Anyone who knows me will understand that I hold the Hitman series dear to my heart, and the series is about to celebrate its 20th anniversary tomorrow. It’s been two whole decades, and Codename 47 is probably the Hitman title the fewest number of people will have played. Aside from being a series debut that would be later overshadowed by its successors, it’s also the only one in the franchise to be a PC exclusive. But has IO Interactive’s entrance to the games industry aged well in the years since? Let’s revisit it for a moment.
Hitman: Codename 47 is the origin story of gaming’s favourite bald contract killer, Agent 47, a genetically enhanced clone who has been trained to become an unstoppable assassin. Upon his escape from the test facility where he was created, he is hired by the International Contract Agency to travel the world and eliminate wealthy criminals and corrupt aristocrats.
First and foremost, Hitman is a social stealth game. This means it carries many characteristics of the traditional stealth genre: evading guards, silently killing enemies, and covering your tracks so as not to arouse suspicion. But there’s also a social status aspect to this too, where 47 can wear various disguises of workers and NPCs that allows him to blend in with his environment. New areas open up to him freely and lets him slip through undetected to get closer to his target.
Similar to the likes of Metal Gear Solid and Thief, Hitman: Codename 47 sits in that awkward spot of being an early 3D stealth game, and would therefore become a title that sets a standard for what the genre would become while also stumbling on some of its finer details.
For example, the detection range of enemies can be very random and unpredictable. You could bump into a guard in a tight corridor and he’d never spot you, while another moment might have you aggro a group of enemies from the other side of the map. This happens so frequently that it gets annoying, and the game doesn’t communicate to you whether it was intentional or not. I’m a firm believer that stealth games are best played when there are consequences for your actions, and you have to follow through with your slip-ups, but Codename 47 makes failure so random that you’re compelled to use the save system so liberally.
But on the other hand, Codename 47 deserves some credit for being one of the first games to utilise ragdoll physics. Killing an enemy causes their body to collapse realistically as it collides with the ground, with every limb and joint conforming perfectly to it. Before then, games would often prefer to go with pre-determined death animations which can look really awful particularly on slopes and against walls, so it’s nice to see an early example of these physics working wonders. The results can be silly sometimes, but it was a huge step forward for the technology at the time.
Besides its Cold War espionage themes, Hitman also takes some inspiration from the 007 franchise by featuring exotic locations that Agent 47 visits on the missions he takes. Codename 47’s story takes him from the narrow streets of Hong Kong to deep into the heart of Colombia’s jungles. Later levels include a Budapest hotel and a harbour in Rotterdam, with each location necessitating a different kind of playstyle. Hong Kong, for example, is a very civilian-oriented area. You can get away with walking around in civilian clothing and slowly working your way through the disguises to get close to your target. Meanwhile, the Colombia levels don’t offer that kind of safety net and you instead must sneak past guard patrols and infiltrate secret military bases as part of your objectives.
One of the more frustrating parts of these levels is that there are very few moments which actually offer you a lot of agency. The Hitman series as a whole is known for giving you big sandbox locations to let you play around in with an insurmountable number of variables, allowing for all sorts of different strategies for taking out the target. But Codename 47 often restricts you to an awfully specific routine to complete if you want to play it like a stealth game, and attempting to do any other method results in you blowing your cover and having to kill every NPC on the map.
It’s a decent first attempt at what the series’ formula would become, but ultimately not something worth coming back to if you’ve played any of the sequels. Heck, they even remade the best levels from Codename 47 in Hitman: Contracts. I absolutely love the series, and many of Hitman’s sequels are among my favourite games of all time, but Codename 47 is just too awkward to recommend anyone try out for themselves. But for better or worse, it made a lasting impact on the entire immersive sim genre.
Tested on PC
Developer IO Interactive
Publisher Eidos Interactive