Graham: It took me till this past week to finally play Hitman [official site], 2016's rejuvenated dress-up sim/infiltration sim/lets-face-it-murder-sim. I've had a grand time with it for many different reasons (eg. the dress-up, the infiltration, the murders...), and I wanted to gather people together to pick over its pleasures in greater detail. So, Alec and Brendan, I ask you: what's your favourite murder?
Alec: The vicious assassination of the conventional videogame release structure in favour of really well-done, super-polished and expansive monthly episodes instead. That is my favourite murder. I want to see more games do it. Too many games are too long - I can’t finish them before the next big one wheels around. Hitman sets an excellent precedent for having impeccable chunks once a month - I see it through that way.
Brendan: I’m less psyched about that, because it feels like we would have got more levels back in the glory days. BUT while there are less of them, each location does feel more fleshy. Mostly, I’m just happy they murdered any memory of Absolution.
Graham: It does feel like the game, developers Io Interactive and publishers Square Enix need celebrating, a bit, for trying something very different in its release structure and for recognising that Absolution was a turd and not at all what people wanted from the series.
I also like that, aside from being short at least in terms of 'running time', it's also as easy as you want it to be. Hitman games have always given the player ways to make the game harder, by aiming for 'silent assassin' mission ratings and the like, but I'm not sure the base has ever been as straightforward as it is here. It's relaxing, even, if you want it to be - and I do, a lot of the time.
I might be a monster.
Alec: It’s definitely a game about going over there or pushing that button or stealing that’s man clothes and seeing what happens. That’s the appeal for me - these huge spaces to experiment in. It just so happens that the net result of that experimentation is murder. But, often, that feels almost more like just my making the decision that, OK, I’m ready to wrap this session up now rather than I AM HERE TO MURDER. I know there are people who are playing it with the whole Silent Assassin thing going on, but for me it’s these lavish, reactive spaces I can wander around being a massive dick in.
Brendan: I also like to be a homicidal jerkbag. But I will point out one of the things I don’t often enjoy, just to rock the boat, and it’s as much a problem with the way I play as it is a game problem - I don’t like dying. That sounds really stupid. But dying, or more accurately, making mistakes, being spotted and accidentally killing a civvie, those things just make me want to restart the level or go to the last save point and try again, rather than embracing things going wrong, which would arguably be more fun. While the Groundhog Day feel works for some people, much of the time I feel like the game is just prodding me sharply in my own sense of perfectionism.
Alec: I savescum like crazy, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. It’s not due to an aversion to failure, but rather that I don’t want to repeat half the level again - that’s tedious unless you’re going to approach it a different way. I don’t mind the savescumming approach, but I would agree that this Hitman isn’t as adept as Blood Money was at letting you find a desperate way out of a botched situation. I can remember long, dramatic, ridiculous chain reactions of hiding in cupboards, setting off fire alarms and changing costume ten times in as many minutes before finally, finally being ‘safe’ in Blood Money. Technically, all that stuff is still there in Hitman ‘16, but it’s somehow more of a grind, it doesn’t have the same thinking on your feet fluidity. So I just reload. I have this overall sense that Blood Money was much funnier, and those pratfall escapes were part of it, I think.
Graham: I savescum, too. I think this is the one area where the game's larger levels works against it. They're huge, and in most other ways I think they're the best the series has ever had, but their scale means that although in most instances you can run away, there's less space for that slapstick domino effect you're describing. Or rather, there's too much space for it. If you try to play that way, you can end up killing half the population of Italy because there are simply too many civilians to stumble across your bloodsoaked scene.
Brendan: In seriousness though: what’s your fave place to murder?
Alec: Morocco/Marrakesh and Italy/Sapienza have the best exteriors, but Japan slays them both on interiors, and as such is more consistent. The big embassy interior of Morocco wasn’t terribly interesting - so much routine guard-dodging, really - which let the crazy spectacle of its rammed, colourful streets down. Italy and Japan are the most Hitman-ish, in terms of their mix of high glamour and Bondian absurdity. The deeper into them you go, the sillier it all gets with its secret labs and mad science, which is what a game whose surface trappings are so dour most benefits from. Paris and Bangkok seemed strong at the time but have somehow faded from memory in a way the others have not.
