When I put time aside for a book or start a new show on Netflix, I tend to make the completion my actual goal. Sure, I’m there to be entertained and experience something special, but whether it happens to be an upcoming class or shift at work, my time has always been limited: why linger on one thing for an extended period when I could be exploring an entirely new frontier with the click of a button? Truthfully, this attitude has also followed me to the realm of gaming. I have a few mainstays that find their way to my thumbs at least once a week (hello, Dirt Rally), but regardless of deadlines, when you’re trying to make a name for yourself as a critic, you push yourself to finish whatever’s on your plate to make room for the next dish.
Lately, I’ve found that episodic gaming offers a welcome respite from my neverending sprint to the next attraction. Life is Strange, The Walking Dead and Kentucky Route Zero stretch their chapters across several months, applying the brakes at their own discretion. Surprisingly, having little to no control over the game’s pacing is liberating: these forced breaks leave me feverishly theorizing over where the story will go next, also acting as convenient discussion prompts with friends. I get the opportunity to luxuriate in the finer details of a plot beat, or one cute quip that might have been lost amongst hundreds of other one-liners if experienced in a marathon, five-hour stretch.
I used to think story-based games with minimal “action” mechanics were the beginning and end of the episodic format. Aside from the developers (who doubtlessly appreciate any extra time they can get), who wins when a first-person shooter spits out one new level a week? Of course, as with most novel ideas, you never even consider the most obvious answer until it’s right in front of you. Or, in Hitman’s case, shooting you full of sedatives and dumping your numbed lumps of flesh into the Seine.
Few series call for the repetition of a level quite like Hitman. Blood Money, its oft-heralded masterpiece, had the membrane of a traditional campaign, but it was mere window dressing designed to whisk you from one scenario to another. Each level was a diorama of death, filled with NPCs going about their business and numerous ways to either blend in or interrupt said business. There was less of a set path and more of a series of playful prompts: “Here are your targets, a handful of opportunistic moments and plenty of ways to get there. Go wild.”
After Hitman Absolution unsuccessfully traded the freeform challenges for a lousy, linear campaign, Hitman 2016 uses the en vogue episodic format to offer an opening level in Paris that makes even Blood Money look constrained. You’re given free rein (provided you’re wearing the right costume) of a palace bursting with reporters, crewmembers, fashionistas, heavily-armed guards, chefs… every corner offers something unique, something that grabs your attention with its dedication to detail. You can follow a single character as they go about their business, grabbing appetizers, overseeing auctions, and engaging so many conversations that you start to wonder if they’ll ever run out of new things to say.
It’s almost a shame that you have to trample on these moments with your Silent Assassin routine, but Hitman has never made it more satisfying to do so. Gone are the days of costumes that would immediately make you suspicious to everyone else wearing them: the level is peppered with senior staff that will see through your ruse, but most will either cordially greet you or point you in the right direction. There are also a number of “Opportunities,” or step-by-step instructions on how to carry out a particular assassination, which prove useful for finding your footing and exploring the many options at your disposal.
As fun as the pre-made Opportunities can be, some will rightfully balk at how eagerly it holds your hand every step of the way with map markers and objectives. Thankfully, you have full control over the information you’re given, with options to disable everything from your special Instinct vision to the minimap in the corner. By putting the accessibility of Absolution and challenge of Hitman’s past on the same table, it’s relatively easy to find the combination that suits you best.
Sadly, there’s no setting present to disable the grimy baggage IO Interactive brings to the table. With the sole exception of 2009’s Mini Ninjas, IO has infused their games with disgust for everyone and anyone that inhabits them. They leave no room for morally gray or complicated ideas: your targets are overweight, preening, abusive or some combination of the three, uttering grotesqueries like “At least try to hide your adam’s apple!” It’s hard to imagine they don’t take some amount of pleasure from the odious dialogue they write, since their ad campaigns are notorious for their utter tastelessness. When their latest onslaught, featuring fake pools of blood right beneath bathroom stalls, is widely considered one of the mildest promotions they’ve made, something isn’t right.
With only one level available, it’s difficult to tell if Hitman has actually matured in 2016. The humor in Paris certainly seems to be lighter than it used to, offering nonviolent ways to make your mark like invading a reporter’s personal space during a shoot or donning a vampire magician costume (yes, really) in the middle of a heavily-guarded attic. Still, IO’s uglier side surfaces from time to time, with a stereotypically gay designer his aforementioned transphobic remark. This is all taking place in a high-society public event, mind: with a level in a Middle-Eastern country on its way, I am hoping that the same team who wrote the undeniably racist first act of Blood Money won’t make the same mistake again.
While we’re talking negatives, I hope IO is rethinking their reliance on always-online progression. You can certainly play the tutorial missions and Paris without worrying about servers, but leaderboards, Escalation contracts and the Contracts mode itself all rely on an uninterrupted connection. If you’re playing online and the server dips for even a moment, your single-player session ends instantly. If you were just playing the campaign, there’s a chance you can back up to an autosave, but Escalation offers no such cushions, immediately negating any and all process thanks to a lousy server. I tend to be more forgiving when it’s my own connection at fault, but if you’re making an always-online experience and your servers aren’t up to the task 99% of the time, I will likely grow to loathe you.
The first chapter of Hitman’s latest outing is a strong return to form for a series that had a brief fall from grace. Despite server-related nonsense and IO’s trademark unpleasantness, I found myself returning to Paris again and again, attempting new strategies that mixed the game’s suggestions with my own improvisations. This self-contained slice of a clockwork world continued to hold my attention long after I would have shifted to the next leg of a traditional campaign. This will hopefully be the opening salvo in a brave new period where traditional games are distributed in decidedly untraditional ways.
Overscan (by Colin)
I have been more of an off-and-on fan of Hitman than Ben, but I agree that this one does a whole lot right (other than the server nonsense). My favorite part of it, though, is how far this entry is willing to go with suspension of disbelief.
In the first mission of the first Hitman, you disguise yourself as a member of the Triad, and the police chief you meet is very suspicious of a Westerner in that role. Cut to present day Hitman, where you can steal the outfit of a silver-haired, moustached Texan oil baron and everyone you meet greets you with a cheery “Hello, Mr. Norfolk!” Agent 47 makes no effort to disguise his face or voice, and for the most part everyone just rolls with it. It feels like the game is winking and nodding at us over these disguises, and this sense of humor makes the whole affair more enjoyable.
You can throw a fire axe overhead like a Celtic warrior, or steal a fireworks detonator. Hitman is, at long last, not taking itself too seriously, and I couldn’t be more glad.