Last year was the perfect opportunity for someone to steal Assassin’s Creed’s real estate. It’s surprising that no one did. The franchise has delivered a decent single-player experience right before the holiday season since 2009, and those games have sold every time. Hell, in 2014, players were given two games (buggy ones at that) and both still did pretty well. Assassin’s Creed’s decision to take a year off in 2016 should have caused developers to race against each other to release something in November that matched Assassin’s Creed mechanics. But no one did.
I remember thinking about that void for a long time, and wondering why no developer had stepped up the plate in Assassin’s Creed’s absence. Was there a game that could have done it? Assassin’s Creed has always prided itself on three pillars: combat, narrative, and exploration. This trio flows together in a deadly ballet that works so well that someone should have implemented it.
Then it hit me. One game had. A game that released in unfinished pieces throughout 2016. A game that would have greatly benefited from waiting until November, and releasing in its entirety in one sitting.
It was so obvious in hindsight. Admittedly, Assassin’s Creed does combat, narrative, and exploration better, but all three of those elements are present in 2016’s Hitman. Players still have to fight off enemies when they’re discovered and kill specific targets. They still need to uncover key bits of information, learn about their prey, and deal with threats in a way that satisfies the narrative. And they still have to be a face in the crowd, exploring the environment in search of possible attack points.
Both Assassin’s Creed and Hitman scratch the same itch: solving a puzzle through violence. Most games differentiate the two, forcing the player to either solve a puzzle or kill. Rarely do games ask the player to solve a puzzle so they can kill someone in a specific way, or kill someone in a specific way so they can unlock the next stage of a puzzle. Assassin’s Creed has always been a franchise where the world informs a particular act of murder, and how that murder is carried out in turn informs how the world should act. This dynamic continues from start to finish, and Hitman follows this formula (pretty well) too.
It’s also not like Hitman would have lost anything in delaying its release. It didn’t exactly achieve phenomenal financial success with its episodic format. Most of the episodes were reviewed positively, but splitting the game like that just made it hard to retain a player base. I still, to this day, don’t actually own Hitman. I tried an episode at a friend’s house, loved it, promised myself I’d play the rest of it one day, and just never got back around to doing so. There just hasn’t been enough time in 2017, with months of awesome games coming out pretty much back to back.
Last November would have been the perfect time. Hitman could have delivered that dynamic between killer and world, where deduction and experimentation are rewarded with murder. I would have embraced Hitman as my Assassin’s Creed for 2016. I’m sure plenty of other players would have too.
It’s this particular dynamic that would have guaranteed success for Hitman if the game had released as a a full-fledged single-player game in November. Assassin’s Creed works so well because it rewards players for checking in on an annual basis. Hitman would have slid into that annual checkup.
See, as engaging Assassin’s Creed’s killing box puzzles are, they aren’t excruciatingly difficult. The process of solving and killing in tandem feels more natural over time, and convinces players that they’re applying what they’ve learned from last year’s game in order to “solve” the world of the next game. Releasing games in a constant rhythm allows players to really see their growth, and empower them into believing that they’re intelligently growing as a skilled assassin. Assassin’s Creed has been using its yearly checkup slots to help players get stuck into that feedback loop for years, to the point where players find it naturally cathartic. Hitman does just enough, that it could have easily slid into that slot and encouraged players to continue their experimental murder.