Hitman 2 and Red Dead Redemption 2 are more alike than you think. However, they tackle their similar goals, in very different ways.
I’ve been playing a lot of Hitman 2, the sequel to 2016’s Hitman – and I’ve found myself really engaged by the experience. If you’re unfamiliar, Hitman is a game where you play as Agent 47. This guy is a skilled assassin who is given targets to take down and as the player, your job is to navigate the sprawling environments that Hitman 2 places you in and figure out how to kill your target. It’s a simple premise but one that is supported by every facet of the gameplay. Features such as blending in, disguising yourself, and picking up items all support a common, focused goal of being agent 47. And that’s one of the things that I absolutely love about the game, it’s slow pacing, open levels, & dedication to making you play your role as Agent 47 all resonate and create an engaging experience for me as the player.
I talked about this a little bit on the OK Beast podcast and was actually surprised by the response I got from one Ian Preschel.
[OKBP Ep. 125 Audio Snippet (Timestamp: 21:40)]
I was surprised because he was right, a lot of the aspects that I cite as being enjoyable in Hitman 2 are qualities that can be compared to Red Dead Redemption 2, a different sequel in a different franchise.
I talked quite a bit about Red Dead Redemption 2’s open world in a video I uploaded during the game’s release. I talked about the painstaking detail and Rockstar’s dedication to making a world so deep and rich that it drives the experience. A few months separated from the release of the game and a large amount of hours spent playing RDR2 and I’ve landed at sort of a conflicted place with how I feel about Rockstar’s crown jewel of 2018. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game that wants you to become immersed in its wild west. Countless amounts of in world events, characters, dialogue, discoverable missions and instances, locations, and detail decorate the world of Red Dead. So much so that it can detract from the play experience. It’s been said by others such as Patrick Klepek of Waypoint or NakeyJakey who made a whole video about Rockstar’s game design being outdated, so I don’t want to repeat a point that’s been belabored but in my video on the game from its launch, I mentioned having the fear that Rockstar would spend so much time creating a technically impressive game that they would forget to make a fun one, however in that same video I said that the expectation had been shattered by the final product. I was wrong. I’m deep into chapter 4 of the game and no matter how many times I try, I find it difficult to return and continue playing. This is for a few reasons.
Red Dead Redemption 2 may be a perfect idealization of an old western world but when translated to a play experience, much of that idealization falls by the wayside. Instead, countless systems aimed toward simulating the experience of being a cowboy in the wild west take front and center with mixed success. Finding a new weapon for example stopped being exciting when I realized I couldn’t really care about what weapon I was using in any situation because the combat was made uninteresting due to the stickiness of the auto aim and the repetitive nature of “find cover, hold left trigger, right trigger to shoot, duck under, repeat”.
On the same subject as guns, cleaning my pistol in Red Dead Redemption 2 is another mechanic that is present, however never invited my interaction. Not once have I cleaned my gun voluntarily, because really it doesn’t support my bottom line. It may boost my stats or help my aim, but not in a way meaningful enough for me to pay attention. For all intents and purposes, I don’t think this system really matters in the grand scheme of things and this would be fine but I find a similar thing happening when I look at the horse systems.
In Red Dead Redemption 2, you need to take care of your horse as much as you take care of yourself. You need to build your relationship with your horse by feeding it, brushing and petting it, calming it while riding it, and more. There are different types of horses you can purchase depending on what you want to gain from having that horse, and if your horse dies, you need to buy a new horse and start the process of building that relationship over again. Rockstar shows a high level of detail in providing you with as many options possible when it comes to your horse but during my playthrough, I reached a point where my horse eventually died in a shootout and I had to ask myself the question – what was the point of any of that? Did all of what I did to manage my horse and build up that relationship truly payoff in ways that weren’t minute and were truly felt?
This idea even leads into the core system which is a system dedicated to managing the physical well-being of Arthur. Health, Stamina, and Dead Eye cores can be managed and restored by taking consumables that affect each one and keeping care of your cores ensures that Arthur is performing at his peak. My assumption is that this system is present in order to provide the opportunity to roleplay along with additives that the player can engage with, added realism – and I can see where those are coming from. I don’t believe that the core system ruins Red Dead, not the horse systems, nor the systems associated with weapons and items. However, when piled on along with the unique systems around hunting, crafting, taking care of the camp, bounties, and countless others… the systems don’t only become overbearing, they stop mattering.
Well what does literally any of this have to do with Hitman 2? As mentioned earlier, the bottom line and set up of both Red Dead Redemption 2 and Hitman 2 are similar. Both games have a slow, tedious approach to pacing their play. They both take place in sprawling environments, granted Hitman 2 takes place in segmented levels and there aren’t really traditional side missions in Hitman. They also both aim to have you put on the shoes of their respective protagonists. Those three things are approached in dynamically different ways.
Since GTA 3, Rockstar has been building and innovating on open worlds and what they can be. Their worlds have become bigger, more detailed, more alive, and more beautiful. They’ve been able to fit in more characters, more stories, more mechanics, and more more. As Rockstar has added more to their games, in an interesting way their game design has become more restrictive. The biggest example is the mission design in RDR 2 which is often “ride to this location, follow this line, shoot people or have a cutscene with person and repeat” with little room for variance or creative intervention. Many of the systems presented in Red Dead Redemption 2 don’t connect in very meaningful ways that allow creative, dynamic gameplay.
