Written by Stephen Patterson
Hitman, the re-imagining of the decades long series of assassination games, released periodically throughout this year in the form of episodic map releases, each one bundled with myriad challenges, weapons and secrets to discover. It’s quite possibly the best Hitman game ever made, so I checked out the ‘Complete First Season’ bundle, which is now available, to get a feel for what makes IO Interactive’s latest foray into the world of Agent 47 so incredible.
First, some context – Hitman (2016) arrived on the back of 2012’s Hitman: Absolution, which although fun to play (I earned every trophy in it) really didn’t do much to capture the imagination of players used to the series. The storyline was convoluted, nonsensical and at times ridiculous – in one chapter you’re tasked with assassinating a group of combat nuns armed with submachine guns and large crucifixes. Missing from the mix was the sense of sabotage, stealth and intrigue which has been present in the game since it’s very beginning. Most of the time each chapter would devolve into a full blown gunfight with the police or an armed militia. Absolution simply was not the direction I, or many others, wanted the series to take.
What baffled many during January of this year was the announcement that Hitman (2016) would release episodically instead of the previous plan to release the game as a base pack with paid expansions, a trend which seemed to be emerging, for better or worse, on the back of games such as Telltale’s The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us. Criticism abounded over the concept of the format, many understandably believing that it would fracture the experience and cause players to lose interest in the game as they waited for the next section to be released. IO Interactive’s plan was simple – release each level of the game separately instead of the entire game at once, which, as it turns out, was a stroke of genius.
The game, quite simply, could be one of the best games released this year. It’s that impressive. On the surface level, it looks incredible, and the sound design for each level is not only tailor made for each area of each map (inside the Parisian location of the first map, the music of a fashion show seeps into every crevice dynamically), but also makes a huge impact on the gameplay experience: thrown items, radios, coins, anything that makes noise can either draw attention to you or away from you. In addition, each map contains a vast amount of options of taking down your targets, which hides IO’s real success with the episodic release schedule of Hitman: the frankly ridiculous amount of content created for each map location. Not only can you kill each target in dozens of ways, each map contains different targets for different mission types, special rules, restrictions, outfits… the replayability is absolutely off the charts.
Not only does that encourage you to come back, IO Interactive have developed one of the best systematic uses of community events I may have ever seen since the widespread adoption of online developer events during the last generation of consoles. Called ‘Elusive Targets’, these missions appear each week on a map chosen in advance, often with a special assassination target or indeed multiple to kill in succession, where you have only ONE chance. If you die, get caught or otherwise fail your mission, you chance to complete it and earn any rewards it may have granted is over forever. Finally, in complete contrast to the ridiculous gunfights of Absolution before it, Hitman 2016 captures the true heart-pounding suspense that typifies the best stealth games ever made. When hunting an Elusive Target during one of these bespoke events, every single encounter becomes one of perilous importance. Every time a guard starts to wonder who I am, or I take down someone to steal their outfit, I am stressed about being caught or singled out. Each action increases in magnitude as you get closer and closer to completing your goal – because getting spotted and shot will kill you in seconds.
Developing the game in this way is a stroke of genius because it achieved two key goals – it extended the lifespan of the game from March through to October (the release dates of the first and sixth episodes respectively) and beyond, but also managed to fill those months with reasons to come back to the game and try a different approach. In addition to the breadth of content and events available, one of the fundamental systems built into each map is the ‘opportunity’. As you move around each map to work out your plan of attack, the game my suggest an ‘opportunity’ you can pursue (the hints and guides for which can be turned off in the options for purists). They may take the form of conversations revealing a vulnerability in the target, or perhaps even just the location of an important meeting, item or piece of clothing that could help you on the way. Finding them all is a main reason to revisit each map and kept me coming back to the earlier maps during my time with the Complete First Season package over the past week.
The reason I chose to gush about the latest Hitman game today is that it perfectly fits my modus operandi for Aftertouch articles (those released on Tuesdays!): it’s been largely overlooked, likely because of it’s release strategy, but is in fact one of the best games of the year regardless. Hitman is not a game for those people who prefer to fall back on a ‘go loud’ approach and lay waste to their surroundings, but it is a game with nuance and strategy mixed with a huge dollop of hilarity and fun. If you have any passion for stealth whatsoever, you must play it.
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