Hitman: Season 1 Review
An underwhelming reboot that doesn't gain much from a new episodic format
In my review of the Hitman Intro pack, I wondered what the relevance of Hitman’s return was. I wondered if there was really something within the series’ structure or characters that would draw players in to keep the franchise alive. And even still, now that the entire first season of the game is out, I don’t know if we have an answer. Hitman 2: Silent Assassin is, to me, the highlight of the series - not only because it felt so revolutionary to have the freedom to complete a mission as I saw fit, but also because of how well the game tied levels thematically together. The Catholic symbolism spoke to the narrative themes of judgement, punishment, guilt, and forgiveness - juxtaposed against missions that resulted in cold murder carried out by a man so devoid of features that he could disguise himself as anyone. There were also some interesting ideas explored in Hitman: Blood Money, focusing more on 47’s relationship with government agencies and adding more layers to the mechanics. Hitman: Absolution was a game about seeing if the series could revive itself and match the action-oriented, cinematic state of video games. Most of Hitman franchise entries have felt like necessary, logical experiments with the series; games with some sort of purpose. But when it comes to the latest iteration, aside from moving into an episodic format, I don’t know if Hitman: Season 1 does any of that.
Instead of releasing this Hitman reboot as a typical full-fledged title, developers IO Interactive have split Hitman Season 1 into a series of episodes. There are some changes worthy of applause, levels are impressive in their size (or are at least designed so well they look bigger than they are) and there are attempts to make each location feel like a living world instead of a glass menagerie, but it doesn’t amount to much. Having completed all six episodes and the introduction mission, if you were to ask me why Square Enix pulled the trigger on rebooting this franchise, the reasons seem purely monetary. There was a property lying dormant and a team in need of work - and while that’s all well and good in the spreadsheet arithmetic of a publisher, those reasons don’t make Hitman: Season 1 a compelling game. Agent 47 is back, but no one (not even the characters in this game) seem to understand why he’s back or what to do now that he’s here. The game seems to have some fascination with getting players online, but even fails in explaining why that is so important.
The problem with Hitman as a franchise is that it’s never really understood if it wanted to be a story-drive game or steely cold exploration of what fun it would be to become a no-nonsense modern assassin available to the highest bidder - it usually tried to split the difference, and this latest iteration is no different. I have always found Hitman to be better at the latter aspect, with big levels that invited the player to explore the environment, find a means for dispatching their target, waiting for the opportune moment, and going for the kill. These pillars of the franchise have always been better constructed than the forced brother-sister relationship of 47 and his handler, Diana Burnwood.
Hitman: Season 1 starts with Agent 47 arriving at the ICA and follows him through a series of hits that are orchestrated by an unknown agent to mess with a powerful organization called Providence. It’s hard to tell if the shadow agent’s plan is successful; we’re told that he’s doing real damage, but in the end Providence seem more annoyed than concerned. It also seems like IO is hoping that fans of the series would project a lot onto the story, filling in the gaps and adding weight to characters like Diana Burnwood and 47 based on previous games. But since Hitman: Season 1 is a reboot, it hasn’t really earned any of this goodwill. I don’t really care where 47 came from because he doesn’t seem to care. I don’t feel any connection to Diana Burnwood because no bond between her and 47 is ever established. Hitman’s barebones storytelling leaves you with no time to invest in any of the characters - that would be fine if IO didn’t conclude the series by telling you how much you’re supposed to care about all of it.
The cinematic beats that happen in between episodes are so vague and disjointed that it’s difficult to follow - and nearly impossible when playing the episodes months apart, as they were released. I was so lost when I started the second episode that I decided I would wait until the whole game had been released so it would be easier to follow. Not that this is a problem you’ll have now that the entire season is out (and a disc-based version coming in January). But even playing the game as an assembled whole of six episodes, I still couldn’t explain exactly what happens in Hitman's debut season. This is because the narrative IO seems interested in telling us is something that runs parallel 47’s missions, instead of being truly affected by them. There’s a promise that this story and Hitman’s missions will intersect at some point, but Hitman’s first season never gets there - instead ending in a milquetoast anti-climax.
