This year has seen some AAA games live up to the hype, like Uncharted 4 and Quantum Break, yet has also seen some great disappointments, like No Man’s Sky and Street Fighter V. From Dark Souls 3 to Doom there have been some great iterations in established series as well and, throughout it all, Hitman has quietly been releasing its episodic sequel.
When last players controlled Agent 47, it was in Hitman: Absolution, which turned the series on its head with a more linear story that included entire levels that were not about assassinating targets, but simply sneaking the plot forward. Still, the story was not terrible as much as it was different, and to have the highly acclaimed Hitman: Blood Money, which came before it, not see a true successor was a point of much contention.
Enter Hitman, which in many ways has been a return to form for the series, bringing back sandboxes bigger and better than ever before, and focusing in on what makes the series so beloved: solving the puzzles that will allow 47 to take out his mark without anyone else the wiser. Why then has this title flown under the radar over the months since the prologue and first episode, Paris, were released back in March?
Admittedly, the season got off to a rough start. The title was originally set to be released in December 2015, but was pushed back to March to allow additional development time for more content upon release. In September 2015, Square Enix said that the Paris, Sapienza, and Marrakesh locations would be available at launch, with a total of six missions between them. Then in January the company announced that game would be going fully episodic, with the first episode containing both the prologue and Paris, then the other cities on a month by month release time frame. Not a good start for such an anticipated sequel.
The game is also digital only, with a physical release pushed to next year, available as either a “Full Experience,” containing all current and future content, or an “Intro Pack” with just the prologue and Paris, upgradable to the full season. Understandably, these changes incensed some fans who were unsure what exactly they would be getting at launch and why so many changes had been made in the first place.
Thus, upon its release the game was already overshadowed by the muddled waters of its production, and that was a major factor against it. Yet once players actually played the game, they saw that perhaps all was not lost. The wide open levels of Blood Money were back, the linearity of Absolution washed away. The lack of microtransactions is another plus, as all of the additional content besides the new episodes have been free to players. The game looks good and plays better, save for a few issues at launch that have since been resolved.
For one, the game initially required players to always be connected to the Square Enix servers, which were prone to disconnect mid-mission and force players to restart the entire level or rely on their saved games. This also caused any progress with the challenges, such as assassinating targets a certain way or donning a certain disguise, to be lost upon reloading. For a single-player game, especially one so reliant on perfect timing and reaction, the constant disruption to the gameplay ruined the immersion and became altogether frustrating. It was not until the end of April that these issues were patched, but in doing so the game was relieved of one of its most annoying “features.”
Since then, the game has been continually patched by IO, who have been nothing if not attentive to such issues as long load times and other bugs. That fact alone had quieted some of the uproar, and allowed players to fully appreciate just how well the game captures the spirit of the series. Just in terms of the gameplay the controls are fluid and make navigating the maps as simple as possible — a more cerebral challenge than a mechanical one as it should be. The variety of weapons and disguises allow players any number of ways to take on a given level, which, again, is what the series is all about.
Mastery rewards on each level are unlocked with high scores, offering new starting locations/outfits, weapons, and tools to help 47 navigate the mission. Whether the player opts for the signature fiber wire or accident kills, or chooses to snipe the targets from afar, the sense of freedom has returned to the series. Instinct mode from Absolution also returns, albeit more simplified, allowing 47 to identify targets and see if there are guards or other NPCs lurking around any given corner with an altered viewing mode. The ability to manually save at any point allows players to plan the mission moment to moment, and also saves time when replaying each level for specific challenges. Overall, the gameplay feels the best it ever has, and the continuous patches have smoothed over some of the rougher edges.
Looking at the episodes so far, they have each been varied and unique, offering a distinct challenge in their own right. The fashion runways of Paris remain a highlight from the pilot episode, but the coastal vistas of Sapienza, the crowded street markets of Marrakesh, the exotic charm of Bangkok, and the remote militia compound in Colorado have all been memorable in their own way. Two Summer Bonus episodes were also released, turning Sapienza into a film set and setting Marrakesh at night, providing more variety and new targets as a midpoint to the season. Some missions do, however, offer more flexibility than others. Marrakesh’s crowded streets are impressive, but not as conducive for assassination as say the underground tunnels of Sapienza. The latest episode, Freedom Fighters, places 47 immediately into hostile territory faced with four targets as opposed to the usual two and, arguably, has the strongest atmosphere yet with the tension mounted from the onset.
The month long wait between episodes, though not atypical for episodic titles a la Telltale Games, seems longer; for the first time players have to wait for each new level in the series instead of having them all at once. As fun as it is to replay each level and take a different approach, exploring the many opportunities and challenges available to the player for each location can get old. Enter Elusive Targets, a unique game feature which inserts a new target into one of the levels, giving players a limited amount of time and only one try to take them out. Players can restart any number of times, but if the target escapes or 47 dies during the attempt, they fail. When the ‘always online’ issue was still unfixed, it made the early targets doubly hard to catch for fear of losing due to no fault of the player’s own. Yet now they are a welcome feature, which keep things fresh — one of most notable ones features a katana-wielding Gary Busey in Sapienza.
In addition to the Elusive Contracts, there are also Escalation Contracts, which send players back to levels to complete 5 stages of an increasingly more challenging contract for a more varied challenge — top that off with one feature that was thankfully carried over from Absolution, Player Contracts. These allow for players to enter the sandboxes and select any NPC as a target and designate if a certain weapon or disguise is necessary to assassinate them. By allowing players to create their own puzzles, IO adds a unique dimension to the game which once again fosters creativity and replayability.
With the season finale in Japan set to release next month, Hitman has truly grown into its own over the past half year. The story lends itself to the episodic quite nicely, taking place 7 years after Absolution, with CGI cutscenes capping each episode, slowly revealing the enigmatic organization Providence and the shadow client who hunts them. There are references aplenty in each episode to the others, which helps with the immersion and continuity, and IO has seemingly made a smart move in going episodic for this narrative.
With two more seasons now planned, it is clear that IO has embraced the title despite its rocky start, and it has ultimately become a sleeper hit of 2016. A combination of pre-launch confusion and some early gameplay issues combined with a continuous stream of AAA titles released alongside the episodes have left what has become a solid game and sequel in its own right without as much praise as it deserves. However, as long as IO nail the finale, the disc release in 2017 may just give Hitman the belated praise it deserves, and perhaps give the sophomore season a little more hype than the freshman had when the time comes.
The opinions in this editorial are the author’s and do not represent OnlySP as an organization.