Note: The wonderful Blake Hester is on a short hiatus, so in his absence, I’ll be stepping in to cover the Hitman episodes until his return. I’m honored to follow up his excellent Hitman write-ups, which you can find here and here.
Hitman is a puzzle. There’s a lot of mechanics and machinations in the details, elements of “shooter,” “action,” and “adventure,” but at its core, Hitman tasks the player with a quandary that needs solving. Sometimes those puzzles can reveal an inherent flaw, but sometimes the most obfuscated riddle leads to a greater appreciation for the system.
In Marrakesh, the third episode of this Hitman series, IO Interactive sets forward what might be its most gargantuan contract yet. Riots are erupting in Morocco, as part of a thinly veiled coup d’etat, and Agent 47 is sent in to take out both the general responsible, and his sycophantic businessman counterpart who has hidden away in the consulate.
The size and breadth of this episode is immediately apparent, as you start your mission in the midst of a crowd. The setting is tense, and contrasts the past two episodes well; rather than the vain crowds of Showstopper or the quiet villa in Sapienza, this is a riot. People gather around televisions, loudly voicing their reactions to pundits’ claims and opinions. The bazaar is filled to the brim, in a way that makes you feel like a wolf among lambs, while also feeling a sense of dread from being around so many people.
In other episodes, isolation was readily available. There was always a corner where you could sneak away and complete your dark tasks, and then return to the populace. In Marrakesh, crowds and guards fill every nook and cranny, and even a single attempt at subduing someone could lead to an entire city bearing down on Agent 47. You’re conspicuous, a tall, built Caucasian male in a city that sees you as the intruding Other.
It was frustrating, at first, to deal with being that intruder. As I tried to carefully time windows of opportunity, market vendors would harass me. “Look at my wares! Hey buddy, don’t I know you, guy?” I’d have to disappear and re-assess as the same hecklers and hagglers drew attention to my appearance, and no matter what dark room I lured unsuspecting targets into, there always seemed to be onlookers. Someone to notice my crime, to run to the many soldiers and guards around, and then lead the hornet swarm’s descent upon my ruined schemes.
But it taught me to operate within the boundaries, to adapt and approach this series in ways I wasn’t accustomed to, and in retrospect I respect a lot of the design decisions made here.
Everything comes back to the idea of a living game, of a series that decided to go episodic, and in every iteration I’m further impressed by this new approach to Hitman. Whether it’s my imagination or true design work, Marrakesh feels like a response to previous installments, almost a challenge or test put forth by the developers to further push the player. “We’ve watched you, studied you, now adapt to our new challenge.”
Most prior Hitman episodes, and even further back games, have the same loop: find an outfit you want, disable the wearer, disguise, repeat. It’s a ladder of escalating masks, until you reach the one you need to carry out your contract and exit. In Marrakesh, it’s different. There’s crowds, people watching. Each disguise is much more difficult to obtain, and so each is given more importance, more weight. You have to decide on a plan and execute, rather than just fumble through a laundry list of security guards and waiters on your way to the top.
This carries over to the opportunities as well, which range from posing as a cameraman or masseuse, to disguising yourself as a POW set to be interrogated, only to kill the general when he comes to drill you for info. Most opportunities can lead to options, or at least other chances at your targets, but you have to carefully balance them.
These chances also require a little more forethought than improvisation. You might be told to get a certain disguise, but given little to work with at getting it. Maybe you create a distraction with an oil leak to sneak past guards, or poison some water and subdue your sub-target while they’re running to the bathroom to expunge it.
In my time in Morocco, through various attempts, successful and failed alike, I gained a new appreciation for the living experience that is Hitman. Some old issues still persist; bumping into NPCs can cause frustrating stalls or failures as they seem determined to pick a fight with 47, and actual fidelity and performance within the crowds is subpar and choppy. But in design and in practice, this is one of the most compelling games out right now, and one of the best arguments for episodic iteration in games.
I doubt I’ll feel compelled to return to Marrakesh, to enact the same contract in different methods or parameters. I’ve made my kills, secured my points and seen enough of Morocco. But if the episodes keep up this way, I’ll be happily booting up the next installment and each after. The meta-narrative is thin at best (the teaser you get for completing Marrakesh isn’t even worth discussing), but that’s not why I keep coming to Hitman. It’s the puzzle, the insatiable need to keep beating a Rubik’s cube that adapts to your efforts and tests you on it. If that trend continues, this could be something truly interesting, the fabled Blood Money follow-up — and possibly, successor.