When PC Gamer's former UK editor-in-chief Samuel Roberts tweeted out that he'd claimed the top spot on the leaderboards for the Hawke's Bay level of Hitman 2, I felt like I had something to prove. I'd reviewed Hitman 2. I'd reviewed every episode of 2016's Hitman. While I'm open to the possibility that other people are better at the series than me, I wasn't about to let someone who worked for the same magazine hold the top spot.
I returned to the New Zealand beach house and started optimising. Maybe if I hid over here? Perhaps if I tossed a coin over there? An hour of experimentation later, and I'd beaten Samuel's score. I'd also realised there was much more I could do. My current time was fine, but I was pretty sure it could be beaten.
Hitman is an interesting leaderboard game because speed isn't everything; you also need style. The conditions required for a Silent Assassin run—never spotted, no noticed kills, no bodies found, no recordings—each award a flat 20,000 points, for an 80,000 score bonus. Without that, it doesn't matter how fast you finish, you'll struggle to earn enough points to reach the top. Isolating the mission's target, Alma Reynard, takes time. As more people joined our ad-hoc competition for score supremacy, and as our completion times were shaved down to the three minute mark, it was clear that further gains would require inventive solutions.
For me, Hitman isn't really a game about killing. That's just set decoration for an intricate puzzle box of interlocking systems and behaviours. Chasing a good score often means exploiting the consequences of Hitman's consistent ruleset in a way that further strips the already flimsy sense of immersion. You don't lose your Silent Assassin rank, for instance, if a body looks like it died a natural death. You can lace a drink with poison, and, when the body's found, it'll be written off as a heart attack. That rings true even in the most absurd extreme. Which means if I toss a coin to distract Alma's guards and then inject Alma with a poison syringe in the brief moment they look the other way, I still get a Silent Assassin rating. I also get a time of 1:46, thoroughly beating the rest of the group.
Sapienza is Hitman's best level, and also the leaderboard time I'm most proud of. After trading back-and-forth with Samuel, I held the lead with an 11:22 run. The route I settled on is a grab bag of inspiration—a cross-stitch of half-remembered methods, tortuously constructed and executed into something that just about works.
Beginning in the mansion grounds disguised as a gardener, I run to a water bottle on a nearby table and spike it with emetic. Then I make a bee-line for the observatory. There's a VHS tape on the top floor that, when open-palm slammed into the video player below, causes my first target, Silvio Caruso, to encounter a projected screen of childhood memories. He dismisses his guards to reminisce and I kill and hide his body. The first target is down in less than two minutes.
I run to a bathroom near the observatory and find Caruso's golf coach puking his guts out thanks to the water I'd laced. This is the crux of my run, firing triggers to line up events so they complete after I've finished doing something else. After the coach is subdued, I call his lover, my second target, to arrange a rendezvous. I sprint to the church on the other side of town to stand by the confession booth to trigger an event. I sprint back to the mansion to kill the second target, who's moved to a less secure location to meet her paramore. I sprint back to the church, arriving just in time for the conclusion of the event—letting me steal an item that quickly completes the final objective. Played at this speed, Hitman's stealth is less about waiting as it is sprinting with precision.
I've always loved Hitman as a systemic sandbox full of things to be poked, prodded and exploited. But it wasn't until I started competing for score that I realised just how little of its already flimsy sense of immersion I needed. Give me a playground of overlapping AI behaviours, an objective and a need to be the best – more out of spite than pride – and I'll enjoy hours trying to build a route that's weird, unnatural but, most importantly, faster than Samuel.