There are some games that demand greatness from the player. They require a level of inherent ability, a fundamental understanding of the rules and mechanics, and quick reflexes to react to whatever situation you might find yourself in. In a game like Dark Souls, failure means being sent back to your last bonfire and being stripped of your hard-earned souls, forcing you to make it back to the spot of your demise or else risk losing your currency. In order to proceed, you need to show the game a certain level of greatness. Hitman 3 is not one of these games, and that’s a large part of why it’s such a welcoming and entertaining cap to developer IO Interactive’s World of Assassination trilogy — as well as a great entry point into the stealth genre as a whole.
Now, that’s not to say Hitman 3 lacks depth. Far from it, as the maps on display here are some of the most dense and engaging playgrounds I’ve ever experienced in a sandbox game, and the mechanics at your disposal create a wealth of wonderful opportunities for experimentation and improvisation. And if you crank the difficulty up, you absolutely do need to bring an expert level of play to the table in order to even make it to the same rooms as your targets, let alone escaping the map once you’ve disposed of them.
But one of the reasons Hitman 3, and the recent entries in the series in general, succeeds with such a large audience is because on its surface, it’s a relatively forgiving take on the stealth genre. This acts in stark contrast to staples like Splinter Cell, Dishonored 2, and Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, which demand a certain level of mastery in order to be fully experienced.
Sam Fisher’s deep move set in the Splinter Cell games brought forth a complex new level of interaction for console players to use in order to survive in its tough, unforgiving levels. With Dishonored 2, it felt like Arkane took the base mold of Thief and added layers upon layers of systems, abilities, and powers that the player could use to navigate the fantastic set-piece stages. And though The Phantom Pain does have the user-friendly Reflex Mode, which slows down time for a brief moment when you’re first spotted by an enemy, it took me dozens of hours — well into the game’s back half — to start to feel comfortable in my infiltrations.
And that’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with these games. I put hundreds of hours into the original Splinter Cell trilogy on Xbox, Dishonored 2 remains one of my favorite games of the last generation, and I just spent the better part of a month playing through the entire Metal Gear Solid series, reaffirming my love for it. But all of these games have fairly high barriers to entry that need to be vaulted before you can really start feeling like you’re “good” at them.
On the contrary, HItman 3 does an incredible job of giving you the basics of disguises, infiltration techniques, weapons, gadgets, and ultimately how to make a clean kill in its brief but effective tutorial mission. Before you ever parachute into Dubai, the game’s first proper level, you’re encouraged to take part in the prologue tutorial mission. This cleverly unfolds as a training exercise on a party boat that’s actually been reconstructed inside of a giant warehouse. And in its economically short runtime, this mission gives you a crash course on what takes to successfully complete your first kill.
From there, you take that aforementioned trip to Dubai, and it’s here that more of the game’s smart teaching tools are on display. Again, you don’t have to be “good” at Hitman in order to enjoy it. Instead, you just have to be observant, creative, and patient. The game does an excellent job of communicating your current level of stealth by letting you know if you’re in an area your current disguise isn’t meant to be, which NPCs will see right through your ruse, and where you can hang out in order to blend in. The clarity with which it conveys this information means that you’re never left wondering if you’re fully submerged in a shadow, if enough of your body is hidden behind an object, or if you’re blending in enough with some shrubbery to go unspotted.
There are other elements that also help make the game as user-friendly as possible. Generous autosaves and the ability to manually save whenever you’re not in direct combat encourage you to try out weird ideas without fear of having to restart the entire level.
In Berlin’s pulse-pounding rave level, I noticed that one of my targets would take a sip of the same beer while he was making his rounds. I had rat poison on me and figured that would make quick work of him. However, the drink was within eyeshot of a handful of random NPCs. So I made a quick save, tried to poison the drink, and was immediately spotted by the crowd and put on alert. I learned my lesson in discretion, quickly reloaded my game, and proceeded on, no harm, no foul. This gives the missions a flow similar to a brainstorming session, where there are no wrong answers, and it’s all about tossing ideas at the wall to see what sticks.
The final element of Hitman 3 that really makes it appealing to newcomers in a way many of its sandbox stealth brethren don’t is its Mission Stories. Most levels contain a handful of Mission Stories that let you take a more guided approach through the stage and learn a bit about the layout, character behavior, and unique elements at your disposal. It feels like a trail of breadcrumbs that lets you get acclimated and gain your assassination sealegs before being let off the leash and going through the dense and well-designed stages on your own. After coloring within the lines a few times, I gained the confidence to treat each stage like a blank canvas.
These elements certainly aren’t new to the Hitman series. But the refinement throughout the trilogy is on clear display in this new game. The fact that Hitman 3 recouped its development cost within a week of release shows that IO Interactive is doing something right in making a relatively niche genre feel accessible to a wide swathe of players. More than this, the game’s surface level forgiveness feels like a perfect gateway into some of the more punishing stealth sims.