Hitman Blood Money has, as far as I’m aware, been generally seen as the pinacle of the Hitman series. Most people felt it was a massive improvement on what came before, and I’ve not heard from anyone thinking Absolution bettered it. Now, there’s a new Hitman game and, essentially, Tom Francis (whose opinion I respect an enormous amount, hence it being the one to set me off) doesn’t prefer it to Blood Money. This is about why I do.
In stealth games which allow multiple approaches, I’m all about sabotage.
But I don’t mean creatively pursuing routes that involve manipulating the environment: I mean sabotaging my own enjoyment by taking the path of least resistance, even in the face of more fulfilling ones. I don’t quite know what combination of loss aversion and impatience it is, but if I can take the easy way out, I will. So I creep along until I find an enemy, consider sneaking past and the inevitability of it eventually going wrong, and then just shoot them in the head.
Give me a crime sandbox I’m excited to explore and there’ll only ever be one victim: me.
Enter the Hitman series: certainly the stealth series I’ve played the most.
The first Hitman game I played was Hitman 2: Silent Assassin. I splashed my way happily through it getting the odd Silent Assassin rating, a few Ghost ratings, and a bunch of messier ones towards the Postal end of the spectrum. I didn’t feel like I was missing out, although I was aware the game probably wanted me to play it in a particular way.
I then played Hitman: Contracts, conscious even as I did it that the internet didn’t want me to enjoy this instalment. I don’t remember a great deal about how this game differed from Silent Assassin or how it reacted to player behaviour, but I had fun again.
And then it was Hitman: Blood Money. I heard a lot about how excellent this one was, and how it was what the series was supposed to become. I started playing it, probably a fair while after release. And I got maybe all the way through the tutorial mission. It was clunky and dreadful so I stopped playing it. Eventually, I returned and played the whole game through. I probably played most missions more than once, maybe in a couple of different ways. It was fine. It definitely wasn’t exceptional.
Looking back, I think the “there’s a scripted opportunity in every level” promise killed it for me. When there’s one such opportunity per level, I think it’s pretty clear how the game expects you to play. Sure, it gives you good ratings and good money for any stealthy approach, but when there’s a creative, stealthy solution planned out for me then failure to pursue it feels like failure.
Which doesn’t sit well with my anxious-impatient self-sabotage. So I just played around in the levels, completed them, and largely didn’t bother with the designed routes. Deviating didn’t really feel like self-expression (as I gather it very much did for Tom), but it did feel like doing it wrong. Maybe if I’d had the patience to do the prescribed route, I would then have stuck around and been creative, but I’m not sure, and it never came up. There was a lot to that game, but we didn’t get on very well.
I didn’t play Hitman: Absolution at all as it sounded like too much of a departure from the entirety of the rest of the series. I didn’t pick up Hitman: Why Do You Make This So Hard For Us By Pretending Your Game Isn’t Part Of A Series right away either and I’m not sure when I’d have become sufficiently confident to do so, but it came free with my new graphics card so I hopped in about a week ago. Following Tom’s lead I’ll call it Hitman 2016, more to differentiate it from the series than from the original game.
Hitman 2016 so far has, and I 100% agree with Tom on this, one level (there are two tutorial levels but the game is at pains to tell you these aren’t real levels. Also like Tom, I wish I’d played the game before the real level landed, as then I would have given the tutorial levels the attention they deserve, but now it would just feel wierd). The Paris level is enormous, intricate, full-of-opportunity, and just completing it in one way would leave me in an awkward situation: either I go back and beat the level another way, or I accept that I’ve reduced an astonishing world of possibilities to one clumsy hit. Turns out, this – when combined with some hand-holding – is a pretty good way to defeat my self-sabotage!
Given that Hitman 2016 effectively puts my chosen approaches front-and-centre and will make me feel bad for failing to be creative, it’s probably going to have to help me help myself.
