The other day, while walking the dog with my wife, I said the following words to her:
"So I thought about sneaking up behind the guy and strangling him with garrote wire, but I decided to use the sedative instead."
It took me a few seconds to realize that there were other people on the sidewalk next to us. I had to grin meekly and stammer out that I was talking about a videogame.
Several years ago, I picked up a copy of "Hitman 2" at a local Gamestop. I had seen it on sale and thought I'd give it a whirl. The concept definitely hit me in the right spot. A stealth/infiltration game where you have to assassinate a high-profile target, using the environment and disguises in order to get close to him. Your character was Agent 47, a six-foot-six, broad-shouldered bald guy with (for some reason) a barcode dyed into the back of his head. Apparently he's a clone of some kind. Since I didn't play the first game, I didn't quite get the backstory, but it didn't matter. I didn't like the game. After a few false starts, I gave up. Years later, I read in several game journals that Hitman #2 was considered the low point of the series, and #4 was a pure work of genius.
Seriously. What's up with the barcode?
So, on a whim, I nabbed #4 last week and popped it in. Again, I took over the role of Agent 47, who was hired to sneak through an abandoned amusement part full of thugs to take down a criminal kingpin. Fair enough, only I had to struggle through the worst tutorial ever. "Hold down the right-trigger to go into sneak mode. Sneak over to that guy over there and release the right-trigger to garrote him." Okay, fine. I'd sneak over and release the trigger, only to have my Agent 47 stand up and do nothing. I crouched down again and maneouvered him into a different position and tried again. Nope. Agent 47 stood up again, and this time my target noticed me. He whirled around and started shooting at me, and the game basically told me that I screwed up and I'd have to shoot my way through the level.
Here, Agent 47 strangles the gangster properly. It took me several tries.
The problem was, I *wanted* to play stealthy, but the game wouldn't show me how. It's not a good sign when the game's tutorial pisses you off. But, I gave it a few more tries. And wouldn't you know it, I got the hang of it. Soon I was sneaking around and silently taking down dudes left and right, hiding bodies in convenient locations and moving closer to my target. Finally I passed the tutorial section and was on my way to my next target. I was to take down a Chilean vinyard owner and his son, who were using their wine cellar to mask their drug factory. They were having a party on the grounds, which was used as a cover to gain access.
Put away that gun, 47!
I entered the grounds and I found myself completely lost. I saw a bunch of doors, a bunch of people walking around, and a whole area to explore. There was no map, no "goal" indicator, no nothing. And I was playing on easy mode. So, I took a few hesitant steps toward a door. I opened it and went inside, and a guard nearby yelled at me in Spanish. I kept walking and the guy shot me.
Restarting, I entered another door, which led to a hallway. I walked down the hallway and into some kind of guard station, where a bunch of guards were listening to the radio. Again, they leapt up and began yelling at me, and then attacked me. Yeesh.
Restarting a third time, I entered the same door but took a look around. There was a fuse box and a closet. I disabled the fuse box, which turned off the lights. One of the guards started coming my way to see what was up, so I hid in the closet before he could see me. While he was fiddling with the fuse box, I silently crept up behind him and injected him with a sedative. I stole his uniform and hid his body in the closet. Now, I could walk around the grounds unmolested by the guards.
It was at this point I began to see the point of the game. You had to explore. You had to experiment with things and see what effects they would cause, and use them to your advantage. And you will fail. A lot. Once I figured out that the point of the game was to fail and to retry, I began to enjoy myself much more.
What's my point here? I guess lately there's been a trend in gaming about not letting the players fail. That they have to be constantly rewarded or else they'll feel neglected. This was a lesson that was hammered into my head when working in the casual market, but it effects the hardcore as well. A hardcore game like Grand Theft Auto (which I love) tells you what to do and where to go at any given moment. I've gotten spoiled by that, and I often expect it. Hitman: Blood Money doesn't lead you by the hand at all, and I'm - strangely enough - loving the everlasting crap out of it.
And hey, the disguises are awesome. What other self-respecting bald assassin would dress up as a clown to infiltrate a child's birthday party in order to get close to a mafia agent in the witness protection program?
I'm glad I gave this game a chance, even though it's a lesson how how Not To Do A Tutorial. Maybe I'll give the other games in the series a try, but I'll just pretend #2 never existed.
(Unrelated side note. I saw only one episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and I didn't like it at all, so I never bothered watching the show again. It was the one with the robot Buffy, which people tell me now is the worst episode in its entire 7 season run.)