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Hitman: Codename 47 (PC) artwork

Hitman: Codename 47 (PC) review

"They Say Great Games Age like Wine, but What About Earnest Games?"

There’s a consensus that great ideas are timeless no matter their age or their execution, but if you played Codename 47, right now or at release, you would be forgiven to doubt that a game of such shoddy craftsmanship would have the potential to become a major AAA stealth franchise. In contrast to other first attempts from other series like Metal Gear Solid, Splinter Cell, Tenchu or even Assassin’s Creed, the first Hitman title manages to achieve so little of what distinguishes the series. None of these first attempts mentioned here are perfect; however, these other games retain enough quality to make their less redeemable elements withstand the test of time.

Hitman: Codename 47 (PC) image
When the barkeep doesn't wanna hear your problems.

Without further sneaking around the bush, C47 is as bad of a game now as it was when it was first released. (This game is arguably worse thanks to additional technical issues from the lack of an official HD release on PC.) The few moments of excellence you would expect from later titles are so marginal and unrefined here that you would be better off playing Contracts instead as that “sequel” uses all the half-decent levels of C47 with vastly superior gameplay, technical polish and AI. Only the most dedicated fans or those bitten by insatiable curiosity will be able to skin this cat once without losing all their nine lives.

I Knew a Man, Mr. Bojankles, and He Floundered For You

Technical issues are matters I usually ignore in reviews because I leave more qualified sources like PCGamingWiki or other technical focused reviewers to discuss the problems; however, when the problems are prevalent like Codename 47, these matters deserve a section of their own. Resolution patches are available for modern resolutions, but if you go beyond 720P you will not only scale down the UI elements but also you will zoom in the screen too much on 47. There’s also this wobbling effect during cutscenes that happens due to newer graphics cards as well as guns floating in mid-air when you drop them, which can affect the gameplay if your weapons float out of reach. Unfortunately, IO-Interactive has yet to make plans for a PC release of the HD Trilogy nor the Blood Money and Absolution remasters, so the GOG versions are the only version that resolves these problems. These issues, however, pale in comparison to the core jankiness of the gameplay.

Hitman: Codename 47 (PC) image
Perfect visual metaphor for the PC port.

Eurojank is a term used to make light of the technical issues of an overly ambitious game, but it’s understandable why many people use C47 as a textbook example. Picking up weapons contorts 47’s arms like wet noodles; you can pick up two guns while holding a knife mid-air; and the control scheme, if you’re not familiar with more recent Hitman titles, can feel inhibiting. These issues, while they may be as amusing as the ragdoll physics, are minor in contrast to bugs that affect gameplay.

Hitman: Codename 47 (PC) image
Sounds simple enough, let me just drop... *ALARMS!*

As a demonstration, the easiest example is taking out a target with fisher wire and hiding the body, and even this simple task has multiple problems. First, crouching is made obsolete if your target is walking because 47 moves at a painful rate, so you need to bump into the target and to walk around before using the wire. You also need to crouch because there is a bug with fisher wire that always alerts your target whereas you can kill a target much quicker and simpler with the knife, so follow James Rolfe’s advice for Ghost and Goblins. Next, hiding the body requires you to look at the legs or to use the right-mouse-button to select the drag option, then you have to either hide the body outside the weird pathfinding routes or bring the body into the nearest manhole to play with the ragdoll physics. If you are spotted, then every NPC will know you are a threat, and if you die, you respawn with a limited number of continues where the AI still targets you a threat. (No, there is no quicksave option, and yes, restarting is the best solution unless you can find somewhere to hide or to change uniforms.) Keep in mind: This is the simplest case without regard of the level design or tasks, so you’re going to fail a lot due to learning how to deal with this level of jank rather than the learning how to handle the level itself.

