I hated Hitman: Absolution. Developer IO Interactive took their clever, unique sandbox game and tried to turn it into a story-based stealth shooter. What we got was a tepid stealth shooter, a horrendous story, and (worst of all) a terrible Hitman game.
I thought this was it for the franchise. When a series takes a dramatic turn like this it’s usually a sign that the company culture has shifted. Maybe new creative people are in charge, or budgets have been drastically cut, or the property has been given to an entirely new developer, or corporate is pushing the creative people to make the product more “mainstream”. In any case, this is usually a one-way transformation. Maybe if the backlash is big enough the next game will walk back a few of the changes while stubbornly clinging to their new vision, but I can’t think of a franchise that’s tanked this hard and later returned to its former glory.
But here we are. It’s been four years since the abominable Absolution and we get Hitman: No Subtitle. It’s not just a return to formula, but a high point for the series as a whole. The levels are, if anything, larger than what we’ve seen in the last few entries, bucking the prevailing trend of games that sacrifice scale in favor of shinier polygons. And yet it manages to look stellar despite these gigantic levels. The locations are varied and exotic, and the targets are all interesting and appropriately deserving of Agent 47’s style of deadpan murder. There are usually multiple targets in each mission, with many different ways to approach them.
I honestly have no idea how they turned the writing around so quickly. Absolution’s cutscenes were interminable. The vapid dialog chattered on for several minutes, spoon-feeding us forced exposition that was somehow both obvious and nonsensical. They were ugly, overlong, boring, and at odds with the tone and themes of the series. It was just so magnificently wrong. And yet here comes Hitman 2016 with a lightweight story that returns to the cloak-and-dagger stuff the series is known for. The dialog is compact and the writer trusts the audience to understand the sides without needing to spell everything out for us. Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or anything. It’s not trying to be. We get exactly as much story as we need to set the tone and give context, but otherwise the focus is on the missions.
The disguise system has been fixed after Absolution made it nonsensical and borderline useless. Swiping the right outfit will typically let you roam around freely like you should. In Absolution, so many people could see through your disguise that you often wonder why you bothered wearing the damn thing. Here in Hitman: [awkward silence] there are occasionally people that can out you, but now they’re rare challenges that force you to adapt and not a hive mind of paranoid killjoys.
So it’s good, right? Well…
In the past I’ve complained that publishers haven’t learned anything from the forced online backlashes of the past: Spore, Diablo 3, SimCity, etc. Looks like I was wrong. They are learning. It’s just that they’re learning the wrong things. I was hoping they would learn that forced online is a risk (PR disaster if the servers go down) expense (setting up and running servers costs money) and headache (people just want to play their damn videogame in peace) that does nothing to improve sales. Instead the new angle they’re taking is to muddy the waters between “online” and “offline”.
This is a game all about playing the same mission again and again. Each time you can try a new approach. A new method of ingress. A new disguise. Or no disguise. Different weapons. Every time you finish a level you unlock more options. Maybe you get access to a new tool, a new disguise, or a different starting location. All of this adds to the replay value and gives you a reason to keep exploring these expansive environments and discovering their possibilities.
Technically you can play Hitman: The Recent One in offline mode. However, if you do then you lose access to these unlocks. You lose access to the bonus modes where you can hunt down different targets. It stops tracking what methods you’ve used. It doesn’t remember your score.
Instead of just making a single-player game and letting us enjoy it in peace, Square Enix has decided to force us online, but leave us this bare bones version of the game for offline mode. Any outrage over this will be deflected by the qualifying asterisk that the game doesn’t technically require online mode to be playable. It was easy for the community to band together when everything was black and white, but people probably aren’t going to get fired up over a few indistinguishable shades of dark grey.
The problem is that someday those servers are going to go down, at which point the full version of Hitman 2016 will stop existingFor everyone except pirates, obviously.. Instead we’ll be left with the crippled version with no unlocks. Imagine if someone did this back in 2000. What if Eidos Interactive made a bunch of features of the original Deus Ex dependent on an internet connection? Sure, you can play all the way through the game, but you can’t equip the Dragon Tooth sword, several of the aug upgrade canisters are unreachable, all the non-lethal weapons are missing, and you start each level in some kind of “default” state instead of carrying your progress and equipment between missions.
