Let’s Talk About Hitman

If you were to go back in time and tell me that one of my favorite games of 2016 was called Hitman, I’d likely have two reactions.

  1. I wouldn’t believe you.
  2. I’d wonder why you were telling me this instead of something much more important, like sports results or lotto numbers.  Just seems like a waste of plutonium, is all.

That isn’t to say that I ever saw them as bad games, more that the mechanics always seemed alien to me, never quite working the way my brain wanted them to.  I recall all too clearly my repeated attempts at the first real level of Hitman 2: Silent Assassin, where I would try and fail to enter a simple gate disguised as a delivery boy.  Try as I might, I’d constantly alert the two guards that something was up, either due to my suspicious movements or more-than-suspicious attempts to choke them out.

When I did eventually make it past, I’d find myself frozen with indecision, overwhelmed by all of the choices that I had but not quite knowing where I was expected to pursue any of them.  Around this point, more guards would usually notice the dude standing out in the open like a moron and waste him, leaving me with the option to restart the whole painful experience once again or simply walk away from the series, acknowledging that this isn’t going to work out and that we should probably see other people.

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On second thought, let’s not go to Villa Borghese.  Tis a silly place.

From then on, my appreciation for the Hitman franchise was always practiced from a careful distance, just close enough to see what the next installment had in store before I gave a cursory nod and went about my day.  It felt like the racing genre to me in a lot of ways: something that I’d occasionally have an interest in but also understanding that they were made for a segment of the gaming audience that likely didn’t include me.  Before I knew it, there were three more games in the series, serving what I assumed to be that same core fanbase that craved something niche and often impenetrable.

As it turned out, the reality was a bit more complicated, as I’d come to learn that the Hitman games seemed to vary wildly in quality as the developers, IO Interactive, were constantly tweaking the formula, understanding that a casual audience (dummies like me) were often intimidated by the concept and wanting to make it more welcoming.  This is often a very very tricky proposition that ends up pleasing no one in the end and isolating those that stuck around since the very beginning.  Absolution seemed to be the largest of several mixed bags, sold on the idea that Agent 47 would engage in an epic gun battle with latex nuns at some point in the story.

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And now you suddenly remembered that existed.

It was, understandably, a slight to those that always saw the Hitman series as a cerebral puzzle game that just so happened to have guns in it.  It was also a sign that a shark might be approaching and 47 was about to grab his surfboard.  Hitman probably needed a break, at the very least.  It always felt like a series designed to exist in 2006 forever, firmly stuck in a B+ tier that the industry as a whole was moving away from.  For better or worse, Hitman needed to change, and the result of that ended up being even more polarizing than what came before.

2016’s Hitman seemed like a hard-sell on paper; a desperate cash-grab that was simply looking to be next in a trend of piecemeal content distribution, only offering one level at a time.  My initial reaction wasn’t too dissimilar, having an instinctual cringe whenever “let’s sell you this unfinished thing” is presented as a concept.  It wasn’t until I actually played it that I realized why it worked.

It’s also worth examining exactly why I decided to go back to this series that I’d isolated myself from for so long.  The games media (well, most media) tends to go in a cycle of weekly zeitgeists, narrow-focusing a majority of their discussions on games a few days before and after their release dates before swiftly moving on to the next thing, making it easy to weather the storm when a new game pops up that I have no interest in checking out.

The problem with Hitman, of course, was that it never quite went away.  Every new episode would restart the cycle as journalists would share tales of their assassination success and failures.  It was no longer something spoke of in broad terms to be shared with someone that likely wouldn’t understand.  It became something communal.  We were all attacking the same challenges, at the same time, together.  It was THE argument for how video game storytelling is so different and special, how our agency made for something that couldn’t be emulated with a script.  It also made the game insanely fun to watch, even in failure.

When I fail, I fail in style.

I eventually caved in, immediately discovering that my skills as an assassin were no better than before.  The difference was that I found myself not caring as much.  Futzing around in that opening level felt like such a low-risk proposition that I didn’t mind a little trial-and-error.  Being episodic meant that I also didn’t have the pressure of running through all of the levels, spending more time to learn and (gasp) even replay them.  A full release would have been binged, and likely ignored after that initial release fervor.  Instead, we had something that would ease us newbies into the game whilst also having a million challenges for veterans to pursue.  IO finally figured it out.  After nearly 2 decades, we had the definitive Hitman.

And people hated it.

There’s a lot to be said about the disconnect of experiences between games media and the general audience, but never was that more clear than with the new Hitman.  If you followed the coverage on most sites (or even just listened to dudes like me), then it was an unqualified success, a triumph of design that was easily one of the best, if not THE best, games of 2016.  If you listened to word-of-mouth or just checked out your random internet commentor, it was the worst thing that ever happened in human history and NEEDED to fail, lest these greedy publishers get another cent of our hard-earned cash.

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You can have 300 hours of my time though.  Also, I’m still playing it.

I get it.  Online DRM is a very very dirty phrase and is usually ill-conceived and ultimately ineffective.  Having it for a single player game was a very unpopular decision that shot it in the foot from the start.  If you pay attention to Steam reviews (and you shouldn’t), the new Hitman was an absolute disaster for most of its lifespan, game quality be damned.  Most of the negative reviews would cite frustrations with the online requirement that made the game unforgivable for the over-100 hours they spent playing it.

Still, things seemed promising in terms of sales.  We don’t know how promising, exactly, since solid figures never came out.  It’s pretty obvious that they never came close to what Square Enix wanted, but they also have a history of maybe having some absurd sale expectations.  As a baseline, previous Hitman games generally averaged somewhere in the 2-3 million range, with Absolution doing around 3.6 (they considered that a disappointment too).  A healthy estimation would put Hitman 2016 at somewhere around the 1 million range, at most, certainly no where near the likely 18 gajillion or thereabouts that they expected.  One thing is clear in all of this, Hitman 2016 was not a failure of IO, but of Square Enix.  They undoubtedly did Hitman dirty, so perhaps it’s for the best that they’re letting it go.

If, they’re letting it go, that is.  No one seems to know for sure.  IO, on paper, has no value without the Hitman name attached to them, and conversely, Hitman simply passed off to a new developer seems like the worst possible idea, something that should never happen in a post-Mass Effect: Andromeda world.  I’d like to remain optimistic and hope that work on a Season 2 can move forward, and that the game can continue to find an audience under new leadership.  Recently, the always-online requirement was dropped, eliminating the number 1 criticism people seemed to have of the experience, so the timing works out for a fresh start.

Maybe EA will pick them up and Season 2 will start out with you having to poison a turduken to finally take out John Madden.  Or perhaps Ubisoft will get in on the fun, populating 47s world with map icons and endless hay piles to leap onto.  My personal wish is Nintendo, if only so we can see Detective Pikachu really get his hands dirty investigating some messy crime scenes.

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Imagine, if you will, this man disguised as a Pidgey.

One thing is for sure, wherever IO lands, they’ve earned some goodwill with this guy, at the very least.  They managed to turn me, of all people, not only into a competent Hitman player, but a bit of a Hitman enthusiast, ready to step out of my  comfort zone and to no longer fear failure.  Maybe, just maybe, I’ll even go back to that Villa in Sicily and give it another shot.  I figure I have some time as I wait to see where our friend Agent 47 turns up next.

Not fighting those nuns, though.  I have my limits.

@DamienWilkens

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