Stealth seems to be the thing to do this holiday season. First came Bethesda’s love song to the Thief series. Then, of course, the inevitable sequel to the reigning king of stealth games, Assassin’s Creed III. And, now, again, a nod to gaming’s past, Hitman: Absolution.
What sets the Hitman series apart from the other two big stealth titles of the season, though, is that while the other two games are largely committed to stealth-action, Hitman is a slightly different breed of game oriented towards the art of murder. I would define Hitman as not being so much a hybrid of stealth tactics and action-oriented combat as something resulting from breeding stealth mechanics with those of puzzle games.
In that sense, too, I see a heavier emphasis on tactical play in Dishonored and Assassin’s Creed, games that largely concern the player with dealing with whatever is in front of the game’s assassin protagonist right now, as opposed to a more methodical and strategic approach to stealth and assassination that seems to me what Hitman is a all about.
In a game like Dishonored, I concern myself with the half dozen or so guards and their movements in the rooms immediate to my position and how to execute a plan to slip past them, execute or pacify them, or hack my way through with a sword, eschewing stealth all together for speed and ferocity. Hitman with its heavier emphasis on disguise as a major component to stealth, generally allows the player more latitude to fully explore an environment, consider how that environment might be used against various targets, then setting a long term plan in motion to “set up” the perfect kill in the long term. This is where Hitman feels most like a puzzle game, as making sure that an enemy gets electrocuted when they turn on the sink or that they eat that poisoned sushi is a matter of working out the little details, setting up the environment correctly for the kill to go off correctly, and then finally settling in to execute (I, of course, mean that in more ways than one).
And honestly, the ability to slowly stride around an environment (and you run so rarely in Hitman, given that it is more about observation than direct conflict) in the shoes of the stoic and methodical (and well dressed) Agent 47, surveying the scene, thinking it out, and then causing some devastating “accident” to occur as you casually and coolly glide away is an incredibly satisfying experience. If Hitman is about careful observation, “reading” what possibilities exist in an environment, before solving the puzzle and executing your prey, it is also just as much about observing the aftermath, the consequences of your fiendish murderous intentions. The spectacle of watching a drugged victim dance in a stupor on the edge of a balcony before plummeting to her death or watching an individual turn on the faucet causing electricity to arc across his body is a grim pleasure, but it is one that you earn and also proof of your cleverness at executing the most intricate plan possible on a given map.
Absolution is very much aware of the notion of its players desire to feel a sense of achievement at unlocking the most spectacular and sometimes the most subtle assassinations possible, rewarding players with points based on the more difficult plans to pull off and rewarding them far less for obvious and more “brute force” approaches, like just going in with all guns blazing. Since there are usually a number of signature kills that score the most points on any given map, the game also encourages replay of the game. After all, you may have gotten the main antagonist’s girlfriend to take a spill of the balcony of their high rise, but you haven’t yet tried luring her under the bones of a chandelier of dinosaur bones that you can send crashing down on her and her retinue of bodyguards.
Unlike Dishonored which offers multiple ways to play based on how lethal or non-lethal your approach to play in that game, leading to differing endings and slightly different game states, Hitman sticks to a very linear plot with nothing but amoral acts to plan and no personal sense of morality for Agent 47 to really consider at all, at least in terms of “the job.” I have no plans to revisit Dishonored any time in the near future, as its black and white morality system doesn’t suggest to me any particular new insight into the game or its ideas. However, I am itching to play through a number of levels of Hitman again, despite the fact that the story’s outcomes will remain the same because I want to test my ability to succeed at executing a new plan in a new way more than anything else. Morality meters be damned, sometimes it is the amoral act of strategizing and efficaciousness of execution that makes a game pleasurable.
In that regard, as well, despite Absolution‘s linear story and heavy emphasis on cut scenes as a way of moving along the plot, I have to say that I was more enchanted by the characters and situations that arise in Hitman than in the by-the-numbers cast of Dishonored. Absolution strikes a bizarre tone that is at first dark, gritty, and hard-boiled in its somewhat familiar cynical approach to telling a crime story, before it gives way to the most absurd and quirky characters and situations possible. While Absolution is a story about Agent 47’s guilt over murdering his one time handler and really only trusted ally and an effort to absolve himself of this crime by fulfilling her last wish for him, to protect an innocent girl, the truth is that as often as it is dramatic, it is also blatantly absurd. This is a game that features a seven-and-a-half foot tall Mexican bodyguard and wrestler (who bears an uncanny likeness to Danny Trejo), machine gun wielding nuns, and a small town in South Dakota run by a degenerate gang of high school jocks.
If Robert Rodriguez’s Machete (featuring as protagonist the aforementioned Trejo) is a love song to the campiness of exploitation cinema, Hitman is a love song to Machete, Planet Terror, Deathproof
Absolution, of course, you need to face off a trained death squad of nun assassins that may try to garrote you with a rosary).
What especially helps here is that the facial mocap adds so much to the performance of these bizarre characters (mad props to Keith Carradine’s sinister and disturbing facial tics and half smiles as he brings to life the game’s main antagonist, Blake Dexter—this is one of the scariest bad guys I have come across in ages, and it is largely due to Carradine’s discomforting performance of this psychopath) and actors that feel like they actually showed up to voice a video game because they liked the characters and believed in the plot.
So far, this holiday season, I have played through Dishonored, which is a very pleasing game on a mechanical level, but found myself more bored than not at the lack of substance in the performance of its main plot. I have yet to make my way into the New World of Assassin’s Creed III (which admittedly I am looking forward to), but at this point, I have to say if there was one stealth title that I would recommend one to play this year, it would be Hitman: Absolution. Come for the pleasure of executing some intricate and murderous puzzles, but stay for the well crafted drama and irony that serves as the context for all that diabolical strategizing.