A debrief of Hitman Season One.
The release of Episode 6: Hokkaido marks the finale of this ‘season’ on Hitman. I use inverted commas on ‘season’ because it still feels weird to me. I know Hitman isn’t the first game to use ‘season’, but it feels weirdly out of place in anything other than a game entirely driven by story (that’s why it doesn’t feel weird attributed to a Telltale game for instance). Perhaps due to the purity of its concept (emotionless super clone is the best assassin ever), Hitman as a franchise has always been somewhat schizophrenic. Ever since Codename 47, the franchise’s tone has changed like the weather, the low point being Absolution, a juvenile, Grindhouse inspired mess. To be blunt, Absolution was immature, poorly written and acted and grim in its portrayal of basically everything (but not in a way that felt knowing or clever). However, as bad as it was, Absolution had a clear identity. So what about this new Hitman?
In terms of story, frankly, there hasn’t been much over the course of the six episodes. The general cut and thrust involved a ‘shadow client’, manipulating 47 and his handler Diana into various hits. The format goes that with the ending of each mission, a high-production value 30-second cinematic plays out giving you another morsel of story. In typical Hitman style, said story involves shadowy government conspiracies and rogue assassins, at least I think it does. Despite completing an entire season, very little has developed, plot-wise. If I’m being kind, perhaps this is a show of confidence by IO Interactive, a conscious choice to tell a slow-burn of a story, building intrigue over potentially three seasons. This may be the case, but it doesn’t do the perception of ‘a bit like Early Access’ any favours. What it signals to me is a very obvious example of IO’s priorities. Undoubtedly, top of the white board at Hitman’s infancy was “make it nothing like Absolution, try and do it like Blood Money“. This rightly translated to large open levels with multiple approaches. The absence of latex-clad nun assassins was clearly a good thing, but with the bar already so low, Hitman could get by without an interesting story.
You could argue that it’s unfair to criticise a game’s narrative where it’s clearly not the priority. A game with far more ambitious targets such as Deus Ex: Mankind Divided; which made fleeting attempts at discussing trans-humanism, while drawing parallels with contemporary movements like Black Lives Matter is fair game. No one is buying Hitman for its story. A waste perhaps but outside of Diana (who is still an enigma) there are no characters to care about.
So then, gameplay. It’s commendable that IO have recognised mechanical and presentational shortcomings and improved upon them. After a somewhat shaky start, the latter half of the season was delivered quickly, with frequent inventive elusive targets, escalations and even smart ‘bonus’ reworks of existing levels. While I was happy that I’d get the chance to experience a new Hitman game as soon as possible, I had my reservations about the episodic release model. With no guarantee that each episode would be of a certain standard, there was a small element of risk involved in purchasing the full experience. With that in mind, let’s approach this debrief as a timeline.
March – Paris
While it was by no means a weak mission, Paris was solid but lacking in ambition. It didn’t help that it was also reminiscent of ‘Curtain’s Down’, an excellent Blood Money level set in an opera house with better accidents and more character. What Paris did effectively was familiarize us with how the systems in this new Hitman would work, in that sense, a public building with very clearly signposted no-go areas and staff hierarchy was a good starting point to the season – even if it wasn’t exactly a showstopper.
April – Sapienza
The success of Sapienza was crucial in winning the trust of gamers uncertain with IO Interactive’s ability to deliver a true Hitman experience over the course of the season. Sapienza not only reached the high standards set by the series’ best levels since it’s inception, it threatened to surpass them, showing what a Hitman game at the heights of its powers could look like. Sapienza managed to create a convincing town, mansion, church, lab and ruins. Not only where these areas beautifully rendered, but they made sense with the level’s overall design, adding complexity and a new sense of scale.
May – Marrakesh
With Marrakesh, IO Interactive showcased a level of juxtaposition between a sleek corporate embassy and a militarized former school. The episode smartly brought together its two targets, one a brutal general, the other a tax avoiding sleazebag. While rarely subtle, Hitman does sometimes offer us a world view, here it did so showing how small a separation there is between economic and military corruption. 47 may be ruthless and cunning, but IO Interactive put a great deal of effort into reminding us at all times that these guys have it coming, even if that message was usually delivered with clumsy dialogue from of the NPCs (for whom there only seems to be about four voice-actors).
August – Bangkok
Of first season, Thailand was my least favorite. While arguably one of the most visually stunning, its level design was the least satisfying. Parts of it felt abandoned without explanation and much of its outdoor space was highly restrictive. The lack of multiple paths to objectives even made the inventive accidental kills feel like a chore.
September – Colorado
The penultimate level proved to be a fun and necessary change of pace. As nice as Thailand looked, it was yet another lavish hotel. The Colorado farm had a completely different feel to what had come before. There was dirt, overcast skies and no civilian populated ‘safe zones’. From the get-go the stakes felt higher, you weren’t killing rotund lawyers anymore, you were after the kind of targets that governments put on playing cards. Crucially, the farm also introduced considerably more story into the mix, something sorely lacking up to that point. Inevitably it rose as many questions as it answered, but finally a narrative started to take shape.
October – Hokkaido
Hokkaido was an excellently designed level but unfortunately it’s placement as a finale diminished its impact somewhat. Leading up to Hokkaido and following the change-ups from Colorado, I was expecting some surprises or risks. I had hoped we might get another level with the scale of Sapienza but with a little something learned from each of the previous episodes. However, it would be unfair to criticize Hokkaido for what it wasn’t. It was a beautiful level with smart design choices and good kills but at best it felt like a mid-season finale.
Would kill again?
Absolution’s failed attempt at trying something different with the assassination-puzzle formula turned a lot of the old guard against the franchise. Add to that an episodic model during a time where micro-transactions, weak DLC and vertical slices popularized a feeling of mistrust in a lot gamers and it’s fair to say that prior to release, Hitman had a lot going against it. Despite all this, IO Interactive have turned in a proper Hitman game, worthy of mention alongside Blood Money, with the excellent live-content (the elusive contracts are exhilarating) and a strong design philosophy. Hitman is a good, occasionally great murder simulator.
If a second season can continue to subvert the gameplay mechanics and build a stronger narrative in a short time, this new Hitman is on track to being something special.