If there’s any vocation more self-important than international espionage, it’s high fashion. Assassins, models, and designers alike greet the world with a disapproving grimace, rendered emotionally dead by a ceaseless parade of extinguished human lives and/or tedious parties. Where once pop culture’s spies borrowed from the fashion world to heighten their sense of coolness (How did a government employee like James Bond become so closely equated with tuxedos?) today the inspiration runs the other way. Look to any haute couture brand’s advertisements, and you’ll see nothing but frowns and disinterest. Even more so than actual trained killers, models would just as soon kill you as look at you.
The first episode of Hitman, the sixth entry in the series of the same name by Danish studio Io Interactive, is set primarily in a space where espionage and fashion overlap. Like a Thom Browne show or a late-period 007 flick, the suits are dark and trim, the lighting is moody, and the expensive booze is flowing like water. Series star Agent 47 is even the perfect character for bridging this gap. His granite jaw and tennis-ball cheekbones give him a cold-blooded look that suits either contract killer or runway model. These two worlds colliding should, by all means, be the absolute height of self-serious pretension. But if Hitman is shooting for fashion show gravitas, it has a glaring problem: This game is absolutely hilarious.
Hitman games have a history of including bits of deliberate whimsy to liven up their otherwise serious stories, and there is some of that here. There are a dizzying number of ways to eliminate this debut episode’s targets, and several of them play up the series’ bleak sense of humor. An elaborate execution in one of the two tutorial missions involves launching an actor who’s playing your mark out of a fighter jet’s ejection seat, almost certainly killing him for real. In another mission, events can be manipulated such that one target is pushed from a third-floor balcony onto the head of the second target, tidily killing both in a scene that plays out like an R-rated Bugs Bunny cartoon.
The game’s most hilarious moments, though, are the ones that are accidental or unplanned, not the knowingly wacky ones crafted by the developers. We are repeatedly informed through the game’s flashback-based tutorial that Agent 47 is a preposterously talented professional murderer, but even in the hands of a skilled player, he’s an awkward, unsubtle dunce. Hitman’s stealth is all about disguise and eavesdropping, about tailing targets, learning their patterns and blindspots, and then striking quickly and quietly before vanishing. Each of the episode’s three levels is built like a swiss watch, with dozens of moving parts packed densely together, each one having an effect on all the others. Solving a stage is all about procuring and using the correct tool to disassemble that watch—manipulating events so that your target unknowingly places themselves right under your knife.
This is all well and good, but the game is so forgiving that it routinely elicits laughs rather than thrills. If you’re appropriately disguised, for example, you can get close enough to any high-priority target to lovingly tuck their hair over their ear, and none of them (or their incompetent bodyguards) will mind or even notice. The emphasis on using disguises to infiltrate off-limits areas is also a reliable source of yuks. Much of your knowledge about which costumes can access which locations is gleaned from experimentation, enabling scenarios in which the distinct-looking 47 must test a series of obvious disguises against the same totally oblivious guard. That trial-and-error process is a recurring source of accidental jokes, one that leads to Agent 47 constantly pouring rat poison into innocent peoples’ drinks, for example. Whoops!
Hitman’s emphasis on disguise and infiltration, its sleek presentation, and its gritty tale of information smuggling and corruption are clearly meant to evoke the likes of Mission: Impossible, but in execution, it instead recalls Naked Gun. If that sounds like condemnation, rest assured, it’s intended as high praise. Given this debut episode’s short length and high density, it’s clearly meant to be played and replayed, becoming more familiar with each attempt. But gaining mastery over these levels causes Hitman to more closely resemble the slick spy story it believes itself to be, making this a rare example of a game that becomes less fun the better you get at it. If Hitman’s decision to go episodic has one upside, it’s that a monthly schedule of new missions will force Agent 47 to constantly revert back to that groping, incompetent dimwit he is the first time you play an unfamiliar level. May he never get good at his job.