Hitman is the series that casts you as a master of disguise, changing costumes quicker than Gaga at a Super Bowl halftime show and concealing objects even sharper than her shoulder pads. But there’s a perverse pleasure in channelling stupid sexy Flanders instead, and concealing nothing at all.
As I step off the veranda into the Palais de Walewska, I look exactly like an assassin. Chasing a ‘Suit Only’ achievement, there’s no getting around the fact I bear a striking resemblance to that bald bloke with the red tie who tends to show up around imminent crime scenes, like Poirot.
But I get away with it, blending into the throng of tonight’s fashion show and walking brazenly into the eyeline of a suspicious security guard. The Assassin’s Creed-style crowd cover carries me unseen to the foot of the catwalk, where models are reflected eerily in the black mirrored runway, as if walking on the surface of a dark lake. Viktor Novikov, the man funding the show and my target, draws close—and I remain practically invisible.
Anybody who played Hitman is 2016 will be intimately familiar with the night in question, colloquially known as Paris and officially as The Showstopper. It’s the game’s first mission, and has been playable now for half a decade. But the scene I’ve just described, from the crowd blending to those atmospheric reflections, couldn’t have happened back then. They’re retroactive additions from 2018’s Hitman 2 and January’s Hitman 3 respectively, folded back into the original game.
To a latecomer like me, Hitman 2016 is a DLC expansion in a 2021 game—purchasable through the main menu at launch. To look at and to play, it’s a brand new campaign. With any luck, and a lot of planning from developers, this will be the way classic games are updated in the future—not so much remade as maintained in line with their sequels, quietly made modern.
There’s no de-aging cream you can easily apply to old games, of course. For IO Interactive, this outcome was only made possible by an ambitious plan to make Hitman 2016 an expanding live product. From the beginning, the developer intended the game to function like an MMO—a single, regularly updated executable to which expansions could be added. That’s why, if you remember, it was initially called Season One.
There’s a reason you don’t see this sort of thing often. You could argue that almost any long-term plan is a foolish endeavour in the games industry. Working in a notoriously unstable field founded on the shifting sands of technology, developers are rarely guaranteed a sequel, so any groundwork laid down for the future is likely to be wasted.
It almost didn’t happen for Hitman. The 2016 game’s episodic release model was a disaster, leading Square Enix to drop IO from its roster. The studio was three months’ cash flow away from closing, and so leaned on Warner Bros. to publish Hitman 2. Today, after a dramatic turnaround, IO is flourishing as an independent—but the pain and chaos of that journey is evident in the backend issues that meant players had trouble importing their old level progress into Hitman 3 at launch.
It’s no wonder, then, that neatly coiffed collections like Hitman are rare. But the World of Assassination is not unique. Sometime after Total War: Warhammer III comes out late this year, Creative Assembly will stitch together all three of its strategy trilogy’s worlds into a big patchwork quilt of disputed fantasy territories. So long as players own every game on the same storefront, they’ll get the monster map as free DLC. This is no pie-in-the-sky promise, either – the developer has already delivered on a combined campaign for the first two games, named Mortal Empires. It’s real: Old World and New World together.
Like IO Interactive, Creative Assembly planned its mega-game way in advance. In fact, it made a public proclamation before we’d even seen a screenshot. “The first in an epic trilogy of titles, Total War: Warhammer will deliver hundreds of hours of absorbing gameplay,” the studio predicted back in 2015, like a night goblin shaman high on hallucinogenic mushrooms. “It will combine with two further standalone instalments and additional content packs to create the single largest Total War experience ever.”
Again: few studios have the luxury to be able to see so far into the future. Now the largest game developer in the UK, Creative Assembly has the kind of funding that affords a degree of predictability – and the heft to secure licenses for a decade at a time. Yet for those in the industry who can afford it, these sort of projects could be an attractive alternative to controversial do-overs of unmaintained games. Just look at Warcraft 3: Reforged, a game which Blizzard initially seemed to think was a remake, but ultimately decided was a remaster. Let the weeds grow around a game and it’ll only become harder to dig back out.
If recent E3 shows are any indication, publishers right now would rather have a song-and-dance, capital-R remake—a transformational revisit of a childhood favourite. They look great in the before and after screenshots, and on billboards. You can use them to sell new consoles. Nostalgia has a powerful pull, and you can’t miss something if it hasn’t been away. But the increasing sales success of Hitman shows that slow-burn appreciation can bring significant financial return too. IO Interactive has recently opened two new offices, in Malmö and Barcelona.
Perhaps developers could keep classic versions of single-player games available for diehards and archaeologists, while updating a second build with raytraced bells and normal-mapped whistles—the way some MMOs do. I’m dreaming now, obviously, but it’s a dream rooted in a reality I’m already playing in Paris.
Presumably, as IO moves on to other things, like its 007 project and rumoured fantasy game for Xbox, Hitman will slowly start to wrinkle again. Or maybe it’ll end up like Cher, spookily youthful at 74 years of age. Either way, the World of Assassination trilogy will remain a fantastic package, and a model for other developers to follow.