Through two of the six missions in Hitman 3, the game is already bringing IO Interactive’s World of Assassination trilogy to incredible new heights. I don’t just mean that in terms of the stunning locales that Agent 47 infiltrates or the extra toys and tactics at his disposal, either. Perhaps the most surprising element of Hitman 3 so far is how well IO Interactive has developed the story and characters of the series — whether it’s 47 and his teammates, or the targets they’re hunting.
Now, I’d wager that the vast majority of Hitman players don’t come to the franchise for its storytelling. It’s clear that IO Interactive was trying to layer in some narrative elements here and there over the course of Hitman 3’s predecessors, 2016’s Hitman and 2018’s Hitman 2. But it wasn’t until midway through the second game — after some massive revelations surrounding 47’s past — that this swirling vortex of a worldwide conspiracy tale came into focus.
The triumphant ending of Hitman 2, in which 47 and his team managed to capture the leader of the shadowy global cabal known as Providence, also unearthed a ticking time bomb or two. And about one-third of the way through Hitman 3, the story has taken some explosive turns. I won’t spoil them here, of course, but I will say that by the end of the second mission, I actually felt invested in the story. Until now, this Hitman trilogy’s narrative elements mostly seemed like an excuse to string together the meat of the series: its sprawling levels and their clockwork machinery, and the strategic stealth gameplay underlying it all. But at this point, the shit has hit the fan, and I’m all in.
In this 12-minute raw gameplay video from Hitman 3’s Dubai mission, “On Top of the World,” we simultaneously take out both targets in a Silent Assassin run.
In a nice nod to the episodic nature of Hitman (2016), the campaign of Hitman 3 features a previously-on video to get you caught up on the events of the past two games. As the third begins, Agent 47 and his cohorts — his ICA handler, Diana Burnwood; his long-lost childhood friend (and co-trainee in the art of assassination), Lucas Grey; and Grey’s hacker associate, Olivia Hall — are hot on the trail of the three Providence Partners, looking to wipe out the organization by cutting off the head of the snake.
Hitman 3’s opening mission, “On Top of the World,” starts with Grey and 47 leaping out of a plane high over Dubai. They’re aiming for the Burj Al-Ghazali, aka the Sceptre, which, in the game’s fiction, is the world’s tallest building. (The cutscene in question cribs from a Paris-based sequence in the most recent Mission: Impossible film, and while it’s not quite as heart-stopping here, it’s still a breathtaking Hitman introduction.) The skydivers almost get shredded by a helicopter taking off from the skyscraper — that of Alexa Carlisle, one of the three Partners. That leaves the other two, Carl Ingram and Marcus Stuyvesant, as the mission’s targets.
The Hitman trilogy has been marked by missions set in sprawling locations, like the Amalfi Coast town of Sapienza in Hitman and the streets of Mumbai in Hitman 2. The first two maps in Hitman 3 — the Sceptre in Dubai and Thornbridge Manor in Dartmoor, England — are more compact experiences, with just three “mission stories” (guided assassination attempts) baked into each one, although the locations are no less intricate in design.
The ace level designers at IO Interactive have some new tricks up their sleeve this time around, most notably a shortcut feature. On your first playthrough of a location, you may come across some ladders and doors with yellow metal locks that can’t be picked, which made me think of a boot placed on an illegally parked car. Instead, you’ll have to figure out how to reach them from the other way (i.e., the top of the ladder or the opposite side of the door), where you’ll be able to break the lock.
These shortcuts are designed to incentivize replaying a level; once unlocked, they’ll remain available in future playthroughs. Veteran Hitman players are accustomed to returning to locations in an effort to increase their mastery level, and in Hitman 3, they’ll be able to use the persistent shortcuts to shave precious minutes off their completion times. I also appreciate them just for encouraging me to explore every nook and cranny of the levels, even though that’s the kind of player I already am.