Graham: Sapienza, for me. It's a sunkissed coastal town that includes winding cobble streets, a beautiful mansion, a collapsing castle, a church, an adjacent mortuary, an underground science lab... Some of these areas are large and complex enough that they feel as if they would have formed an entire Hitman level in a previous game. Here they all work together to give you umpteen options for the two assassinations you're required to perform, whether you want to blend in as a priest or a butler, a chef or a scientist, a private detective or a flower delivery man.
Marrakesh was the worst to my mind, but none of the levels are bad by any stretch.
Brendan: What! Morocco I feel has the best atmosphere of the lot, and the most satisfying targets. There’s protests and smoke in one part of the city, uninterested tourists milling about in another, and military boys in another, waiting to sweep in and lock the whole thing down. Your targets are connected in a way that’s big and internationally significant. You feel like Ian Hitman is walking into a global news story with this one. That’s true of other missions but there’s something about the protests and glass cage of Morocco that makes it tense. Dullest for me was the US farm in Colorado. Mud and mercenaries? Borrrrring.
Alec: Yeah, that was the weakest for me too - it all feels so flat, none of the maze-like structure of the others, and even some of the kills feel lurching and bitty rather than fluid. But I think it serves an important purpose in the flow of the game - this is the one where you can’t even be seen, so you don’t get to be so playful and have to really work the stealth. That it’s bookended by maps in which you can explore relatively freely gives it a certain tension and release factor, and it forces you out of your comfort zone. Japan’s like a reward after you’ve been put through the ringer. It’s certainly not the map I’d rush to go back to, but I wouldn’t not have it in the game. Hitman’s wilder side benefits from having a moment of straightness too.
Graham: What! Morocco seemed restrictive to me, locked down by large crowds of civilians and guards, with much of the level feeling disconnected from the areas the targets spend the most time.
By comparison, Colorado seemed to have far more options for interesting kills, with tighter loops for the four targets which often saw them in the same building or even the same rooms at the same time. It's a level on which you can't be seen, sure, but only until you take a guard's uniform. I killed one man with an email, another with a poison injection while he was surrounded by bodyguards in lockdown, a third with a sniper shot from the other side of the compound, and a fourth in such a way that she ended up propped against the glass doors at the front of a house, her guards just outside and none the wiser. It's not normally the kind of Hitman level I enjoy - my heart sank when it began - but I ended up loving it.
Brendan: I’ll agree that the tighter loops work better, and it is sad in Marrakesh that there was no target for you to follow through the crowded medina until you found a moment alone - that would have been excellent to me, hugely Bond-like. But I agree with Alec in that making an entire level a “can’t be seen as yourself” zone takes away some of the reconnaissance fun. I’m not as forgiving for it though, I would easily strip out the farm and replace it with somewhere more interesting and public. When I think of good Hitman levels of yesteryear, they’re the buzzing ones like New Orleans. Sapienza was very swish though. I think maybe that should win ‘Best Murderplace’ based on common consensus.
Alec: It was also the one I felt most guilty about murdering in. Tucking bodies behind shop counters only to be spotted by terrified tourists I then had to choke to death and hide in a huge pile behind the flower delivery van. They all seemed so stupid and harmless. Also, I just wanted to look around because it was so pretty, but I kept having to kill people instead. Hitmen can’t go on holiday, I guess.
Brendan: Good lord. You ARE murderous. How did you both feel about the… what do you call those limited time contracts? The ones that you got a single chance to kill, and if you fluffed it - that’s it, bye bye.
