I moved Agent 47 cautiously through the deserted beach house. The extravagant home was empty, but that didn’t mean the cameras weren’t recording. I moved from the garage into a long hallway and unlocked a door leading outside the house and into the sand dunes. Doubling back inside, Agent 47 entered the central area of the house complete with a full bar kitchen, pool room, and a wall-sized projector TV. I was directing Agent 47 through the house, alongside my girlfriend, who was watching over a livestream and chatting with me over the phone. I noticed the wall-length fish-tank alongside the door I had walked through and joked to her, it would be wild if I could break that fish tank. My girlfriend encouraged me to put my theory to the test. I faced the long tank full of swimming fish and crystal blue water, backed up a few paces, and fired a round from Agent 47’s silenced pistol. My jaw dropped like a kid on Christmas morning. That’s amazing. The glass tank had shattered, freeing the water and the fish. Glass littered the floor, the fish still flopping.
Hitman 2 and its predecessor are games of countless split-second decisions, long plans gone awry, and good ol’ fashioned international assassination. Hitman is also exuberantly ridiculous. The bald-headed Agent 47 can don any garb from flamingo mascot to IT professional to French supermodel with style and grace. The game revels in its own silliness in a way very few games dare attempt. Agent 47 is so stony faced that much of the moment to moment gameplay can feel like things simply happen to our protagonist. As if Agent 47 was indeed, merely a video game avatar. But Agent 47 is also a central player and a central question for the plot, especially in Hitman 2. As a result, the gameplay presents a joyful dissonance between Agent 47, the gruff murder-man in cutscenes and Agent 47 who is me, the player, stumbling and bumbling around a Miami racetrack knocking out spectators cold with knock-off soda cans. The game’s design does not try to sand away those contradictions and leave a grim-faced husk in its place. Hitman doubles down on its unique brand of goofy, violent fun. The Hitman can knock out a policeman with a dead fish and then garrote a target. He can fake it as a golf instructor and then make awful use of a woodchipper. The game presents opportunities for headshaking laughs while never fully collapsing into absurdist slapstick.
Breaking the fish tank is one shining example of the tonal freedom Hitman 2 revels in. Shattering the glass held no real gameplay reward. If there were guards present, I would have been discovered. Despite the non-importance of that action it is one of my favorite memories I’ve made, up there with pulling off an assassination with an exploding golf ball.
Shattering the fish tank represents not just the playful heart of the recent Hitman series, but the mechanical foundation too. Hitman 1 and 2 are games dense with micro-decisions and the fish tank is one of many. Each level functions mechanically as a self-contained choose your own adventure assassination game. Choices scale from what tools to bring on the job to timing a chokehold on guard to avoid alerting a patrol. In those smaller decisions lies the fertile ground for hijinks to unfold. A mistimed drink poisoning might lead to cold cocking the bartender and sprinting away from the scene, desperately calculating the best disguise for the situation with a shootout and a game over hot on your heels. With every locale and target, Hitman confidently presents the player with a buffet of decisions to make and then stands pat, its barcode branded star ready to assume any disguise and peek under any rock to get the job done. The micro-decisions along the way are where the joy is found in the Hitman games. You may discover a map shortcut or a new lead on a target. Or you might just try and fail to sucker punch an IT guy with a hamburger.