The Virtual Life – Getting Away With Murder In Hitman
Viktor Novikov isn't a bright man. He walks around this mansion like he owns everyone here. He's bumbled his way to the top and mistakes himself for a god. I could kill him on the sly. Break the chandelier and cause it to crush him when he gets up on the catwalk to give a speech. Painful but tidy. Professional. No signs of foul play.
But the man offends me. He's a brute who thinks he's a grifter. I'll take the pay cut just to take him down a few pegs. I follow him and the guard flanking at all times through the corridors of this maze, filled with party guests until he steps off into a secluded place to make a call on his cellphone. His guard goes down first, a wrench knocking him to the ground. Novikov turns. I give him long enough to see the pistol, to realize what's coming next, and to know that everything he built is about to be taken from him. Two roaring shots. Center mass. The Russian drops to the floor. I toss the pistol and walk back into the hallway.
Around me, people scream but no one's seen anything. I take advantage of the chaos, moving through crowds, walking past guards with their pistols drawn as they surge toward the scene of the crime. Out at the docks next to the courtyard I find the boat and make a daring but silent escape to freedom. Just another day at the office.
When the latest version of IO Interactive's series about a contract killer was released last year, it received mixed critical reception due to its idiosyncratic episodic format and technical issues. Over the course of last year, I gave the game multiple attempts to try and get into it, but I was always put off by some weird glitch or the overwhelming quality of levels like Paris and Sapienza. It wasn't until I decided to give the full, polished game a go this past week that the hooks finally sank in.
Many games are violent, often with systems and features designed to make headshots satisfyingly bloody and melee executions crunch. However, violence in itself isn't interesting, especially when it's an action you're doing constantly over and over again in a game for hours on end. However, Hitman's brand of violence is fascinating because while the bloody antics of everyone's favorite bald and barcoded killer are satisfying enough on their own, often letting you blow people up with explosive rubber ducks or chop them with fire axes, the context and the design built around that context is what makes Hitman notable. The best way I've come to conceptualize Hitman is to see it as a game that's not necessarily about killing people, but more a simulator about committing a crime and getting away with it.
You could argue the series has always leaned that direction. Hitman: Blood Money even has a system that rewards you for getting in, doing the job, and getting out clean. However, these games have often had a narrative focus, with little to punish you for Playing Your Own Way. The latest Hitman title takes a bold maneuver by encouraging you to actually play the contract assassin. If you want, you can roll up into your target's house, kill all the guards with an assault rifle, make a lot of noise, and then blow away your contract to complete the mission. However, you lose out on valuable experience points that net you more options for each level: new starting locations, weapons, gadgets, disguises, and so on. So while you can technically complete the game by being a psychopathic killer, there's more here to encourage you to play a like a professional. That's why the latest iteration of Hitman succeeds.
The levels that initially overwhelmed me have slowly become some of my favorite design in years. I've loved exploring the beaches and catacombs of the seaside town Sapienza in search of new ways to complete my objectives. For example, unlocking protagonist 47's hideout allows you to access an explosive golf ball that you can trick one of your targets, a rich boy golfer, to hit with his club and consequently be blown across the yard. Another opportunity you can find starts when you overhear a waiter arguing with his brother, encouraging him to hurry up to his first day of work as the head chef's new assistant. Sneaking into this guy's apartment, knocking him out, and taking his suit allows you to sneak into the mansion via the kitchen and also gives you an option to poison the target's meal, causing him to run over to a ledge to puke. This leaves him in a private space, not flanked by bodyguards, where you can send him falling to his death with a nudge of your foot.
There's a gleefully diabolical quality to all the ways Hitman lets you off your targets, and for executing those methods you're rewarded with experience to unlock even more options for deployability. But somehow even more satisfying than any of those paths is how you make your escape from each one. If you want to get into a Heat-esque firefight, blasting guards with assault rifles as you storm out the front and make your way to an exit, that's a valid choice and often an exciting one. However, there's a supreme sense of satisfaction in making a quiet getaway, raising no suspicion, and strolling out the front door as everyone continues about their routines (the gardner cutting the plants, the muscle talking gossip). To commit a crime is only part of the occasion. To get the full experience, you have to get away with it, too.
This is why Hitman's brand of violence stands above most other video games. Gears of War, Halo, Wolfenstein, Doom, Half-Life, Titanfall, Battlefield – all of these games justified the violence you commit narratively. You are killing hordes of bad dudes/aliens/demons because somehow they're an objective threat to each game's world, so it's not a crime or a situation you have to answer for. Every act of violence in Hitman is also one of calculation. Is it worth killing this waiter to steal his outfit? Can you get away with knocking him out? What happens when you knock out one person but get caught hiding the body? Is that when you pull out your pistol and end an innocent life? What's your code of honor as a killer? And what's the practical value of each murder versus just subduing a target or sneaking past them? Hitman doles these questions out, moment by moment, and how you answer them helps define your experience.
For the past week I've been replaying levels and answering the different questions they present in order to create my own unique contract-killing persona. I'd like to think I'm skilled and capable of getting out of any situation with no innocent lives lost, but I still find myself getting into scraps, having to garrote some poor person who was at the wrong place at the wrong time. Past the initial moment of disappointment, there's something deeply (albeit grossly) entrancing about those chaotic situations: feeling more like heist gone wrong than a clumsy murder.
Developer IOI recently announced they were going independent and still have the Hitman license. Though the company has suffered a round of layoffs, I hope to see the developer produce another season of the game that's just as creative and wicked as this one, especially when it comes to letting players define who they are within the bloody world of wetwork.
For another take on Hitman, check out Jeff Marchifava's review.