Agent 47’s shiny dome first graced our screens way back in the halcyon days of the year 2000. With a new millennium ahead of us, Hitman: Codename 47 introduced us to new opportunities for digital murder. We were encouraged to enjoy the hunt. To be invisible. Where failure often meant not our death, or the escape of the our target. No, to us would-be assassin’s failure came when we had to resort to a simple bullet to the head. It gets the job done, but there’s no grace to it. Too messy. Stalking men through urban jungles and setting the trap for that one euphoric moment when it all comes together is what led us here. It’s sixteen years later and we’re still making our way down the hit list.
With this list I’ve attempted to represent the full spectrum of what makes Hitman tick across the entire series. Undoubtedly your favorite mission is absent, but that itself is a solid statement on the quality level of a long running series that rarely drops. Now follow me into a world of assassination!
Hitman: Absolution was not a game of highs. The linear, more narrative focused affair felt like a misstep for a lot of fans. It moved away from the distinctive puzzlebox-like level structure of past titles. That is not to say it was without merit. The story had a grindhouse feel that glimpses of promise in amongst the cracks.
Of all the levels in the game I remember Attack of the Saints the most. Not because of the titular saints. Not for any great story beat. This level is great because of the cornfield. In a game that so often funneled the player towards a specific goal, to be allowed to run amok in the middle of the night garroting countless hapless guards amidst the dense corn felt like some kind of release. It’s like the scene from The Lost World: Jurassic Park with the raptors in the tall grass. Just replace the pack of raptors with one bald man and a length of piano wire.
An oldie but a goodie. We have arrived in Budapest to put a stop to terrorist Franz Fuchs’ scheme to blow up all the leaders of the world’s great nations. So no pressure then. For such a diabolical plan, being locked in a sauna and sweating to death is a pretty ignominious way to go.
47 can end up being very chatty with the target, depending on disguise and location. He’s quipping his way to success. There’s also a lovely nod to Terminator 2 where you can carry a shotgun around inside a flower box. More importantly, this is the one level out of the whole series that has the most potential for being successfully adapted into a Wes Anderson style caper, which counts for a lot.
This mission positively drips with atmosphere. Agent 47 emerges from the rain-swept darkness of rural England to hunt the most dangerous game of all: the British aristocracy. Taking place in a creaky and absolutely spooky manor house, plus the accompanying grounds, we’re tasked with ending the lives of father and son Beldingford while rescuing their hostage, who will no doubt be the target of the upcoming hunt.
More than anything else, Beldingford Manor is a wonderful showpiece of the power with which a well-designed level can enthrall a player. The targets and the means of their demise aren’t particularly difficult to pull off, but the house itself is the main character here, with its secret passages, foreboding atmosphere, and lecherous old toffs. The thrill of the hunt makes way for hushed appreciation for the darkness that dwells within the blackened hearts of men.
There is something hilarious about a hardened gangster going stir crazy in an American suburban hellscape, complete with tidy lawns, annoying neighbors and bored housewives. The series has always dripped with black humor, and coupled with this, what makes A New Life stand out is the sheer variety on show. It forms the quintessential Hitman experience.
It’s not an expansive level, or even that complicated, but there’s a lot of scope to try things out and goof around. Do you distract the surveillance officers with donuts, take on the guise of an alcoholic clown, or presume the role of a pole boy willing to be seduced? Maybe you just want to rig the BBQ to blow and watch the bodies burn. Avoiding detection in such a confined space as a suburban home encourages smart and quick witted play, and taking advantage of opportunities as they arise on the fly.
Don’t worry if proceedings start to get a little heated. Luckily there’s a garbage truck down the street with an insatiable appetite for human bones, should you need to dispose of those pesky, attention grabbing corpses. Bodies in the pool and blood on the lawn. A sad clown fed to a trash compactor. It’s Hitman at its best.
This particular mission comes across as Hitman’s moral compass. Yes, Agent 47 is a killer and by most accounts a bad man. However, the people he is tasked with killing happen to also be bad people. Sometimes they’re very, very, VERY bad people. So it all evens out.
Your targets: a Scottish meat baron and the lawyer who got his kidnapping trial thrown out of court. Everything about this mission feels dirty. It takes place in a meat processing plant, bodies hidden amongst the racks of frozen carcasses. Campbell Sturrock, the titular Meat King, is a monstrous vision of a man, binge feeding on fried chicken.
