This weekend saw the first Elusive Target in Hitman, a limited-time event that drops a new doomed soul into one of the game's sprawling locations and gives you a single chance to bump them off. Within the modular structure of this Hitman game – which is constantly adding to the content available in its monthly-release levels – that's not too unusual, but the way Elusive Target bends the rules of the game turns it into something genuinely fresh and exciting.
So let's talk about my own experience a little to show why. It's early Sunday afternoon and I'm eagerly ushering the final hungover remnants of last night's Eurovision party out the front door. Over on Hitman's menu screen, a clock is ticking down. Two hours remaining to find Sergei Larin, an infamous art forger, and dispatch him in whatever way suits.
The game gives you a very brief briefing – a few lines of background, a portrait, scant seconds of footage showing the target in situ – then drops you straight into the mission. Coming to the level fresh, this narrow sliver of information wouldn't be nearly enough to succeed, especially given how many of the hand-holding measures introduced in this Hitman game are stripped away for Elusive Target.
Gone is the Opportunities system, which gives waypoint-marked hints on how to set up your target for one of the game's trademark elaborate kills. The cheat-o-vision Instinct Mode is still present, helpfully allowing you to see people through walls, but the red outline that usually marks out your target is absent. They're not even marked on the map.
Fortunately, having already done in the two primary targets a dozen different ways then returned for the short Escalation Contract missions, I know the level – a rented-out mansion in Paris, playing host to a couture catwalk show, and its grounds – inside out. So when I see that short clip of Larin bent over a painting in a dust-sheeted room full of statues in storage, I've got a good idea of where it might be in this four-storey labyrinth. I'm pretty sure it's right at the top.
This would be a problem, as each floor has increasingly tight security, but all that play I mentioned has unlocked a whole host of options for how I approach the level, from weapons to disguises to insertion points. The most recent of which – in an incredible stroke of luck – was the ability to spawn baldy killing machine Mr Ian Hitman up in the mansion's dusty attic. Almost straight away, I'm able to grab one of the dozen bodyguards, pull him into a quiet corner, disrobe him and nick his machine gun.
After just a couple of minutes of creeping around the attic, dodging from cover to cover to avoid the remaining bodyguards patrolling this floor, I get eyes on Larin. And immediately my heart starts pounding.
By this point, I've played enough hours of this Hitman that the time can probably be best measured in days. I've been in corners much, much tighter than this, but I felt painfully tense this time for having just one opportunity to cleanly snuff out my target. There's no save button or option to restart. Die, and the mission will just delete itself. Fluff the hit, and you're stuck with the outcome.
This is an increasingly common part of modern game design, since the crop of roguelikes that followed in Spelunky's procedurally-generated footsteps. Seemingly every other game I play these days features permadeath or offers an Iron Man mode or is a Souls game, something I couldn't be happier about. Combining that permanence with a limited window to play, though, is a trick I'm not sure I've ever seen before. The closest comparison is probably Spelunky's Daily Challenges, but the relative rarity of Elusive Targets – this weekend's was the first, more than two months after the game's initial release – adds an extra spice on top.
Which is why, as I peek round a crate to get a good look at Larin and his personal bodyguard, the controller is rattling in my hands so much I worry it's somehow going to blow my cover in-game. I methodically stalk the two of them from room to room, until the pressure becomes too much to bear and I have to pop out from cover and empty a full clip from my silenced pistol in the general direction of their skulls.
It's not exactly the crime of the century, and I'm sure the bodies will be discovered before too long, but in that moment I feel like Jean flippin' Reno. That only grows as I sneak out of the attic, still dressed in the bodyguard outfit I lifted from that poor chump earlier, and into an unsuspecting crowd of guests. I head to the nearest balcony and fling myself over a railing where – as I learned on one of many previous runs through this level – a drainpipe is waiting to slide me down to safety.
The sense of release I feel as I stroll out through one of the level's many exits is a remarkable thing. It's a sensation I've only experienced very rarely in my two decades of playing games, and mostly in the final seconds of the very tightest multiplayer games against friends. But this time, there's no one else there.
There is one issue with the mode so far: none of my friends are even playing Hitman yet, and when I turn to Twitter, wading through the last vestiges of Eurovision gags, there's a disappointing lack of chat about the untimely end of Mr. Sergei Larin. Knowing that other players shared the hard time limit and single chance, it feels like I've participated in an event, but part of the fun of Spelunky's Daily Challenges was comparing yourself to friends. Hitman's Elusive Targets are more hollow for not having the opportunity to do the same.
By the time you read this, Larin will be long gone. If you didn't knock him off this weekend, you'll never have the chance again – but IO is promising more one-off Elusive Targets in the coming weeks. The more of you join in, the more likely I am to actually have someone to talk to about the next one.