Essentially, all these problems with the core gameplay devolves down into fighting the EuroJank with Your-Own-Jank, and this highlights how poorly this game was cobbled together from a few good ideas. As mentioned before, you can prompt the AI to turn around so you can take them out. The AI will investigate the last sound heard and any dead bodies, which makes them into a conga line of lemmings if you have a decent assault rifle. Guards can ignore a sniper rifle in one level while the same guards in the next level will set off the alarms immediately. Stealth, while preferable, is so inconsistent with multiple AIs that most playthroughs will quickly devolve into murder sprees from one mistake--it is certainly possible to play C47 as close to perfect stealth as you can; the problem is it’s nowhere near as satisfying to pull off as in future titles, and you still have to game the system. Finally, unless another guard sees you in the act, the disguise system can prevent other guards from catching on to you because there is no suspicion system. All these problems, ignoring any poor level design on display, showcases how far the series has come to address these problems as well as how a game originally meant to be another generic third-person shooter cannot be retroactively turned into a stealth game.

Level Design by the Kid Who Presses All the Buttons on the Elevator

It’s no secret that Codename 47 was originally meant to be a generic third-person shooter focused around a contract assassin in the style of John Woo films, which you can read more about in the “The Making of Codename 47” press release. The questions to ask while reading this article and playing this game are “Why was the focus changed from a linear action game to a more open-ended stealth game?” and “How much of this stealth game retains its linear and action-focused nature?” The first question can probably be answered with one person, Jonas Eneroth, who was from Eidos during the development of Thief and Deus Ex, and if you’re familiar with those games, then you’ll quickly spot many similarities with Hitman being referred to as a “thinking-shooter.” Another likely reason is an open-ended game, even if somewhat linear as in C47, keeps players from quickly disposing the game, which is why various solutions were implemented to reward the more observant players. However, as great as proofs of concepts are to talk about, playing the game is another story, one that reminds you of the Shakespearean line, “Thou and I are too wise to Woo peaceably.”

There’s an age-old problem with stealth in games and stealth games, perhaps more at the core of Codename 47 than any other retro stealth game, that has yet to be properly acknowledged, the balance between action versus inaction of the gameplay. Reduce all the complex interactions between the player and the environment in favor of accessibility and action focused stealth with different ways to kill a target, you get, worst case scenario, Splinter Cell: Blacklist. Instill some sort of reward for pacificism, such as Metal Gear Solid 3 or Dishonored, and players will almost certainly shun using any combat. Linear levels can be excused with multiple tools like in Metal Gear or Splinter Cell that masquerade its simplicity. Gamify the core systems with RPG mechanics, simplify the stealth, and make every arsenal into a lop-sided power-trip, you get Deus Ex. Make combat punishing to perform as well as punishing to the player’s end reward like Thief, and you also alienate those who prefer to mix action and stealth. In the case of Codename 47, however, the gameplay is so clunky and highly specific to perform for stealth as well as too punishing to engage in combat that neither side gets a game to enjoy, especially in terms of how these contracts are structured.

Hitman: Codename 47 (PC) image
Waiting for target...

One only need look at the vast differences in level-design quality, sometimes between one level and the next level afterwards, to see how unfocused and how lopsided the team’s priorities were throughout the game’s development. The first three stages, if recreated today, could easily be combined into one big gang war situation as they are small operations to take out one or a group of targets usually with one or two intended stealth solutions. As the first game, these stages are passable for getting the player accustomed to the controls and the solutions in later stages with a sniper-focus contract, a car-bomb-focus contract and an infiltration contract with disguises. The fourth stage, “The Massacre at Cheung Chau Fish Restaurant,” is more what you would expect if you have played any recent Hitman title as it’s one massive environment with three or four intended solutions. Despite the gameplay faults, this mission is one of the few worth playing as it nicely combines ideas from all previous levels into one sandbox. This first act in Hong Kong is the pinnacle of C47, outside of the eighth mission in the Hotel, as it builds on previous concepts while making something rewarding for players with a lot of patience.

Hitman: Codename 47 (PC) image
Only another five minute jog to the entrance.

The next two missions, however, are the absolute worst missions in the series where you wander around the jungle to find a golden idol, talk to the natives, rescue their chief from four guards, and then the next one is to infiltrate a base by bringing a dead pig to distract a jaguar. (Yes, one mission’s goal is just to get around a jaguar to reach the real mission.) Even more frustrating about this mission is sometimes the enemies will target you, and sometimes they will ignore you depending on what part of the jungle you are. This following mission would be a great example of player freedom as you can assassinate the target with a sniper rifle three seconds into the mission if you brought a sniper-rifle back from Mission 5, but it’s as if the starting location is on the wrong side of the map because you have to walk around the entire base to get inside. Almost every mission afterwards is a confusing mess of priorities with maps too large for their own purpose, some levels offer a few notable solutions whereas most require you to go all out, culminating in the final mission where you have to fight off an army of 48s with a minigun.

