Friday, February 3, 2017

Episodic Games Review: ‘Hitman’ (2016) and ‘Batman: The Telltale Series’


Agent 47 and Bruce Wayne’s Batman are back as the two vastly different new episodic games are compared.

Episodic Games, for better or worse, are here to stay. The first episodic game appeared in 1979 with Automated Simulations’ Dunjonquest. But it was Telltale’s The Walking Dead Season 1 that popularized the format. Multiple Game of the Year award wins in 2012 demonstrated that the episodic games’ structure highlighted strong narratives and characters. Four years later and Hitman (2016) advocates for the alternative: a game that relies on gameplay more than story. Batman: A Telltale Series released its own episodes concurrently with Hitman, which focused on story rather than gameplay, in line with expectations of the studio. And while the two games are complete opposites, one focusing on gameplay, the other on story, as episodic games, the two are similar in many ways. 
Hitman (2016) follows the exploits of Agent 47 – the bald assassin with the bar code on the back of his head – as he globetrots around the world taking out different targets to advance the plot. Said plot never amount to more than “conspiracy plot #3,423,970” and shadow clients. But the plot gives the player an excuse to travel to various exotic locations. Spread out month to month, Hitman (2016) includes locations such as: Paris, Sapienza, Marrakesh, Bangkok, Colorado and Hokkaido, with several additional episodes released intermittently to break up the two-month gap in the summer. The levels range from a military base and fashion shoot to events during a protest.

Hitman (2016) is a drastic improvement to the previous iteration, Hitman: Absolution (2012). There is a degree of options and creativity as you perfect the tableau of your target’s demise. The game leaves it up to the player whether they prefer to slip rat poison in drinks or kill targets in the open using the crowd as meat-shields. As you traverse the many levels, you may hear characters talking that has relevance to your mission. In the Marrakesh mission, I overheard two characters talk about how their TV cameraman was late but they’ve never seen his face. I took advantage of this and, long story short, I dropped a moose head on my target during the interview.
These guided missions are the game’s opportunities and make Hitman (2016) one of the more approachable Hitman games to date. It will outline, systematically, what to do but not when to do it. It still leaves agency in the player’s hands. If you choose to, you can ignore the opportunities and carry on with your own plan of action. Some players go completely off the beaten path with comical results. See below.

Hitman (2016) deviates from its predecessors with the first online-only functionality. You can certainly play the game offline but doing so limits yourself from the rest of the game and in some cases, hampers your experience. If at any point, your internet connection goes down, Hitman will boot you back to the main menu. Given that offline saves can’t be used online and vice versa means that Hitman has a very specific way it wants you to play the game. Elusive targets – special assassination targets that include celebrities like Gary Busey - are included and add the infamous tongue-in-cheek flair that the series is known for.

The issue with the elusive targets is that they stand against everything that Hitman (2016) is about. If an Elusive Target escapes or you kill them, the target disappears forever. You can circumvent this by quitting out of the game or going offline, but having a “one and done” approach to Hitman, a series that prides itself on multiple ways to kill a target, feels limiting and flawed by design. On the other hand, online contracts – a relative Simon Says game where one player kills a target one way and challenges the player to replicate that – is in line with Hitman’s multiple ways to off a target. Various challenges from the base game also advocate the open-ended design philosophy. Curious as to why the Elusive Targets are the only part of the game that doesn’t.
At the end of the day, Hitman (2016) is a return to the series proper but makes the gameplay inviting enough for newcomers. With a second season on the rise and the episodic structure proven lucrative for the publisher and developer, it’ll be exciting to see where the game goes next.
On the other end of the spectrum is the Batman 5-episode series from Telltale, a studio with a reputation for delivering interesting stories and characters -- in this regard, they succeed. Unfortunately, Batman: The Telltale Series is plagued with technical issues and at certain points, poor character development.

[NOTE] STORY SPOILERS FOR BATMAN: THE TELLTALE SERIES BELOW
Batman: The Telltale Series focuses on the Wayne family’s past and how Bruce learns to deal with his pre-conceived notions of who his parents were, set in the midst of corporate political battles and a revolution to overthrow politicians. The tried and true gameplay of Batman: The Telltale Series – walking around a room and clicking interactable points of interest – is still prevalent in this game but in crime scenes, you can link certain clues together. This works similarly to the Arkham games but with not nearly enough visual flair. In other game sequences, you have to plan out your attack for taking out a room of armed thugs. You’ll only really have one or two options for beating a guard senseless but it’s exciting to plan a sequence and then put it all into motion.
Multiple characters throughout the Batman lore make appearances: usual suspects like Catwoman, Penguin, Two-Face, The Joker, etc. But for perceptive Bat-fans, there are some hidden characters throughout.  The voice acting, from the talents of Troy Baker (The Last of UsBioshock: Infinite) and Laura Bailey (Uncharted 4Gears of War 4), are stellar across the board and the cell-shaded graphical presentation fits with the graphic novel style in which Batman became popular. It’s disappointing, however, that Batman: The Telltale Series never allows you to form your own morally gray Batman. Playing the Telltale games, you start to notice that you’re not so much playing a game as you’re interacting with the script. Player agency has been all but removed in Batman: The Telltale Series and this extends to the poor character development.
Throughout the game, I was trying my best to make sure that Harvey Dent never became Two-Face. I was supportive of Dent’s campaign to be Mayor and even willing to stand a backstab or two if Dent felt the need to distance himself from me amidst controversy. I even prevented him getting the scars on his face. That was all dashed away in Episode 3 when he started taking medication that turned him into Two-Face anyway, minus the facial scars. It’s also clear that more seasons are coming for Batman as The Joker, who has a great introduction, asks a favor of Bruce Wayne that you’re expected to make good on that deal in the future.
Player agency can be relegated to friends or stream viewers with the new crowd play feature. Much like its namesake, crowd play allows people to make dialogue decisions and play the game with everyone else. It’s an interesting feature but given the stream delay on Twitch and viewers blindly making decisions with no context, Batman: The Telltale Series could just be the longest party game to date.
Episodes 4 & 5 mar the excellent pacing of the earlier episodes as they resolve plot threads in a hurry – it feels like Telltale forgot they only had five episodes to work with. You’d think they’d have it down pat by now. But nothing hinders the game more than the awful framerate and technical issues. More noticeable in Episode 5, the framerate and audio take a noticeable dip in performance and certain characters will be non-existent in certain gut-wrenching scenes.

This is, quite frankly, embarrassing for Telltale and their game engine. These issues, given the low levels of graphical fidelity, shouldn’t be happening. These should, in theory, be the best performing games this generation from Telltale – but, they just aren’t.

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