New Game+: Hitman, stealth and (brief) perfectionism

September 14, 2012

When it comes to stealth games, it’s very easy to find yourself lost in the mechanics, taking every necessary precaution and being as careful as possible. I have a love-hate relationship with stealth games, but the ones I love I really love. I recently replayed Hitman: Blood Money for the first time in years. I was revisiting a franchise I consider one of gaming’s best in preparation for the upcoming release, Absolution, but also because I wanted to see how well I can handle a game of that nature. I’m not typically someone who goes out of his way to make sure every loose end is tied up in stealth games. I don’t prevent myself from getting caught or having anything come back to me when, once the mission ends, the game goes on regardless.

And yet, if the Hitman franchise has taught me anything, it’s that I, briefly, became a perfectionist.

When I think of “old-school” stealth games, I think of Hitman first and foremost. Many people may think of Metal Gear, but even with stealth at the core of that series’ mechanics, there’s so much more to that franchise than being sneaky. Hitman, on the other hand, has built its foundation on the idea that you can start an assignment and finish it without anyone knowing you were even there. This fundamental principle that has led the development of the franchise from the awful Hitman: Codename 47 to the more recent (and absolutely brilliant) Contracts and Blood Money. The franchise is far from perfect, but it conveys the idea of perfectionism better than any other franchise before and since.

Becoming a perfectionist in regards to stealth games means taking each mission very seriously and putting yourself in the mindset of someone who does not, under any circumstances, want to be seen. It’s all about getting in and out as quickly and effortlessly as possible, but also doing it without the slightest hint of your presence being known. Assassin’s Creed is another franchise that is similar in nature in a lot of ways, but it’s less about hiding bodies and more about speed. Hitman, on the other hand, needs to be handled with a bit more care. There’s less handholding involved, which means more trial and error, but it also means more precision. The idea is simple: how far will you go to clean up your own mess?

To do this, there’s a lot of planning involved. You need to know the layout of each mission area, the target’s movements and how to get to each area without being seen. In Hitman, you often find yourself relying heavily on disguises. You find someone who has an outfit you need, take them out discreetly (lethally or non-lethally) and then hide the body. From there, you may have access to areas you didn’t before, allowing you to get closer to your target. You can choose to take them out up close, or find other, more devious ways to deal with them. The latter might be more difficult to set up, but the reward of being able to get away without any unwanted attention is itself fantastic.

Replaying Blood Money helped me understand that perfectionism isn’t easy, but it became one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever experienced in any game. An early mission in Blood Money has you taking out a stage actor and his manager during the rehearsal of an upcoming performance. One scene involves the actor getting shot with a fake gun, leading to his death in the play, so naturally the best way to deal with it is to switch out the fake replica gun with a real, identical weapon. Eventually, due to the actor’s untimely demise, the manager will rush out on stage to mourn the tragic loss of this man. This is when I found the explosive I planted on the lighting above the stage to come in handy. To make myself appear like a badass, I made sure to walk toward the camera and out of the theater as I triggered the explosion. It wasn’t the most quiet approach, but it was the most satisfying.

There are many other ways to approach that mission, some even quieter than that, but as long as you are in and out of that theater without the slightest hint of your involvement in the tragic incidents, then you, too, are a perfectionist. If you told me before I even touched my first Hitman game that I would care as much about this stuff as I do today, I would laugh it off and call you crazy. When I first played a Hitman title, I often found the easiest way to get out of a sticky situation was to shoot my way out. (Notice that I said easiest, not most satisfying.)

And then, of course, there’s the coveted Silent Assassin award you can be given at the end of certain missions in the various Hitman games. This means that, in the imaginary interviews with witnesses at the scenes of the various crimes, they wouldn’t have the first clue you were even there. You properly dealt with any cameras that may have seen you, hid all the bodies as best as you could and left the scene without the slightest bit of attention paid towards you. Ratings or rankings at the end of stealth game missions is a long-standing tradition, and those who care about those things will inevitably become perfectionists. Even Metal Gear Solid games address your performance at the end of the game, making the most dedicated of players try the whole thing again to improve their time and their rating. More recent stealth games, such as the Assassin’s Creed franchise, have done away with such things, but they still allow for plenty of satisfying moments.

In Assassin’s Creed, when the time comes to take out a target, it often involves a lot of preparation: making sure you had the right weapons and equipment, knowing where your prey was going to be and getting to him as quickly as possible. A lot of this was done for you, but you still felt like part of the experience as you saw the plans being made and the targets being chosen. In the end, it all served a greater purpose. To become a perfectionist in Assassin’s Creed, you would need to use all of your equipment to the best of your ability and be sure you move quickly enough so the pile of bodies you may leave in your wake will not be seen. At first there’s little clean-up involved, but there was also the idea of notoriety which, if not taken care of, could make guards more aware to who you are and your misdeeds. Unlike Hitman, there’s more at stake than a simple title, but it’s also been made easier to deal with in the long run.

In a way, you don’t often see perfectionism being as big of a reward anymore. The last Splinter Cell title still focused on stealth, but it moved so far away from the mechanics and pure thrill of sneaking through the shadows that it almost became an entirely different franchise altogether. Even the upcoming Splinter Cell game seems more like Assassin’s Creed than anything else. As I said, AC is plenty satisfying for those perfectionists out there, but it’s slowly moving away from the stealth experience that some of us have grown up with.

Ultimately, why does this matter? As silly as it seems, I turn to a lot of stealth games, especially the Hitman franchise, for a way to approach gaming differently. I love action games, and I rarely care about perfecting my skills at any such genre or type of game. And yet, when I played Blood Money recently, I found myself becoming a perfectionist yet again. I tried my best to do everything as the lead, Agent 47, would actually do it. This didn’t mean relying on guns when the situation went from bad to worse, and it didn’t mean simply escaping when things were going south. I would never want to play every game like this, but when the rare game comes along that turns me into a perfectionist, especially if it’s a stealth game, I find myself loving every second of it.

Next time, Andrew delves into stealth games’ mechanics. What makes them work, and how have they evolved over the years?