Hitman: The History, The Flaws, The Future

Uni /

Square Enix recently announced its withdrawal from IO Interactive, the development studio behind the latest entry in the Hitman franchise. While there hasn't been any definitive announcement about how this will impact the ongoing support for Hitman, it's almost certain that this means a halt to the development of the second season of episodes. Hitman has been a game full of controversies from the start, and with this one possibly being the last, it's a good time to look back at history of the game, its issues, and the future.

The biggest issues of Hitman's release came the earliest, with its episodic development and online DRM. Hitman launched with a tutorial map, a slightly bigger introductory level, and the first main stage of the game in a Paris fashion show. The intro pack which included only these levels was priced at $15, with a season pass available for a full $60. This pricing model was an attempt at letting players try the game before they fully commit, but it was met with harsh criticism from players looking for a more complete experience at launch. The DRM which forced players to stay online for unlocks was similarly criticised, especially with server connectivity issues at launch. While the gameplay was uniformly praised, the limited amount of launch content and DRM issues were enough to keep Steam community reviews of the game around a cold 50%. Only in April 2017, after over a year of episodes and updates did the reviews tilt to the "Mostly Positive" rating with 75% positive reviews. Even during that slow climb, not all episodes equally contributed, with the second episode representing the high point of community reception. Marrakesh was considered a combination of two weak maps, Bangkok claustrophobic, Colorado the weakest in general, and only Hokkaido a successor to the standards established by the first two episodes. While each map was still generally positive, the inability of IO Interactive to consistently put out levels as great as Sapienza put them in a bind with their pricing structure. In addition to buying the starter pack or full experience, players could also buy individual levels for $15. While buying every level this way would lead to a higher total cost, it also meant that it was commonplace for customers to skip the majority of Hitman's content. I even contributed to this, recommending to multiple people that they buy the intro pack, Sapienza, and Hokkaido on sale while skipping the rest to get the best value. This represented massive uncertainty for IO Interactive, having to put as much development bandwidth as possible into new episodes without any guarantee of a proportional amount of customers. The episodic structure may have allowed for community feedback and testing which resulted in an overall better quality game, but the double edge of allowing minimal consumer investment apparently made it unsustainable.

Among these big episodic releases were gameplay updates and balance changes, which were similarly a mixed bag. While I mentioned before that people praised the core gameplay as some of the best in the entire series, questionable balance decisions dulled community enthusiasm. The change most often discussed were the NPC view cones, which were moved from the chest to the head in the Summer bonus update. This is a change most people may not have consciously noticed, and it makes the game more realistic, but there was a significant knock-on effect that hurt the game overall. With the change coming months after levels had been put out, the behavior players were used to became unpredictable, and the natural way guards idly look around a room made them inconsistent and frustrating. Worst of all, this change broke some of the tightly designed Escalation missions, making them impossible to do without using rule-bending strategies like throwing coins as breadcrumbs until you had enough space to hopefully get past. Escalation missions in general ended up being a missed opportunity, with most requiring five playthroughs of goals that were often either tedious or trivial. When playing them, it's common to have to exactly replay what you did on an earlier stage because the game only checks for the current criteria, and the more difficult limitations like explosive laser barriers don't meaningfully change the way you approach a mission. Ideally, each step of an escalation would completely upend the prior approach by giving criteria that blocks the most logical strategies for the prior step and promotes creativity in the new one. Having to kill your target without getting spotted by cameras might be an additional challenge, but it's not a new way to fundamentally approach your goal. When you find a creative approach, there's also a chance that your strategy will get patched out, the most notable example being wall-banging, shooting targets through walls with a powerful sniper rifle. This change is a good representation of Hitman's balance update problems in general, frustrating expert players with repetition and limited options while not expanding on other mechanics and content to make up for it. It's another case where expert players became less likely to enthusiastically recommend buying the full game, during a critical period when an infusion of new customers was sorely needed.

