Regular listeners to our podcasts know how much we enjoy the Hitman series of games; and if you’ve never listened, a quick search for the game title on the site will return the last HD collection review for Blood Money and the original release review for Absolution amongst a whole host of other things. These are titles that despite their age and previous generation status still get referenced a lot and held up as examples of how to get certain gaming elements right – the former for its level design, the latter for its ambition in variety. What we’d not realised until the Hitman HD Enhanced Collection came out is exactly how much both have informed the reboot and sequel from the last 3 years, and now there are 4K versions all set to run on our current hardware there’s no excuse not to dive back in.
The two games come as a single pack, they currently can’t be bought separately, and in some ways they couldn’t be more different. Blood Money was the definitive Hitman experience when it released in 2006 offering up a number of contracts to execute through a variety of carefully crafted levels that demanded planning and experimentation. It had a full story that played out between hits, featured a persistent notoriety system that made things harder if you left evidence or witnesses behind, and was so well put together than several of the levels are tough to top over a decade later. Absolution on the other hand came 6 years later after a significant Glacier engine overhaul and a reworking of controls and mechanics. Focusing more on the story telling than the sandbox play, it was a stunning looking game that had 47 contracted to take out his long term handler Diana before having to go on the run from the Agency and other nefarious characters. The hunter became the hunted… and this arguably caused the hardcore fans to distance themselves from it.
What the Hitman HD Enhanced Collection brings is 4K resolution to both titles, 60 fps gameplay, refinement of the control systems, updated textures and lighting, and some tweaks to the on screen information to make them fit today’s displays better. Possibly one of the biggest gripes in the previous Blood Money remaster was the size of the text and symbols on the screen that looked at odds with the HD resolution. It’s also this game that benefits most from the overhaul too. Buttery smooth movement combined with stripping away jagged edges gives it a fresh look and feel. With Absolution it’s mainly the framerate that shines with the movement really complementing the cinematic quality of the game. The updates have only been made to the playable sections though, with both games suffering from dodgy looking cutscenes as the quality dips between the levels, and in these Blood Money really looks its age.
We’re not here for the video quality though, this is about getting in and out of a level whilst hitting the objectives and not getting caught at any point… or at least that’s the ethos behind Blood Money. Its roots in hardware from two generations ago lets it down a little in the size of the levels and the amount of detail present to bring the world to life. There’s enough there to get the message across, but it can feel a little sparse at times. Fortunately, the underpinning elements that made it such an interesting game to play are still intact – variety and opportunity are key, and the scenarios offer up good combinations all the time. I’ve played through this game in three different iterations now and I’ve still found new approaches to take this time around. With areas that loop around each other, have multiple access routes depending on the disguise in use or how well you inspect the environment, and toys galore available to pick up or take in with you, the design is still top notch. Sadly the AI isn’t up to the same standard.
It’s possibly the rules in play or how I’ve adapted to the more recent incarnations, but the AI in Blood Money feels like its set on extremes – NPCs have either eyes like hawks or are blind as bats. With this being developed before the idea of “enforcer” characters that can see through disguises, any change of clothes done cleanly means 47 is incognito until trespassing or visibly armed. However, and it was the opera house level that rammed this home, as soon as a hit is completed (and made to look like an accident), the guards seem to instinctively know who’s done it and open fire. This twitchy behaviour spoils carefully laid plans and means either a reload with trial and error recovery steps if you’ve used the save system, or going first person and gunning for the exit. Not good for keeping the notoriety down. There’s also the fact that it’s a bit clunky in the interaction menus and imprecise movement that simply comes from the age. Had it been played on its own with no comparison it would have passed muster, but Absolution really does step things on.
From the opening cinematic and the training level Absolution just feels different. It’s chalk and cheese almost with the games that went before. No map to pop open to see guards movements, the controls are fully reworked and remapped, there’s an instinct meter to use that visualises people and items of interest, and it’s more like a stealth game where 47 spends an awful lot of time in cover. It was looked down on a little at the time of release for these changes (especially instinct) but it’s so close to the reboots it’s a bit of a revelation. Highly detailed environments mix with very focused story beats help to deliver a very unique Hitman game, that unfortunately removes a lot of the Hitman gameplay. Many of the “missions” are so guided that there’s not much use for improvisation or exploration, and the scoring system is a bit weird in that it’s valid for sections rather than a full level, so going on a murder spree in one part won’t change anything that happens in the next area. The first third of the game feels a bit on rails, and though it does stop to take a breath and allow you control and become more like a true Hitman title in the later stages, it’s not the freeform experience wanted.
With that said, it does offer up some really incredible moments like the King of Chinatown mission that’s rammed full of people and a multitude of ways to tackle the objective, and it’s only through replaying that you can find them all. Or the Gun Shop that’s so compact you wouldn’t believe the amount of opportunities available. It’s this that lays the groundwork for what we’ve seen recently from the studio in terms of open ended approach, repetition and reward; and the feats/challenges system has its beginnings here too. It actively encourages you to hunt for every item and secret to boost your score and improve 47’s skills. There’s no cash to earn and spend on buying new kit, in fact there’s no kit at all because it’s all procure on site, so the focus is on the abilities needed to stay hidden and get revenge on those hunting you down. In a cathartic twist, with the point shooting system that lets you target multiple enemies at once (a bit like deadeye in Red Dead Redemption), there is lots of incentive to not be the legendary stealth assassin and just live out your deranged slayer tendencies.
Given that the latest game has been on sale quite often in it’s short release window, you do actually wonder what the point is of the Hitman HD Enhanced Collection as standalone pieces of software – why weren’t they added as DLC to the world of assassination where the Blood Money contracts would work brilliantly, and the Absolution story is a cinematic fit? However, it actually feels good to play through the evolution of the series in their “original” format rather than being overhauled and brought up to date – that might crack those rose tinted glasses. It’s almost as if they’re a combination of history and game design lessons – what to do and what not to do – so that players can appreciate what the latest offers. Or maybe (and more likely) they were the easiest to port and monetise. If you’ve not got access to older hardware or missed these first time around then they are essential games to play in the series, you just have to be prepared to pay more than most other remasters on the market.
A PS4 review copy of Hitman HD Enhanced Collection was provided by the Warner Bros Games PR team, and the games are available now as a single pack on PC, Xbox One and PS4 for around £50.