Dubai, right at the start, introduces another feature that’s new to Hitman 3: Agent 47 has a high-tech camera now. You can use it to snap photos, but while it’s possible to apply some filters to the images, the feature doesn’t really qualify as a photo mode per se (which is why IO Interactive isn’t billing it as that). Instead, it’s used for certain challenges, like one in Dartmoor that asks you to take a picture of two people flirting with each other, and for scanning. In Dubai, you can scan some locked windows to open them; in Dartmoor, where a murder mystery takes place, you can scan clues à la … well, lots of games.
As an assassin, 47 has to stay hidden; as such, many Hitman levels give him the opportunity to go undercover behind the scenes of some kind of event. Dubai is no different: As 47 arrives at the Sceptre, Sheikh Omar al-Ghazali is conducting the building’s opening reception. A backstage area for an art installation is full of narrow corridors, multilevel scaffolding featuring catwalks and staircases, and plenty of large trunks perfect for storing equipment — or bodies. And once you obtain a disguise for a guard, waiter, or maintenance worker, you can freely explore the many floors of the building. But there’s a neat twist: Because 47 parachutes into the Sceptre without his usual intel and gear, you won’t have access to the in-game map until you walk up to an information kiosk and download the building’s floor plan.
As in many Hitman levels, Dubai’s targets tend to hang out in their own separate areas; Stuyvesant roams around the reception, while Ingram is ensconced in his master suite at the penthouse level. Part of the fun, of course, is figuring out the monkey wrench(es) that 47 can throw into the proceedings to get his targets to cross paths. This stage offers an ingenious double assassination that may end up being one of my all-time favorites in the franchise. I’ll just say that it involves skydiving, and that the interconnected layout of the public and staff-only areas of the Sceptre makes it a lot of fun to pull off, regardless of whether you use one of the aforementioned shortcut ladders.
[Ed. note: If you’re unconcerned with spoiling yourself and you’d like to watch the skydiving assassination in question, scroll up and check out the 12-minute gameplay video near the top of this article.]
The end cutscene for “On Top of the World” is where 47 and Grey’s quest starts to go south. The Constant, the leader of Providence, has escaped Diana’s custody — and it turns out that he orchestrated everything all along! (Like I said, it’s a spy story with more twists than a Twizzler.) Alexa Carlisle, the third Partner, fled the Sceptre because she found out that all her billions have disappeared. And she’s the target for “Death in the Family,” the second mission of Hitman 3.
The mission is set at the English country mansion Thornbridge Manor, the Carlisle family estate. IO Interactive didn’t want the media to disclose any plot details about the mission or any specifics about its murder mystery. So I’ll just say that it’s a brilliant, riveting blend of an Agatha Christie-inspired adventure with the traditional Hitman formula.
There’s the expected dose of family infighting and intrigue, plus a family history element that lends a tragic air to the proceedings. Of course, the manor has its role to play, with secrets reminiscent of the board game Clue and a fun nod to Knives Out. And the way in which the case unfolds — if you choose to play Sherlock, rather than simply fulfill the mission conditions — is integrated with Hitman’s existing “intel” system. When you come upon clues, they’ll appear in your intel menu. As you uncover more of them and get closer to cracking the case, the item descriptions will expand with information gleaned from putting two and two together, as if 47 is filling in details in his detective’s notebook. (If you’re not much of a sleuth yourself, Diana’s voice-over helpfully makes the connections out loud.)
And if you can manage to find every single clue … boy, is there a whopper of an ending waiting for you when you report back to the private investigator’s client. It involves the first dialogue choice of its kind that I can think of in Hitman, and it stopped me in my tracks — which is impressive, considering that 47 is famously a cold-blooded killer devoid of human emotions. I’m very interested to see where Hitman 3’s story goes from here.
Hitman 3 is scheduled to be released Jan. 20 on Google Stadia, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. The cloud-based Nintendo Switch version does not yet have a release date.