What’s striking is if you play your cards right, you find out that it wasn’t the Meat King who killed the kidnapped girl, but his brother. Yet you are never urged to dispense any justice in his direction. Agent 47 is being paid to kill that man. A job is a job, and 47 is no saint.
Hitman 2: Silent Assassin was the first game in the series that I played. Unsurprisingly it has lodged itself in my brain, and Anathema is the anchor that chains it there. It was love at first kill. This is how you create a tutorial level. Set in the sun drenched hills of Tuscany, it does an excellent job of portraying what a Hitman game wants to be at heart. First it establishes that there can be multiple tasks that demand the player’s attention. There is a target to eliminate, but you must also rescue a priest and secure a means of escape.
Now, how do you go about this? To gain entry do you disguise yourself as a postman delivering flowers to the villa, stowing some small weapons among the crates of food being delivered so that you are not caught out by a patdown? Or you could take advantage of the guard answering the call of nature, acquire his suit, and proceed from here to beating the Don to death with his own golf club. While Anathema may have been a showpiece, with later levels sometimes failing to cover a similar breadth of possibilities, it did set the stage for years to come.
This is Hitman stripped down and as keen as a razor’s edge. An assassin should have sharp senses. Be adaptable. Alert. Above all, a good assassin is confident. St Petersburg Stakeout isn’t as broad as a lot of the other levels I mention here, and it’s better off for it.
Agent 47 spends the level dodging civilians and soldiers alike before hoofing it through the sewers that run under the streets. Then, staring through a sniper rifle’s scope, he intrudes upon a meeting opposite his vantage point. One of the men in that room is about to meet his maker, the only problem is we’re not sure which one.
From here Diana drip feeds us clues to the appearance and mannerisms of the target. Then it’s up to us to take the shot.
It was hard not fill this list with more entries from season 1 of Hitman (2016). I find myself playing through it now at the end of the year and I’m consistently surprised by just how much I’m enjoying it. It’s sure to be very high on a lot of game of the year lists. The initial Paris scenario certainly makes a fantastic entrance.
Centered around a fashion show, the Showstopper gives you two targets to take out across multiple levels, including attics, servants quarters and sprawling grounds. There are almost too many ways to kill people here, from the always subtle poison in the drink, to dropping an entire light rig onto the catwalk, on which Agent 47 can strut his stuff as a wannabe model.
It couldn’t be more removed from the claustrophobia of Absolution, and serves as IO’s declaration and road map going forward. Very rarely did I find myself using actual firearms. The fact that it seemingly takes place in a museum means there are all sorts of sabres and battleaxes to get your hands on, while the opportunities system means even relatively new assassins can start orchestrating interesting and often funny deaths from the get go. If nothing else Showstopper proves that the show must go on.
Who doesn’t love a street party? Everyone’s dancing and drinking and the sounds of fireworks can cover the retort of your gunfire. Murder of Crows sees Agent 47 going up against a rival agency of international killers. In a ludicrous turn of events, you’re tasked with making sure a target doesn’t die.
Murder of Crows is notable because it’s the busiest level in the game. There are party-goers everywhere. Yet paradoxically most don’t react to any of your actions. That’s handy when you need to drop a piano on someone’s head and not make a big deal out of it, or garrote Big Bird. The pair of assassins you’re after don’t react well to each other’s death, if they find out you’ve offed their partner. It adds some appreciated unpredictability to the mix. An expert assassin should deliver their strikes with surgical precision, even when surrounded by chaos.
It’s tempting to look back in fondness to the older titles you grew up with, knowing the contracts like the back of your hand, challenging your friends to complete them in specific ways when we used to create our own kind of couch multiplayer in those brief moments between the school week. They sure don’t make them like they used to! That’s probably a good thing. Sapienza feels like a promise fulfilled.
I would have been happy to fill this list with all the episodes from the newest game, but it’s Sapienza that takes the crown. We’re let loose in a mansion that comes with ruined battlements and an underground laboratory. Outside its walls there’s an Italian town with shops, harbor and sun drenched streets to soak up. It’s an immense space that nurtures that key Hitman ingredient: Possibility.
The duality of the series is on full display here. On the one hand we have to destroy a deadly genetically engineered virus. We also get to kill a man with an exploding golf ball—or a cannon—and all within a setting that creates a real sense of place. Hitman is the perfect expression of the series so far, presenting us with elaborate toy boxes and the tools to really make a mess.
Corey Milne’s work has appeared in Kill Screen, Playboy and Vice. He’s on Twitter @Corey_Milne.