I get a lot of questions coming from the Hitman fanbase. Understandably, given I am jokingly called a Hitman lore expert. I’ve seen many since the beginning of my involvement in the community. “What do you think of the new Hitman game?”, “What are your thoughts on Absolution?”, “Are the novels worthy of reading?”, “Have you seen the movies?”, to show you some examples. With the continued development of Things From White’s Mind, I attempt to answer at least some of those and many have been inspirations for my pieces. Some, I will have to come back to. Others are simply not interesting (and if you know me, you’ll also know this means “not overly complicated”) enough for me to cover. Those I might answer in few words over the /r/HiTMAN subreddit or our community Discord. This is not one of those topics however. This one I’m particularly passionate about and if you’ve ever seen passionate White, you know where this is going. Let’s answer the burning question of “Is Hitman: Codename 47 still worth playing?”. Once. And. For. All.
You most likely have no idea how many times I have seen and answered this question already. It usually comes with a second one accompanying it – “Can I just play Contracts instead?” As Contracts is my personal favorite out of the Hitman franchise, I think you can already see the frustration building up within me. But to learn the answer to the second, we’ve got to take care of the first. So let me guide you through the original Hitman. Called not just Hitman like someone wisely decided 5 games later, but Hitman: Codename 47.
TRIVIA TIME: The sixth installment of the franchise was rumored to be called Hitman: Profession and was meant to come out of the talented hands of Square Enix Montreal – the same folks behind highly successful mobile adaptations of the Square Enix franchises.
Released in November, 2000 and developed by a small team in Copenhagen, Denmark, Hitman: Codename 47 was a PC exclusive which meant it can pride itself on its working mirrors. Don’t laugh just yet! The studio relished on that fact too by putting it as one of the features in Glacier’s engine documentation.
TRIVIA TIME: The above was a feature lacking in the sequel – Silent Assassin – due to it being multiplatform.
The game was created by a handful of people, meaning the player could actually watch the ending credits sequence instead of wishing it would end already, finally getting out of their chair and going to grab a cup of coffee. The team was small but the ambitions were big. The title was inspired by action movies of the time (47’s voice actor recalls the first images he was shown reminding him of Blade Runner) and our main protagonist was to be a middle-aged classy male. Unfortunately, the hair technology just wasn’t there yet, leaving us with 47’s iconic– excuse me; signature bald head. A featureless egg-shape is no fun to look at, especially from the back, so the team had to figure out a way to make it more interesting. After all, the camera was placed right behind our antihero. Thus, the barcode was born and incorporated into the game lore. Our man was not a nameless classy man anymore but a… technically still nameless… classy clone, sporting a black suit, a white, slightly striped shirt and a red ornamented tie. This hitman was codenamed “47” – borrowed from his serial code. And since we’re here already and if you haven’t noticed yet – this is why the game is called Hitman: Codename 47.
TRIVIA TIME: The numbers are 640509-040147. Date of birth, series no., class, model. The barcode also leads to quite an adult item, if you ever decide to scan it.
Life was kind to our hitman. Definitely kinder than he was to his targets. Eidos picked up the publishing deal, set up a neat little webpage and treated us to marketing writings such as this:
Similar texts can be found inside the game’s manual. Attempting to juggle life and death as philosophical topics and asking if life is even worth living. Try finding references to that in the new Hitman games. If you ever need to have your pretty mind challenged, go old school.
TRIVIA TIME: Hitman: Codename 47 was placed on the German BPjS / BpjM index, meaning it is forbidden to sell the game to minors. It joined titles such as Total Carnage, Killer Instinct and many games of the Resident Evil franchise.
But it served another purpose. The writing isn’t just world building. It also serves as an introduction and presents the premise. “Think to survive, and learn to plan your hits. Exploit your enemy’s hideout (…). Never point a gun in this game, unless you really intent to use it.” What a beautiful way to condense what the Hitman franchise is all about. All of it was right there, even before the first installment!