As much as Hitman: Season 1 is lacking in story, it’s at least taking place in a pretty world. 47 spends the game traveling in the circles of the opulent and the design revels in it. The parties you attend are big and loud, the mansions you infiltrate are luxurious and detailed, the cities you explore are vibrant and lively – from Marrakesh in Morocco to Paris in France, to Bangkok in Thailand. I longed to physically visit every place that 47 did and I looked forward to how the game rendered each new location. It’s important that the visuals do a lot of heavy lifting, because the audio design and the score are forgettable. While 47 travels to five non-English speaking countries, everyone still speaks English. You might find a slight accent, but the most exotic dialect you’ll hear is British. It’s quite embarrassing that IO has trotted out a global adventure that is so sorely lacking authentic voice acting to go with it.
Overall, I think the story-lite structure does work in Hitman’s favor. Leapfrogging from one breathtaking locale to another is half the fun of being a hired killer. The ICA, 47’s employer, somehow sneaks him into every swanky party, exclusive hotel, or occasionally just drops him off just outside of the objective - from there you’ll have to improvise a way to get close to your target and make the kill. That might sound like a daunting task, especially because a lot of these locations feel enormous when you begin a mission. You may not know where to start - and that’s a cool feeling.
Luckily, IO Interactive has a cool feature called Opportunities. As you wander around levels, you’ll overhear conversations, read notes that weren’t intended for your eyes, and learn about ways to get close to your target. There’s usually a handful of options and you can choose which you want to try by selecting the desired Opportunity from your menu. These Opportunities can sometimes play out in convoluted ways, like having to create a distraction, to break into a club, to steal an identity, to get access to your target, all to just drop an object on their head. It’s rewarding when you pull it off and IO is pretty generous with the amount of markers they give while trying to guide players through an Opportunity. My grievance with the mechanic is that it never manages to find a balance between being too easy and too difficult. Half of the Opportunities are a snooze, and the other half are nigh impossible. For instance, stealing a helicopter pilot’s identity was super easy because he often walked into secluded areas - I literally only had to follow him and knock him out. However, getting the Hospital Director’s disguise was extremely difficult because he basically stood in the open the entire time, surrounded by hospital guards. This often leads to you cycling through Opportunities, wandering from one area of the level to another, following characters around to see how difficult a particular approach is.
There’s also an annoying difficulty curve in Hitman. The first couple of levels provide lots of empty rooms and hallways for you to dispatch enemies and get a new disguise, but in later episodes there’s hardly any place for you to do your dirty work, and fewer Opportunities for you to take advantage of. This wouldn’t be a problem if Hitman filled its word with little accoutrements to facilitate your business, but each level feels more and more empty as the game pushes you toward perfect stealth. It makes the gameplay myopic and takes away the improvisational feel that makes Hitman interesting and unique. This same issue limits the ways you can kill your targets. A couple of times I was able to pull off a cool kill, but I wish there were more ways to stage accidents, more poisons, and more unique weapons. Speaking of which - instead of giving me the loadout option for a machine gun (which seems as dumb as ever for a stealth game), I wish the game provided more appropriate tools like a blow dart, or sniper rifle. I spent a lot of time in the game choking people out or stabbing them in the neck with sharp objects, due to lack of better choices.
Another frustrating aspect of Hitman: Season 1 is the way it plays loosely with its own stealth rules. IO seems aware of this and compensates by adding a very generous save system (seriously, you can save wherever you want and the game seems to autosave every five minutes). The peripheral vision of every guard seems inhuman. Everyone seems overly inquisitive about mundane behavior. If I saw someone at work put a pack of cigarettes on my employer’s desk, I wouldn’t start asking questions (another thing that happened in the game). If I saw someone carrying around a screwdriver in my apartment complex, I would assume someone needs maintenance, and not that they are a threat. It feels like Hitman is trying to needlessly to buff the difficulty of its stealth mechanics.
This also highlights one of the franchise's odd design choices - 47’s inability to talk during missions. I mean, he’ll occasionally talk to progress an Opportunity, but often it would be easy for him to talk his way out of a situation. He could report suspicious activity to draw attention away from himself, he could explain why he has a pair of scissors, or that he accidentally stumbled into a no-civilian zone while looking for the bathroom. While Hitman has come a long way in the tools it gives you to manipulate the environment, the rules can still be annoyingly limited.
