I’ve been really into assassinations, recently. It started with the Dishonored series, which I impulse-bought after Alice Bee and Matthew off of the podcast tempted me into it with the promise of whales. It was a good decision: I’ve been having a grand old time in Dunwall, mincing ruffians, braining accordion-wielding secret police, and eating rats like kebabs. But Corvo was only a gateway drug. Alice made the call last week to move me on to the hard stuff, furnishing me with a copy of Hitman 3, and crikey (that’s a full-on, octave-busting Beano-tier “crikey”, there) is it ever fun.
In all the years I’d spent not playing Hitman, I’d assumed the games were dour, stealth-focused gunishment simulators with little to distinguish them. But they are not. As Brendy said in his review, each level in Hitman 3 is a “clockwork murder toy”: a world running to its own rules, which you are free to interfere with. They each have a start (a bald bloke showing up in a place), and a finish (the bald bloke leaving the place, once his targets are deadoes), but they leave everything in between down to the player’s whim. The feeling of freedom is exhilarating. But what’s cranked it up still further for me has been my decision to play without saving at all.
This is not a macho difficulty thing, at all. Indeed, I’ve only just started playing missions on the regular difficulty setting, as it’s taken me a while to get an instinct for exactly how much bullshit NPCs will let me get away with. No – this was purely a decision aimed at letting me have more fun, and despite my initial doubts that the experiment would work, it’s something I’d recommend to anyone.
No saving, obviously, means starting over from the beginning, a lot. I am someone who hates repetition, so you would think I might hate this. On the contrary, however, I’ve found “not saving” and “hating repetition” are two tastes that go together extremely well in Hitman. When I’m binned by an AK-toting bodyguard, after an attempt to steal his mate’s clothes goes horribly wrong, I’ll be keen to try out an entirely fresh approach on restart.
This leads to me discovering so many more possibilities than I would have come across by continually loading back to the moments before crucial trouser-nabbings and lackey-garrotings. Indeed, it generates a far lesser sense of repetition. Rather than trying to painstakingly curate and perfect a single timeline, like Tom Cruise in that one movie where he gets stuck in a horrible D-Day battle against metal squids, I’m waltzing through alternate realities where I’m a poisoner, a rogue gunman, or just someone who loves dressing up.
Admittedly, this approach leads to yet more mission failures. As a Hitman virgin, I’m trying pretty much everything for the first time, with little gut feeling for what works and what doesn’t. But as physicist Niels Bohr famously said, an expert is only someone who has made every conceivable mistake in their field. Each busted run teaches me something, and I get a wonderful feeling when a minor success in a prior fiasco confers some small advantage to my present run: “wait, isn’t there a janitor’s uniform in that cupboard?”, “lucky I knew about that man-sized bin just round the corner”, “watch out, fuckers, I know the location of every axe within a square mile of this spot”.
There’s another way, too, in which this style of play shows me more of the game than I might otherwise see. In Dishonored, I ended up so fixated on playing with a fastidious attitude towards remaining hidden at all times, and on not murdering anyone, that I never let anything go wrong. I lost count of the times I battered the ESC key right as a watchman was in the process of blurting a hurried “what the f-” at the sad-face-skeleton man who had just blundered into him during a failed chokeout.
Forsaking this attitude in Hitman has, apart from anything else, meant that successful stealth actions make me feel like a proper lord, rather than a bored god with the ability to rewind time. Better yet, it means I have to live with the consequences of my cockups, and improvise. I have to hide in bins, hurriedly formulate backup plans, and clown my way through frantic, escalating gunfights. It’s well good, and gives me even more of a broad taste of what the game has to offer.
In the Dubai level, I’d played a stealthy old game indeed, creeping about like a panther in a velvet robe, under guise as a security man, and quietly fucking things up. But then, just as I was contemplating shorting out the electrics for an art installation, one of my targets blundered right past the cupboard I was lurking in. In my hand was a hammer. On my screen was the “press Q to batter him” button. It was love at first sight.
Needless to say, this moment of passion led to an absolute Coen Brothers of a situation, as I sent 47 capering through every corridor going, pursued by elite goons, until he eventually cornered one of said goons, introduced him to the works of MC Hammer, and nicked his elite war trousers. I sauntered out of the crime scene, and was immediately complemented on my appearance by one of the dead man’s comrades. With my new disguise, I could now access the most secure areas on the level.
As such, would you believe, that ended up being my first successful run on the mission. Despite my plan having gone entirely to piss. Reflecting after my victory, I realised something fascinating about the way I was tackling problems. Playing without the safety net of a save function was, somehow, making me less risk-averse. I had lost all fear of death, of failure, and of non-optimal solutions, becoming the very definition of a have-a-go hero.
Having gotten to within just a few feet of my final target, I was Unable to take the tension, and mashed the mouse to fire… but in my excitement, I had forgotten I wasn’t holding a gun, and instead wellied a banana right at his head.
I’ve been having a right old time. I hadn’t realised how little I enjoyed my brain’s constant internal mutter of “when did u last save tho?”, or the immersion-dampening syncopation of an otherwise thrilling adventure with frequent trips to menu screens. The sense of freedom at the start of levels feels more intense now. And so does everything that comes after.
When I beast a man, drag him into a bush, and wander into a fortress full of bastards wearing his clothes, I feel the excitement of being 14 and strolling into a shit pub past the steely eyes of doormen. I know I’ll get chucked out before long, sure. But just how shitfaced can I get before that happens?.