Hitman presents a whole bunch of “Challenges” for each level: a couple that classically represent “this is the best way to beat the level” (the Silent Assassin and Suit Only challenges), some that generally promote varied approaches (like those for killing with guns, poison or the fibre wire), and a great big pile of challenges specific to things to find and do around this particular level.
Now, to complete all these challenges, you’re going to need to run through the level at least a few times; I’ve no idea what the minimum is, but I don’t really care about optimising that and it has to be at least 4 or 5 as some of the assassination challenges are so clearly mututally exclusive. So I relax. I look at the challenges list, decide I might try to do the ones about poisoning Dalia, and then set off into the level. As I’m going around, I build up my understanding of the level, I piece together bits of the Opportunities, I complete my objectives either on-plan or by improvisation, and get out. Hopefully at least a couple of challenges the richer (and therefore a success), but either way I’m going to be playing the level again so even if I’ve only gained knowledge I’m going to be a happy man. Hitman 2016 gives you a score in the thousands, shows you how it got there, and turns it into a rating out of 5. But to be honest these things don’t bother me too much and it’s so much more about how the hit felt and what challenges I completed.
Now, I mentioned Opportunities as a proper noun there. It’s a system that I gather may have been in Absolution, but it’s new to me. Basically, they’re multi-step assassination routes; you can have them fully waypointed, completely behind-the-scenes or – as I choose to have them – as a series of objectives but not shown in space or on the map.
To some, this will undoubtedly be taking the creativity out of the sandbox: maybe they would have come up with the idea of finding a spare camera lens and a bomb for the vlogger all by themselves. But I wouldn’t have. I just wouldn’t have. I’d have walked past her, shot the mark in the face and run off. So for me, Opportunities give me chance to be creative. Sure, it’s not my plan, it’s the designer’s plan. But the plans in these Opportunities aren’t purely systemic, and their equivalents in earlier Hitman games never were either: they’re arbitrary. They didn’t just appear out of the game’s systems, but were written, and so can’t simply be worked out: you’d either have to search for them in a brute-force way or be told about them. So yeah I’m definitely grateful for them to be flagged up in the Opportunities system and in the challenges, otherwise I’m just not going to find them.
And as for those purely-systemic approaches: surely they’re still there. If those are what you’re after, and you never were a big fan of the scripted accidental deaths anyway, I can only assume that the Hitman 2016 has even more of these approaches simply because its levels are even bigger. Now, I do get Tom’s frustration if the marks are alone less (I don’t know if they are, but if he says they are and he doesn’t like it then I believe him), and getting them alone may be bottlenecked through more specific routes.
But Tom talks about the Paris level feeling oppressive to him due to all the guarding, and for me this is the least oppressed I’ve ever felt when trying to be sneaky in a Hitman game! I never felt confident sneaking around areas previously, but in Paris I do. Maybe that’s because the game has kept me in that level for so much longer than I would have in previous games, so now I know it so well, but also in any given costume I can walk around so much of the level that I feel like the stealth sections are on my terms. I even like how certain items, starting locations and agency caches were locked off from me at first: it let me focus on a few approaches to start with and then opened up the rest as I got more experienced. This level is enormous, playing in it is a joy, and for me all this hand-holding is exactly what I need to actually enjoy a stealth game and not just be scared into playing it in an easy but boring way.
I’m twenty hours in, I’ve “discovered” 33 out of the 34 things the challenges wanted me to know about the level, I’ve performed 7 of the 9 “feats” and I’ve assassinated the targets in 16 of the 24 ways the game wanted to highlight to me.
But I haven’t been doing them systematically, most of these runs have been a healthy mix of completing objectives and doing everything else my way, and it hasn’t restricted the way I go about completing the level, except in a good, don’t-just-shoot-everybody-again way.
There are interface issues and – as Tom complained – it wastes your time, but as far as I’m concerned that just makes it a stealth game. But for me it’s the one that does best at redeeming itself.←