Alec: Elusive Targets, was it? You know what, they weren’t really for me. Something doesn’t quite click when I have to be that much more specific. Whenever I play Hitman I always end up getting enormously distracted and needing to poke into every corner, regardless of whether it’s relevant to my task or not, and somehow that narrow focus just didn’t appeal. I think they’re a very smart add though - both in terms of keeping the game alive and in terms of forcing us to practice what we’ve learned rather than rely on savescumming and Benny Hill antics. It’s a clever hard mode for those who want to play a Hitman game that way.
Brendan: At first, I felt happy about them for similar reasons - they forced me to stop restarting. But in reality that just made me more cautious and I found that getting to a point where I could land the killing blow was much, much harder. One of them I am convinced could only be done if you’d unlocked the sniper rifle. In the end, I only did a couple though.
Alec: Let’s talk story. I feel I am able to sweepingly generalise that it was awful and no-one in the entirety of existence could possibly be entertained by it. It even felt like its cutscenes were created separately long before the game itself was made, then just crudely inserted before and after every level. Granted, every Hitman game has had this problem to some extent, but it was off-the-charts dour and meaningless this time.
Brendan: The story was a steaming heap, yes. I more or less ignored the cinematics and focused on individual level briefings for my idea of what Ian’s “tale” was this time. Any time Diana, your murder nan, tried to thread together one target with another previous target through a conspiratorial lens, I pretended not to hear her.
Alec: I feel like Square Enix has a certain house style - amazing spaces saddled with plots that don’t grab and lead characters without much character. Like they’re so protective of brand that they’re too terrified to inject real personality. Fortunately, it matters in Hitman a whole lot less than the others, because, as you say, your focus is on the target(s) in that particular mission, and their own tales and place in the world are conveyed as you play, usually more interestingly. The humour is uneven but there’s at least a sense that someone’s trying to create fun Bond villains.
Brendan: What do you think Graham?
I think Graham has been murdered. Alec, did you kill Graham?
Alec: Aha, it is I, Graham Smith, now wearing Alec Meer as a skin suit. And now I will bludgeon you to death with this moose head I have in my pocket.
I’ve seen some people reckon that Hitman does a stand-up job of in-mission world-building, that the various chatter of NPCs and smaller acts of detail are telling a raft of good tales. I didn’t really get that, but I’m not sure if it’s because it wasn’t effective or because I was so focused on murdering that I essentially didn’t pay attention.
Brendan: Oh my WORD can we all agree that the voice actors all being from the US and UK is a huuuuuuge irritant. Oh, hello Bangkok bell boy, how are you? “Ah’m great sir! Hah are y’all!” Okay they’re not as bad as that, but was anyone else consistently disappointed that they Squeenix couldn’t hire some local voices or mix up the spoken language?
Graham: I'm alive again! I reloaded an old save.
Yeah, the solely western voice actors feels like a cop-out, as it always does when games do that. I'm not sure I loved any of the NPC writing either, but I was at least impressed by the amount of it that has been recorded. There are plenty of instances where overheard conversations give you backstory about targets and their lives, but also NPCs react to you very differently based on what costume you're wearing. Given the number of costumes, it's impressive when you're walking through Sapienza dressed as a stoner, you get totally different ambient commentary from passersby than you do when dressed as a bodyguard or anyone else.
I think that quantity and detail is present in most parts of the game. We've talked about how relatively short the story missions are if you want them to be, and the Elusive Targets, but have either of you gone back to increase your 'mastery' level in locations by pursuing all the other challenges, escalation missions, opportunities, etc. that they include?
I've been doing that a bit and it keeps revealing new things I never knew were there. It's making me like the game even more when I'm not normally interested in getting S-ranks and 100%s and so on. For example, there is a way to kill both targets in Sapienza with a single bullet and that's so counter to everything I've seen and done in that space so far that I'm determined and excited to find out how.
Brendan: Not for me. Because of the way I play, I already spend hours peeping around in a level and dying over and over, making mistakes and pushing down a particular death avenue before going back to see what other options there are. Only then do I settle on a method of human disposal. It’s kind of like when you choose one of two corridors to go down in a shooter, realise “this is the way they want me to go” and then you double back to try the other way first. When I finish a Hitman level, I dust off my hands and think: job done. For the more interesting levels - Sapienza, Marrakesh - I’ve gone back just to look around some more and double check. I’ve found details, hidden things, and other means of murdering, definitely, but I have no desire to catch ‘em all.
