I have to admit, I have never been much of a sucker for patience. I absolutely loathe it when I am forced to wait for something I really like. It's probably the reason why I have always preferred Netflix to conventional cable, because binge-watching a great show from five years back seems a far better offer than having to wait an entire week for a single episode of a newer title. You can, therefore, understand why I have always been one of the biggest critics of the episodic distribution model for video games. While such a model may work just fine on television, a video game is supposed to be more of a comprehensive experience. At least, that's how I always viewed it. My views changed significantly when I saw one of the biggest gaming titles of the year succeed not just despite, but because of its episodic program.
I am, of course, talking about Hitman 2016, the latest addition to the celebrated Hitman franchise from IO Interactive. When Square Enix released the title this year, they had a plan. Instead of following up on their usual course, they completely revolutionized a prestigious stealth-gaming franchise which, frankly, had started to seem outdated and irrelevant after the lauded fifth installment. They kept everything that ever made the Hitman franchise a success, open-world sandboxes, attention to detail, highly interactive environments, intense and exciting gameplay, non-linear approach and imposing storyline, and brought it to the next level using the advanced Glacier 2 rendering engine. By focusing on the exact points that made the franchise likeable and making them even better, IO Interactive may have just breathed life into a dying genre of stealth-action games.
To begin with, let's talk about the new episodic distribution model. Initially, the idea attracted a lot of skepticism from fans who were already alienated by the cut-and-dry approach taken by Hitman: Absolution. However, what seemed like a poor marketing decision is precisely what enabled the game to succeed on such a massive scale. Releasing the game one level at a time every month enabled the developers to work on each and every mission with extensive attention to detail. Every glass of wine, every fire alarm, every garbage can found within the game was meticulously positioned just as it should be. The non-playable characters, too, were immersive and full of life. It also helped them understand public reception and adapt the gameplay based on customer ratings. Each mission was always better than the last one, learning from its past mistakes and improving on them as much as possible. As the game progressed, new concepts were introduced to enhance the gameplay mechanics. Further, the episodic model also allowed the players themselves to spend more time interacting with each mission area before they progressed to the new one. Hitman is a game of patience, one where replayability amounts to perfection. The same mission can be played a dozen times, each time experimenting from a new angle, perhaps using a different weapon or costume or employing a completely different strategy. The cooperative features, too, benefitted greatly from this model. After each mission was complete, players were left with ample time to play around with it, creating custom challenged with their own targets and releasing them into the online database. All in all, the distribution model was like a glove to the game's hand.
The one feature that players of the Hitman franchise have enjoyed more than anything is the non-linear gameplay mechanics. The ability to put oneself in the shoes of a master assassin, employing from over several different strategies to approach a target hiding somewhere in the huge open world, is just exhilarating. Hitman 2016, or the Complete First Season, as we have come to call it, focused on this particular agenda and made sure that players are offered a hundred different ways to approach and eliminate a target, with costumes, weapons and the new "opportunities", an icing on the cake that was the breathtaking open world sandboxes that formed the basis of each episodic mission. Impersonate a security guard, pass yourself off as a bartender or just hide in plain sight in order to approach your target undetected. Toss a coin, overflow a sink or trigger a fire alarm to get the target away from prying eyes. Make use of over a dozen different weapons from your arsenal, from the hallmark silverballers to a goddamned pickaxe to assassinate your target in style. What's more, this year's Hitman introduced a new feature called Opportunities, where players could make use of evolving situations around them to take down a target undetected. All this made it possible for players to create their own personalized version of Agent 47, one with his own set of skills and preferences.
For an episodic game, Hitman 2016 featured plenty of content throughout the year. First, there were the five main missions which were released once a month, each featuring its own separate sandbox. Then, there was the additional set of high-profile targets known as the Sarajevo Six, which were introduced particularly to appease hardcore players looking for a challenge. Every now and then, a new elusive target would pop up in one of your sandboxes, an evasive target who has suddenly made himself available for a limited timeframe. A lot of minor challenges were also available, though they were rarely as interesting as the main ones. Then, of course, there was the ever-so-expanding online database, where players would create their own custom missions and share them with other players over the internet. With sprawling sandboxes and so much of unique content worth exploring, it never bored to wait a month each time for the next main mission to arrive.
Adding to all this madness was the imposing story, one with complex plotlines and a lot of twists, that revealed itself only via cutscenes at the end of each main mission. In the interest of being spoiler-free, I will refrain from discussing the actual story with you right now, as it is something you will want to discover for yourself.
In conclusion, all I would like to say is that despite the initial skepticism surrounding the episodic reveal format and past blunders with Hitman: Absolution, IO Interactive did an excellent job in transforming the stealth gaming genre into something far more immersive and engaging. If you haven't already grabbed yourself a copy, the Complete First Season of Hitman is available for purchase on Steam, XBox One and PlayStation 4. What is your opinion on the game?