Of course, it had to be. The Eidos UK site describes the game as a “thinker” before a “shooter”. The term has been coined by the Io-Interactive managing director at the time – Janös Flosser. This was, and arguably still is, a nuisance. Albeit, Codename 47 features many straight-up shooting sequences, it tried its best to give you as many methods of dealing with a situation as you could think of. Creativity is key.
After launching the game and creating your profile (and completely rebinding the ancient control setup), the player is (literally) dropped into a padded cell to meet with the character they will be controlling. A peculiar voice is heard out of the speakers. “Always remember – I am not only your guide and mentor. Think of me… as the person you trust the most!“ it says. “You see – you have been carefully selected. You are very special to me…”
We are then prompted to begin the tutorial, also set in-universe as our protagonist is to re-familiarize with his body and unknowingly pass the last of the tests he’s been given. Nowadays, this sequence reminds me a lot of the original Portal game – both aesthetic and story-wise. It doesn’t overstay its welcome, does not punish you for skipping the tutorial sections and is definitely memorable as nothing quite like it is seen in the next act of the title. Is it a good tutorial though?
It gives the player much needed freedom in learning the controls and mechanics in their own time. There are no timers, no dangers. It’s just the player and the game. The peculiar voice offers flavor text and some additional (almost accurate, yet the reality is bent, understandably) information regarding weaponry. Otherwise, it’s a pretty standard tutorial section, teaching mechanics rather than controls. In fact, I do know of people who get stuck in the first elevator as they cannot figure out how to properly interact with the environment. Apparently, the movement controls were to be introduced as a basic “move right, move left” kind of deal but it was cut from the final product. Maybe it’s for the better, personally, I believe those to be too on the nose.
TRIVIA TIME: There is a hidden recording of the Io-Interactive team if you wait in the agility training area.
But the game is titled “Hitman (Codename 47)” and if the beginning section did not invoke a feeling of a killer for hire, this next one surely will. It seems like popular media thinks “hitman” is synonymous with “sniper” so after waking up in Hong Kong, our antihero is sent on a mission which heavily suggests taking out the target at a bigger range. A sniper rifle is available to purchase during the setup (and that’s what the game defaults you to) and the level features multiple accessible rooftops. Of course, you are never forced to do things the way the game points you to. It cherishes player freedom. It was built to allow for as much creativity as the player can juice out. “Seemingly, it is all linear storytelling, but the player can accelerate the events, or plan the hits according to his temperament. He has to accomplish the mission, but there are several ways to do it,” Janös Flosser says in an interview with GameSpot UK.
Let’s come back to the setup phase for a brief moment – those are amazingly in-universe which deeply pleases yours truly. The entire UI mimics the one of 47’s laptop. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of clicks to get to the right menu and if you miss something, you will have to get back a few screens. The item menu features 3D models (if you can get them to work nowadays) and even more flavor text to fuel your interest. There is also a map which arguably isn’t as useful as it is in later titles especially as you are interrupted by the famous red loading bar if you wish to access it during the mission.
TRIVIA TIME: The red loading bar was used in every Io-Interactive game up to (and including) Mini Ninjas.
The first chapter of the game cleverly introduces more and more mechanics before climaxing at The Lee Hong Assassination where the player’s (and by extend – 47’s) newly found skills are put to the test. Everything that the game has taught them so far is now more than useful as it throws them into an open field with complex objectives and a randomized element. The latter is a questionable design choice still open to discussions. On one hand, it creates a variable which makes each playthrough unique in a sense. It also means the player is likely to restart the mission until they get the desired outcome. Whether you like it or not, The Lee Hong Assassination is a great finisher to the Hong Kong arc and definitely a difficulty spike. Due to complexity of the level design and limited textures used throughout the environment, it can quickly become a maze especially if player doesn’t pick up on the clues or does not manage to even find them.
TRIVIA TIME: The Lee Hong Assassination features an easy to grab R93 sniper rifle and a hellish route to retrieve ammo for it.
