Hitman 3, which releases January 20, is the last in the trilogy of Hitman reboots that started in 2016. What I played of it in a preview this week felt as tense and exciting as ever, with a glamorous new location to infiltrate and powerful figures to track down. While there are a few new additions, what I played feels like new, prettier Hitman, which is exactly what I’ve been hoping for. It also explores issues that hit uncomfortably close to home this week.
Hitman 3’s broader narrative picks up where 2018’s Hitman 2 left off, with Agent 47 and his allies closing in on the powerful Partners. The game starts with a quick summary of the overarching narrative, but if you’re like me, all of this is merely an excuse to get to the real meat of Hitman: jetsetting to interesting places and finding clever ways to murder people with connections to this convoluted bigger plot.
This article is a preview of one level of the game. In previews, developers and publishers provide part of a game to us to write about ahead of launch, with varying leadtimes (in this case, I had a couple of weeks). You can assume that these are levels that the game’s creators think will show well — sometimes because they’re more polished, other times because they are easier to get into or don’t spoil much. I was given the chance to play two Hitman 3 levels and chose to focus on Dubai, the game’s opening.
There, Agent 47 is tasked with eliminating two powerful men tied to the game’s broader conspiracy. The level opens like an action movie: 47 balancing on an exterior beam of the fictional Burj Al-Ghazali, the game’s take on Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. The wind whistles around him while, inside, elegant guests mill about an art exhibit and his two targets lurk in secure locations. Arriving gave me the same thrill of trespassing into luxury that I felt in the 2016 Hitman’s opening Paris fashion show, but everything in Dubai is bigger, grander, and prettier. The skyscraper’s windows let in sharp sunlight; there are indoor gardens and waterfalls in the anachronistic display of forced nature that’s part of what makes the real-world Dubai so compellingly weird to me. I spent a while avoiding getting down to murder business, exploring the thoughtful and compelling high-tech art exhibit and eavesdropping on guests’ fleshed-out conversations, all while testing the boundaries of where I could go and starting to see the possibilities.
(Some light spoilers for scripted opportunities in Hitman 3‘s Dubai follow in the next paragraph.)
I tend to follow the story missions on my first time through a Hitman level, which are narrative opportunities you can discover while you play. While they remove some of the experimentation from the game, they’re a great way to learn a new place and start figuring out ways to create havoc in it. One of the story missions I did in Dubai required me to deal with an enemy of my target to gain his trust, leaving it up to me whether I killed them or simply knocked them out. I had to take a picture of my handiwork with one of Hitman 3’s new features, a camera, which meant I had to take them out in a place that would afford me enough time and cover to line up a good photo op. (The camera also has other uses: in the beginning of the mission, taking a picture of a lock allowed a companion to open it for me.)
Tricking someone I was there to assassinate into thinking I was a different assassin was a fun sendup of the game’s core premise. Another story mission I pursued was full of callbacks to previous Hitman levels, both narratively and in the dialogue. These moments felt self-aware in an on-the-nose but still enjoyable way, highlighting my targets’ cluelessness and making it that much more satisfying to take them out.
The Dubai level is sprawling, but I found few empty areas that would allow for easy kills. It felt realistic in that way — most buildings don’t contain conveniently empty corners stacked with body-hiding boxes — while still having the weird fancy conference rooms and lounges you’d imagine would be in the kind of luxury buildings you’re probably never in. The layout had a purpose, and the building was occupied the way real buildings would be.
Getting targets and collateral victims alone felt tricky, making the level challenging and getting me to imagine how I’d get to some areas without the narrative cover of the story missions. At the same time, Dubai felt forgiving enough to feel like a good first level in a Hitman game, with enough costumes and trickable enemies to let me make progress deeper into the area. Following the story missions showed me a host of pullable winches, poisonable glasses, and unguarded railings I’m excited to deploy on future playthroughs.
Besides the camera, Dubai also showcased some of Hitman 3’s other new additions. At one point, while prowling around dressed as a waiter, I saw a security code written on a whiteboard, thought “I bet that will be useful,” and then neglected to take a picture of it with the camera, worried it might seem suspicious. Later, I left my target to scope out a door near him, only to find myself locked behind it, something that doesn’t tend to happen in Hitman games, and faced with a keypad that, in another change, required me to press each button to enter the code. I don’t know if the code I’d seen was the right one, since I couldn’t for the life of me remember the exact order of the numbers. I eventually had to make a long loop to get back to the target. It was a surprising moment, but one that felt logical and realistic. It also provided a bit of self-created slapstick, as I groaned, “Did I seriously just lock myself out of the room with the target?” Hitman games can be unexpectedly funny in their writing and gameplay moments, which brings some dark levity to their grim setup.
It’s worth mentioning that delighting in all the series’ grisly trespass feels a little less fun this particular week, in which I spent the bulk of my time freaking out over images of Trump supporters sitting at Nancy Pelosi’s desk or posing in the Senate Chamber, reveling in being where they weren’t supposed to be and grinding processes they didn’t like to a halt. While I don’t believe there’s a direct line between video game violence and real world violence, I couldn’t help but wonder how the imaginative exercise that undergirds Hitman’s fantasy sandbox of conspiracy and murder dovetailed with the ugly display in DC.
The last years have shown us that the things we indulge our imaginations in can have consequences in the real world. Hitman has always been something of an underdog pleasure to me, even if 47 is as rich and connected as his targets, but this week I saw how that fantasy — one of a sprawling conspiracy only you can undo, by not letting people tell you where you can go — can cross the line from imaginary to disturbing reality.
This certainly isn’t the first time I’ve had to write about games that look different in the light of real-world events, and it’s in no way a referendum on the game or its developers. But it made me wonder how some people can skate by conspiracy theories untouched while others succumb to them. So many of my favourite stealth games have plots that dabble in overthrow and powerful conspiracies — Deus Ex, the confusingly relevant Dishonored — but I’ve never thought indulging in that too long would lead me to see their echoes in the real world the way, say, reading too many QAnon message boards clearly did for thousands of people this week.
Playing Hitman 3 these last few days reminded me how great and how terrible people’s imaginations can be, and how the stories we tell ourselves can spin out of control if we repeat them too much or too uncritically. Hitman 3 releases on the same day as the US inauguration, a fact I hadn’t thought much about before, but which now seems ripe for god-knows-what to happen and make it feel like not the time for Hitman. Saying, “Well, video games seem tone-deaf today,” has been a distressing hallmark of my time at Kotaku, but I wondered this week if that wasn’t more than a long line of poorly-timed coincidences. I felt uncomfortable about finding Hitman’s Dubai fun, even as I enjoyed the heck out of how fun it was.
You, like me, are probably an informed adult who can enjoy trespassing through an imaginary palace of wealth and power without thinking there’s a slippery slope to doing so in the real world. I’m excited for Hitman 3, and pleased by what I’ve seen of it so far: some slight new additions to the formula, but mostly more of the core of what I like about the series and want more of. Here’s hoping for a 2021 where playing Hitman games feels more like fantasy and less like real-world events.