'Hitman' Has Professional Difficulty, But No Moral Grays
It's not so hard to kill your target if they are a cartoon villain. Less so if they resemble a human being.
Along with its release to disc, Hitman recently received a sizable update. In addition to a new variation of the Sapienza map (A.K.A. the best map in the game and I will fight you on that) said update brought with it an extra challenging new mode, the aptly named Professional level. Among other things, Professional difficulty restricts the number of times players can save their progress and makes certain disguises unusable if their previous owner left any conspicuous bloodstains behind. All said it's a novel way to keep things fresh for fans, something that Hitman already excels at.
But what interests me most about Professional difficulty isn't what's there right now, so much as what could be. Specifically, it offers room for a little bit of narrative balance in ways the core mode neglects.
Hitman walks the tightrope of its tone well, harmonizing elements that feel like they ought to be in opposition. It has remarkably believable NPC background chatter for instance, but at the same time, still plays host to its fair share of wink-wink nudge-nudge dialogue lines. Similarly, for every handful of completely realistic and reasonable actions Agent 47 can take (sniping someone from a rooftop, poisoning their cocktail) there's the chance to do a drum solo for a soon-to-be-deceased rockstar or walk the runway in some pretty intense makeup. Hitman plays situations just seriously enough, but never sacrifices its self-awareness to do so.
Usually, anyway. At least one thing is always sacred, and that's the targets... Or more specifically how they're uniformly laid out on a platter for you, apple-in-mouth, as "bad" people.
Separating the contracts from the thin thread of story that strings them together and excuses all with shadowy cat and mouse, it's all just a little too easy. After all, a "bad" person seems to deserve everything I could conceivably do to them within the confines of the map and the mechanics, right? Flip that hypothetical coin, though, and the idea of virtually assassinating "good" people in Hitman doesn't leave a great taste in my mouth.
It also makes me consider the self-aware side of the game—those little gestures that preserve goofy playfulness in the face of grim realism. Agent 47 may be canonicaly and chronically apathetic, but I'm not. Making the targets "bad" frees players like me up to openly enjoy their objective, to relish in the exact kind of creative justice that the game is built around. It's supposed to be fun, and it is. Feeling badly for a character I have to kill isn't terribly conducive to fun.
But the fact that I never feel badly—that Hitman never really makes me confront the fact that murder for hire is not an inherently noble profession or a service to mankind—seems anything but balanced. It stands somewhat in the face of the tone the game takes outside of its cutesy meta moments.
Maybe once in awhile I shouldn't enjoy it. Maybe once in awhile it shouldn't purely be fun.
And maybe Professional difficulty is the right place for that. I would love to have a crisis of conscience just once in that game. I would love to question more than just what I can get away with in front of a witness, too. I would love an emotional challenge delivered hand-in-hand with a technical one.
Difficulty doesn't just come down to the number of saves you can make, or the efficacy of the security cameras. As long as only the scum of the earth are always in my crosshairs, there's one aspect of Hitman that will always be easy.