Hitman is the best Bond game since Goldeneye
I first encountered James Bond when I was nine. My third grade teacher kept Goldfinger on the classrom reading rack-- a literary booby trap, meant to blow the mind of any kid who picked it up. It worked. Three chapters in, I hit a sex scene and dropped the paperback as if it were a moray eel. Though a lifelong fan of the movies, it was only a month ago that I touched a Bond novel again, and found a wholly different character than the one I knew from the screen.
In an odd coincidence, my re-introduction to 007 came just as I was getting re-acquainted with another man who has a number instead of a name-- and I couldn’t help noticing similarities. The 2016 Hitman has so many borrowed Bond motifs, in fact, that if it carried different branding it would be the best James Bond game since Goldeneye 007. And while you might think wholesale cribbing would weaken the game, these stylistic infusions give Hitman Episodes One and Two a sense of fun that the series has lacked for some time.
If you’ve only seen the Bond films, you might not understand why I’d compare the charismatic 007 to the understated and emotionless Agent 47. But look closer, and you’ll find the two have a lot in common. Like 47, Bond is an assassin -- this duty is what separates the 00 Section from the rest of the Secret Service -- with little compunction about killing. They’re both inseparable from their work with minimal social lives, and both are hyper-competent professionals with a taste for fine clothing. They share distinguishing marks-- 47 has his bar code, while James has a facial scar and a SMERSH character carved into his hand (later removed). Both have mysterious pasts that are, let’s be honest, more compelling when left unexplored.
But the real similarity emerges when you toss out the film version of Bond and solely rely on the novels. While film Bond has a roughish side, the book version has a cold, calculating personality that-- while not unfeeling-- is relatively amoral. In Goldfinger, Fleming describes Bond being “as cool about death as a surgeon,” and elaborating that, though Bond doesn’t like killing, he considers regret unprofessional. This coldness can extend to Bond’s friends and lovers as well. In Live and Let Die, for instance, he briefly considers drowning his love interest Solitaire to prevent her from being eaten by sharks. To put it mildly, Bond isn’t a very relatable, or even likable, character -- a fact Fleming acknowledged and claimed to be intentional.
Of course there’s a good chance these similarities are coincidental. After all, Fleming’s 007 novels are the most influential spy fiction ever written, and it’s possible-- probable, even-- that they only had an indirect influence on 47’s coldblooded characterization. But that aside, it’s undeniable that the Bond novels left their mark on Hitman’s environments and mission scenarios.
The first two Hitman episodes are pure Bond settings-- high-class locations whose beauty masks a nefarious plot. In the first mission, 47 infiltrates a Paris fashion show to assassinate a pair of clothing designers. Unbeknownst to the public, the fashionistas secretly run IAGO, a spy ring that collects the secrets of the rich and powerful and sells them at auction. The second episode drops 47 into the town of Sapienza, on the Amalfi Coast, where he has to kill two researchers before they perfect a bioweapon in their underground lab.
Even with those short descriptions, you can see the designers ticking boxes on the Bond checklist. Beautiful surroundings? Check. Attractive people? Check. Sinister acronyms? Check. I mean, hell, Sapienza contains a secret bioweapon lab hidden under an Italian castle, ruled by a mad scientist. One approach involves donning a biohazard suit and escaping in the lab’s getaway seaplane.
Frankly, I’m surprised they didn’t name the target “Doctor No” and call it a day.
But thankfully, IO Interactive showed wisdom about which elements they stole, and how they employed them. When you traverse the environment, it’s clear the developers understood why Fleming crafted his world in this way, and how they could use that to create a satisfying play experience-- and shake off some bad habits the series accumulated.
Fleming’s main innovation with James Bond was in marrying the “dirty business” of espionage-- his words-- with the playgrounds of the upper class. In Bond’s world, spies are decidedly upscale. Rather than skulking in alleys and going through trash, Bond trounces the Soviets at Baccarat tables and on Caribbean beaches. When madmen try to upend the world, they have the decency to do so within driving distance of a five-star hotel. Inevitably, finding the villain involves clubbing, eating fine meals, drinking, gambling, or luxury shopping at exotic tourist destinations. Product placement might seem like a Hollywood invention, but it’s actually from the novels-- capitalist wish fulfillment was part of the fantasy, even in 1952’s Casino Royale. Bond’s lavish world of travel, Rolexes, champagne lunches and supercharged Bentleys provided readers an escape from the economic depression and food rationing of postwar Britain.