In a game presented with one of the most vast and deep open worlds ever made, you’re not necessarily encouraged to play around in it like a sandbox. Even the random events that occur in the world such as stumbling across a guy who’s been poisoned, or finding a lady that needs a ride into town, or seeing a guy get kicked in the face by his horse – these “random” events aren’t random in the truest since. These are moments designed by Rockstar, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It takes a lot of skill to funnel players through these different events seamlessly. However, emergent gameplay moments are moments created by the player. Moments like taking out your target in Hitman by throwing a knife at their face in a crowded area. Rockstar’s open world design is built less around creating opportunities for the player to problem solve and more around Rockstar to tell a tailored story. And while playing, this was slightly upsetting to me because given this huge open world, it’d be nice to be given freedom.
In many ways, Rockstar’s vision for Red Dead Redemption 2 is so uncompromising that it becomes a detriment to experiencing the game as a video game. Riding your horse isn’t meant to be a fun time, it’s meant to offer realism and cinematic presentation. Cleaning your gun, eating or drinking to maintain your cores, placing a skinned pelt onto your horse or even the actions associated with maintaining your horse such as hitching, brushing, and calming that good girl down, while all immersive activities that are based in a realistic experience, slow down the pace of the game and add tedium.
While playing Red Dead Redemption 2, I was fascinated, blown away, impressed, and even enraptured by the world and product that had been created with one of the largest video game budgets of all time, but I wasn’t having that much fun. In fact it’s about more than fun because video games don’t have to be fun. Gone Home and many narrative games are excellent without being fun. I wasn’t engaged. Even though I just detailed the aspects involved with pacing, overbearing systems, and Rockstar truly fulfilling their vision of being a cowboy in the wild west as the prime hindrance to my engagement while playing, Hitman 2 somehow pulled it off.
I think in this case, engagement makes for good terminology. When something is engaging, that means you’re an active participant, involved in what’s going on. Red Dead Redemption 2 and Hitman 2 both have in common the fact that they are games driven by their systems and their slow pace. However, during my playing of Hitman 2, I always found myself more engaged. This is because roleplaying as an assassin in Hitman is less about the actions you’re making such as killing, hiding, and doing the things that assasins do, and more about making you think like an assassin.
Where Red Dead Redemption 2 opts to give the player limitless freedom to participate in the activities of the wild west, Hitman 2 actually allows you to plan and strategize like Agent 47 would. Hitman does this by providing not nearly the amount of systems of Red Dead Redemption 2 (kinda by necessity) but using the few systems it has and providing a large amount of options.
In Hitman 2, you play as a skilled assassin who is given targets to take down and as the player, your job is to navigate the sprawling environments that Hitman 2 places you in and figure out how to kill your target. It’s a simple premise but one that is supported by the numerous amount of options at play. The gameplay systems that are implemented such as blending in – which you can do in crowds, bushes or in other ways, disguising yourself – which is a whole gameplay system that revolves around stealing clothing off of NPCs so you can dress up as them to remain unnoticed and sneak into new areas, the item system – which allows you to store useful things that you find in the environment for creative use later and a few other systems (NPC Alert System, progression/unlocks systems, Mission Stories) support a playstyle aimed toward slow, methodical gameplay – slow and methodical like a silent assassin.
I mentioned before that many of the systems and options in Red Dead don’t feel like they matter in any way that’s meaningful to the core experience other than to pile on and fill in an impressive world. In Hitman 2, every system feels like it matters. For example, stealthily knocking someone out (combat/stealth systems), and then stealing that person’s clothing (disguise system) then means you can enter areas you couldn’t before and even openly carry items (item system) you may have not been able to before such as carrying a gun as a security guard or a kitchen knife as a chef. Another example would be finding a lockpick in your inventory (item system) then allows for accessing locked doors (in world actions), or having a wrench in your inventory means being able to tamper with equipment for future debauchery.
This more focused approach in Hitman 2 allows for the player to be more engaged in the happenings of the world. Being able to strategize and plan based on the cards your given is how Hitman allows for its slow, methodical gameplay to remain fun and interesting. The moment to moment gameplay becomes about experimentation and Hitman 2 as the sequel to HItman, identifies this as the strong point of the series and capitalizes on this by focusing on providing more ways to be stealthy along with more options aimed toward increasing interactivity with these already established systems aimed toward the bottom line of “being an assassin”. The slow pace of Hitman 2 is supported by the strategic options it provides and because the gameplay systems point toward a more methodical, patient, timed approach (like an assassin) you truly do need to play the role of Agent 47, the “hitman” in order to succeed in the way the game pushes you toward.
There are things to be said about Hitman’s scoring system, creative approach to progression and more that encourages the experimentation and creativity that might come with becoming a highly skilled Assassin, but at its most basic level, Hitman 2 requires you to be a hitman in a way that highly contrasts how Red Dead Redemption 2 only asks of you to tag along with Arthur Morgan on his journey. Of course, it must be said that Hitman 2 is a much smaller experience and so it has the luxury of being more focused and not needing to please the most mainstream of audiences, but maybe that means that at the core of Rockstar’s design philosophy, something needs to be done to enhance choice, or allow for the game to be played like a video game, rather than a simulation of sorts. I love Rockstar Games, they are one of my favorite developers, but the core of the play experience is an area in which I truly believe they could improve.