How Hitman 3 Uses the Series' Design and Gameplay to Tell its Climactic Story
I am a late but zealous convert to IO Interactive’s long-running franchise, having purchased Hitman 2, its expansion pass and the 2016 GOTY DLC pack for a steal a year ago. I spent many dozens of hours of gaming time playing and obsessively replaying each map, completing every mission story and getting to 20 mastery for most locations. I knew what I wanted from Hitman 3 — nothing more than a handful more of the most intricate, replayable and absorbing virtual environments I’ve ever had the pleasure of exploring.
I got that, including some contenders for the greatest levels in the trilogy, but also unexpectedly got a kinetic and climactic narrative delivered cleverly via the series’ established mechanics and design principles. Many would say that the Mission Impossible and (of course) 007 inspired story isn’t what they come to Hitman for — and for me with the first two reboots it was more about being dropped into a location and seeing what was going on once I got there. It was about the incidental dialogue and the darkly humourous situations 47 was able to get himself into. But this time something is different.
The previous two games followed Agent 47 and his ICA handler Diana Burnwood as they completed contracts for a mysterious “Shadow Client”, eventually being drawn into a secret war against Providence. This Illuminati-like cabal of billionaire power players and kingmakers had its nose bloodied by the end of Hitman 2 with the capture of their figurehead The Constant, and the end of the trilogy depicts the final clash between Burnwood and 47 with both Providence and their erstwhile employers the ICA. But I was always happy to let the short cinematics wash over me and then get back to making it so that Final Destination would happen to some villainous tycoon or other. Hitman is a series where I make my own stories.
So walking into the grandiose Burj Al-Ghazali skyscraper of the opening Dubai mission I was ready to wander the gilded corridors and opulent bars at my leisure, stumbling across micro-narratives and emergent opportunities for mischief. But the Mission Story that is likely to drop into your lap (should you turn right rather than left from the lobby, as the bright lighting and movement of the crowd is likely to encourage you to do) gives you a clear path through the level and gets you in a locked room with not one, but both of your targets.
For my first few playthroughs of a level I’ll usually tick off the Mission Stories to get familiar with the environment, and this time that led to a really structured, almost cinematic experience. Rather than Diana’s short hints and quips, Lucas Grey is continually communicating with 47, with them operating more like a traditional espionage field team. Grey guides you up through the Burj and into the penthouse for a dramatic confrontation with Stuyvesant and Ingram. Honestly there isn’t a lot of challenge to finishing the mission this way, but what it does do is use a mechanic that is by now very familiar — the Mission Story — to create a more sweeping and cinematic playthrough. Since the potential to replay the level in different and challenging ways is all but limitless (I already have 20 Mastery for Dubai) I see this as purely additive.
In addition to the more self-contained murder mystery in Dartmoor, which uses a similiar approach, there are two more major instances of this in Hitman 3’s campaign, the first of which does actually involve a more difficult section of exfiltration. 47’s mission to whistleblow the ICA takes him deep into their data centre in Chongqing, and once again the Mission Story has a handler — this time Olivia Hall — directing him through the facility. This leads to his cover being blown and every guard in the place becoming hostile. You can either shoot your way out or — as I did — lob the various wrenches, crowbars, coke cans and so on in your pockets at the hapless guards as you sneak back to the surface.
This all leads to a pretty incredible moment though, as 47 exits the bunker-like entrance to the facility and walks out into a crowd of ICA office workers holding umbrellas in the pouring rain. Nobody is hostile or recognises you, so after either tense sneaking or a firefight you are suddenly unknown amidst your enemies again. From there you walk through the downpour and exit the mission, but I loved the way the Mission Story and extra objective components of the level walked me into this really cool scripted moment. It really brought home the infiltration power fantasy the level leans into in a very successful way.
In the standout Mendoza level that follows, a series of Mission Stories walks you through your objectives much like in Dubai and Chongqing, but in a moment that seems to break the rules one of your targets suddenly turns and shoots the other (with the target being ticked off in your HUD as normal). Since it is usually 47 that introduces violence to an innocuous or social situation in these games it put me on the back foot, wondering what would happen next. This kicks off a section where you have to get to Diana Burnwood in a short space of time and wait for her cue to strike at the target when he arrives to confront her. Apart from how gratifying it feels throughout this mission to actually be in the field with Diana, the way Mendoza seesaws between open gameplay and more cinematic and guided moments to create a story you really feel like you’re in control of is very effective and something I didn’t experience in either of the other two games.
Finally there is 47’s Snowpiercer-like journey up the train that carves its path across the Carpathian Mountains in the trilogy’s final level, and to the final confrontation with Arthur Edwards. Arguably this entire level is more cinematic and structured, as the nature of the train means you are on a straight path. There is one moment however at the end, where 47, having disconnected the rail cars with the guards on and donned an executive disguise, walks again unseen among his enemies. In a heightened version of the moment at the end of Chongqing’s secondary objective story, intense gameplay was followed by doing something I had done hundreds of times in these games — moving unseen in a disguise — but it was given much more weight. Firstly by the contrast with the entirely hostile back railcars, being back in control of what was going on around me. Secondly though, by the story and context to what was happening. By this point I found I was really invested, I had watched each cutscene with growing interest and each step towards Edwards felt significant.
The way the narrative was infused into gameplay I knew well hooked me. If this had been done through interstitial cutscenes that triggered at different moments in the levels it would have been disruptive and unwelcome. This method, which used mechanics and gameplay elements that were there all along to do something more structured and direct, and that you can easily ignore every time after, was a stroke of genius.
I still feel that for me at least, the “real Hitman” starts when I sit with one level for an afternoon or evening and rinse it completely, beating all the challenges and maxing out the Mastery. But in a series that already offers such a wealth of ways to play, this is a really good new one for a first run. With Hitman 3 having had a series-best launch for the franchise, this might be quite a few people’s introduction to Agent 47 and his world as well. The more narrative and guided option for a first playthrough is a terrific way to either get people into the game so they start replaying the levels more on their own terms, or at least let them beat it once and have the experience.
The care and inspiration evident in how this story was crafted is clear, and I was both surprised and delighted by the story IO told me. Now I’m going to go back to making my own.