Hitman’s Freelancer mode makes it one of the best roguelikes ever

Hitman’s Freelancer mode makes it one of the best roguelikes ever

The modern Hitman trilogy – or rather, Hitman World of Assassination, as it’s now known – has always flirted with the roguelike genre. As Agent 47 of the Blank Slate, you embark on clockwork missions to remote locations, exploiting target routines and generally wreaking havoc in the most creative ways possible. On a run, you poison a target, follow them to the bathroom, and drown them in the toilet vomiting. The next day, after unlocking a new infiltration point and corresponding disguise, you swap a golf ball for its explosive twin, watching happily from the garden as your target plows a new iron into its unexpected demise.

For over 22 years, developer IO Interactive has honed its knack for extracting joy from repetition. With its new mode, one that fully deserves the roguelike moniker, it has almost reached perfection.

As free DLC goes, Freelancer Mode is less “extra content” and more “radical reinvention”. While the core trilogy encourages replaying the same mission over and over – the better to execute the most ingenious and hilarious kills – Freelancer forbids repeats. You plan a mission with the limited information you have, improvise in the field, and move on to the next location.

This new gameplay loop revolves around taking down four Syndicates through increasingly longer series of missions. The first syndicate requires you to complete two missions before attracting the leader of the syndicate. At this point you fall into the last slot, identify the leader by patiently watching for the “dits” and eliminate them. To complete a race or “campaign”, you must kill all four Syndicate Leaders without dying. In total, you are looking at 18 locations. (If that sounds complicated, don’t worry: IO has made a pre-brief tutorial video, which you can watch here.)

Picture: IO Interactive

Of course, this being a roguelike, you’re probably going to die – a lot. When you perish, you start a new campaign from scratch, shuffling targets, locations, and items, along with a host of modifiers and random events. You even lose any hooks, sedatives, or explosives you collected on your previous run. The only constant? Your haven.

As the obsession with video game “hub worlds” continues to grow, IO has crafted a fortress of solitude to rival the best of them. The bunker under an Agent 47 house is sleek, utilitarian, and, for the world’s greatest assassin, surprisingly comfortable. I remember the house in Ex Machina. As you climb the Mastery Ranks in Freelancer Mode, you can unlock new rooms, earn more decorations, and fill in the gaps on those weapon walls that every spy worth their salt seems to have. The Refuge, unlike your tools, missions, or targets, does not reset between runs, and upgrading it is almost as satisfying as fleshing out Zagreus’ house in Hades. But while this corner of the underworld is teeming with friends and family, in Hitman’s Freelancer mode, Agent 47 is more alone than usual.

A sense of isolation is paramount at Freelancer, not just in tone, but in function. While Agent 47 enjoyed the support of the International Contract Agency in the vast majority of missions in the trilogy, the reluctant assassin has since gone…well…independent. Hence the need to build the refuge and the armory from scratch, but also the need to sift through the information on your own. Series mainstay Diana Burnwood is always there (and still voiced by the phenomenal Jane Perry, of course) to offer a guide, praise successful missions, and bemoan your bullshit. But when it comes to which four Syndicates to pursue on any given race, that’s up to you.

Picture: IO Interactive

Therein lies the brilliant fulcrum of Freelancer mode. The eight random groups (represented as tidy folders) each have random optional objectives that cater to certain playstyles. Complete these optional objectives and you’ll earn a currency called “merces”, which you can spend on disguised vendors scattered around throughout each mission.

Hitman’s Freelancer mode is something of a rarity: a heady mix of challenge and accessibility

These optional lenses are as much a boon as they are a way for IO to push you out of your comfort zone. In my third campaign, I chose to hunt a human trafficker, whose optional objectives mostly revolved around pure stealth. This being my preferred playstyle in the Core Trilogy, I had little trouble picking off low-level Syndicate members with my bare hands, hiding them in freezers, and vanishing without a trace. By the time I arrived on the Isle of Sgàil to obliterate the boss, I had amassed a useful assortment of hooks, keys, and non-lethal poisons, and completed the job without much trouble.

I had also, by chance, added a few guns to my wall of weapons, and decided to shake things up with my second syndicate: a group of arms dealers. The optional objectives for these missions needed to be loud, as they say – kill three guards with a shotgun, take out a target with a sniper rifle, and so on. Although these were not in line with my usual methods, this syndicate took me to some of my favorite places (Whittleton Creek, New York, Berlin and the Maldives).

Picture: IO Interactive

How was it? Not great, Bob! Because I fired shots in the first two places, I scared the superiors in the following places. These missions have been granted “On Alert” status, which makes it much harder to sneak through them unnoticed, regardless of my disguise. I appeared in the New York parking lot, missed a chokehold attempt, and fell to the ground in a leaden storm.

There’s an array of other modifiers and random events that can appear in every campaign, but frankly, I don’t want to spoil them here. Half the fun of Freelancer mode is going through one or even two Syndicates, only to open your third case and realize how screwed up your greed for grace has been. But you still skip to the next place, because improv is half the fun – and half the comedy – of this excellent series.

Hitman’s Freelancer mode is something of a rarity: a heady mix of challenge and accessibility. It plays on the pride of long-time players, but also guides newcomers with themed goals and a more explicit overall structure. This may not allow for the micro-repetition that rocks the core trilogy. But he maintains rapid momentum from the start of each run to its bitter, comedic end. After so many hours with this trilogy, combing through each of its slots for something, everything I missed, I no longer thought it possible that IO would surprise me – but here we are.

Hitman World of Assassination’s Freelancer mode was released on January 26 on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. The DLC has been reviewed on Xbox. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, although Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased through affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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