. It’s got a near-perfect mix of a gorgeous, interactive environment with a load of potential (and largely emergent) paths to victory – or hilarious failure. It’s got morbid silliness in the form of exploding golf balls and a harlequin-esque costume worn by a mime. Who you can kill, because he’s a mime. It lets you create your own little comic murder story within the confines of a sprawling village, and that’s Hitman at its best. (And yes, I know “sprawling village” is a bit of an oxymoron, but we’re talking videogame levels here.)
And now for my Dick Cop moment. That “sprawling village” is actually one minor downside to this: most of it feels kinda pointless, much like Peter mentioned earlier. The level could pretty easily have been the mansion grounds and maybe the road outside and a chapel or whatever, and that would’ve accounted for about 80% of the possibilities you have when doing the main mission. The upside is that the main mission is just one part of it, with Escalation and Contracts and all the other gubbins providing plenty of opportunities to have a lark in the vastly expanded level.
Tim: I think more time is needed to determine exactly where this mission fits into Hitman‘s pecking order of levels, but I mean that in the sense of “a few years” rather than “a few more days of play”. Right now I’d heartily recommend it: really solid main mission, gorgeous environment perfect for Contracts, interesting Challenges (including murder methods culled from Fargo and Breaking Bad), lots of silly possibilities, and at least one very stupid costume.
Peter: I’d recommend it too. To my own surprise, I’m kind of warming to this episodic model, the weekly added challenges, and all that business. Hitman’s still got a few problems to iron out (the odd bug, mysteriously fluctuating PC performance), and one really sad design decision that appears to be here to stay (offline mode is next to useless), but none of that stuff feels like a result of the mission releases being staggered.
In fact, the episodic schedule is making me replay and engage with a level more than I probably would have if the entire thing had been released at once (though granted, that’s partly through necessity). I’m sure not everyone is a convert, but so far IO have put out two terrific missions. If Marrakesh slots somewhere into the same quality as Paris and Sapienza, it’s going to be hard to deny this as a serious challenger to Blood Money.