Hitman fundamentally understands the appeal of this wish fulfillment. Players enter the first mission by walking the red carpet dressed in a tuxedo, passing onlookers and news cameras trying to glimpse celebrities. Agent 47 mingles with models. He slips through a forest of evening dresses and stiletto heels. In Sapienza, the camera zooms into him sitting on a bench, his sunglasses and airy white shirt lending him a breezy vacation look. Moving around these environments, strolling through the garden fountains or ambling along a pier, feels pleasant. It looks fun. At both locations I found myself stopping to just take in a view of the Seine, or watch aquamarine waves wash against a cliff. Twice I risked discovery to admire a sports car up close. Agent 47, I decided, could afford to mix business and pleasure. Instead of proceeding directly to my target, I wandered the Italian alleys scoping out butcher shops and taking in the local church. There’s something inherently relaxing about walking around gorgeous scenery in well-tailored clothes. What can I say? Virtual tourism works, and it’s not just me-- IO Interactive was so confident that this was a selling point, they refer to the episode maps as “Destinations.”
This focus on sensual pleasure also rounds out the game’s darker aspects. The appeal to spy-novel fantasy-- especially when coupled with the more absurd assassinations, like exploding golf balls-- plasters over the discomfort I’ve felt with recent installments. Hitman hasn’t worked for me thematically since Silent Assassin. Though brilliantly designed, Blood Money’s storyline struck me as too darkly amoral to be fun, while Absolution’s leather-clad nuns carried the whiff of sleaze. Hitman nails the sweet spot -- it feels stylish and smart without resorting to pathos or self-parody.
Yet one can’t build a game off of vistas alone, and that’s where the final parallel between Bond and 47 lies -- the fear of discovery, and the aura of confidence.
Bond movies, overall, are adventure films. The question isn’t so much if Bond will survive, but how he’ll survive. In his onscreen incarnation, 007 is a predator, not prey, but the literary Bond is a hunted man. He sticks to false names and disguises, hyper-aware that blowing his cover will precipitate a swift death. Casino Royale sees him maintain his disguise as a Jamaican plantation owner throughout the book, and in other novels he adjusts his wardrobe and mannerisms to blend in with the local population. Much of the books’ tension, the sense of danger, comes from whether Bond’s enemies have seen through his story. Fleming had many faults-- as a writer and, frankly, a person as well-- but he was masterful at whipping up and maintaining suspense. Bond feels in danger at every moment. Each stranger who glances his way could be an enemy agent. Every knock on his door could be a spy dressed as a hotel employee, ready to expose him. Bond slips out of train compartments right before gangsters machine-gun the walls, and ducks behind trees to shield himself from suicide bombings. He’s physically more fragile (he ends up in the hospital nearly every book) and barely holding himself together.
Hitman stealth system feeds off this same tension. As 47 walks around the mansions and cocktail parties, his greatest danger comes from guards recognizing him. 47’s a capable fighter, of course, and can knock out two guards in hand-to-hand if he gets the drop on them, but the violence needs to be economical and devastating. If one guard bangs off a shot, it calls the cavalry. And getting out of trouble, well, it’s always harder than getting in. Hitman functions as an espionage thriller, where staying unnoticed is the best offense and defense.
Which brings us to both 47 and 007’s greatest weapon: confidence. Both men are fundamentally defined by their self-assurance and faith in their abilities. To knock out a man, put on his clothes, and walk into a crowd of his compatriots unnoticed requires ice water for blood. Hitman communicates this personality trait with 47’s walk, a no-nonsense, broad-shouldered stride that gives off the message that he belongs here -- wherever here happens to be. This body language, as much as anything, fleshes out his character. It communicates what kind of person 47 is, and the way it so easily flows into violence speaks to his impeccable training. The walk ties everything together -- his comfort with the disguise, the foreign setting, and his lethal purpose. It’s what makes the player feel at ease rambling on the beach, or striding into a heavily guarded drawing room.
That walk says: I’m meant to be here. I’ve always been here. And by the way, sir-- would you like to try a new golf ball today? I hear this brand has excellent lift.
Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in Zam, Vice, The Escapist, Playboy and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp