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‘Hitman’ Episode 1 a great foundation for the action-adventure stealth series

As Agent 47 in “Hitman” Episode 1, players perform contract hits on high-profile targets in exotic locations around the world.

IO INTERACTIVE/TNS

By GIESON CACHO | Contra Costa Times | Published: April 8, 2016

Instead of releasing its latest “Hitman” as a self-contained box game, Danish developer IO Interactive has taken a different tack. It has made “Hitman” an episodic project.

Other developers, such as Telltale Games, previously released games in this format, but “Hitman” might be the first blockbuster franchise to adopt this innovative approach.

“Hitman” Episode 1 begins with Agent 47’s recruitment into a shadowy organization of assassins called the International Contract Agency. His handler, Diana Burnwood, guides him through ICA aptitude tests, which serve as a tutorial for players new to “Hitman’s” sandbox-style gameplay.

The objective for each mission is to assassinate a target, but Agent 47 can’t simply rush in with gun in hand. Trying that would get him killed. As players discover, “Hitman” is a stealth game in which the protagonist must infiltrate the target’s environment to get close to him or her.

Doing so often requires subduing bodyguards and donning the outfit of one of them. Agent 47 can then access other areas close to the target and uncover “opportunities” that unlock paths to an assassination.

On one level, Agent 47 must eliminate spymasters Viktor Novikov and Dalia Margolis at a Paris fashion show. This pair use the models to infiltrate the ranks of the rich and powerful, learn their secrets and then sell that information on the black market.

Once Agent 47 crashes their party, he can uncover several ways to dispatch Novikov and Margolis. In one scenario, he can disguise himself as a top model and poison their drinks. In another, he can plant a bomb in a blogger’s camera and make it explode near one or both of them.

The idea is that each kill must be surreptitious, or at the very least appear accidental. Then Agent 47 can escape from the level he’s on. If, however, the mark is killed openly, the assassination can trigger a ruckus that makes escape difficult or impossible.

To pull off Agent 47’s assassinations, players must go through a lot of trial and error as they learn how to negotiate the challenges on each level without mistakes. Discovering the multiple paths to mission success is part of the fun.

Although most episodes involve just a single level, it is populated with hundreds of characters, several of whom have their own stories and special roles. A lot of narratives have been created for the background characters, and eavesdropping on them can be helpful. It’s up to each player to determine how a character might be exploited to get closer to the target.

In sandbox games such as “Hitman,” any bug in the game design can throw off a plan or make characters behave unrealistically, breaking the game’s spell.

IO Interactive says each “Hitman” episode should be played multiple times so the player can carry out several assassinations and discover the plot points that fill out the game’s narrative.

IO Interactive also provides a Contracts mode, in which players are expected to eliminate new targets on the Paris level; and a Live Events mode, where Agent 47 pursues special one-time marks.

The $15 intro pack includes enough content to hold the interest of a player for quite a while. But it might be challenging for the developers to maintain that high quality in later packs.

What’s clear is that “Hitman” Episode 1 is a great foundation for the series. Now the team must deliver a compelling story for each subsequent chapter, which will be priced at $10.

Judging from what I’ve seen, I predict “Hitman” and IO Interactive will manage to maintain the intro pack’s high standard.

Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC

Rating: Mature

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