Monday, April 12, 2021

Hitman: Codename 47

After the World of Assassination Trilogy, I had more of an interest in playing the older Hitman titles to see how well they held up and make more sense of references to those titles. I started with the original 2000 PC game, Hitman: Codename 47, which I picked up during a Steam sale where it from $8 to only $1.50. Unfortunately, when I actually played it, I realized just how poorly this game has aged, even with one major bright spot.

In 1999, a tattooed bald man awakes in a remote sanitorium and performs a series of tests before escaping. A year later, he joins the International Contract Agency (ICA) as a contract killer and is assigned a handler, Diana Burnwood. Through the agency, he is assigned with eliminating certain people, who they gradually realize are all connected in some way.

Codename 47 has a pretty minimal story, but it lays the groundwork for the lore the rest of the series is based on. There are a handful of cutscenes that, alongside letters found on each target, hint at a deeper connection between the people Agent 47 kills, as well as his true nature. The main twist is taken for granted nowadays, but the reveal is paced well and doesn’t get a payoff until the final two missions, when it’s the most effective.

The real meat is the gameplay, which feels awkward and janky compared to its successors. It’s immediately apparent that there’s no controller support, so mouse and keyboard is the only way to go. This itself isn’t an issue, but the default controls are so clunky that you’d have to rebind every key to bring it up to modern standards (you can also download a .cfg file if you don’t want to deal with the longer than normal key binding process). Similarly, players may need to download mods that allow messing with the .ini files to increase the draw distance or enable full 16:9 resolution (though the HUD doesn’t scale with the resolution, meaning it will display very tiny).

If you're feeling up to it, you can remap the controls according to these screenshots.

There are thirteen missions spread across five locations: Romania, Hong Kong, Columbia, Budapest and Rotterdam. Interestingly, there are only five main targets and plenty of missions that have secondary objectives or minor targets, so missions are grouped by location and presented like you’re building up to a bigger goal. For instance, to get to Lee Hong, 47 is first dismantling the Triad gangs to weaken Hong’s defenses and influence.

Before starting each mission, 47 can choose his weapons and equipment, but each one costs money, which players earn through completing missions. Though this theoretically encourages different playstyles, there are a few things I picked up on, aside from the fact that you have to also buy ammo for whatever guns you take with you. For one thing, the Binoculars are basically useless, since there’s nothing you really need to see from further away (even then, it’s likely while you’re sniping an NPC). You also don’t need the Compass, except perhaps for navigation during the Find the U'wa Tribe mission, and you’ll want to use the Pentagon Knife/Oyabun Knife instead of the Fiber Wire since the latter’s animation lasts too long. The only times you’ll want the Fiber Wire instead are Traditions of the Trade, since it bypasses the metal detector, or Plutonium Runs Loose, where the pullback from the Fiber Wire helps conceal a specific guard’s body a little easier.

Once you’re in the missions, you’ll find that they’re usually fairly short and not too hard to figure out, but there’s an element of trial and error in play that can make certain levels more difficult than they should be. A couple missions, The Lee Hong Assassination and Gunrunner’s Paradise, also involve a random element, though it matters enough for the former that you’ll likely restart it a few times before you get the desired result. It also doesn’t help that there’s no mid-mission save system, instead giving 47 a certain number of lives per mission that let him revive from certain spots on the map if he dies. However, for whatever reason, guard alertness doesn’t reset when you revive, so you’ll more often than not be better off just restarting the whole level anyway. With these aspects in mind, as well as some precise timing for certain objectives, you may have to resort to a guide or follow videos to get through and I wouldn’t blame you in the slightest.

At times, it’s somewhat obvious that Codename 47 was originally conceived as just another third-person shooter before stealth elements were suggested later in development. For instance, missions like Find the U'wa Tribe and Plutonium Runs Loose can’t be completed entirely with stealth and have a section where you have to go in guns blazing. Stealth elements are mainly relegated to the disguise system that allows access to certain parts of a level, though obtaining a disguise usually requires a dead body (with rare exceptions). If you leave a dead body lying around, however, it’s likely that the wrong NPC will eventually find it and blow your cover, so you’ll have to hide the body. Unfortunately, hiding bodies can be harder than it should be due to clunky dragging mechanics and the necessity of approaching drains or stalls in a specific way to get the desired result.

