Friday, 1 September 2017

Hitman - Season One - Review

Developer: IO Interactive
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: Linux, PC, PS4 (version played), Mac, Xbox One 

Hitman Absolution wasn’t completely without merit, but it wasn’t Hitman. Having a linear structure destroyed what is arguably the best thing about the series; its freedom. Hitman is at its best when it simply plays out like a murder-happy sandbox, allowing players to do with it what they wish.

Hitman Season One gets this. Developers IO Interactive understand that the central appeal of the series is in giving players plenty of threads to follow, and then allowing them to do what they please with those different options and opportunities.

This is something that’s immediately apparent in the level design. The first major level of Season One takes place at a fashion event in Paris. There’s the main building, the cellars, the grounds out back. It’s refreshing to play a modern game that places this much focus on its level design. Each level is a puzzle, one with multiple solutions.

In fact, many of the levels can be overwhelming. The range of choices, options, angles of attack, how to get to your target and assassinate them, it's a lot to handle. It can be frustrating, not because it’s poorly made, but because there’s so much to take in.

Purists might cringe at the thought, but IO seem to have been aware of this train of thought. It’s been over ten years since Blood Money first released, and many of Hitman’s potential players might never have played a classic Hitman game before. Therefore, there’s the obligatory “assassin vision” that highlights targets and objects of interest; handy in a game that’s brimming with things that can be picked up and wielded as murder weapons.

Likewise, unique kill opportunities can be tracked via a quest marker for those wishing to follow them. Again, veterans might baulk at the idea, but it’s a welcome addition for those new to the series or struggling to find their feet. Hitman’s levels are large, dense, and, dare I say, sometimes a little convoluted, so the help is always nice for those that want it, whilst those looking for a bigger challenge can ignore them.

Over the course of the game’s six episodes you’re sent to various locations; Paris, Italy, Marrakesh and Japan, to name but a few, all with a different focus or pace to further set them apart. Sapienza, Italy, is arguably the game’s highlight, a classic Hitman level with you tasked with taking down two targets and destroying the virus one of them has been working on in their underground lab. It’s a wide open level, a sprawling puzzle as much as much as it is a stealth-action game.

Later levels riff and play off the earlier levels to keep things fresh. Marrakesh is a mass of crowds and clustered buildings, perfect for lining up an easy sniper spot...provided you can get hold of your sniper rifle without attracting attention. Perhaps because of the game’s otherwise slim number of levels, later chapters up the difficulty considerably. Colombia is by far the game’s toughest area, and it’s most frustrating, with Agent 47 tasked with taking down four different targets across an expansive farmhouse, filled to the brim with armed security.

The levels themselves are only the beginning however, a large portion of Season One’s longevity comes from the assumption that you’ll replay the levels multiple times. Additional challenges are on offer in the form of escalation missions, with you being required to off a target in a particular fashion, and then do it again, only with another target being added each time you succeed.

Likewise, the levels themselves have more to offer the more you level up your “mastery” of each respective location. This unlocks additional equipment, disguises and starting locations for Agent 47, allowing you to further hone your plan of attack to a razor sharp edge.

It quickly comes clear that, in part, this is why Hitman fits an episodic release. It’s a series that rewards obsession and demands a certain OCD mentality in order to get the most out of each environment. The first, second, even third time you play through an area can be frustrating, because you don’t understand everything that’s at play yet, you don’t know each guards’ route, what disguise will get you into what area, and so on. It’s when you’re on your tenth or fifteenth try, that the game, strangely, becomes more interesting.

That episodic release however, deserves to be brought up because it’s at the heart of so many of Hitman’s problems. On the surface, the piecemeal release, provided it was appropriately costed, wouldn’t be an issue.

Square Enix however, have foisted so much nonsense onto the game’s serialized structure that it quickly becomes suspect. Hitman all but requires that you remain connected to the internet. Should your connection drop, you’ll be kicked back to the start screen mid-mission. Likewise, booting up a save takes longer precisely because the game seems to be communicating with online servers, despite the fact that what you’re playing doesn’t really have any online functionality besides a few specific game modes, and sharing your scores with the rest of the world.

These problems quickly make other issues immediately suspect. The hefty price tag for just half of the game creates the impression that the game was broken up in order to justify costing more, rather than because the game genuinely worked as an episodic release. Additional challenges were “timed exclusives”; available for a limited time and then struck from the game entirely.

I deliberately waited to review the game until after its physical release, primarily because others likely did the same in order to get more value for their money. The result is clear, people that waited, bided their time in order to make an informed purchase, are punished, not just with exclusive DLC nonsense, but with the game actively removing content if you didn’t buy into it early enough. This is a frankly disgusting business practice.

Several games this year have suffered as result of nonsense like this. Publishers trying to deliberately eke more money out of customers with bogus methods of buying the games is nothing new, but Hitman Season One might actually mark a new low. A largely single player game, forced to be online, and having the experience actively waste away for those that come to it later on. It smacks of Square Enix experimenting with anti-consumer release models, presumably designed to undercut the used-sales market, and the game clearly suffers for it.

The mixed response the series has received, amongst stalwart fans, seems to suggest that fans won’t be suckered into a game that’s being sold to them deliberately to hoover up more of their money with very little in return. It’s a shame that the casualty of that has been IO Interactive. For all the problems that Hitman has, the developers certainly aren’t the ones at fault, even if they’ve been the ones left to suffer the consequences.

Is the game worth playing, then, should you still be compelled to go near it? That depends. It’s a selection of great maps tied to a collection of sometimes great and sometimes mediocre targets. Almost all of Hitman’s levels have two targets. One is almost always great, and the other feels largely like an afterthought, as if there wasn’t enough time to work both targets up to the same standard.

It’s a bizarrely shallow game in others words, each level is crawling with depth, experimentation, but that only comes from constantly plugging away at the same area, again and again, with its copy-and-paste additional challenges. The game’s “mastery level” alone feels more like a free-to-play mechanic, than something that should be within a full-priced game release.

Even in this abominable state, it’s still keeping more in the spirit of Hitman than Absolution ever was, but that’s about where the positives end.


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