I'm back to bouncing off games again. Ni No Kuni - Wrath of the White Witch kept me engaged for several hours until I realised that I just wasn't interested enough in it to keep going. Destiny 2 got old again very quickly once I fell back into the weekly routine of pushing up a number on a season pass. Midnight Fight Express intially reminded me a lot of Hotline Miami, but rapidly fell to feeling frustrating, while Saints Row crashed so hard at character creation for me that I uninstalled it. So, I've been looking for something to play. Once again, I retreated to my pile of shame in search of inspiration - and once again, I found it. There's a reason I keep a pile of video games in a cupboard... when all else fails, I can guarantee I'll find something to play in amongst them all - and this time was no exception. Hitman: Definitive Edition sat there staring at me. After a moment's consideration, I slipped the disc into my Xbox Series X and buckled up.
Confession: I've never played a Hitman game. Or at least, I hadn't - not seriously, until last week. I'd had a little go at one of the early games on the Xbox 360, and it hadn't clicked for me at all - I recall losing patience and interest in it incredibly quickly due to it speaking a language I didn't understand at the time; the language of stealth and flexibility. As is so often the case for me though, going back to something years later when I was actively looking for an experience I'd not had before paid dividends. I ended up not just getting Hitman, but falling in love with it. Hard.
Hitman provides you, as Agent 47 (the titular Hitman), a set of sandboxes in which your objective is simple. Infiltrate an area, kill a target (or, in later levels, a couple of them) and then exfiltrate. You get extra points for doing it without being noticed, and for doing it without killing any non-targets. Other than that, the details are left entirely to you - with the how, where, and when of each assassination left in your capable hands. What I had no idea of until I finally let the game get under my skin was just how many options were available with regard to the how, where, and when.
Playing Hitman is an exercise in holding your nerve and managing tension - as making a sound or getting caught will generally result in a situation that will rapidly escalate beyond your ability to manage it effectively. It took me a couple of attempts at the first level of the game to wrap my head around this (in retrospect incredibly obvious) fact - that while the game encourages you to engage with its environs in a wide number of ways, the most obvious one that involves shooting everything in sight is the only one that is really absolutely off-limits. Once that rule starts to sink in though, the patterns that govern the game begin to show through - and it doesn't take long after that for the fun to begin.
It might be easiest to explain what I mean by delivering an example. An early level sees you in Paris, at a fashion show and party being put on by a couple of powerful underworld figures as a way of covering for an illicit auction. Your job is to take them both down. A cursory wander around the level reveals various rooms of a mansion that are absolutely full of people - meaning that any explicit act is inevitably going to be seen. I spent the first few attempts at the level wandering around, getting the lay of the land and seeing what opportunities were kicking around. I eventually found a route into a downstairs basement, where I managed to obtain a waiter's outfit. Some more wandering revealed that one of my targets was a fan of a particular cocktail... along with its recipe and some rat poison that would make him vomit.
Head spinning with opportunities, I headed back upstairs and found my way into the bar area - where I mixed the cocktail and then laced it with the poison. Low and behold, my target rolled up a couple of minutes later - during which I literally stood behind the bar wondering whether or not my plan would pan out or not, with the game apparently in no hurry to let me find out. In these moments, you realise that the game runs on its own clock and at its own pace - each character following out a pre-planned set of actions, meaning that your timing across the level becomes far more important than you'd probably think. Either way, he eventually wandered up and drank his drink then promptly retreated for the nearest bathroom. I followed him in and drowned him in the toilet - and I don't mind admitting that I was cackling evilly as I did so.
Taking out the next target was trickier - as she was hidden in a part of the mansion that would require some serious effort to access. Eventually, I happened upon a supermodel outside that, by a stroke of pure luck and nothing to do with game design at all, was the spitting image of Agent 47. I followed him for a while, killed him, stole his outfit and eventually found myself sat on a couch opposite her in an empty room... with a garotte in my pocket. Needless to say, only one of us walked out of that office.
Later on in the game, I drowned an Interpol agent in a slurry pit. I fed someone poisoned sushi, and killed a surgery patient by destroying the heart that was due to be transplanted into him. I don't think I actually killed a single target in the entire game using a method as pedestrian as a silenced pistol - preferring to scour the levels and make the most of the opportunities that turned up reliably once you'd pinched an outfit to let you safely get into an area of the sandbox that you couldn't at the start. Best of all though - was that for each successful attempt, the game makes you aware of the different things that you could have done. I electrocuted a (murderous?) rockstar with a faulty microphone, and his treacherous lawyer with an exploding tuk-tuk. If there was one thing I was certain of though, as Agent 47 sped away from a luxurious Bangkok resort in a commandeered speedboat, it was that my next playthrough of the level would likely have things panning out very differently.
For me, Hitman was a wonderful change of pace - a game more cerebral than instinctive, one that actively rewarded exploration, observation and planning in a way that very few other games I've played have ever managed. Needless to say, I'm going to be searching out more of it now that I've seen the credits roll.
First, though... there's the small matter of finishing Dark Souls 3.