Among a recent slew of exciting developer-acquires-major-franchise announcements, the one that really stands out as a truly natural fit is IO Interactive’s acquisition of the James Bond licence. It’s easy to see why this team is a perfect fit for the license – the developer’s recent Hitman games have oozed 007 energy, from their sharp suits and jet-setting missions to kill animations that are practically Moore-era one-liners in physical form.
With Hitman 3, IO Interactive has effectively crossed the finish line on a three-part proof-of-concept for the iconic spy. In this final entry, we see all the tools necessary to not just make a great Bond game, but to continue the evolution of IOI’s design philosophy into more cinematic territory. The secret to that lies in Hitman 3’s unparalleled blend of sandbox level design, meticulously-crafted simulation, and emergent, player-driven storytelling.
One of the hallmarks of all Bond stories – and, by extension, Bond games – is that they take place across a variety of exciting locations. This is perhaps what makes IOI so immediately recognisable as a great fit for 007: Hitman is a globe-hopping series. It takes Agent 47 to a wide variety of international locales, from the streets of Mumbai, to italian villas, to the extravagant parties of clandestine societies.
But it’s how Hitman allows you to deploy your predatory skills in each of these unique arenas that really demonstrates IOI’s talent for the secret operative genre. The trilogy offers unparalleled freedom of approach, allowing you to infiltrate zones and eliminate targets in almost any method you can imagine. Intertwining groups of NPCs permit the ascension from backstreets to penthouse, such as disguising yourself as hotel staff to infiltrate a room and steal a socialite’s identity, which in turn allows you to blend in at a wealthy party. Exactly like Bond, Agent 47 uses a tuxedo as a keycard to grant access to his objective.
Challenges could be reconfigured for classically Bond methods, such as foiling a nuclear plot with a Q-Branch exploding pen.
With a target in sight, efficient, by-the-book players may choose to use Agent 47’s standard equipment, such as a simple pistol at close range, or perhaps a shot from a distant sniper nest. More creative killers, though, can find dastardly options throughout each environment. That may be an industrial grape presser in a wine factory, or an explosive golf ball placed just-so on a CEO’s driving range. A colossal number of in-game challenges encourages diverse applications of deadly force, and reward players handsomely for working out how to achieve them. It’s not hard to see how these could be reconfigured for classically Bond methods; points awarded for foiling a nuclear plot with a Q-Branch exploding pen, for example, or escaping a tricky situation by kicking a henchman into their own shark enclosure.
However, complete freedom of approach can come at expense of narrative clarity. There’s a reason why many licensed games often play more like Uncharted or Gears than Minecraft or Breath of the Wild: linear mission design allows the experience to deliver a stronger curated story. Bond’s roots in books and films means that IOI will need to provide a compelling narrative for 007 – and that’s where Hitman’s Mission Stories come in; narrative threads that gently guide you through a chain of crafted moments and provide cinematic kill opportunities at the end. It’s a system that adds some narrative depth, but still provides players the freedom to improvise as events unfold. All three of the recent Hitman games have featured these, but it’s in Hitman 3 that IO has refined the Mission Stories to the point of them being recognisable enough to be slotted into something more narrative-dependent. While the previous two games used the system to gradually nudge players to areas where cool moments could play out, Hitman 3 presents more cohesive, satisfying stories.
Take, for instance, the Death In The Family mission from Hitman 3. It’s a level that sets players on a mission to assassinate a matriarch at her mansion, but upon arrival you discover that every member of her extended family are suspects in the recent death of her brother. While the aim of the level remains the extermination of this particularly wretched old lady, one Mission Story allows you to disguise yourself as a private investigator and solve the murder. The quest plays out as a perfect slice of Agatha Christie, complete with a hateful ensemble cast of suspects that seem like more than a knowing wink towards Rian Johnson’s Knives Out. When setting up the blueprints of a Bond game, it’s moments like this that provide an investigation angle that’s vital for fulfilling the spy fantasy. Replace interviewing shifty family members with digging for information across a poker table, and the quieter, more detail-focused moment’s of 007’s career are covered.
Of course, what you then do with that information is a vital part of Hitman’s freeform mantra. At the Dartmoor estate, you can uncover the clues and solve the murder, all while adhering to honorable PI rules – or you can also be a ruthless scumbag, maiming the mansion’s staff in pursuit of some twisted idea of “justice”. Upon discovery of the murderer, you could take punishment into your own hands, or twist the case to meet your own ends. This freedom to react to the presented plot as you please would work well in a Bond situation, allowing players to craft 007 in their favoured image. Perhaps a suave Sean Connery, flirting his way to an efficient kill? Or a more brutal Daniel Craig, pulling a target aside half-way through the mission to drown them in a bathroom sink? Or, as Hitman has famously demonstrated its aptitude for, a Roger Moore-style approach using bombs disguised as rubber ducks and escaping the scene dressed as a clown.
Great shootouts and fun punch-ups will be mandatory for providing players the full Bond experience.
IOI has already confirmed that Project 007 will be an origin story and won’t be based on a specific Bond actor, which is a perfect opportunity to present the super spy as a blank slate for players to build into whatever their preferred version of the character is. The stronger Mission Stories presented in Hitman 3 successfully apply cinematic techniques to sandbox mission design, and further refinements to that system would allow for the polish we expect of a James Bond game – all while retaining the player-directed action that IOI has perfected. And with a new challenge system reformatted to reflect the greatest exploits of Britain’s most famous spy (one for killing a bad guy with their own laser torture device, please) the pieces are practically all there already.
Not every Bond trope has been covered perfectly by Hitman, though, meaning IOI will need to improve in some areas and tread new ground in others. While the trilogy has never shied away from letting you go full guns blazing, action is not Hitman’s forté, though the latest game has shown improvement in this department. The Berlin-set Apex Predator mission, which finds Agent 47 in an underground nightclub, effectively parallels the Red Circle Club scene from John Wick, despite being unable to replicate the film’s kinetic energy. It makes up for sub-par gunplay by generating a predatory atmosphere as you stalk foes through neon-soaked crowds, your approach scored by a menacing, bass-heavy DJ set. These aesthetics emphasise the grimy violence of double-tapping a goon on a sweaty dance floor or smashing their face into a toilet bowl. That atmosphere could take Project 007 a long way, but great shootouts and fun punch-ups will be mandatory for providing players the full Bond experience.
Completely out of IOI’s established comfort zone, however, would be car chases. While not every movie has a big chase sequence, they’re enough of a Bond hallmark that it’s almost impossible to think of a 007 game without one. With minimal history in vehicles or racing, it’s hard to imagine how such a setpiece could fit in with the studio’s MO. A driving segment would have to offer multiple angles of approach, which seems impossible for cars without building an open world map – but if Hitman has proved anything, it’s that IOI is a resourceful studio with the capability to find inventive solutions. Its solution will no doubt be interesting, if not successful.
It’s rare that we get trilogies of such consistently high standards in video games, and when we do it’s often sad to see developers move on. But with the World of Assassination trilogy complete, and all its achievements on show, it’s difficult to be upset about where IO Interactive is going next. The Hitman games are clearly as much a love letter to James Bond as they are a refinement of Agent 47’s own series, and so it’s fantastic to see the developers at IOI move on to something they so obviously cherish. Hitman 3 has proven the franchise is in more than capable hands, and hopefully the end result will mean IOI’s Bond is mentioned alongside Insomniac’s Spider-Man and Rocksteady’s Batman as an example of licensed games gone right.
Matt Purslow is IGN’s UK News and Entertainment Writer.