I Finally “Get” ‘Hitman’

Hitman is a puzzle game. It has been described as such before, but there’s a difference between hearing that and understanding that.

I’ve always enjoyed the idea of Hitman more than I’ve enjoyed the actual games. On paper they sound fantastic: You’re dropped into an open environment to kill a target, and you can kill that target any number of ways. Sure, you could just shoot him at the first opportunity, but you could also be a bit stealthier and get him alone before shooting him. Better yet, you can make the death look like an accident by dropping a chandelier on his head or by switching a prop gun for a real gun. Every time that I started a new level of a past Hitman game the possibilities felt endless.

But I never did any of those cool things. I would try, but eventually my best laid plans would hit a roadblock and I’d just start killing people. I would still kill my target and escape, but it would be the messiest assassination ever. Then the next level — a new set of endless possibilities — would start loading and this process would repeat. I never really became a fan of the series.

Until now. I think I finally “get” Hitman thanks to the recent beta. There are a few reasons for this, but the biggest reason is the most unexpected and suggests Square Enix may be on to something clever.

The beta consists of three missions, but one is a guided tour in which the game tells you what to do step-by-step. This is already a better tutorial than what the previous games offered because it helps give you ideas. It shows where you can get a uniform, how you can sneak onto the boat, etc. So when the next mission asks you to kill the same target in a new way, you don’t have to bumble around an unfamiliar local looking for ideas, you can start the mission with a plan.

That’s the hurdle that Hitman games have always faced. Playing a new level and feeling awe at the endless possibilities it offers is nice, but it also means that I don’t have a single damned clue about what I’m actually supposed to do. I don’t have a plan, and you kind of need a plan if you’re going to be even moderately effective. Unfortunately for the game, the only real means of coming up with a plan is to play the missions multiple times, to learn the environment and your target’s habits, then restart and use that precognitive knowledge to come up with a plan.

I never did that because I played Hitman like an action game, and I played it like an action game because it looks so much like an action game. The third-person perspective, the bald badass killer as a protagonist, the gameplay revolving around murder; these are all standard tropes of action games. Even playing Hitman as a stealth game does the game a disservice because that still encourages me to murder everyone that I see, just quietly instead of loudly, and Hitman is at its best when no one even knows you were there. Thus, the necessity of a plan.

The beta didn’t do anything to solve this problem, but it did the next best thing. It stopped me from playing it like an action game.

Specifically, it stopped me from moving on to the next level. The beta only has those three missions, and only two of those three are actually freeform missions. I played through them rather quickly and was upset that there wasn’t more. I wanted more, and if the next level had opened up, I would have kept playing until I got my fill and then stopped and never thought about Hitman again — just like every other time that I played these games. Since I couldn’t do that this time, since Hitman didn’t relentlessly push me forwards like an action game, I instead went back and replayed those two missions, over and over again, and the more that I played them, the more that I came to understand the appeal of this series.

Hitman is a puzzle game. I’ve heard it described as such before, but there is a difference between hearing it and understanding it. The joy of the game isn’t in the hit itself but in all the buildup to the hit. It’s this journey that matters, this solving of the puzzle. Actually killing a target, actually solving that puzzle, is a secondary joy to the process of it all.

The best thing that the beta did for me was to limit itself so drastically because I was then forced to approach to the game on its own terms. That’s why I think that the decision to turn this new Hitman into an episodic-in-everything-but-name game is pretty forward thinking: The game is going to launch with just three missions, and more missions will be added each month. Hitman is essentially being sold as a series of level packs, which seems like a perfect release schedule for a game like this.

Hitman has always been a victim of itself. This series has always been forced into the mold of a “big-budget mainstream action game,” and while it does have a big budget behind it, it’s not really a mainstream game and it’s certainly not an action game. Previous Hitman games were only released as full-price disc-based games because that was the only option, but now the marketplace has expanded. Hitman doesn’t have to force itself into that mold anymore. Instead, it’s free to present itself as the weird murder-puzzle game that it is, and that includes changing up how it’s released to consumers.

Hitman is best played in small doses, multiple times, and when the whole game is available to us, the temptation to move on is so great that we (or I, at least) don’t actually play it multiple times. Dolling out missions like a drip feed seems like the perfect way to play Hitman. I can spend a month wringing all that I can out of those three missions, and only then, after I’ve had a chance to wring them dry, will I be able to move on to something new. It’s an unconventional release, but it’s what this series has needed all along.