It’s fair to say that Hitman’s unusual release model has at best taken the focus away from the game itself, and at worst, actively turned people off it completely. An increasing number of games now are adopting an ‘always online’ element; the common line is that this is to enrich the gameplay experience, to offer the chance to update content on the fly, to make the game more interactive. Looked at another way, you could see it as a method of stopping, or, at the very least, slowing piracy attempts. However, when primarily single-player games get the ‘always online’ treatment, it rustles some jimmies; particularly when you add to that the fact that the core Hitman fan base is pretty old and relatively hardcore, and consequently even less likely to buy into what is best described as a very ‘modern’ approach to game release. Obviously this release model makes people very suspicious, which is actually quite strange when you think about the acceptance of ‘early access’ titles on Steam. Clearly the big difference here is that Hitman is a triple-A, established franchise coming from a big publisher. The more cynical among you might even come to the conclusion that Square Enix/IO Interactive simply didn’t have enough money to finish the game, and the episodic release structure is a way of releasing a game a lot of people want without the sizeable financial risk.
I’ve seen positive reactions to the release model, with a common theme being ‘I’ve got too many games that I haven’t finished and not enough hours in the day, and with Hitman, I can jump into a level or even skip one I’m not interested in, and then a month later, a new one will drop’. The idea of skipping content is an interesting one, essentially giving you the option to forgo the game’s story and just pick out random sandboxes that appeal to you. It seems inevitable that the episodic content could hurt the story. In its current form, we basically end an episode with a small CGI cutscene that lacks context. Obviously, this will change as the story unfolds, but is it compelling enough that we care about it being drip-fed to us over the course of nine or so months?
I’ve put a significant amount of time into Hitman’s Paris level, and around four hours into the newly-released Sapienza level, and as a long-time fan of the series, I can say this is pretty much exactly what I was asking for after Hitman: Absolution dropped. Almost everything in Hitman 2016 feels like a reaction against Absolution. Gone are linear missions that focus on a story packed with outdated Grindhouse pulp and atrocious characterisation. Hitman 2016 is a return to the fan favourite Hitman: Blood Money. The new UI is clean, simple, and far more befitting of a Scandinavian developer than the ugly mess of Absolution. Where Absolution’s humour was crude, Hitman 2016 goes back to its roots of dark, if not very subtle, irony (you can blend in by paying your respects graveside or literally playing dead in a coffin).
With both Paris and Sapienza now out, we have a slightly more complete picture of what Hitman 2016 is attempting. Paris was the perfect testing ground for the game mechanics, crucially rewarding patience and exploration. Releasing Paris first was the correct decision. As a first level, Sapienza would be too daunting; however, having learnt the game’s language from Paris, I feel like I’m approaching Sapienza as an experienced assassin. If IO Interactive introduce enough new elements and challenges with each level, then this satisfying feeling of mastery and progression could prove to be the game’s greatest strength. Hitman 2016 is giving me everything I want from a Hitman game, but it’s also not surprising me with anything that I didn’t know I wanted in the first place. The next logical step for this franchise is perhaps a full-on open world, where money, procedurally generated hits, and emergent/non-linear storylines are the key. I hope that it does well commercially because Hitman 2016 feels like a good, half-finished blueprint of something potentially great.