Hitman Episode 1 review: Does an episodic structure hurt the franchise?
The latest chapter in Agent 47's journey has hit the Xbox One, releasing in episodic installments over the coming months.
I was initially doubtful when Hitman's transition to an episodic structure was announced, but over time I've come to accept the new business model. With this, we must bid farewell to the structure expected from Hitman games, but a new delivery of the franchise may have been what was needed to spark my interest in the art of assassination once again.
The game is scheduled to release in seven individual episodes later this year, with each episode delivering a new in-game location. Earlier this month the game's pilot episode was released, accessible via the Xbox Store and other major digital distribution platforms. This episode includes both the prologue and first mission of the game, establishing the game's storyline and giving a sample of what the following episodes may offer.
After experiencing all of the content offered for this month, I'm glad to report that game contains some of the most innovative concepts in franchise history and creates one of the most authentic Hitman experiences in recent years.
Disclosure: This review was conducted on Xbox One using a copy purchased by the writer.
The game's tutorial begins before the events of previous Hitman titles, during the later stages of Agent 47's training. This precedes the first large-scale level, which takes place after the events of Hitman: Absolution. The two tutorial levels are similar to regular Hitman stages, despite a more restricted play space and repetitive level design. This is mostly to prevent new players from being bombarded with an overwhelming number of decisions, which can be found on the larger maps that the publisher has promoted. The first tutorial level takes Agent 47 to an invite-only party, hosted onboard a docked private yacht. The initial playthrough of this level is extremely linear, guiding the player through gaining access to the boat, picking up multiple disguises and eliminating the target.
After a successful escape, the player is asked to play the level a second time; experimenting with the approach the situation. This is a large aspect of Hitman's new business model, giving the player numerous ways to assassinate a target, which promotes multiple playthroughs. During my time with the game, I've managed to take out the main target, Calvin Ritter, in five different ways. Creativity and exploration go hand-in-hand alongside Hitman, with a range of varied ways to complete each objective. On the first level, I initially dressed as one of the ship's crew, infecting the target's wine with rat poison I found on the lower deck. Other scenarios have involved pushing a life raft onto Ritter while he walked by, pretending to be a VIP attending the party and smuggling a shotgun onto the boat as a security guard.
This kind of freedom is where Hitman's replayability shines through, with a seemingly endless number of ways to approach each target. Thanks to a highly-developed self-contained sandbox, Hitman stays true to the series' roots, encompassing the best of what earlier games had to offer. This is mostly due to an open mission structure with fewer linear situations, promoting player creativity rather than a tailored, story-driven experience. The new 'Opportunities' and 'Challenges' systems give players minimal guidance, helping players find the scripted ways of carrying out assassinations.
Hitman's new business model and release schedule also encourage these values, rather than the linear story that became a focus of the last Hitman release. While each map only offers one primary objective, they act as diverse sandboxes where the player can discover their own experience. The new approach to Hitman level design helps with this, best showcased during the first non-tutorial level, set inside a French fashion show. The map spans across one expansive area, including a populated fully-furnished mansion and the surrounding gardens. This shows the sheer potential of the sandbox, with an incomprehensible number of event attendees and a subset of individuals with unique personalities.
With the return of Hitman: Absolution's 'Contracts' mode, community-created content adds additional content to each level. Using the Contracts Creation tool, players can create their own missions for the community to undertake, selecting any NPC located on the map as a target. Up to five NPCs can be marked as targets, which players must execute before escaping. These tasks are frequently more challenging than the game's Story missions but lack their scripted, cinematic qualities and soon get stale.
Hitman hasn't seen any major graphical upgrades this time around, with visuals almost on-par with Hitman: Absolution. Obviously with the release of current generation consoles since the last Hitman title, the ability to create more diverse and organic levels has influenced the game's development. Because of this, the new hardware is used to push the potential of gameplay, rather than higher resolution textures and a more stable framerate.
