When 2016’s Hitman was announced, it looked slick, I wanted to play it but I was never very good at Stealth games. I’ve played a majority of the Hitman games over the years since release and only got a level or two into them and quit. I was intrigued by this new one and really wanted to get it. Then I heard about the way the game was going to be released…. In “episodic” content… I was immediately baffled by the decision and lost basically all interest. I wanted to really like it, I wanted to get it, but having it released level by level, waiting for something new to drop a month at a time (and with other studios dropping the ball so often, even monthly releases weren’t a guarantee) I was skeptical at best.
Then I saw the game in action. This game looked rad. It looked like a super serious stealth game, but that was only on the outer layer, the inner layer was a wonderfully soft and chewy goofy game, filled with so many layers to it, that this slow drip release was the only way you could release it. The gameplay is so deep with so many different kinds of stories for you to uncover, you can’t possibly seem all, or even a percent of everything in just one go.
The layout of the maps are multi-layered, with usually two different targets. Your goal is simple, infiltrate, kill, slip away silently. The majority of your time will be just searching for your first actual disguise. Finding the right way to get into the area where your target is, without getting noticed. There is so much excitement and edge of your seat action in this simple part alone. It really makes you feel like a stealth master, and it only gets better from there. Once you infiltrate your targets base, it almost turns into a game of cat and mouse, seeing your target, and trying to kill them in a variety of different ways. Either by taking them out silently with poison, getting them ill and taking them out by drowning them in their own vomit filled toilet. Or your can go the bombastic route and make them meet their maker in a overly dramatic and cinematic way that only befits a hollywood style villain like Hans Gruber. The choice is yours and your imagination.
Since the game is so deep that you can’t see everything in one go, this is where the episodic content can really help the full game be experienced. With such a small initial investment, you really do feel like you get your money’s worth. Most will already spend an hour or two just trying to kill the targets for the first time. Trial and error, learning mechanics of disguise and trespassing. What weapons will make noise, getting noticed, chased and escaping guards…. And all while not even completing the first task. What really sets this apart from being frustrating, is just how much you learn and feel accomplishment of that learning. Getting better each and every time, even though chaos is happening all around you (sometimes by your own hand).
The way the game released allowed the development team to really expand and fill the map to its fullest. Exploring every nook and cranny of this game is a reward in itself. Learning a new path, finding a new weapon, overhearing a new story thread. You can spend 10 hours in a map and still not find every single thing in it. It’s a testament to how fully featured a game can truly be, given the time.
Seeing how well Hitman did with this release schedule, the positive reviews, the word of mouth, and mostly just playing it, it got me thinking. Why can’t more games use this type of release schedule for games? Why can’t we have more studios and publishers release games piecemeal? Sure, I know there are several “reasons” why, the biggest one is that publishers want a game to be released, and then be monetized somehow so that a game can continually rake in the money well after its release. But there are quite a few games that can benefit from this model of release.
Telltale really did start this trend off with their episodic releases of Walking Dead and the slew of cookie cutter pasted games…. But it never really made much sense. You’d buy and download the first episode, play through it in around and hour and a half to two hours, and then sit around and wait for a month or two for a new episode to pick up where you left off. Maybe you’d play through the episode again a bit differently to see what the other choice would effect, but honestly it didn’t make a whole lot of sense for a story based game. With Hitman it’s different. You are given a whole month to really dig deep, really explore the game and get to know the map intimately. To play around with the goofy costumes that seem so hilariously absurd; a trained assassin who is a clone from a secret government facility, who has killed a fashion model you just happen to look like and assume their role, walk down a runway at a private fashion show and take a meeting with one of the heads of a shadowy kabal, to watch her monologue and push her over the ledge onto the other target, killing two birds with one stone, and then slip away quietly and ride off in your helicopter, with no one the wiser that you were even there. …. All this you just happen to stumble on as you explore, and the thread just snowballs into such a beautiful disaster of ridiculous encounters.
Obviously this doesn’t make sense for every game, but it definitely should be a option for games, as long as it makes sense. It could also change the course of the way a game can be created and developed. Imagine a game where instead of a single player campaign, featuring around 16 levels that is built so linearly that it basically plays it self, with you just pushing forward on the analog stick and occasionally pulling a trigger, and instead is around 8 levels built so vast and largely and chock filled with so many different smaller scenarios, that you can basically do anything you want.
Several big named games come to mind but Metal Gear Solid 5 is one that jumps to me. That game was so well made (mechanics wise), being able to quietly sneak in and complete your objective, or go in guns blazing and barely escaping with your life. Instead of two very large (and very empty) worlds throughout the game, they could have sectioned this off… and they kinda did with the “prequel” one off, Ground Zeroes. It was meant to be played over and over again, and released 9 months earlier, before MGS5 was. It gave players time to really sink their teeth into the way the game play felt, and offered sever missions that you could do. Doing so allowed you to unlock a special suit that would only be available for those hardcore players that got 100% in Ground Zeroes…. That is the type of things that build memories and loyal fans for life.
Hitman is special, it walks the line of super serious stealth game that it started as, and at the same time borders on insanity. The feeling of barely pulling off a hit or even the satisfying way Agent 47 can hurl a wrench at an unsuspecting guard’s head can’t really be put down in words, it’s something you have to experience yourself. There is something unique to this game, and if it wasn’t released in the episodic format that it was, I wouldn’t have uncovered that for myself. I wouldn’t have spent 70+ hours in 5 levels. I wouldn’t have spent the year I got married sitting down with my fiance and constantly cracking up with her in the slap-dash way this super aloof hitman can barely accomplish his goals and cities are scrambling away from the gunfire and lobbed explosive golf balls and rubber duckys are flying through the air. None of this would be possible without the weird press release that fateful January 14th 2016, just months before release…. It was such a brilliant move that sealed it’s fate as the most successful title in the Hitman franchise.
I can’t imagine how 2018’s Hitman 2 was released any other way than episodic. Maybe it was because of the studio being let go from Square Enix and them having to make the finances tighter and a smaller budget (which has to be the case, as you can see the cutscenes took a huge dip in visual quality, resorting to a motion comic like static style instead of the beautifully rendered CGI from the first game. But whatever the case is, they still took their time and released a game that feels very much the same as the first, but also gives so many more little changes that make me want to spend another 70 hours with this game.
Episodic content shouldn’t be a dirty word in the industry, but it does need to be used wisely. If a game can benefit from it, it should be considered. It can lead to some really cool and interesting design choices, that can ultimately not just pad the game out, keeping players in the game for months longer than they normally would have, but really allow the player to change up their normal play style and approach the game from a different way, and enjoy it more fully.