IO Interactive’s Hitman series has retained an admirable purity of purpose over its two-decade lifetime. Bald-headed clone assassin Agent 47 finds and kills his target; the difference between Hitman: Codename 47 (2000) and Hitman 2 (2018) is in scale more than intent. Each element, from David Bateson’s voice performance as 47 (initially strangled and goofy, now smooth and lightly ironic) to the Scandi-minimalist UI design, is honed rather than reinvented.
Hitman (2016) felt like the apex of IO’s repeated cracks at the formula. The game’s six primary levels were released in monthly succession, which meant plenty of time with each space. Further challenges and missions incentivized the intrepid player to unwind each stage’s clockwork guts—I thought nothing of running a level like Hokkaido or Paris dozens of times, aiming to top my friends’ scores and exhaust every available way of finding, trapping, and killing 47’s targets.
Hitman 2 is not quite that sticky. The level design feels more horizontal—taking after Hitman’s Colorado stage, maybe—and less knotty. The open, flatter layouts of Miami or Vermont don’t offer up as much as you get acquainted with them. Hitman 2 gives you little narrative paths and hooks through the levels, underlining a variety of linear outcomes; they’re never exactly obtrusive, but they often contribute to tipping the delicate balance of concealment mechanics and puzzle-box assassinations into something like auto-pilot. Each part of the level falls into place with ostensible elegance. Even the targets are puffed-up caricatures—buffoons and villains begging for a headshot—that contribute to the game’s frictionless ethos. 47 himself becomes a bit of code running smoothly beneath the game’s icy visual design.
That said, I don’t think Agent 47 has ever been a compelling dramatic protagonist. He’s a device, an appliance. The games have given him plenty of backstory, I assume (habitual cutscene-skipper checking in!), but just at a glance he lacks the flinty masculine power of other fictional assassins, the kind of quality that manifests as sheer silent gravitas. Ed discussed how the games employ 47’s stoic physicality to comedic effect by leaning on incongruity and black humor. Every one of the games has milked the escalating absurdity of 47’s disguises. Stripping a tattoo artist of his clothes somehow transfers his tribal sleeves to 47; milk-white 47 taking the place of an Indian tailor largely raises no suspicion, not even from an all-seeing crime lord.
When I say “other fictional assassins” the man I have in mind is Duke Togo, alias Golgo 13, the subject of Takao Saito’s long-running manga (since 1968). Golgo 13 is the world’s greatest hitman, without contest. If he fires a shot from his custom scoped M16 it will find its mark no matter what. From shooting a violin string at a precise point in a performance to killing his target by bouncing a round off a mail slot there is no shot he can’t make. You might think forty-plus years is perhaps too long for a story about an assassin who never misses and can’t be defeated; you would be wrong. Golgo 13 is a fantasy of competence. The electric charge of each story comes from watching a set of steps executed to perfection, with minimal energy wasted in the process; this applies to the art, too, which is clenched-fist etched into the page by the team at Saito Pro with quivering intensity. The possibility of Duke Togo missing a shot is virtually zero+. Duke Togo has no feelings about his job; he doesn’t have any visible feelings at all. It all channels into the work. Even when he fucks he lies stock-still, surely stockpiling his power while his partner writhes in evident ecstasy atop what the backmatter in one of the comic’s US editions described, for reasons unknown, as “an amazing penis.”
If the player is somewhat buried in the uninspired level design and constant UI nagging of Hitman 2 it doesn’t mean the game is completely without its Duke Togo-esque pleasures. The escalation system, which offers new targets with increasingly strict win conditions, and limited-time assassination events still pull at that lizard part of my brain that can’t resist trying for a better score. When all its elements slip into place, like the finely machined parts of a customized rifle, there are moments of Hitman 2 that sing: murdering an Elon Musk caricature with his own hunter-killer robot; pulling a cartel boss off her balcony as she pines over a lost love.
But the series is now—was it always?— strangely safe and palatable for a game about killing whoever you are paid to kill. All of 47’s targets are explicitly, cartoonishly Bad if they have any personality at all—the Elon Musk-a-like isn’t the only smirking allusion to real-world figures in these games. 47’s employers at the ICA are experts at commissioning unerringly woke violence. Never before has a for-hire paramilitary agency been so morally sound! Targets have committed war crimes; they’re cartel bosses; they’re cruel to the poor, or blithe misogynists. They all deserve it. Combined with the game’s IKEA-esque spatial circuits, a portrait not of retributive class warfare or blackly comic human frailty but of shrewd market-tested condescension emerges. It doesn’t matter that the narrative shell of Hitman 2 is merely feeding us a world we can agree with; plenty of art is cowed into submission by the currents of online discourse. But Hitman as a series has the built-in potential to discomfit the player if it wished. The amorality of a character like Duke Togo is besides the point; he merely completes the job as requested no matter who the target is. It’s not a stretch to imagine how Hitman could undermine its own eliminate-the-baddies formula, but for now, it’s a game about pulling the trigger that never once makes you hesitate.
+ In the story Telepath, Duke misses two shots due to Soviet psychic manipulation, a stomach-dropping moment of horror for the reader that may also have been ginned up exclusively to document the later scene where Duke reveals extraordinary control over his brainwaves in the course of countering the Red threat.
Astrid B writes about movies and videogames on the internet. Follow her on Twitter.