Hitman: The Complete First Season is out in physical release for Xbox One, PC, and PlayStation 4!
I was skeptical of the release schedule for Hitman. After five complete single-player releases, IO Interactive was going launch the new Hitman piecemeal. The original release details had three locations for launch in March 2016, with further areas releasing in April, May, and June. When January rolled around, Square Enix announced that the game was going fully episodic, with one location per episode coming roughly once a month. I felt the news was some clever spin to cover up the fact that the later levels weren't finished.
A year later, I must admit that being episodic not only worked, it may have made Hitman even better.
Hitman has always been a unique stealth series, focused on giving a player a complex sandbox and an objective. "Welcome to this mansion! You need to kill this businessman! Good luck!" It was from a different time, without hints, waypoints, or details on how you were supposed to complete your mission. The original Hitman games worked because they weren't really action games, they were freeform puzzles. The more linear nature of Hitman: Absolution is why long-time fans were unhappy with that title.
The first episodic release for Hitman was a great proof-of-concept. Paris is a huge, cosmopolitan sprawl, with Agent 47 attempting to infiltrate an immense party. The vast crowds, the neon blues and purples of the dance floor, the backstage of a fashion show, and the catwalk itself; it all feeds into this playground you get to explore. You know where your targets are, but you have to watch and observe them. You have to poke around and figure out how you'll gain access to them and how they're going to die.
Hitman's Paris episode offered up a ton of ways to kill Viktor Novikov, for example. Do poison him with cyanide? Simply push him into the river? Put a remote bomb in the camera of a journalist looking to interview him?
IO Interactive did make some tweaks for the average, more mainstream player. There's Challenges, which give you hints on all the various ways you can kill your targets. There's Instinct, the Detective Vision-like mode that shows you where your target is, even through walls. These are crutches that you can turn off or ignore if you're a veteran player: the experience you have with Hitman is largely up to you and even with those crutches, this is a difficult game.
Once you dispatch a target, you unlock more weapons, more equipment, new starting locations, new item caches. New toys for the toy box and new ways to shake the existing configurations into something new. It works because each level is so goddamn big, hiding new facets of the lives of the people who live and work there. New tools for you to use to end their lives.
This is where the episodic nature helps Hitman. It focuses you on a specific level. As a full release, I expect new players will finish a level, jump back into it once or twice, and then move onto the next. The month or more between episode releases encouraged players to really get as much enjoyment as they could out of each level.
You killed Viktor twice? Get back in there and kill him a few more times. Experiment a bit! What's the weirdest way you can take out Viktor and Dalia? Can you shave off your level completion time? What about finishing the level without using any disguises? Being episodic makes players really tinker with every level, diving deep until they understood the bones of the thing.
From there, Hitman took players to the warm, sunny coast of Sapienza, Italy. The level was even larger than the first, comprising a resort and the town surrounding it. The objectives became more complex, moving from just simple assassination to the destruction of a dangerous prototype. From quiet Italian streets to high-tech secret labs, IO impressed me with just how far they went to hide new ways in or new killing methods. Sapienza remains the best level in the season.
Then the studio stepped its game up with Marrakesh, whose dense market region was one of the more impressive uses of IO's modest engine. With the third episode, it felt like IO Interactive was learning, tuning the game even further. Your two targets are in two very different locations and many of the tools you only used sporadically before become necessary to move forward. Marrakesh was a testament to the growing trust between IO, Hitman's available mechanics, and the players.
Episodes four and five in Bangkok and Colorado represented a modest pull back for the franchise. While episodes 1-3 kept getting bigger and more detailed, both of these regions are on a smaller scale. Neither regions is bad, they just aren't as good as the opening combo. The level designs and environment art are less impressive, the kill methods are more conservative.
In hindsight, I would rejiggered the release schedule to alternate between "solid" and "amazing" levels: Paris, Bangkok, Italy, Colorado, Marrakesh. It's about a different kind of pacing, one of expectations. Paris, Italy, and Marrakesh sell us on a bigger and more expansive Hitman, whereas Bangkok and Colorado are just solid Hitman levels.