I found Hitman 3 to be an uneven experience, but I cannot lie to you: there’s one level that’s got me excited enough to dive back into it over and over again. Club Hölle is a dance club that’s tucked into the forest outside Berlin in the remains of a nuclear facility, and it’s an aberration of a map. But it’s this singularity, this weirdness among its cohort, that makes it something worth traveling back to over and over again.
Berlin just doesn’t work like any other Hitman level. The first time you play it, you’re not given targets that glow red through when you hit your investigative vision button. Instead, you have to simply wander through the level waiting to see if another assassin will be foolish enough to use their radio and give away their position. That’s because Berlin is a cat-and-mouse game. You’re hunting the people who have been sent to hunt you, and you’re locked in this little cage where you can all ping-pong off each other until you’ve completed your mission of assassinating five of a possible ten opponents in the club and its surrounding facilities.
This works in the campaign. I found it exciting and thrilling, but like so many things in Hitman, this assassination mission takes on a whole new register when you revisit the location and start working on its challenges and different story missions that show off the whole level to you (something we talked about extensively in this episode of Waypoint Radio).
Er, uh, except that Berlin doesn’t have any story missions. It does not have a mode of directing you around the level. You are entirely left to your own devices to discover the different ways of hunting down your enemies, and that’s balanced by now being able to access their red highlights when you’re using your Hitman Vision (I honestly have no idea what this ability is called, and I will never learn).
You still have challenges, though, and they give you strong hints about what you need to do in order to trigger some pseudo-story missions. A challenge to electrocute two assassins by using an EDM light show that has been overloaded with power gives you a sense that you need to be around the light show, but it doesn’t give you any direct markers about what you need to accomplish, and I spent 30 minutes or more fumbling around a big, weird lighting setup to figure out what I had to sabotage and then, later, how I had to manipulate the music as a DJ to setup a perfectly...electrifying...crime.
There are more of these little situations. You can deliver food to a biker gang, and you can poison the fan system of a grow op. There’s a sword made of salvaged materials, and you can find that bad boy and start slinging it around. You can serve juice.
While all of these things are signaled in the challenges, how they are accomplished is all up for your personal discovery, and to me this makes Berlin a keystone map in the entire World of Assassination Trilogy precisely because it trusts that you’ve done all this enough that you can recognize opportunities without being directed to them. Watching a food delivery guy mill around talking on a cell phone is Hitman’s visual rhetoric for “something wild is possible here, and you need to see where it leads you.” This is the freedom that I love so much about the Hitman games across the board. If you see something happening, you can probably intervene in it, and that is most often going to open up newer and weirder pathways of action or movement that will allow you to accomplish your goals in ways you might not have thought about.
And, you know, maybe that’s not all that special across the trilogy. There have been plenty of moments of improvisation and opportunity-exploitation across these three games. But in a lot of ways, I feel like the Berlin level’s hands-off approach and large number of targets is the apex of what Hitman is doing, and it would have made so much more sense as a big finale than the deeply disappointing train level that actually caps off the game. This trilogy ends in what is essentially a plodding score challenge, and it would have been so much more fulfilling to be given this strange social space, with its Florida Man, drug dealer, security guards, drug-dealing biker bros, and juice servers, and told to accomplish something complex and unguided. It would have felt like Agent 47 was really doing the damn thing.
That didn’t happen, though, so instead we have this excellent little playground that’s smack in the middle of the game. And I am so glad for it, because it really is a highlight for me, and I keep diving back in to see what other strange playthroughs I can accomplish after unlocking secret entrances and new starting points. I haven’t reached it yet, but I am eager to attempt the Terminator challenge in which Agent 47 takes on the whole level in a biker costume with a shotgun, warping two fictional worlds into each other with clothes and weapons.
I’m sure that we’ll see Agent 47 again sometime in the future, and I’m hopeful for more Berlins. More small operations with complicated tasks, please, and fewer big missions with huge stakes.