|Platform Win, PS4, Xbox One|
|Publisher Square Enix|
|Developer IO Interactive|
|Release Date Mar 11, 2016|
It may be the sixth proper game in the series, but Hitman (2016) is likely being held to the standards of just one of its predecessors.
Hitman: Blood Money has become a cult hit since its release in 2006, its methodical and creative assassination gameplay serving as a benchmark for a different take on the stealth action genre. Blood Money refined developer Io Interactive's sandbox sensibilities into something both approachable and sophisticated, honing the ideals of experimentation and improvisation that the series had been building until then. While 2012 saw a follow-up in Hitman Absolution, Io's turn toward a more cinematic, action-driven bent for series protagonist Agent 47 alienated fans who wanted more of Blood Money's puzzle boxes.
From a design perspective, this new Hitman feels like a response to those fans, and their desire for a more perfectly realized system to experiment with their more murderous, Rube Goldberg-ian impulses. But for reasons best speculated on elsewhere, Io Interactive is once again adding a new, impossible-to-ignore variable to the equation: Hitman isn't releasing all in one piece. Instead, the game has been separated into "episodes" scheduled to be released throughout 2016, each one a proper chapter as would be expected in previous Hitman titles. This review will follow the series as it develops, with updates as each chapter arrives detailing the current state of the game.
Hitman's first episode is a promising start for the game. It opens prior to the events of its predecessors, as Agent 47 is inducted into the clandestine International Contract Agency, or ICA, and meets his handler and confidante throughout the series, Diana. The ICA immediately subjects 47 to a battery of training scenarios to ascertain his field competency in completing assassination assignments, an opportunity Io smartly uses to serve as Hitman's tutorial.
Io has always struggled introducing its systems to new players. While many games take place in an open area, allowing players to screw around without issue, Hitman has numerous overlapping systems that allow for improvisation and creative play that depend almost entirely on the reaction of NPCs to make magic happen. With so many opportunities, it's vital that players understand exactly what 47 can do, and how the world will react to his actions, and in that respect, Hitman does particularly well.
Of course, with the game's defaults enabled, this can feel like overzealous babysitting. Hitman allows you to disable almost any UI element and information supplement you prefer, even walking through each type in the tutorial and giving an option to disable them. But without tweaking those settings, Hitman feels a little aggressive in telling players about the different options available to them. The in-game UI taps them on the shoulder with important bits of information and providing waypoints on the screen leading to vital mission intel and targets often before the game has even established what they're for.
What they're for, ultimately, is killing. Hitman is a game with a narrow focus: Kill your targets. The goal is simple, but the complex world that exists around that target is Hitman's appeal. In that respect, this new game so far seems poised to top Blood Money or any other game in the series for that matter. The game's prologue missions feel on par with previous games in the series regarding size and scope, but Paris, the first chapter, feels bigger than almost any previous level in the series, with what seemed like more than half a dozen possible ways to complete its objectives.
Exploring this episode — a fashion show in Paris complete with a runway you can experience firsthand — felt like the realization of Blood Money's often clumsy attempts to build a world on hardware that wasn't truly capable of it. Wandering with deadly purpose through hundreds of partygoers inside a massive mansion, Hitman has moments of true disassociation from the obvious systems that dominate most stealth games. It feels organic.
This organic sensibility does add a new layer of complication to the series. You can tamper with objects and sabotage various bits of equipment and machines, but you'll often need tools found around the world to do so. Where a crowbar or wrench may have been a level-specific prop in previous games good only for mayhem, here, they're necessary to complete certain tasks. I felt forced to make use of the environment much more, and this was a good thing.
This is important, as Hitman has an involved challenge system practically daring you to try every possible strategy and dig through every level as thoroughly as possible. The breadth of stuff in the prologue and first chapter are in keeping with series tradition, but something feels forced about how heavy-handed Hitman is about the things you should do and see.
I can't help but feel this is in place to make what Hitman is bringing to market feel more full than it actually is. I felt a bizarre disconnect finishing the first chapter of the game knowing there wouldn't be another episode for ... I'm not sure how long, actually. Io is trying to push a cliffhanger-laden story with the game that sets each episode up as part of a vast global conspiracy, but right now, Hitman doesn't feel episodic — it just feels unfinished.
