For anyone who still has doubts about the episodic era of video games, we present to you Hitman: The Complete First Season.
Meet the first successful high-level title to get the episodic treatment. It was early last year that Square Enix and IO Interactive released the first of six episodes of Hitman, a venerable assassination franchise rebuilt into a series of venues, each released a month or two a part. And at the time, the approach still had its skeptics.
But the first season all came together in fluid, fun fashion, and the piecemeal approach worked flawlessly. And now, a year later, the entire first season episodic package is available in a one-disc compilation, a perfect entry point for the old-school gaming crowd. Because it still plays spectacularly, just like that first season of “Game of Thrones” still feels worth it on Blu-ray.
Just in case you forgot how Hitman works, here’s your primer: You play as 47, a programmed assassin who can disguise himself as various people he meets in each area of the game and also use a series of weapons. He does all this in hopes of getting close to a certain target in each level, a target that he must kill. But he does it in a nuanced environment: All your moves must be calculated, from where you kill to where you hide the bodies of the dead to your path to your end pursuit. This is thinking man’s stealth at its best.
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It’s simple enough, and has played out largely that way for a litany of Hitman games, but it’s never as fun as it is in this episodic romp. By releasing each sandbox level separately, Square gave gamers both time and ample reason (they had nothing else to do) to fully explore each area. Mastery of each area suddenly became possible, in a way that often can’t happen for those who play through other deep, immersive sandbox games.
Hitman worked because the area of each episode was well-crafted, because each area presented a different, unique experience. The first mission, at a fashion show in Paris, felt small and contained, just large enough to let the gamer experiment with the very basics of Hitman, tiny enough to never feel daunting.
Things open up in Sapienza, a sprawling village and massive mansion-like property that included an underground area, creating a more diverse experience with even more methods of entry. And then it was onto episode 3, in Marrakesh, Morocco, an area that demanded even more nuance and care since, at nearly every turn, at least a half-dozen eyes could watch the actions of 47.
A level in a Bangkok hotel provided more multi-level fun, in an elegant setting that made you ready for spring break vacation, while the level after that, in Colorado, forced more classic “stealth” tactics, more hiding behind areas crates and sneaking about for fear of being seen, period. Things closed out in a Japanese hospital.
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Each portion of the game presented something vastly different, and each episode included an overwhelming collection of extra things to do. There were Escalation contracts to perform in each area, forcing you to kill your target with a certain weapon and certain disguise, and the return of a Contracts mode that allowed you to pick a mark for other gamers to go get. It all forced a deep but natural appreciation for each level, and with weeks in between releases last year, you had every reason to spend plenty of extra time delving into all this content.
For game newcomers, some of this gets lost in the overall compilation, since the entire game is introduced at once. That means it’s really only six “levels,” each of which can be completed in an hour or so, depending on your tactics and style. But to rush through the compilation is to miss the beauty of Hitman, and to miss the savoring of each kill.
This is a game that demands that you take your time; it’s an experience that can’t be rushed. If you can do that, though, you’ll derive hours upon hours of joy from this Hitman: The Complete First Season.
And by the time Season Two comes (and it’s coming), you’ll be ready for more nuanced assassination.
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Reviewed on Microsoft Xbox One Available on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PCSend a Letter to the Editor