Not a Hit, Man: How an Episodic Release has Hurt the Hitman Franchise
Episodic games are nothing new in the gaming world. In fact, the very first episodic game was released in 1979. But, in recent years, episodic games have become much more popular, spawning an entire development team (Telltale Games) to be strictly episodic. This jump back to the old point-and-click adventure days has made it’s way into the mainstream, with Square Enix being the earliest adopter with their release of Hitman.
Upon completing my playthrough of the second episode of Hitman (2016), I was left with a bad taste in my mouth of episodic games. To a player who really hasn’t dabbled in the likes of Telltale’s acclaimed episodic titles, Hitman initially showed me promise of an introduction into this world. However, the more I play Hitman, the more I realize what a poor choice it was to make the game episodic.
Episode 1: The Hitman Vs. Telltale Debacle
While Telltale’s titles are able to reel players in and keep them hooked for months at a time, Hitman only presents me with a couple hours of gameplay within each release. Often times, adding to the overall feeling of brokeness, each episode feels more like an isolated segment instead of a piece to the whole. Io Interactive’s choice to make Hitman episodic hurts the game much more than it helps, and had they chose to wait another six months and release the game in its entirety, I feel like I would’ve enjoy it much more.
Let me give an example. Say your favorite superhero is the star of an action flick that’s coming to the big screen over the summer. But, the only way you could experience the film is via half-hour segments released over the sultry months. I don’t have to explain why this would be a problem for the majority of the movie-going crowd. However, contrast that with a TV series like Breaking Bad, or The Walking Dead, where the segments are much more bearable given the general length of time they are on air, and you have a successful story to tell. A long-running TV series has multiple turns, keeping the story fresh and the audience on their toes, while a movie (a lot of times) is just a one-trick pony, having a single story arch and sticking to it.
To complete the analogy, Hitman is like a segmented summer blockbuster, and Telltale’s games are like any successful TV series. Hitman really doesn’t have any tricks up its sleeve, especially the last two episodes not really creating anything to write home about, and the singular levels break up the flow of what should be a unanimous game. On the other-hand, Telltale generally has a unique story to tell, one that takes twists and turns much like a TV show and allows the story to push the game much more than the actual gameplay.
Telltale’s titles give you characters to become completely invested in, forcing you to mourn the loss of any person in the game (spoiler alert?). On the flip-side, Hitman is a game completely about killing, where you are suppose to assume the role of a, well, heartless killer. There is zero investment in the characters, and any investment in the story is minimal. That isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with that because plenty of great games are made like that (Postal anyone?), but that’s the key difference. Those are games, not episodes and the purpose that episodes serve (for the most part) do not line up with the story that Hitman is trying to tell.
Episode 2: Episodic Necessity?
One of the few perks of making a game like Hitman episodic is the ability to glance into how well the game is being maintained, and for the developer to get and implement feedback created by the community surrounding it. And, for this purpose, an episodic Hitman game (or any other similar title) may be a good thing. Despite this, it seems Io hasn’t taken full advantage of this resource, and I’m becoming confident that they have their roadmap laid out for them with no intention of deviating from it. In fact, even simple things like technical issues (I know, it’s like beating a dead horse at this point) have yet to be resolved, even with a major release of a new episode.
With all of this in mind, I begin to wonder what the purpose for releasing Hitman as an episodic game serves, and why the choice was made to jump into that realm. Maybe it was to piggyback the business model Telltale seems to find effortless success in, or maybe even just to change the pace of the traditional way we think about games. Whatever motive they may have, the intent that I walked away with is a sort of pseudo-crowdfunded game, where Io has taken their development time while recouping costs in real time.
While this may be a smart business move, to forgo the initial capital required to develop a game and bring the risk factor down significantly, it doesn’t mean that’s what players want–or deserve. The result is little tidbits of a game being released each month that connect only under the circumstances of a universe instead of being able to fully experience a franchise as notable as Hitman.
More suspicions are even more grounded considering Hitman was not originally intended to be episodic. Furthermore, Io Interactive has not kept their promise in terms of getting and implementing feedback. I’ll let them speak for themselves:
Part of that decision is for that little bit of extra time to ensure every location we release is at the quality level fitting for a Hitman game. –Hannes Seifert, head of studio at Io Interactive, in a press release
Everything that has been promised would be all well and good if it was in fact translated into the final product that consumers are now playing. With a strict, one month, one episode model, there is no possible way that Io has the time to dedicate to fully fleshing out unique and creative ideas for each level.
Episode 3: Where good games go bad
To be clear, I’m not trying to say Hitman is an inherently bad game, because it certainly isn’t, even having scored the second episode titled “Sapienza” fairly harshly. I’m only frustrated because I feel like the game experience is being translated and viewed under the right light. Had Io passed on the episodic idea in favor of a more traditional release, I would’ve been able to really immerse myself in the game and judge a full-fledged release instead of just looking and critiquing shortened segments of missions within the actual game. Titles like Hitman, and the majority of other titles on the market, are complete experiences where each moving part holds much less importance than the machine they combine to create.
As I stated earlier, the episodic structure of Hitman is actually suppressing, even suffocating the overall player’s connected experience. With a release schedule like Hitman has set up, there isn’t time to work around creative ideas the team may have. While a location like Paris works great the way it is, a location like Sapienza may need a little more brain-storming surrounding it, creating more unique ways to tie the location into the mission. And, playing through the episode, it certainly feels like there were at least a few ideas thrown at the door simply due to time constraints for release.
There are many noticeable results of this rushed development cycle. Levels deliver an overall closed off feeling, much like the circulation of creativity that was likely snipped a week before the release deadline. Not only does this created a dwarfed experience in the players eyes, but the developers had to see that they could only create a game that fits within the guidelines and structure of a single episode.
For the Aficionado
I will never know why Square Enix and Io chose to make Hitman episodic, but it seems like my speculations are grounded in reality. Despite their motives, the move has clearly hurt player connection with the game. Thankfully, we have references of how to pull off a genuine episodic endeavor as we have the library of Telltale’s work to compare Hitman to. And when that comparison is made, Hitman simply does not measure up.
While the idea certainly is interesting and progressive, it simply was not the right choice. In the game’s current state, it feels disjointed, lazy, with pacing being thrown straight out the door and new ideas completely suppressed. It’s comforting to know that the game will be released, in full, after all the episodes have launched. But, maybe that’s what should have happened all along.
I feel like I’m the victim in a corporate, contracted kill. It doesn’t feel like a work of art–and I absolutely detest that.