Lots of games focus on killing. If we think of games as a collection of verbs and nouns, then the most common verb is probably “shoot” and the most common noun is, more than likely, “person.” Games weren’t always this way, but the past twenty years have firmly cemented the actions that we do in our major blockbuster games in a fundamental and profoundly sad way.
You wouldn’t be wrong in thinking that a series like the Hitman franchise is just another murderin’ and hollerin’ game like all the others. You do, after all, perform the duties that the title suggests. You stalk your targets, memorize their actions and desires, and then strike them at their most vulnerable. Or, alternately, you enter a level guns blazing and execute every enemy that appears on the screen.
The promise of the Hitman franchise has always been this: You are Agent 47, the hitman himself, and the game will allow you to complete assassinations of priority targets however you want. It can be bloody and messy. It can be surgical and clean. It’s all your choice. This newest iteration, the plainsuit-named Hitman, is the first to fully and completely deliver on that promise.
To be clear, this is a long and storied series, and I’ve played all of them. I’ve experienced the highs of Blood Money’s excellent “Flatline” level (where 47 has to infiltrate a hideaway clinic to assassinate a secluded target) and the lows of Absolution’s “Run For Your Life” (which has you control 47 on the run from police, helicopters, and host of other action-movie setpiece things). While the fan community clearly believes that some of these Hitman games are better than others, I have to say that I enjoy all of them a fair amount.
So when I say that Hitman finally delivers on the promises of the franchise, I hope you take that seriously. It is the first game in the series to show us the full breadth and depth of the ideas that have animated the sandboxy, “you can do what you want” ideas behind the franchise, and it’s a full cut above basically every other big budget game I’ve played over the past couple years.
Why is that? It’s because Hitman finally embraces the full capabilities of a sandbox murdering game. From a design standpoint, the game has finally given up on narrative events that frame the actual play. Instead, this is a game where every non-player character wanders around minding their own business until the player interacts with them. Each level, from the impossibly-beautiful Sapienza to the less-interesting Marrakesh, builds on the clockwork design of the previous Hitman games. People move around and do things on a schedule, and the act of playing the game is thinking about how to take advantage of that schedule.
The real innovation of Hitman is the scale at which that operates. Instead of a tight set of three or four loops that different characters work along, you have a dozen different, independent storylines that are going on at once. If the previous games were clockwork, then this game is a whole clock shop, and pulling off a perfect hit requires memorizing the mechanics of ten different machines and striking when they are all in perfect alignment.
Another significant innovation here is that Hitman opens up the sandbox to alterations from the player community. No longer is the game only about playing through the scenarios that the designers created for you. Instead, players can use the giant, open levels to create their own missions where others have to engage with the level under very specific and potentially hard-as-nails conditions. Kill the target with a thrown butcher knife while dressed as the biggest runway model in the world. Eliminate the target with an explosive barrel while dressed as the military commander that controls the entire city. The possibility space of what a player can design into the game is incredibly large, and that freedom to build on the bones of what the game developers have given players is a much-needed jump forward in what the series has to offer.
It’s a morbid thought, but I also appreciate the Hitman takes the opportunity to take murder seriously. The attention to detail, and to the lives, of your virtual victims means that I often thought about them as people. They are living their own (often silly) lives, and you’re getting as close to them as a videogame allows you to before cutting their routines short. The game explains this away narratively through Agent 47’s inability (or unwillingness) to show empathy to anyone or anything, but in some ways that doesn’t matter because he’s merely a cypher for how we’re interacting with the game. We’re always Agent 47, and we’re always becoming intimate with the lives of the people we’re eliminating in the game. They can never be faceless to us.
And I don’t think that’s changing the world. I don’t think it “does murder right” in the game. I just think it’s sufficiently interesting to note, and it makes it worth wondering if more games could do something similar. Not just as an eternally-dull joke (of which Absolution loved to do), but instead as a serious endeavor. Closeness as a pillar of game design; closeness as a mechanic.
No matter what you think of that, if you’ve ever thought of playing a Hitman game, then this is the one to grab. If you haven’t ever heard of a Hitman game before, then you should just play this damn game and embrace the weird, wild world of sandbox murderin’.
Hitman was developed by IO Interactive and published by Square-Enix. Our review is based on the Playstation 4 version. It is also available for Xbox One and PC.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released last year. It’s available on Steam.