IO Interactive’s new Hitman took a lot of risks in its release strategy. Though the studio tried to claim otherwise, it was always going to be released episodically - something rarely attempted by a major AAA game series. Thus, Hitman, the latest incarnation of a franchise about a man bitten by a hit before transforming into one, is coming out over the course of 2016 instead of all at once.
Alex reviewed the first episode when it dropped two months ago, but for episodic content, the second episode is the real test. Did the developer incorporate feedback from the first episode? Is the new episode worth the wait? Does the new distribution method work for this type of game? Responses to the follow-up episode, set in the fictional Italian town of Sapienza, feel like a referendum on the format.
Before getting into the actual content, it’s worth noting that Hitman’s always-online requirement still has the distinct odour of bullshit. In a single-player game with minimal online features, there’s no reason the player should require constant connection to Square Enix’s sometimes-unreliable servers. It’d be okay if the connection was used for anything in-game, the online features are limited to leaderboards and shared contracts (in which players can create their own custom missions and share them). Those are good to have, adding new ways to play the game, but they don’t affect the in-game experience. My guess is that, given the freeform nature of Hitman, IO is tracking player movements super carefully online, so as to better tweak future content. But for the player, in the moment, it’s a pain in the ass.
The episodic element of the game is a different story. More significant than just a drip-feeding of content, it actually changes the nature of the game in a fundamental way. Where previously one might play through the game from start to finish, now levels are their own self-contained units. Hitman has morphed into a sort of a puzzle game, designed around replaying levels in order to explore their systems and find hidden secrets. In a way, the series has always been like that, but by releasing the levels discretely, there’s even more emphasis on wringing all the playability out of each level.
If the episodic strategy means levels this complex and enormous, I’m all for it. Sapienza plops the player in a generous section of a picturesque coastal town, mostly centred around Agent 47’s target’s property. But in addition to that mansion and its grounds, there’s also a church, a sewer system, an underground laboratory, and a whole dang town. It’s almost dauntingly huge at first, full of assassination opportunities and interactive elements, though the town area is somewhat limited in utility. Agent 47 infiltrates this Rube Goldberg machine of people and lethality essentially dressed as Sterling Archer, and sets about messing with its thousand moving parts.
As with the best Hitman levels, Sapienza isn’t just a shooting gallery - it’s full of little micro-narratives to discover, follow, and interrupt. You can play upon your target’s superstition or neurosis; impersonate a secret lover; hide in a coffin to smuggle yourself into a secret area; and more. Or you can disguise yourself as a priest, find a good sniping spot, and let fly. It’s very silly, all approached with the series’ trademark deadpan gallows humour. There’s something innately extra-hilarious whenever something funny happens to the dour, stern-faced 47.
I laughed a lot playing through Sapienza, but it wasn’t all for reasons the developers probably intended. Sapienza is full of strange AI behaviours and glitches that aren’t unexpected in a game with this many interacting social systems, but really ought to have been caught prior to release. This isn't Goat Simulator, after all. Though it’s remarkable how many responses to disguises and behaviours IO has programmed, some AI reactions seem arbitrary, or even bizarre. Kitchen staff don’t notice you blatantly poisoning the bolognese; bodyguards drag phantom corpses around; mansion staff have an oddly specific “no golfers” policy. At the mansion’s main gates, security tell you they won’t let you in “looking like that,” phrased as if they’re judging your dress sense rather than checking to see whether you’re approved for entry.
Or you might, like me, get this strange interaction:
One area in which the episodic release structure definitely doesn’t work is story. Narrative in these games was always a thin thread tying the levels together, but when the episodes are a month apart, that thread essentially frays and breaks. Sapienza's story is something about a biotech manufacturer building a DNA-specific virus designed to affect only select people, all linking up somehow to a vast global conspiracy. It’s laughable stuff, and the cutscenes barely relate to the levels or the player. The assassination sandbox is fun to play around in, but we never feel the story or why we're meant to assassinate these people. Perhaps that’s the point: in order to be an effective assassin, you have to ignore context and meaning and just do the job. But I doubt IO intended it that way.
Hitman’s second episode adds another sprawling environment in which to enjoy doing bad murders, and sports gameplay options that demonstrate the game's mechanics are on the right track. But although Hitman will likely become a solid addition to its parent series eventually, it’s hard to recommend it at this stage. With its fractured release, the already-thin story just doesn’t make any sense, and the developers seem too busy getting the content done to put it through a proper QA process. Wait for the full release (at the end of this or start of next year), and you’ll have a handsome assassination game on your hands.
And also blood. You’ll have blood on your hands.