Square Enix is sabotaging the future to annoy people in the present.
I anticipate some objections…
But Shamus, the game already requires Steam, and if Steam dies then so do all your games. If you’re okay with Valve doing it then it would be hypocritical to complain when Square Enix does it.
Actually, that’s not how risk works. Yes, if Steam dies then I’ll lose access to my games. But now if IO Interactive is shuttered, then the folks in charge of maintaining these servers will lose their jobs. The servers will vanish, and my game will be crippled. The same thing happens if parent company Square Enix goes under. The risk isn’t the same. The risk to the consumer has tripled. We’re now in a death pact where all three of these outfits need to remain solvent to preserve the game.
Actually, the risk has done a lot more than triple. Valve is a financial juggernaut, but Square Enix has been struggling over the last few years. The 2013 layoffs got rid of about half the people at IO Interactive. I can believe Valve will still be here in 10 years, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if IO Interactive or Square Enix vanish – or end up catastrophically “reorganized” – in the next ten years.
Shamus, the fact stands that they’re doing the same thing as Valve.
But it’s not the same thing at all. I don’t think that anyone gets upset that you have to sign in to Steam before you can use your friends list, download games, get patches, or earn achievements and trading cards. Those features aren’t possible without being online. In contrast, Hitman’s online requirement is entirely artificial. There’s no reason you need to log in for the game to unlock new starting locations except that they deliberately engineered the game to cripple itself when not online. All of this could be handled using simple savegames. The only thing that actually requires a connection is the global leaderboards.
(And as a matter of personal taste, global leaderboards are bullshit I could do without. When I finish a mission I want to see how much better I did than last time. I don’t care that I’m ranked below ten thousand random strangers and I’m a billion points behind the top players. I’m playing this to have fun. I’m not looking to turn pro, thanks.)
Shamus, this isn’t anything new. You probably won’t be able to run this game on the hardware of 2027 anyway, so this server business is no big deal.
This is like saying, “We’re all going to die in the end, so I might as well play Russian roulette.” This compounds the customer’s risk for no tangible benefit.
No Future for Old Games
Back in the early days of television, producers would routinely tape over old recordings or throw away footage from old shows to save space. This means that many formative shows are simply lost to time. Thousands of hours of historically important programs are just gone. Today people look back on those days with frustration and dismay, “You threw away the master copies of 100 episodes of Dr. Who because you needed CLOSET SPACE? Are you INSANE?!” It’s shocking that the people of the past could be so short-sighted. And yet here we are, burning down the future for stupid reasons.
Between changes to the operating system, drivers, and the hardware itself, it’s already going to be a challenge to access the games of today on the machines of tomorrow. Sure, you can run Dungeon Keeper in a DOSBox, but today’s games are orders of magnitude more complex. Worse, computers are no longer getting exponentially faster, so we can’t count on using brute-force emulation to solve these problems in the future.
And even if we don’t care about games from a historical or cultural perspective, from a simple consumer standpoint I’d like to know I could launch Hitman: The One I’m Complaining About Right Now in 2027 and still be able to play it properly, in the same way I can still play Half-Life 2 right now.
It’s already going to be a challenge to preserve a lot of games for future generations. Making single-player games dependent on servers for their save data makes the whole thing that much more difficult. Worst of all, it’s not even clear what the publisher is getting out of it. Is this supposed to fight piracy? Second-hand sales? Is it intended for harvesting user data? Publishers aren’t open about this sort of thing, so from our perspective there’s no reason for any of this.
 For everyone except pirates, obviously.
Could Have Been Great
Here are four games that could have been much better with just a little more work.
Juvenile and Proud
Yes, this game is loud, crude, childish, and stupid. But it it knows what it wants to be and nails it. And that's admirable.
Two minutes of fun at the expense of a badly-run theme park.
The Loot Lottery
What makes the gameplay of Borderlands so addictive for some, and what does that have to do with slot machines?
The Best of 2012
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2012.