As the China chapter ends, the game’s narrative begins to gain traction. Our antihero establishes relationships with new characters and unveils some of the overarching storyline. We get a cutscene reminding us of the owner of the peculiar voice from before and are on our way to another location as Hitman is all about traveling the world.
TRIVIA TIME: Bunch of the areas are historically correct. The U’wa tribe and all of their religious references do exist in real life. In addition, in an interview with IGN, the managing director states: “We have done a lot of research to create a great visual adventure, so when Hitman walks around in an art deco Thermal Bath Hotel from the turn of the 19th century, all the details are actually correct.“
Our next destination is Colombia and the wonderful jungle inhabited by the U’wa tribe. This is where the game becomes more of a shooter – many of the missions require you to eliminate large amount of people which may be one of the reasons as to why this arc isn’t popular in the community and was not chosen to be remade in Contracts. It centers around a Scarface-inspired fellow who has barricaded himself in a tightly secured hacienda. It ain’t easy though as 47 must first find required intel and make his way there.
Navigating through the Colombian rainforests can be a hassle. The game offers a compass as purchasable equipment but that still barely helps. Even our protagonist wonders “Which way is south?” Your first times through the location may be painful, especially as there are multiple weapon caches over the perimeter and those do come handy. Upon further notice, the designers have placed indicators you can follow – the roads and trenches all lead to various points of interest. If you can pick up on those – good. You’ll need their help as taking too long to traverse through the jungle can mean difficulty rising drastically. It’s easy to not be as perceptive however. The original draw distance is a problem especially since the enemies can see the player but the player can’t see them.
TRIVIA TIME: There does exist a Draw Distance unlocker which makes the rainforest absolutely stunning even by today’s standards and does make me wish for an open space level rendered in Glacier 2.
Doesn’t help that this chapter is a home to probably the most forgettable mission in the entire franchise. Anyone remember The Jungle God? Since we were just talking about level design, the Colombia arc is definitely the experimental one. Find the U’wa Tribe features a fetch quest/rescue/escort mission you can entirely skip. The Jungle God has you sacrificing a pig to a jaguar and Say Hello to my Little Friend starts you off having to run around the entire level just to enter the proper mission area. You can also snipe the target from that very same starting spot, which is quite convenient if you are speedrunning… but you still need to enter his office to pick up a quest item.
If you are wary about Colombia, it does feature my favorite track out of the entire soundtrack and, possibly even the entire series – Jungle Exploration. Shame it only plays for the duration of one level before changing into Dark Jungle. Both of them do a fantastic job in delivering the mood however and I consider the OST great overall so I cannot complain much. I only want to present it to as many people as possible as it often gets overlooked and overshadowed by the awards winning soundtrack to Silent Assassin.
TRIVIA TIME: Originally, a cutscene was supposed to happen during disguise changes.
What follows is the pinnacle – Traditions of the Trade. It established many of the original basis for what later became a standard Hitman level design. Continuously built upon and improved to this day. It’s also most likely the reason as to why the community is never tired of hotels getting featured as locations for hits, albeit I’d argue they aren’t used to their full potential in any of the circumstances. It’s also usually the first contender whenever the fanbase talks about possible remastering of old levels and again, yours truly wonders how many times can you play the same stage…
The story arc itself is odd. It does not have a build up like the other two. There are no stages leading our antihero to his target. Instead, we are thrown into the environment, similarly to The Lee Hong Assassination, and required to do all of the detective work ourselves. The iconic sauna elimination happens in this mission, as well as we can enjoy the sights of 47 is swimwear. The location itself is huge and offers multiple points of interest, options for creativity in accomplishing goals and getting out of the situation unscathed. There are two possible exits. Something quite uncommon by old school Hitman standards.
TRIVIA TIME: This is the first time we get to hear the name “Tobias Rieper”, referenced (too extensively for my likings) later in the 2016 HITMAN.