This isn't just due to an unceremonious end once you complete the Paris mission. There are numerous rough spots in Hitman's presentation, including a "Russian" general who switches accents intermittently and some quest triggers that didn't work in the review build I played. Other than the aforementioned accent, everyone in the game is speaking English, regardless of setting. More damning, menus in Hitman are very sluggish — pausing the game to save, load or do anything else can often take 30 seconds or more.
And, finally, and maybe most obviously, Hitman is a strange, difficult to qualify value proposition right now. You can get just the prologue and first episode for $15, with a $50 fee to upgrade to the full "season," and, like other episodic games, you can go episode to episode if you want to. But with a game that very much feels like a AAA game cut into pieces, this all seems a little surreal.
Luckily for Io, and, well, for me as a fan of the series, what it has finished is a very promising start. Even discounting the next episode, the return of Contracts mode, which allows players to create their own custom assignments for other players to attempt, signals that players will have a fair amount to do. And the Elusive targets Io plans to introduce to the game over time could be an exciting experiment in "event" programming, if all goes well — and we'll update this review once the first Elusive contract goes live. In the meantime, there's enough in Hitman now to suggest Io might be making the game that Blood Money hinted could be possible. And the hard part now is waiting to see if Io can make good on that.
Episode two — April, 2016
With the first new chapter added to Io's new Hitman after the game's launch, it's becoming clearer where the game's strength's lie — and where old annoyances remain.
Sapiens is evocative of some of the Hitman series' more classic, "big" levels, especially Hitman 2's Bazaar and a plethora of scenarios in Hitman Blood Money. It avoids the massive crowds of Paris for surface area, and while it's not better than Paris, exactly, it is different enough. I felt a greater sense of discovery, though for whatever reason, Sapienza feels more miserly with its secrets. It was only on my second play through that a number of possible solutions to Hitman's murder puzzles presented themselves, and I'm glad I did — the game was much more fun after some additional experimentation.
I'm not sure how much of this opacity was due to online issues I suffered while trying to play the game. Io's insistence on making online games and offline games separate means any run through a level when not connected to the internet isn't scored in any way, shape or form — no contract rating, no points, nothing. If the game disconnects, progress in a game started online is unavailable.
This is annoying.
More annoying is Hitman's tendency to overshare with some information while withholding other, score-critical moments. For example, I silently eliminated both of my targets and destroyed their assassin virus without being seen or heard, leaving no trace, but somewhere along the way, a non-target died, and I had no idea until I finished the level and was severely penalized. Reloading a mid-level save seems pointless, considering I have no idea when or where the person in question died.
Hitman has always had some variation of this problem, but previous games were much, much smaller, with what felt like less waiting for targets to wander huge spaces to arrive at specific points at specific times. It was easier in Hitman Blood Money to fail quickly and restart a mission — a successful run would take minutes. in Hitman (2016), it's becoming clearer that missions are just going to take a lot longer. With that in mind, a small, unnoticed, unmarked mistake is a much bigger annoyance, and a lot more wasted time.
Otherwise, many of the issues present at release continue. There's a slight messiness to presentation, and the universal presence of English no matter where the game takes place is distracting. Load times are much faster and saving a game is no longer the huge time commitment it was at launch, though menus still take far more time than they should.
As it stands, however, these things aren't deal breakers. Hitman may be showing the growing pains of a game learning to tailor its feedback to a much bigger playspace than the series has seen before. As it stands, that growth is leading to a game that feels just a little more at home with each episode.
Hitman is two-thirds done with its episodic schedule, and it's becoming clearer where it's going.
Hitman has consistently been compared to Hitman: Blood Money, and for good reason. After Hitman: Absolution took things in a more linear, narrative-driven direction in 2012 to mixed fan reactions, developers Io took things backward and reinvested in Blood Money's closed sandboxes.
