Sunday, Jun 4, 2023

Hitman’s new mode transforms it into one of the best roguelikes ever

> Image: IO Interactive Freelancer mode is a rare amalgamation of challenge and approachability The modern Hitman trilogy — or rather, Hitman..


Agent 47 holds an automatic shotgun and stands in front of the campaign map in his safehouse in Hitman World of Assassination’s Freelancer mode

Image: IO Interactive

Freelancer mode is a rare amalgamation of challenge and approachability

The modern Hitman trilogy — or rather, Hitman World of Assassination, as it’s now known — has always flirted with the roguelike genre. As the blank slate Agent 47, you drop into clockwork missions in far-flung locales, exploiting targets’ routines and generally wreaking havoc as creatively as you can. On one run, you poison a target, follow them to the bathroom, and drown them in the toilet mid-puke. On the next, having unlocked a new infiltration point and corresponding disguise, you swap out a golf ball for its explosive twin, watching with glee from the garden as your target then plows a nine iron into his unexpected demise. For more than 22 years, developer IO Interactive has honed its talent for extracting joy from repetition. With its newly released mode, one that fully earns the roguelike moniker, it has almost achieved perfection.As free DLC goes, Freelancer mode is less “additional content” and more “sweeping reimagining.” Whereas the base trilogy encourages replaying the same mission over and over — the better to execute the most ingenious and hilarious kills — Freelancer prohibits repeats. You plan a mission with what limited intel you have, improvise in the field, and move on to the next location. This new gameplay loop revolves around taking down four syndicates across increasingly longer series of missions. The first syndicate requires completing two missions before luring out the syndicate leader. At that point, you drop into the last location, identify the leader by patiently watching for “tells,” and eliminate them. To complete a run, or “campaign,” you need to kill all four syndicate leaders without dying. In total, you’re looking at 18 locations. (If it sounds complicated, don’t worry: IO made a pre-brief tutorial video, which you can watch here.)

The briefing screen, complete with optional objectives and locations, for a syndicate in Hitman World of Assassination’s Freelancer mode

Image: IO InteractiveOf course, this being a roguelike, you’re probably going to die — a lot. When you perish, you start a new campaign from the beginning, shuffling the targets, locations, and items, along with a multitude of modifiers and random events. You even lose any lock picks, sedatives, or explosives you had collected in your previous run. The only constant? Your safehouse.As the obsession with video game “hub worlds” only continues to grow, IO has crafted a fortress of solitude to rival the best of them. Agent 47’s bunker-beneath-a-house is sleek, utilitarian, and, for the world’s foremost assassin, surprisingly cozy. I’m reminded of the house in Ex Machina. By rising through the Mastery Ranks of Freelancer mode, you can unlock new rooms, earn more decorations, and fill in the gaps on those weapon walls that every spy worth their salt seems to have. The safehouse, unlike your tools, missions, or targets, does not reset between runs, and improving it is nearly as satisfying as fleshing out Zagreus’ house in Hades. But while that corner of the underworld is replete with friends and family members, in Hitman’s Freelancer mode, Agent 47 is more alone than usual.A sense of isolation is paramount in Freelancer, not only in tone, but in function. Whereas Agent 47 had the backing of the International Contract Agency in the vast majority of the trilogy’s missions, the reticent assassin has since gone… well… freelance. Hence the need to build the safehouse and arsenal from scratch — but also the need to sift through intel on your own. Series mainstay Diana Burnwood is still here (and still voiced by the phenomenal Jane Perry, of course) to offer a guiding hand, praise successful missions, and bemoan your fuck-ups. But as far as choosing which four syndicates to pursue on any given run — that’s on you.

Agent 47 contemplates getting a sniper rifle kill in a crowded Berlin bathroom in Hitman World of Assassination’s Freelancer mode

Image: IO InteractiveHerein lies the brilliant fulcrum of Freelancer mode. The eight randomized syndicates (represented as tidy dossiers) each have randomized optional objectives that cater to certain play styles. Complete these optional objectives, and you’ll earn a currency called “merces,” which you can spend at disguised suppliers scattered throughout each mission.Hitman’s Freelancer mode is something rare: an intoxicating blend of challenge and approachabilityThese optional objectives are just as much a boon as they are a way for IO to push you out of your comfort zone. During my third campaign, I opted to hunt a human trafficker, whose optional objectives mostly revolved around pure stealth. This being my preferred play style in the base trilogy, I had few problems eliminating the low-rung syndicate members with my bare hands, hiding them in freezers, and vanishing without a trace. By the time I arrived at the Isle of Sgàil to erase the leader, I had built up a helpful assortment of lock picks, wrenches, and nonlethal poisons, and completed the job without much ado.I had also, by happenstance, added a few guns to my weapon wall, and decided to shake things up with my second syndicate: a group of arms dealers. The optional objectives for these missions required going loud, as they say — killing three guards with a shotgun, eliminating a target with a sniper rifle, and so forth. While these didn’t conform to my usual methods, this syndicate would bring me to some of my favorite locations (Whittleton Creek, New York, Berlin, and the Maldives).

Agent 47 crouches behind a low wall in Chongqing in Hitman World of Assassination’s Freelancer mode

Image: IO InteractiveHow did it go? Not great, Bob! Because I went guns blazing at the first two locations, I spooked the higher-ups in subsequent locations. These missions gained the “On Alert” status, making it far more difficult to sneak through them unnoticed, regardless of my disguise. I spawned in the parking garage in New York, botched a strangle attempt, and fell to the ground in a storm of lead.There’s an array of other modifiers and randomized events that can pop up in each campaign, but frankly, I don’t want to spoil them here. Half of the fun of Freelancer mode is breezing through one or even two syndicates, only to open your third dossier and realize how much your greed for merces has screwed you over. But you drop into the next location anyway, because improvising is half the fun — and half the comedy — of this excellent series. Hitman’s Freelancer mode is something rare: an intoxicating blend of challenge and approachability. It plays on the hubris of longtime players, but also guides newcomers with thematic objectives and a more explicit overall structure. It may not allow for the micro-repetition that makes the base trilogy tick. But it does maintain a rapid momentum from the beginning of each run to its bitter, comical end. After so many hours spent with this trilogy, combing each of its locations for something, anything I missed, I did not think it possible for IO to surprise me anymore — but here we are. Hitman World of Assassination’s Freelancer modewas released on Jan. 26 on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. The DLC was reviewed on Xbox. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here