You'll have to go all out here.

Enemy AI also feels inconsistent, but there are some constants. Guards are generally pretty lax and you can get away with running around at full sprint as long as you’re wearing the proper disguise. If no one sees you putting on the disguise, it can provide instant immunity, even while already under alert (though this isn’t a guarantee). I also experienced it where I was spotted near a dead body, but the guard shrugged it off because I wasn’t actively committing a crime. I couldn’t reproduce this, however, so I don’t know if there was some other factor involved.

Certain missions also have their own quirks that make them stand out, for better of worse. The Columbia maps are generally too big for their own good, especially since you’ll end up walking most of the time and the second mission in this set, The Jungle God, just requires you to touch a cave entrance and you can bypass the main threat entirely. Notably, the three Columbia missions all flow into each other, so you can take a sniper rifle in Find the U'wa Tribe and use it at the beginning of Say Hello to My Little Friend to snipe the target from afar and avoid a lengthy boss fight. Of course, it’s also important to pick up a disguise as quickly and safely as possible in Columbia so you can more easily walk through the compound in Say Hello to My Little Friend.

Following Columbia is Traditions of the Trade, the sole Budapest mission and the best one in the entire game. It emphasizes the stealth element the most and allows for some very unique and memorable opportunities for acquiring certain items or covering up your kills. It’s also a rare mission where you can find a disguise just lying around and is the only mission where you’ll actually use the balcony jump ability from the tutorial. Overall, it’s the most Hitman of the missions and acts as a solid foundation for the rest of the series.

Despite what this official Steam screenshot shows you,
trying this will get you shot on sight.

Unfortunately, the game follows up such a great level with Gunrunner’s Paradise, which actually isn’t that bad, and Plutonium Runs Loose, easily one of the worst missions in the game and the most difficult. Even when you know what to do, timing is very tight depending on your approach and when you reach the ship, it’s too easy to either get swarmed by guards or accidentally let the primary target get away. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if this mission effectively gated any newer players from completing the game and either resorted to walkthroughs or used a profile name cheat to simply skip it.

As for the final two levels, they focus the most on the main lore of the game and flow directly into each other while also restricting your starting gear. These effectively test the skills you’ve built up over the game, with stealth emphasized in the first half and gunplay in the other. Without spoiling anything, the final level can also feel a little anticlimactic when you realize you can find a specific weapon and camp at a certain door, as well as annoying when you screw up enough times that you end up hearing the same lengthy monologue over and over. Apart from Traditions of the Trade, however, these levels are the only real draw for Hitman lore enthusiasts.

Much like the gameplay, the graphics also haven’t aged too well, with very polygonal designs and stiff animations. Of course, these are understandable given the comparative lack of a budget at this point in time, but it’s clear that more effort went into the ragdoll physics and then-impressive cloth simulation. The lower budget also led to a very awkward grabbing animation for 47 that shows him turning his hand unnaturally to pick up items no matter his relative position.

Voice acting also sounds awkward compared to later games, though some of the side characters are memorable regardless and would show up in subsequent games, especially Agent Smith from The Lee Hong Assassination. David Bateson’s performance as Agent 47 also doesn’t sound as polished, and contains lines like the infamous “I need to use the bathroom”, but he’s still good compared to most of the other voices, including some NPCs that sound too whispery. Jesper Kyd’s pure electronic soundtrack sounds good, but sounds bare compared with his later works, much like this game’s rather minimal sound design.

Clearly a key moment for Agent 47.

It’s often interesting to go back and sees a series’ roots, but it’s hard to recommend Hitman: Codename 47 these days. It has one really great level, Traditions of the Trade, but the rest of the game around it is a bit too clunky to really fully enjoy and pretty much all of the relevant lore comes at the end. If you’re also going back and revisiting the earlier games and really want to play Codename 47, then pick it up during a sale. Otherwise, you may as well play Contracts instead, since it remakes all of the best levels anyway.

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