In previous Hitman games, the means to kill a target almost felt like an expression of self. You would put things together in order to set up a kill - resulting in a bloody massacre or perfectly-executed assassination. In Hitman: Season 1 - it feels like the game wants you to pick from a handful of Opportunities it has construed and doesn’t want you to step out of line. And when you begin exploring the given options, they start to shrink. When trying to break into an elusive smoking club in Morocco, I tried to steal a staff uniform and slip in. There was only one staff member standing in the “Staff Only” area so I figured I could sneak around back and knock him out. When that didn’t work, I tried to lure the employee out by deactivating the fan - which is when some random passerby saw me flip a switch and ran to get the guards. In the end, there was only one option to move forward and it involved attracting a club member into the bathroom with an overflowed faucet. This was the only way to progress without just going in guns blazing. For a game that boasts about options and possibilities this kind of thing happens a lot.
Even when you think you have made a smart choice, you get foiled by the unpredictable AI, or the sticky controls, or the slow menu to access your inventory. I used the overflow faucet trick later in the game and after my target walked in, I tried to shut the door so his friend couldn’t see us and suddenly I was being arrested. Thus, I found myself loading up my previous save; tried the exact same thing and it worked. The unpredictable AI and sticky controls break up any moments of fun you’re having. The game never finds a flow, and even if it did, it would make for a pretty short experience - and that wouldn’t be bad if each mission felt satisfying and rich with new ideas, but they don’t.
Mostly, there isn’t a lot of depth to Hitman. Each of its missions run about an hour, and the attempt to pad out the content with special challenges (kill the head chef, while disguised as a waiter, using rat poison) don’t beg to be played after you’ve already completed the mission. This is especially true when, after spending about an hour in a location, you begin to realize they’re not as big as they first appeared. They’re well detailed, and beautifully rendered, but smart design employs well-placed crowds and open areas in between densely packed corridors - making the small places feel tighter and big places feel grander. But once you’ve walked from one end to the other, you’ve seen it all and even with the game begging you to return to kill a random character, I felt I was over it.
This level design expands to Hitman’s online functionality. The only reason it seems to want you online is so it can track your arbitrary scores at the end of each mission. These scores do give you some bonuses for when you return to the mission again, but as I already said, there isn’t much incentive to do that. Thus, the scores become meaningless - or even more meaningless than they already were. I’ve never thought of Hitman as an arcade experience where I compare scores and times with friends - and I’m not going to spend another hour to marginally improve my performance. The online integration seems completely unnecessary and just serves to slow the game down. I felt the same way about the Elusive Targets - a new form of gameplay where targets are added to a mission and players have a limited amount of time to kill them. Again, there’s little incentive to do these missions as completing them only unlocks cosmetic outfits for Agent 47 - and since there’s no one to show these outfits off for, the mode lacks a reason to play it. There seems to be an assumption that players will want to return to these locations, time and again, but as I said in my initial impressions - there isn’t any compelling reason for the player to do so.
It’s not that Hitman is a bad game, it’s just not a very remarkable one. It has some creativity and its use of the Opportunity system is a smart way to guide players through well-designed levels. But the stealth mechanics feel unwieldy and when you start getting into the nitty-gritty of the design it feels like it’s a nice proof-of-concept that is need of refinement and better implementation. Video game reboots usually say something about the material they’re rebooting: Tomb Raider sought to flesh out the character of Lara Croft, DOOM wanted to re-energize the first person shooter genre with the fast pace that made the original so popular, Wolfenstein: The New Order wanted to explore a new variant of the game’s timeline, DMC: Devil May Cry sought to blow out the series with the most ridiculous action they could dream up. Those reboots felt a reverence to their material; they saw something in their predecessors that was essential to the industry as a whole and wanted to offer these timeless qualities to a modern audience. Hitman doesn’t do any of that.
Hitman’s new episodic format may be the most remarkable thing about this reboot, which may sound harsh but it is also something that works to its advantage. The promise of a second season is the best thing Hitman has going for it. Now that IO has a full season under their belt, they will hopefully come up with a more compelling reason for 47’s return, and improve the game which he inhabits.