Hitman’s final Elusive Target will be making his appearance (and most likely exiting the world in thousands of ways) today. It’ll be the twenty sixth such target since the Paris episode was released in March 2016.
It’s in vogue for games to extend their longevity and keep people coming back with regular updates. The term ‘games as a service’ is really just shorthand for “we really, really want to be the next Destiny or Battlegrounds or breakout MOBA,” which itself is shorthand for “we really, really want the money from the next Destiny etc”. And it’s easy to comprehend why that’s happening. A desire to keep people interested in your game isn’t a new development; but increased competition for attention, and the relative ease with which expansions and additions can be delivered online, has made it practically a necessity.
Multiplayer titles like Overwatch opt for seasonal or topical events, while single player games like Total War: Warhammer or Paradox grand strategies apply a drip-feed approach to DLC (both paid and free). Not forgetting the eternal Early Access crowd, like DayZ. Outside of indie releases, a ‘one and done’ stand-alone title is a rarer breed.
IO Interactive’s Hitman (know around these parts as Hitman 6: Hitman) extended this structure to the game itself. Six episodes, released at regular intervals throughout the year. Depending where you look, this was either an approach which (after a shaky start) paid off and encouraged players to revisit and return to episodes far more often than they otherwise might. Or it was another way for publishers to sell us games piecemeal that could leave the whole thing forever unfinished.
Wherever you stand on that, within the context of an ongoing, episodic game, the concept of Elusive Targets was a smart piece of design. They weren’t perfect (we’ll get to that), but in theme and execution they fit very well into the Hitman world and its staggered structure.
Elusive Targets use two distinct mechanics to add challenging pressure on the player: time and the removal of a safety net. The time pressure is an actual, tangible thing. If you don’t attempt the contract within the allotted time, it will disappear and not be seen again. This all ties in rather well with Hitman’s narrative. Agent 47 is a hitman-for-hire who will periodically receive job offers outside the main ‘story’. Those targets, like real people of power and influence, will not necessarily remain in one location for long.
The set-up and the time aspect to Elusive Targets are broadly successful, but the second (the lack of safety net) has a couple of problems. In theory you’re supposed to only have one go at these contracts. If Agent 47 dies, then you don’t get another chance. In reality, this means you do a lot of hasty quitting when things take a bad turn. It’s not immediately obvious (thanks in part to how Elusive Targets are presented), but there is no punishment for simply quitting and reloading.
This removes a lot of the tension that’s supposed to be present. It’s not easy, though, to come up with a solution. If Elusive Targets were genuinely based around a single run (no quitting out whatsoever), they’d cross from being challenging to far too punishing. Perhaps they should allow a set number of ‘casing the joint’ type efforts before the player is forced to commit to a final, no turning back, attempt. Something like an adaptation of Blood Money’s system of limited saves.
There are probably better solutions out there, and IO can hopefully come up with one if Elusive Targets return for Season Two (and, indeed, assuming there is a Season Two). The system just about works in its present form, but feels like it could be refined.
The most discussed flaw in Hitman’s Elusive Target system, however, is one that’s rather inherent to its entire existence. Rewards (in the form of suits) are forthcoming for those who manage to complete enough of the contracts. That means people can easily miss out on both some pretty neat mini-missions and their rewards. If you happen to be on holiday or otherwise indisposed during one target’s release, that’s too bad, you missed out. Likewise, if you purchase the game from 23 July onward, you won’t experience any Elusive Targets at all.
This feels like a more difficult dilemma to resolve than the issue with quitting and reloading. It shouldn’t be a heartbreaker to miss out on cosmetic Agent 47 skins, but it’s a shame that those coming to Hitman late don’t have any chance to play some (or all, at this point) of the Elusives.
The suits issue may be solved by rolling over the potential rewards into Season Two (again, if there is etc). For the other, it could be that Elusive Targets always remain a bonus that players get for picking up the game early. In that context, they’re preferable to the usual awful pre-order incentives.
Despite the imperfections, Elusives have been an enjoyable way for IO to utilise sections of level that (up to that point) may not have seen much assassination action. The Papal candidate who stuck to the church area in Sapienza is a decent example of this. It also allowed them to try bizarre things (that Gary Busey cameo) or creative experiments (a target with an identical twin). They weren’t all winners, but as both a method of drawing people back to Hitman and as short, relatively tense, side-missions, they’ve been a success.
Now, excuse me, there’s a dangerous fellow named Mr Giggles on the loose in Marrakesh. Time to prepare.