1. HITMAN 2 (Io Interactive)
It’s strange to think of how far HITMAN has come. After somehow becoming one of the longest-running and most-adapted series in gaming, we’re still at the point where I’d say the average modern gamer has no idea what’s really going on in that weird murder game about the guy with the barcode on his head.
Starting with 2000’s Codename 47, the HITMAN games have cultivated a well-earned reputation for being extremely obtuse and difficult, even through 2006’s stellar Hitman: Blood Money. They were games for obsessive PC gamers who had too much time to be patient. Then, with 2012’s Hitman Absolution, they were for no one at all, a half-hearted stab at mainstream appeal that resulted in a watered-down, mostly linear train wreck of a game that had more sexy nuns in it than anything this side of Kane & Lynch (who also make an unfortunate appearance in this game).
So you can understand why, when I wrote this list in 2016, I neglected to include the reboot, simply titled HITMAN. I hadn’t played it because I hated the last one (and because an episodic immersive sim sounded like a truly terrible idea). For that reason, and because this sequel-in-name-only is a truly great game, HITMAN 2 is my game of the year for 2018. You might be wondering why. Why does this marginally ugly half-sequel with almost no new features and only six new levels warrant this type of praise? Because there’s nothing like it anywhere else in gaming.
Let’s start with the basics: You play as Agent 47, a nearly mute, nearly affectless bald clone who until the 2016 outing, generally assassinated whatever targets his handler Diana put in front of him unquestioningly and unerringly. It’s a stealth game where the key to being unnoticed is standing in the middle of the crowd where everyone can see you. It’s a shooting game where the deadliest weapon in your entire arsenal is a coin you can throw in front of guards to distract them. It’s a murderous, violent, anarchic game where all your targets are the worst pieces of shit imaginable; drug lords, tech psychopaths who sell weapons to the U.S. Government, tenement lords, corrupt Bollywood film producers, retired Cold War spymasters and of course, professional race car drivers.
There are several reasons why this dichotomy works. First is HITMAN 2‘s extensively well-implemented disguise system, which allows Agent 47 to disguise himself as any NPC in a level to attain access to his target’s homes and places of business (which are often symbolically separate from the riff-raff of everyday life). Not only is this system exceptionally detailed and elaborate (i.e., some disguises work only in one specific area; you can dress up like a laundromat employee to get into the laundromat, but you can’t dress up like a laundromat employee to get into the film set), but it is undercut by the equally impressive Enforcer system, wherein a few select NPCs of a certain type will always see through a few select disguises (like the commander of a bodyguard unit being able to tell that Agent 47 is not one of his hired men). It’s important, to me, that so few of the actual targets are ever able to see through these disguises. It’s for gameplay purposes of course, but also dovetails nicely with the theme of these people not seeing their underlings as distinct human beings.
The great joke of this system is twofold. One, it allows this to be a stealth game not about the world evolving around the player, but the player evolving around the world; becoming the wrench in the gears of these people’s lives and bringing everything crashing down. This of course makes you feel more like a highly adaptable agent provacateur more than it does The Destined Hero of the End Times. Oftentimes, successfully infiltrating a target’s environs will allow you to eavesdrop upon them talking about whatever their dastardly plans are, and knowing that they’ll never get to complete them because of you is a direct, satisfying kind of feeling that games rarely provide.
The second great joke here is that Agent 47, this sharp-eyed psychopath with an extremely distinctive face and appearance, is somehow able to pull off any conceivable disguise. The team at IO Interactive is clearly at the point where they’re able to have fun with this, if 47’s brief stint as a real estate agent is any indication. Like Matt Damon once said on 30 Rock, “You walk briskly in a pilot’s uniform, you can go pretty much anywhere.”
I realize I’ve gone this far without actually talking about whether the game is fun, and it is, but not in the sense you’re thinking. It’s not as kinetic as something like Dishonored is, and it’s not as stats- or choice-based as Deus Ex, but what it has that these games don’t is a truly childlike sense of creativity. You can see it in the basic stories of each level. While the main plot of the game it pretty boring (even the game itself forgot to animate the cutscenes), the individual stories in each sprawling level are great fun to explore.
I would recommend starting each level with one of the “mission stories” (named “opportunities” in the 2016 reboot), which handicap the difficulty curve these games were notorious for by guiding the player through one scripted assassination path for a target. They allow you to learn the level’s layout at your own pace, but they also generally show you the most interesting and enlightening side content in each area before putting you an arm’s length from your sniveling targets. Few scripted games have ever given me the visceral thrill that this game did in its last level, where the first mission story I chose allowed me to infiltrate a secret society of rich doomsday preppers and rig a ceremonial effigy to entrap their newly elected leader, burning her alive just after she finished giving a speech about how their cult signified the new world order that would arise from the ashes after all the poor people were gone. It paints Agent 47 as a proletariat avenger, an anonymous face from the crowd selected to enact situationally ironic vengeance upon the rich and entitled.
That being said, the true strength of this game is in chaos. I’ve called Dishonored an “unbreakable game” before, in that it allows you to do basically anything but die without breaking immersion or failing the mission, but those games still generally prefer you to stick to the shadows and strike only when necessary. HITMAN 2 has no such compunctions. Sure, you’ll get a worse score if you just walk around every level winging a briefcase at people’s heads from hilariously implausible distances,* but that’s why the game wants you to replay every mission a handful of times. In a weird way, it’s like the best Nintendo game that Nintendo would never make. It’s easy to pick up and hard to master, but the entire time it doesn’t want you to forget that it’s a game first, albeit one that rewards patience and creativity in frequently astonishing ways.
*What makes stuff like the Briefcase Glitch so funny is that while it’s almost certainly not something the designers put in the game, as soon as they saw it they knew it had to stay. This is not a game that cares about being immersive or photorealistic or gritty.
I’ll end this by describing my first experience with the Elusive Target system, a mechanic that drops new and unique one-time only targets into certain levels. You get one shot, so the game assumes you’ve learned the layouts and security patrols by now. This first one in HITMAN 2 cheekily throws you on the trail of Sean Bean, here to make a bunch of references to all those times he died in other properties and wink directly at the screen.
I broadcast my attempt on Twitch a while back, assuming it would be an epic struggle against an uncaring and cruel AI system, hoping I could find the most elegant and perfectly ironic way to dispatch my target. It could take hours, and I was ready to get it right. I infiltrated the area and met with my mark, watching and waiting for the perfect scripted elimination to present itself. Instead, I panicked and hid behind a door frame, then just simply shot Mr. Bean in the head as he came into view and ran away like a coward over the shouts of his security personnel. The game applauded me for my efforts, but it’s HITMAN, and it knows that all it’s really here to do is make you have fun. In many ways, this game is kind of the true successor to Metal Gear Solid, just stripped entirely of those games’ devotion to 20-minute cutscenes and instead focused almost entirely on the Rube Goldbergian cause and effect chaos of that series’s best entry, Snake Eater.
Four years in a row now, I’ve chosen the game that was the most systemic, playful and respectful not only of player choice, but player curiosity. Metal Gear Solid V, Dishonored 2, Breath of the Wild and now HITMAN 2 are all the best kind of game: One that knows not every player is going to see every single thing the game has to offer. One that wants you to experiment and have fun. Games that are meant to be played, not experienced. And isn’t that what this whole “interactive medium” thing was supposed to be about in the first place?