This years semi-reboot of the Hitman series has been somewhat of a surprise for both previous fans of the series and casual onlookers alike. It’s not only reinvigorated the well respected but often thought of insular game series in swift and apparently effortless style but it’s also completely legitimised the concept of episodic gaming.
For most people the Hitman games have always been somewhat self contained. Very specific, pinpoint accurate experiences for the more dedicated players. They have always been perceived as leaning closer to the more tactical or even simulation end of the friendliness spectrum only superseded by the more procedural Tom Clancy Games, although not nearly as dry.They had a tough and unforgiving edge that put many people off. Mistakes and rash action would see failure both in game and in rankings. The series always had a loyal following and did well though, feeling as it still does, like one of the last middle ground games. Not “Indie” but also not quite triple-A.
Over the years the series has lost some of what made it special, the quality was not quite there, it was missing something and fans had been slowly loosing interest.
This culminated in the 2012 release of Hitman: Absolution.
The game suffered somewhat from an over-abundance of bad, or just confused marketing, and what some saw as too far a move away from what had made the one of as kind beast that is was. Gone was the need to plan and remain in control. Hitman was moving swiftly into the realms of generic action shooter and further away from the thoughtful challenge it used to provide players. Preview events would emphasise the option to shoot your way out of or just directly through stages and situations. Square-Enix seemingly terrified to market the game as a stealth game at all.
Then came the trailers…
Oh who has yet forgotten the “saints” trailer. Probably the point in which the marketing for Hitman: Absolution, absolutely missed the mark, both offending a range of different communities and people while also totally misrepresenting nearly every aspect of the Hitman series up to that point. Within mere moments of the trailer being reviled the coverage of the game had become almost irreversibly negative.
No matter what the quality of the game, Hitman: Absolution was more or less going to be dead in the water.
Ironically while the game missed the mark in some areas and the point in others, as 3rd person stealth based action titles go Hitman: Absolution turned out to be perfectly ok. Even netting some positive scores and reviews from critics averaging at around a 8 out of 10. Yet this new release had inadvertently turned people away, and the title performed less well than would have been ideal.
All seemed lost to those looking for a return to form for the series… Until E3 2015
Dropping with nearly no fan-fair and few details, the new Hitman trailer, for a game simply titled “Hitman”, seemed to show that Square-Enix and I-o interactive had learned from the previous games marketing. The sight of an ice-cold Agent 47 running through the woods inter-cut with a number of different scenes of hitman-ing, worked as a tantalising taste of what the developers might have in mind.
Gone was the over the top and sexually suggestive themes forcibly shoved into the marketing of the previous title, instead there was a quiet intensity, it felt driven and to the point.
This Hitman was going to be different, this Htiman was going episodic.
Over the next year the Hitman world would expand outward, providing not just story based missions to play through, but a world for a whole range of content to arrive in. Hitman would not be available as an all in on disk package but instead released as a series of one off locations running for one season up until the end of the year. Six locations dropping over the twelve months, with regular events dropping in between episodes to keep people playing.
It would all relay on the first episode, and as such the game, being a good experience.
Welcome to Paris
Paris is one of the titles strongest locations. It’s large and complex enough to provide a wide range of possibilities and gameplay experiences. Every single section of the map being quietly thought out and unique. Two targets for assassination gave players a pair of variable challenges while quietly enforcing the need for stealthy play. Unlike Absolution, you couldn’t just mindlessly and needlessly go in all guns blazing and take out your target. Doing so would compromise the players ability to take out the second target, sectioned off as they we’re on another floor of the location. The stealth here was the priority, but much like previous titles, Hitman was and it about open-stealth. To hide in public, it rewards experimental play and the player being in on the games quiet wink-nod jokes.
Hitman’s Paris level is a playground filled with opportunities and toys. It’s A.I. and stealth mechanics being the pinpoint perfect balance between what classic Hitman players will have wanted and open and friendly towards new or inexperienced players.
I-o would release more than just this initial playground though, along with it came the return of Hitman; Absolution’s one truly good feature, Contracts Mode.
With Contracts any player could enter a map and tag a target for assassination, choosing how to assassinate and what to wear. These choices are additional challenges for the player to take on once uploaded to the service. You could just kill the one and more selected targets any way you liked, but to attain a real score of note, following the often obscure modifiers other players would often unintentionally apply to the level would be the real goal.
With player created contracts the title had a steady stream of challenging and original content to keep people busy between new episodes.
But wait, there’s more!
On top of the involved and challenging story missions Io introduced a second and more interesting bit of regular content to the game. Illusive Targets.
Once every few days a new target is added to the world of Hitman. Unlike lesser thought out games DLC or modes, these targets come with in depth back storys and fully voiced introduction videos. One could argue they are the real bulk of the game. It’s “final boss” so to speak. When a target drops every player gets a limited window of time to take them out. They can be on any map, and come with a mix of potential variables, ones that mix up previously understood maps or just challenge the players abilities on previously visited stages. They run from tough, to near impossible and always breathe new life into the game.
The rub with illusive targets though is that they are one time only affairs. Arrive too late to attempt one, die in the level, or just fail to kill them and you will never get the chance to to so again. Once a target is gone they are gone forever.
The combination of contracts mode and the illusive targets has revealed the hidden ingredient missing from other episodic titles. Where other titles using the delivery format slowly see a drop off in numbers episode on episode, Hitman has both remained active and managed to find a way to drive renewed interest on a weekly basis. Every time the player numbers start to drop, a new illusive target draws those lost players back in, even bringing newcomers.
In having a range or fresh and differently sized content drops both constantly available and continuing to grow Hitman finds a way to appeal to players with a range of budgets and skills. With season 1 now complete a new player can go all in with a complete edition, Buy just the first Paris stage and upgrade to the first season pass or even buy one level at a time as and when they can afford. No matter what point they enter, they also get a constant steady feed of free content via Illusive targets.
And it’s only going to continue coming with both a second (and maybe third) season apparently planned, illusive targets expected to continue dropping over the weeks and months between.
Hitman has been a near perfect example of how well episodic gaming can perform in a digital market, when well though out and built around a competent and most importantly entertaining and quality game. Hitman season 1 has been just that, a resurgence of a series though what is an amazing and well crafter video game. Open to newcomers, challenging to old fans and deeper than at first appears.