The only performance-related issue I encountered was this variable framerate, noticeable in locations packed with complex geometry and large crowds of people. The game usually fluctuates between 30 FPS and 45 FPS, but at points, the dropped closer to 20 frames per second. This can be made more consistent thanks to IO Interactive's decision to add a framerate lock, which caps the maximum framerate at 30 FPS. This rarely affects gameplay but is distracting, to say the least.
During my time with the Xbox One version of the game, I also encountered extensive loading times on larger levels. Most noticeable on the Paris level, loading from a previous save sometimes took over 90 seconds, even when jumping back mere seconds prior. This is something understandable due to the map sizes, but in a game where reloading previous checkpoints is a common practice, the wait can get frustrating.
My largest gripe with Hitman is the game's integrated DRM system, which requires a constant connection to the game's servers to access parts of the game. Some of the game's smaller features don't function unless connected, and while this isn't a huge issue, unstable servers sometimes make the game impossible to play. A connection error mostly causes this displayed on-screen, which forces the player to return to the menu after losing contact with the Hitman servers. This error can be bypassed by playing offline for a majority of the time, but restricts functionality and shouldn't be a precaution taken by all players.
As a Hitman game, the current offering from the first episode feels somewhat limited, with only three maps with which to experiment. These maps do have a significant amount of replayability, but with such a small selection, the package feels far from complete. With more maps on the way, it will be interesting to see what IO Interactive can deliver to keep the experience feeling fresh.
The first release of content, which includes the prologue and Paris stage, are now available in the standalone 'Intro Pack' bundle for $14.99. For those unsure about the new direction the franchise is headed, this gives a taste of the final product, without committing to all upcoming content releases. Those who have purchased the 'Intro Pack' can buy following episodes individually or as a single upgrade costing $49.99. Alternatively, players can go all out to begin with, gaining access to the entire first season of content for $59.99.
While the pricing does seem reasonable for an episodic experience, the asking price of $59.99 for seven primary missions is on the dearer side. Even though these levels have the potential to harvest hours of gameplay, reusing the same assets and scenarios to boost overall play time does raise questions regarding the title's value. If Square Enix can prevent a hazy release schedule by delivering a constant flow of content, this will keep players continually invested in the game's world. The developer is already struggling to stay on schedule, recently announcing that its 'Elusive Targets' update will be seeing a delay into April.
Hitman is a step in the right direction for the franchise, adding a new layer of replayability and value to the game's large maps. The gameplay itself is engaging and invigorating, perfectly capturing the tone of previous entries in the series. The current package is significantly lacking, but regarding gameplay, Hitman is shaping up to be one of the best games to date. Sadly numerous performance issues hinder the game's potential, but never affect gameplay in a significant way.
- Stays true to the traditional Hitman formula
- Detailed, innovative level design
- Promotes player creativity
- Frequent connection issues
- Questionable value going into the future
- Lack of polish and stability
Assuming Square Enix produce a constant stream of high-quality content in the future, the publisher should focus its efforts towards improving the performance of later releases. Even though a retail version of the game has been promised for early 2017, I'm still unconvinced that the publisher will stick to the strict schedule it has proposed.
- See at the Xbox Store (opens in new tab)
Disclosure: This review was conducted on Xbox One using a copy purchased by the writer.
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Matt Brown was formerly a Windows Central's Senior Editor, Xbox & PC, at Future. Following over seven years of professional consumer technology and gaming coverage, he’s focused on the world of Microsoft's gaming efforts. You can follow him on Twitter @mattjbrown.
Ouch, not a fan of those connection issues and load times. Like the idea of attacking a problem different ways. I spent days on Dead Space, back in the day, trying different weapon combos. Played it through several times.
I can't believe that I'm yet to play through the original Dead Space. I'm going back because it's a Games with Gold title for April!
Played it with the lights off, and on the first time through I jumped so many times! Experimented with the different guns. I wanted the achievements, so had to keep at it. Great game. Traded in my Sunset Overdrive yesterday, as it will be a Games With Gold freebie. Got £4 for it, ouch!
