There’s always been a “me too!” philosophy in the video game industry where any major game has a host of copycat games around it that try to take what made that first game great and change the formula enough to stand out and, if lucky, surpass the original. Metal Gear Solid, Halo, and Call of Duty all famously shaped the industry in the last two generations by inspiring dozens of games each. Games that follow trendsetters closely always oversaturate the market quickly but there are a few games that, though popular, never seem to inspire any other games to be more like it. It’s rather unfortunate when a game with a great idea is left in the limelight by itself, like some kind of solo act with a great show but very few performances.
One series that has always managed to stand out is Hitman. There’s never been anything quite like it and no other game has tried to be another Hitman. The series is best described as an action/stealth/puzzle game where you take the titular Hitman through a series of levels and complete your objectives as quietly as possible… or as loudly as you want since the game does give you more weapons than Rambo. Using disguises, the environment, key timing, and a variety of tools, players can accomplish their goals in pretty much any way they can imagine.
Let’s take a sample mission from Hitman: Blood Money for the sake of discussion. In this mission, you have to assassinate a former mobster who is now in the Witness Protection Program, under the guard of dozens of FBI agents, in a gated upper class suburban area. You also need to obtain some microfilm he has hidden somewhere on his estate. From the start, you can simply explore the neighbourhood to see what options you have. There’s a lightly guarded side door on the left of the house, an entrance to the backyard on the right. There’s a caterer delivering food from the driveway to the kitchen via the front door and a birthday clown who’s making trips to the backyard and back through the same front door. There’s also an air rifle in a treehouse overlooking the backyard and some tranquillizers in the office of the in-home vet clinic. There’s also an undercover fan of FBI agents across the street from the house.
From there, you can exploit any of these to either take out the guards at the sides of the house and sneak in, drug the FBI agents in the van and steal their clothes to sneak in, or maybe get rid of the clown or caterer and use one of their costumes to gain entry. Once you’re inside, there’s an even greater number of ways to do your objectives. Do you silently and quickly kill the target and his personal guard as they’re walking through the house? Do you lure the guard away by cutting out the TV cable and poison the target when he’s alone so that he appears to be sleeping when the guard gets back? Maybe you drop something on his head and make it look like an accident. And when you have to get the microfilm from the wife, there are even more options. Do you rig the barbecue? Drown her in the pool? Silently take her out when nobody’s watching?
Or, hell, why not just walk in and shoot the place up, Rambo style? You can do that too. Just equip a few assault rifles and magnum pistols with drum barrel magazines and laser sights and go to town. Every game in the series allows you to collect your own little museum gallery of firearms and explosives. Might as well make use of it.
This isn’t even a good approximation of all the possible ways you can get through this level. There are plenty of areas to explore in that level, secrets to find, little bits of extra plot to see. You have to watch for timing, line of sight, and plan your movements accordingly as well. It often takes players many playthroughs until they find that one path that gets them through the level completely undetected but the game never really devolves into trial and error as there’s always a way out of any mess you find yourself in.
All these choices are the crux of the Hitman series, and what makes the series special. Instead of being a straight action, stealth or puzzle game, it’s instead something along the lines of a limited sandbox where the player is dropped into a scenario and has to use common sense and imagination to get by. Almost everything in a Hitman game has some sort of cause and effect. Incapacitating one guard could open up new pathways for the player. Sabotaging a security system or tripping an alert across the compound could help you get specific timings down. Even just tossing a coin behind a guard just to have him look away for a split second could be crucial for a player’s run through a level. and the beauty is that none of it is necessary.
Anyone who has played every game in the series would agree that the series really came into its own with the second game, Silent Assassin. The first game, Codename 47, was an unrealized concept. While it had many of the hallmarks that would come to define the series and an upgrade system that wouldn’t reappear until Blood Money, the main thing it lacked was choice. To get through the levels effectively there was only one way to do it. The game was essentially trial and error where players had to explore the levels to find out how to progress further. Getting through a level could sometimes take half a dozen replays with incremental progress each time. Players effectively had to guess what was going on in the developers minds to progress, much like an old point and click game.
Hitman 2 became the defining Hitman game as soon as it introduced choice. Just go back and play the demo levels for both games. The differences are almost night and day. Codename 47 starts you with just a couple of ways to progress further whereas Silent Assassin gives you a half dozen without the player even having to start moving. The choice is more than in just how to progress through the level to reach your target, there’s multiple ways to get to your target and accomplish your task, as highlighted above. There’s no one way to do it. This trend continued in Contracts and Blood Money, the three together all becoming gaming classics. Though Blood Money was easier than the previous titles thanks to a few more streamlined mechanics and easier requirements for the Silent Assassin ranking, but it still required some observation and thought to get the best rating.
I’m loathe to call the games stealth either because there’s so much more to it than simply getting by unnoticed. It’s not enough to stay put of sight at all times. It’s actually impossible. Instead, the player must figure out the best sequence of actions to remain unnoticed. In this, Hitman is more puzzle than stealth. While remainjng behind and object or wall is key sometimes, it may not always be the best course of action. Sometimes, running through the corner of a guard’s eye to draw him out of position is the most effective tactic, something almost unheard of for purely stealth games. There are various moments when the player actually has to interact with NPC’s just to cause some sort of trouble, get an item, or just dissuade suspicion as well. There’s just a lot more environment interaction in a Hitman game than a stealth game usually offers.
Because the levels were basically tiny open worlds, io Interactive always went to great pains to make the world feel alive. Even the most insignificant NPCs had their own schedules and quirks. In the aforementioned suburbs level, one FBI guard could be followed right into the daughter’s bedroom where he would take a whiff of her undergarments. This was completely out of the way and most players would never even have known this was in the game, but it was there. Incidentally, you could have soaked those same undergarments in tranquillizers to knock the agent out and take his clothes. Just because.
It’s this sort of do-as-you-please sandbox that makes Hitman stand out from every other game. It’s like Metal Gear but with Shenmue-like exploration around levels. Like Max Payne but much slower and violence is discouraged. Like Professor Layton but instead of toiling around on a touchscreen, you’re watching your surroundings and knocking out switches and guards. It’s a hodgepodge of game ideas packed into one fantastic package that delivers an experience like no other. Is it any wonder fans were immediately skeptical when the E3 demo from last year showed off linear action gameplay? There’s nothing like, and never has been anything like, the Hitman games. It would be a shame to lose them to the “me too!” design philosophy as if it goes the way Splinter Cell: Conviction did.