Hitman: Codename 47 (PC) image
I'll only need seven... Wait, wrong Bond movie.

The one exception to this pattern is the hotel mission, “Traditions of the Trade,” where it’s as if the game remembered it was focused around stealth-action espionage. Disguises play a larger role here than the previous missions, even with NPCs that will respond differently if you talked to them before and after changing outfits. Multi-level areas, various objectives with different challenges, and multiple solutions to every given problem are what stand out from the rest. It also manages to work in the campier elements of the series with a tasteful Terminator reference of a shotgun in a giftbox. In short, If there was one level of the game that you wanted to show people what Hitman is all about if you couldn’t explain it to them, then you would have them play this level (as well as the Fish restaurant). The problem is getting to that stage without the level-select cheat and completing the game afterwards is nowhere near as great as that one mission.

Imagine A Book with a First and Last Page; Does it Have a Plot?

While the gameplay leaves a lot to be desired when only two missions stand out as being worth playing, the storytelling within surprised me with being something more than a random series of contracts. Bear in mind that I’m not saying it has great storytelling; all that can be said is it’s something more than nothing compared to future titles. There isn’t any real structure or plot other than a beginning and an ending with many key details left open-ended until Hitman (Season 1) like how 47 managed to get hired by the ICA and who the ICA really is, and if there were any themes explored other than “genetic engineering is questionable” and “free will/creativity is the best weapon for an assassin,” then none were made clear to the player. What Codename 47 chooses to do with its story, instead, is set-up a lot of world-building and a convoluted conspiracy around 47’s creation, a story that wasn’t addressed until Hitman (2016) and Hitman 2 (2018).

Hitman: Codename 47 (PC) image
"That's not a story, 47."

Part of the problem, although some may disagree that a game lacking narrative motivation is as big of a problem as others, is partly due to building a game for a contract killer. 47 bears little, if any personality, besides his impartial nature to politics or matters of the world, and it’s confusing whether he is a sociopath who enjoys making quips on the job or if he regrets the life of taking others. (It’s not like Sam Fisher who usually is tasked to stop operations or devices, not exclusively kill people whether or not for just reasons.) Instead, most of the writing focuses on fleshing out the targets you assassinate, which in C47 is boiled down into random NPC chatter and letters off the targets. Other than Ort-Meyer and the other major targets, there is no overarching antagonist or major conflict the player works toward; these targets tend to be pawns of an organization that comes off even more inhuman with their abbreviations. These qualities give little room for 47 to display character growth, and it makes it even harder to build a compelling story out of these constraints. (Even the whole genetic engineering topic hasn’t been brought up since Blood Money, which is odd since the newer games focus on 47’s past.) Honestly, no game in the series, not even the latest ones, has managed to solve these core problems, but it’s interesting how much more “plot” is found in the first game.

The Value of Being Earnest with Time

Hitman: Codename 47 (PC) image
47 bullets down on floor, 47 bullets in blood, target is down, all red all around... 47...?

As much that can be said about the first Hitman game, it’s a product of undeveloped ideas, mismanaged goals and poor execution of those great ideas when everything finally made sense. Perhaps if you’re feeling more generous than I, you might describe this game as being earnest with all its flaws, and that display of humility makes it commendable to this day. However, had Codename 47 been an in-house tech-demo or a scrapped project brought to light similar to Resident Evil 1.5, this game would oddly have been more favorably received with time. As it stands now, nearly two decades from its release day and in the next decade or two, a game like Codename 47 won’t get any better.


Brian's avatar
Community review by Brian (January 21, 2019)

Current interests: Strategy/Turn-Based Games, CRPGs, Immersive Sims, Survival Solo Games, etc.

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hastypixels posted January 27, 2019:

That these games appeared in Humble Bundles so readily and cheaply was suspect to me. Having read your review, I can safely avoid them, and I understand better now what they were aiming for. Solid review.

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