Otherwise, as I’ve mentioned before, Traditions of the Trade became a framework for future sandbox level design in the franchise. Disguises being not only a huge part of player’s available strategy but also a very reliable option, blending in and hiding in plain sight were later confined to a term “social stealth” coined by the community. As in case of the aforementioned The Lee Hong Assassination, the player also had to pick up on the clues dotted around the Thermal Bath Hotel, find his way to the objectives and complete them all in one sweep. An intimidating task but oh so rewarding if you manage it. Traditions of the Trade definitely is surprisingly memorable for being a one-off in a series of multi-mission chapters.
TRIVIA TIME: Franz Fuchs is a real life terrorist operating around the same time the game is taking place. According to Wikipedia; “Criminal psychologists characterized him as a highly intelligent but socially inept loner.”
“How do you follow that?” you ask. With “the biggest cliché of the game”, to quote the GameSpot interview once again. Rotterdam Harbor is our next location and suffice to say, it does not match the legendary Thermal Bath Hotel. Instead, it has back to the usual formula of having a build up before the main hit of the area. Gunrunner’s Paradise has our protagonist investigate, gather intel and plan his approach. Unfortunately, it also has him having to gun down a crowd as well. It has its ups and downs when it comes to design. There are some neat tricks, similarly to Find the U’wa Tribe. This time, your best guide would be the train tracks. There is also a randomized element, akin to The Lee Hong Assassination as the meeting you are meant to attend to can take place at three different warehouses. No matter that, Rotterdam is where the game goes back to being more on the “shooter” than a “thinker” side of the scale.
TRIVIA TIME: “[Gunrunner’s Paradise] is the only mission in the game you can’t do without buying any items, because you’re forced to take the GPS with you; going into the mission without it will fail the mission at the end.”, courtesy of ZerglingWasteland.
But what a setpiece it is! A giant ship! And it’s going to blow up if the mad man behind the detonator isn’t stopped! Interestingly enough, when remade for Contracts, both of the Rotterdam missions were merged into one – Deadly Cargo. That has definitely helped make the arc bearable but not much as it’s still the worst part of my beloved Contracts. It isn’t the best advertisement if the community’s first advice is to purchase as many bullets as possible and kill everyone in sight whenever you get around playing through Plutonium Runs Loose. Even that approach isn’t as easy as it may sound, echoing the original draw distance once again. The level is a slog, requiring you to wait for NPCs to pass through security gates and access more and more of the environment. Enemies’ behavior can be confusing as they may start attacking you seemingly with no reason. The ship itself can end up becoming a maze especially since you’re pressured by a time limit. There are also dogs you will most likely have to slaughter. Overall, Plutonium Runs Loose does not allow you to have fun, but at least it has another amazing track by Jesper Kyd – Harbor Themes.
TRIVIA TIME: Judging by the game files, Rotterdam Harbor was supposed to be the second location Codename 47 brings us to. Thankfully, the devs must have realized in time that Plutonium Runs Loose isn’t “humanly possible to finish”.
The game culminates back in Romania with the story climax. There’s something off-putting at the briefing screen already. This is the first time our text-only support character actively warns the protagonist. The mission is suspiciously simple in concept and suddenly becomes a lot more interesting albeit not very difficult if you’re in the right disguise. The Setup is, as the name suggests, merely a setup to the ending twist. Focused on exploration, delivering the right atmosphere and framework for the encounter with the last boss. It’s all about deciphering hints and figuring out the level’s puzzle. A breather before what it precedes.
TRIVIA TIME: The Setup is also the birth of the famous rubber ducky running joke.
That being another puzzle. This time placed in an action-oriented environment instead. The peculiar voice from the beginning of the game is back and delivers his side of the story somewhere in the background. Unfortunately, as the player will most likely fail at least a couple of times, the dialogue repetition might become an annoyance. Either that or it will get completely drowned out by the noises of an intense shootout. There’s little to no options to be stealthy during this mission as the enemies will actively look out for the player and attack him on sight. Arguably, trial and error is a big part of the franchise, even nowadays so the last mission of Codename 47 still ticks at least one box of the “Hitman level design” checklist.
