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.
Episode One — March, 2016
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.
To be continued …