In addition to the main missions and escalations, user contracts, challenges, and elusive targets are available, which are again good systems which never reached their full potential. Contracts mode allows users to create any mission that they can successfully execute, and anyone else can play those missions, so the two most important criteria for a contracts mode have already been established. The problem is how there's no control of this system in almost any fashion, with no mechanism for contracts to be rated or shared in way in the client. The amount of contracts you can put out is limited to ten, but the only way to get rid of them is to override the oldest one with the newest one. There are definitely quality community contracts, but with no way to find them, it's usually not worth the time investment. Challenges on main missions were IO Interactive's chance to essentially put out contracts of their own, asking players to break out of the default opportunities and strategies and get rewarded for their creativity with unlocks. However, they are the opposite of this, being a laundry list of opportunities to complete before you get all the unlocks you want. Having a system that rewards players for replaying and learning levels was a good inclusion, but this basic approach wasn't enough to be called new content. A professional difficulty mode was also recently patched in to function as a global set of challenges, with more attentive guards, disguise restrictions, and save limitations, but this was another case of not adding enough actual new content or promoting unique strategies. It actually had the opposite effect, promoting the safer and more restricted play that experts had already mastered and moved past. This also happened with the Elusive Targets, which were one-try-only missions set on existing maps with a new NPC target. Having performance pressure on a target with new AI was definitely an interesting idea, but they often came with other additions that made them less exciting. Previously free areas became secured, and targets often had such limited behavior that you could never fully leverage your map knowledge. This combined with how you were only allowed one try and the unlocks gated behind a Silent Assassin rating meant that most players either didn't want to even try, got frustrated with any failure, played it boringly safe, or just looked up a guide on Youtube. These smaller pieces of content in general ended up being unsatisfying or not worth the time, in another case where potential customers couldn't be assured by the community that the $60 game they were considering had enough content to be worth it. The constant stream of updates was commendable, but the additions never resonated with a particular audience, and were unlikely to have a positive return on investment.

With all that said, I still believe that Hitman set up the framework for an amazing game. There are plenty of mechanical quirks, but I personally put over 100 hours into the game, most of which included just running around and enjoying the sandbox environments. Poisoning everyone as a rogue chef, sniping everyone in a stylish suit, or sneaking in windows and smothering people as Santa Claus will always be fun, and I see myself playing it again in the future. Even with flaws in the supporting content, the most basic building blocks like the disguises and gameplay flexibility have been incredibly strong and make the game still worth the price of admission. The real problem was Hitman's inability to keep expert players consistently engrossed while drawing in new players outside of the big episodic releases. Without having core fans consistently marketing the game, and in some cases advising against a full investment, the sustainability of the episodic release structure collapsed.

A common phrase I've used to talk about Hitman's issues is "missed potential", and I feel like that applies to the game's future as well. As was said before, most of the problems surround the central mechanics of the game, rather than within them, and season two could have capitalized on what season one had established to make something even better. Now that players have done the basic challenges in season one, they can handle more involved ones in season two; now that there's a catalog of simple escalations, more mind-bending ones can be put out instead. Even if IO Interactive didn't want to change view cones and sniper rifle penetration back to how they were, new levels could be built with those limitations along with new fun interactions to provide a compromise between fun and the balance they prefer. Even with the expert players being annoyed by some of the changes, they criticise because they want to cheer, and genuinely care about Hitman realizing its full potential. The perfect example of this is the Hitman series speedrunner TheKotti, who has put out community tools like Hitman Roulette and a contract sharing page, while also vocally criticising IO Interactive for their questionable balance decisions. The development experience and feedback from season one, along with dedicated fans who are ready to promote the game when it rises to its potential, meant that season two could have been the solution to all the problems that have plagued the game until now.

Sadly, it seems like the reality of the future is that Hitman will become the Firefly of its genre, dying as a flawed gem at the end of the first season. Fans of the series may have been willing to give Hitman a chance, but Square Enix can't rely on that investment for the numerous aforementioned reasons. Hopefully, IO Interactive will still be able to push minor updates, and ensure players don't lose their progress to a DRM server shutdown. A few final balance changes and well designed escalations/contracts could increase the game's quality of life immensely, and the existing gameplay is solid enough to hold the game together even without much revision. It would be great if IOI's allowed to hold on just a bit longer to polish the game, and avoid full deprecation even with Square Enix retracting new feature development. We can only hope they get the chance to sign off in a way that leaves dedicated fans with something to enjoy and revisit until we can play as 47 again.