It's appropriate that "Hitman" is my first "Hitman" game on the basis of the name alone.

The sixth entry in Square Enix's stealth action series has done more than enough to earn the tabula rasa that is its title: Namely, its six levels were released on a schedule of one a month (or three). For a debatably AAA game franchise, it's a bold if not unprecedented bucking of industry trends that have made Day One the singular climax of the years-long development cycle.

"Hitman's" episodic structure is more than economic novelty, though. And it's more than a way for Agent 47 — the series' bald, red-tied protagonist with a barcode tattooed on his neck and piano wire at the ready — not to wear out his stoic welcome. Most importantly, "Hitman" piecemeal proves symbiotic with the very experience of playing the assassination sandbox — so much so that it's been one of my favorite games of 2016.

While the installments of "Resident Evil: Revelations 2" or "The Walking Dead" would have played just as well, if not better as a lump sum, "Hitman's" six levels in succession would not. That's to say nothing of the quality dip such a release might have caused by depriving IO Interactive the extra time to develop its over-the-top characters and the geographically varied levels where Agent 47 kills them. The real reason "Hitman" works so well in this daring format, though, is the character of the levels themselves.

From the EDM pulse and 1-percenter whimsy of Paris' fashion show to the icy futurism of Hokkaido's off-the-grid hospital, each "Hitman" level tangles up multiple lines of cause and lethal effect. Their dense, asymmetrical layouts defy easy memorization as much as their enemy placement does exploration. They insist on being played, and played, and played again until your Agent 47 has knocked off his marks in every Rube-Goldbergian manner available. And when there's no next level, you're freer to do so.

If "Hitman" was one 20- to 25-hour globetrot, I might not have discovered that I could kill Gen. Reza Zaydan in Marrakesh by mic'ing his shit-talking underlings and, when he came to dress them down, dropping a toilet on his head from the floorless bathroom above. I might not have discovered that I could crush both Sean Rose and Penelope Graves with the car ram set up on their rural Colorado militia outpost. I might not have gotten nearly as much puppetmaster delight out of "Hitman" as I did.


Agent 47 returns in "Hitman."

IO Interactive invites you to scour its levels for every one of these opportunities by keeping the rest of "Hitman" simple. Its story plays out in short, but well-animated cutscenes where illuminati trade cryptic warnings about some new world order and hints about Agent 47's origins. Inventory, controls and UI are just as streamlined and polished, leaving nothing to distract or discourage you from interacting with the game's environments as deeply as you can.

So instead of fumbling with pocketfuls of gadgets and paying most of your attention to waypoints and contextual prompts, you can soak up Agent 47's surroundings. You can find appointment books or overhear conversations that flash a spectrum of murderous possibility spanning the bloodless (poison) to the spectacular (an 18th-century cannonball to the face). I would only suggest letting yourself stumble onto the game's opportunities naturally, and following them through with handler Diana Burwood's instruction, rather than marking them blindly from the game's menu.

As usual, the most useful pieces with which you unlock these puzzles aren't guns, nor knives, but clothes. In an unwitting commentary on the way they announce your social status, Agent 47 can freely access certain parts of his heavily guarded or highfalutin levels with certain disguises. But the game cleverly scatters enemies who can see through them, so those doctor scrubs don't guarantee you can stroll under the noses of your OR staff. However, some enemies can spy Agent 47 despite not actually having eyes on him, in one of the game's few recurring faults.

Otherwise, "Hitman" maintains a firm but fair difficulty. Eagle-eyed moments aside, its AI is tuned to a sharp but reasonable level of alertness and ability. Gunfights will almost always result in Agent 47's death, as will hand-to-hand combat if more than one enemy is trying to get a crack at him. With those hazards nudging you toward stealth, the game's mission rating system rewards cleanliness (no alerts, no bodies found) and its challenge system rewards creativity (finding a fortune teller disguise and killing your target with a shard of crystal through his eye).

Another achievement of "Hitman" is how consistently it strikes a tonal balance. In the vocabulary of another suited killer, it's "Casino Royale" one minute and "Moonraker" the next. But its grim moments improbably co-exist with its cartoonish ones because, like "James Bond," "Hitman" has become an institution in its medium. And in this new episodic format, it's never executed its ambitions so flawlessly.

Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or Follow him on Twitter @drwilcox, or find him on PSN or Xbox Live under the name davewiththeid.


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