I never played these games before. I considered trying his one before this happened. I have no interest now, except maybe as a physical release when the episodes are all out.
They just had to do something to mess this up. Absolution was good, but it wasnt like other hitman games, which pissed people off. Now they bring old good hitman game but... F it lets release it in pieces :D. + you have to pay for each episode? :o
You can either buy the game in one bundle to begin with, or buy individual episodes if you're unsure of the business model.
I'll just buy it when it comes as "Full" and probably wait when it will be cheaper. just because F them.
It does. If you consider I loved Hitman since the first one and the thought of what they did to it since the announcement put me off so much that I'm 0% interested in the game, I guess it does. Might pick it up when all episodes are out and on a big discount. Then I'll probably pick it up. I don't accept to play such a game in pieces.
If you hold on, you'll hopefully get a more polished and cheaper package too!
You are absolutely right. You know, it's funny that with so many games I've been wasting money on, I've caught myself telling my buddy "I'm glad they screwed this one ( game ) up. That's another 60$ saved from games I guess". Also, on another comment about Dead Space you mentioned earlier. It was the best horror gamer I'd played those couple of years. Nothing came close to it and was the only game that filled that void and did it extremely well. And I say "was" cause for me each game gives you a very different impression having played it when it's released than a few years later. Given that things get more realistic and alternatives are better by then that is :)
Bad gameplay changes and super stupid A.I. thats what made 50% reviews on steam.
Bad gameplay changes compared to which previous game? If they are saying Absolution was better gameplay wise then I can't agree with that at all - This game is much closer to how I remember a real Hitman game. I still want to play through Absolution again when it comes to BC on Xbox One, since I still have the disc - I enjoyed that game but there was only really one mission I remember feeling like classic hitman in there. Sent from Microsoft Band
I have no problem with it! Better missions, better mode, new contracts frequently! I think its enjoyable.
The game itself is really enjoyable, but there are a few issues that tainted my experience. The gameplay is some of the best in franchise history!
I have no problem with episodic content as I only buy it when it's all released as a single bundle and costs 1/5th what the early adopters paid :P
Hopefully, once the game releases next year in a complete package, it'll be a bit more polished too.
I'm okay with paying more to buy each individual episode, because I may not even buy them all. I tend to not have time to finish games anyway (unfortunately) so it's possible I'll buy half of them and then stop playing. When I bought Battlefield 3 Premium upfront I played the first expansion and then never really had time to go back to the others. Waiting until it's all released is definitely the most cost effective way to play the game - I used to do this a lot more and it's purely because of my reduced play time that I am starting to like the idea of episodic business models. The big downside is I want more NOW - I don't want to have to wait, so that's one big negative. Sent from Microsoft Band
My main issue with games like this being sold as episodic is that they take a skill that you learn, not just making dialog choices. How many times have you put a game down for a month or more and were able to just seamlessly get back into play without a period of relearning the controls or mechanics of the game all over again?
You have a fair point there! I hadn't touched Hitman since Absolution, so picking up this title was hard to begin with! I think Hitman is pretty accessible and even though it might not be the most complex choice, most players can find a way to take out a target without being hugely skilled.
I've not noticed any connection issues, but I'm loving the return to the roots of Hitman. The game reminds me so much of the older games where it was less linear, but all on a bigger scale with improved graphics and AI. I'm going to buy each episode individually, even though it will cost a little more in the long run, I tend to forget/not bother to complete a lot of games these days. I will keep buying each episode until I get bored. I wish they could come up with a new one every month, I'd keep buying that for as long as it was fun. After replaying the various training and the Paris mission multiple times I've gone back to Hitman Blood Money, Contracts and other older titles on PC, since I already have them on Steam - I wish I could use a gamepad with them, but they've been fun to play again nonetheless. Sent from Microsoft Band