TRIVIA TIME: Failing in killing the last boss makes the entire experience very interesting… A similar situation takes place if you get zapped by the orderly in the Training level.
You know the overview now. Hitman: Codename 47 is definitely not a perfect game and its age does not speak in favor of it. The control scheme is ancient but you can rebind it to your likings. Almost as if it was a standard back in the day! The graphics have their unique charm which I personally really enjoy yet I can see the contrasting perspective. The AI is basic even though the role they are to fulfill is quite an ambitious one. The level design choices can be perplexing but they tell a clear tale if you analyze them and compare to the later installments. The voice acting quality is questionable to say the least.
TRIVIA TIME: The placeholder voice of 47 is documented and can be listened to if you desire.
The music is fantastic. The story might not be the most complicated or unique but it’s told in a thought-provoking fashion. You may entirely skip it, if that’s your choice but naturally, as a lore expert, I recommend you take at least a peek. Traditions of the Trade is a huge selling point. So is the overall atmosphere of the title and its presentation. It’s an origin story, not only for 47 as a character but also for the franchise. It’s successful at that. It features many mechanics reworked and improved upon in later games. It tried many things. It wanted to be a shooter at times, with its leaning mechanics and the second camera mode. It tried its best to offer a silent path throughout the level, even with the technological limitations of the artificial intelligence. It drew a path for the sequels to follow – disguises, sandboxes, puzzle-solving. All ended up being so much more attention-grabbing than the straight-up action sequences.
TRIVIA TIME: An Italian and apparently Russian audio localization of Codename 47 is available albeit not in the Steam version of the game. Speaking of dubs, Japan’s Absolution and HITMAN releases were fully voiced.
Let’s go back to the original questions we have before us then. The first one – “Is it still worth to play Hitman: Codename 47?” – you may now answer for yourselves, depending on what your heart tells you. The second – “Can I just play Contracts instead?” – is always a clear “no” in my mind. Contracts was never meant to remake any of the Codename 47 levels. In fact, it was supposed to be what Blood Money ended up as. Which might be why it features a side story taking place during the events of the latter. The team had decided to reuse some of the missions to save on development time as they were pressured by Eidos to finish the title.
But even looking at both games in a complete vacuum, they have little in common. The stories and atmospheres they present are very different. The level concepts may be reused but they were remade in a way they offer another experience to the one seen in the original. Echoing the aforementioned Deadly Cargo and it merging both of the Rotterdam levels. As those same missions in Contracts are shown to us from the perspective of 47 himself, they also get more interesting. There is much to analyze when it comes to the psychology of our antihero simply by comparing two versions of the same scenario.
Worth mentioning that Contracts, as the third game in the franchise, was in a fairly established phase for the series. It knew what it wanted to do and did it well. It ironed out a lot of bugs and issues which plagued Silent Assassin and focused even more on bigger levels, player creativity and freedom. It’s a completely different experience from the campy, action movie-inspired Codename 47. It’s mature, dark. Moody and foreboding.
If you really want to get everything you can out of the Hitman franchise, do yourself a favor. Do not choose between the titles. Play both. Experience the original missions as they were, compare them. See what the team decided to change over the years. What they improved. And even more importantly, what they left behind. Codename 47 may not play or look great nowadays but it’s still very enjoyable if you excuse its obvious signs of age. It does not only begin to paint a picture of the series we now know and love. It was a breath of fresh air. A “thinker” before a “shooter”. Or, to quote Game.EXE: “This game was like a lonely bright star in a nearly empty sky of releases during last year. Thus, this single stunning game easily won IO Interactive “The Best Developer of 2000” title.”
If only he was to format Io-Interactive correctly…
PS.: If anyone would like to part with their big box edition of Codename 47, yours truly would love to have a word with you.