Alec: I’ve been back to a few maps a few times, and I’ve been surprised/impressed by how much I’d missed in my initial run throughs. It’s less that I simply didn’t see something, but more than I found something I couldn’t figure out how to use, and it’s because of some elaborate butterfly effect I hadn’t even begun to activate in my haphazard exploration. There are items I haven’t seen, comedy deaths I’ve never brought about, all sorts. I mean, it’s finite, but it stands up to repeat play in a way even Blood Money doesn’t really - that’s far more ‘choose: puzzles or action’ in structure than this more mutable successor is.
I also spent a while just living in the Japan level. It’s so chilled out. They could spin a whole Rich Health Freak Simulator out of it, I reckon.
Graham: A second season of missions has already been announced, about which I'm very excited. I think this time I'm going to play them as they're released, rather than waiting till the entire lot is done like I foolishly did with the first set. What do you both hope they add, change, improve for the second series of Ian Hitman's globetrotting killventures?
Alec: If they don’t do an Assassinate An Entirely 100% Fictional Authoritarian World Leader On His Under-Attended Inauguration Day level I’ll be mightily disappointed.
Graham: Blood Money's White House level was pretty good. I don't know to what else you could be alluding.
Alec: I’d like them to do a little more with story. Hopefully they know now that playfulness works best, but also they could use the episodic structure so much better - even a little bit of branching depending on how you did your kills, or perhaps which targets you chose from a roster of alternatives, based on information received as you play. Make me care outside of the already-excellent missions, basically.
Brendan: I’d like for them to forget about an over-arching story altogether. If this is episodic, it should be like episodes of a police procedural, each completely unconnected to the last. I’d be more than satisfied with that. Mostly, I just want settings that are all as good as the best ones in this series. That’s high hopes, there’s always going to be some “duds” but I think they’ve got a strong instinct for what makes a good setting. I’m trying to think of what would be cool. A narrow Dubai skyscraper? A Turkish bath house? A really, really long train? No, that’d be awful. Maybe a cruise ship instead? I’m sure they’ll come up with better stuff.
Graham: An airport. A sewer. A box factory. No, box warehouse.
Brendan: A lava level.
Graham: An ice level.
I'd like to see how far they push their obviously flexible scripting system. I'd also be happy for them to ditch the story, because I play Hitman games for the things that make them systemic. I'm fascinated when, for example, killing one target causes people to come along, put them in a body bag and cart them off, or that NPCs who find weapons lying around will often pick them up and take them to a safe space. I want greater power to mess around with those systems, and new ways for those systems to interact with one another and your objectives.
The speed at which new missions have been added also suggest Io have developed a robust set of tools for making the game. I know a second season isn't quite the same as a sequel, but I hope their greater expertise at making this kind of game allows them to be more ambitious.
Alec: One thing I was conscious of in season one is how often it relies on having, say, three different tiers of security guard, and tier two won’t let you through if you’re wearing a tier one costume and so forth. I don’t mind a bit of that, but it happens on almost every level and does reveal the artificiality of the systems they have. There’s only so much ingenuity to be wrung from going to find the next type of outfit, so more flexibility in that regard would be welcome. Find other ways past or other ways of being in danger, rather than just uh-uh, you’re wearing the wrong type of flak jacket. You want the charcoal-coloured one, not the slate one.
Graham: Brendan mentioned the New Orleans level from Blood Money above. Remember that it had a bar where the guards would shoot you immediately if you entered it wearing the wrong kind of face mask? We've come a long way/no way at all.
Alec: I would also like him to cover up his tattoo, I mean for God’s sakes.
Brendan: He’s the worst Hitman in the world, honestly. It’s only us who get him through this.