The results so far have generally been good, as Hitman has introduced even more of a sense of viable experimentation into the series. There are always at least half a dozen ways to do just about everything, from over the top violence to sneaking in and then out like a ghost. There's a renewed sense of play present, and improvements to the series AI and controls add up to a game that plays about on par with most stealth-oriented titles.
It's a classic sequel in that way — it's just better, across the board. Everything has been refined. And it's worth noting that over five months, Hitman has gotten a lot smoother in its UI and performance, including a much appreciated option to lock the game's framerate on console. Load times are much improved as well.
But something about the escalation and improvement of Hitman's scale and scope is eroding just a bit at the sense of macabre spectacle that defined Hitman Blood Money and its predecessors.
There are plenty of ways to accomplish every mission, which on paper is great. And it's fun to feel rewarded for playing organically. But the operatic mission climax, where you set all the dominos in place and watch the murderous Rube Goldberg machine spring to life, that seems lost in that sea of new opportunities. In Hitman, I'm feeling more like a murderer than I am an ironic death curse, and I don't know that I realized how much I valued that feeling in Hitman Blood Money, how important it was to that game, until now.
On the other hand, the primary target in Hitman's Bangkok mission is an indie rocker with a man-bun, so the series macabre humor hasn't left the building completely. In the meantime, the game is ramping up nicely as it approaches its final two episodes (at least, for this "season"), and Io continues to offer interesting side content and elusive targets that show a great understanding of Hitman's basic fundamentals moving forward.
To be continued ...
Episodes Five and Six — November, 2016
Hitman’s first season comes to a close with episodes five and six, and they serve as examples of how developer Io Interactive has gotten things right bringing Hitman into the current console generation, and where it’s made less progress.
Somewhat strangely, speaking strictly from a difficulty perspective, Hitman’s fifth and sixth chapters feel inverted. The paramilitary training ground of Colorado is so target dense, and so full of witnesses, and seems so hell-bent on throwing a wrench into every plan that the comparatively simple one-two punch of assassination in chapter six’s Hokkaido medical facility seems like dessert. You can get caught there, but it feels more classically Hitman, where you can explore and really get to know the level, once you have the right disguise. Colorado, meanwhile, is more out in the open, and even spaces that seem specifically tailored for "accidents" aren’t safe to dispose of your targets.
Hitman is often better because it’s more complicated, more sophisticated. There are more active, aware witnesses and challenges than the series has ever seen. But it also leans so heavily on density that experimentation feels more trial and error than ever. Many assassination opportunities hinge on timing-oriented events that can’t be predicted reliably. Each Hitman assignment feels like a heist, which is great, but it’s a heist you can’t plan for the first time around.
And this drills down into the biggest caveat for Hitman at the conclusion of this season. It’s a game that’s oriented around playing everything more than once, whether that’s what you want or not, and I can’t help but wonder if the game was tweaked around that in part because it’s so comparatively contently light judged against previous Hitman games. I found myself surprised a few months ago that this season would only see six releases and six proper destinations, not counting the tutorial missions, and now that the game is over, it still feels a bit thin.
It’s not that there’s nothing to do in Hitman. Each mission has plenty of unlockable starting points and possible means of resolution, but the constant sense of surprise and newness from mission to mission in Hitman: Blood Money just doesn’t materialize here. Elusive contracts are a great, community-driven addition, and it’s been exciting to see them grow and get people interested. But I’ve experienced firsthand how detrimental their haphazard scheduling can be to actually playing them. In a post-DVR era, scheduled video game entertainment’s novelty is outweighed by its inconvenience.
Which is to say, Hitman (2016) isn’t a perfect Hitman game. There are still things that 2006’s Blood Money did better, and the narrative and world of Hitman: Absolution is leaps and bounds more interesting than the start and stop attempts at a broader conspiracy story that this new game attempts to tell — and the obligatory massive cliffhanger of an ending is a little insulting, given the complete lack of any resolution this season of the game offers.
But taken for what it is, and what it’s doing, Hitman is still pretty great, and it’s still offering something that no one else has done and still aren’t doing. And in establishing a strong, episodic offering for the series, Io has built a foundation to carry the Hitman series forward much sooner than they ever have before.
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