Hitman: Absolution shows you can't just be a good new game with a revered old name

The fans of these old games are older now too, and they expect to find something of what they liked about the franchise in the first place.

That Hitman: Absolution managed to step on almost every rake on its way to release is hardly surprising. When a game series often considered cerebral and refined re-emerges onto the scene with a trailer showing the hero brutally murdering a gang of kinky nuns and later trailers have our hero rescuing damsels in distress and toting shotguns it’s hard not to think that something stupid this way comes. Few games scream their failure to understand their audience from the rooftops in this manner.

As first impressions go Hitman really couldn’t have done worse if our hero had shambled drunkenly onto the scene with his fly open. But trailers can be misleading, as can memories of old games, and in the case of Hitman: Absolution we are not so much seeing an old series dragged up from the grave and defiled so much as we are seeing an old series being remade in a very modern way.

One thing that it is important to remember about the Hitman series is that this was always a series of brutally, often comically, violent games, often with plenty of combat. You could complete most of Blood Money, the best of the series, with a series of nasty accidents, but even then it ended with one of the most feeble and incongruous shootouts in gaming history. Just because you could rely on accidents and precision didn’t mean you had to and the early games featured shotguns, sniper rifles and remotely detonated mines aplenty. Hitman games have always allowed the player to smash into the missions like The Terminator into a police station if so desired. The titillation isn’t so much new for Hitman: Absolution, rather it is more obvious, the earlier games had it too though the more limited graphics made it harder to express. The story is poor in Absolution, but this is a recurring theme to a series which has always been more about the mission than the narrative.

In practice Hitman: Absolution is not so far removed from the series at heart, but what we see with the game is a thoroughly modern work and this is what has managed to so deftly antagonise some die-hard fans. Some elements of gaming have fallen by the wayside over the years and others have appeared. In the same way that we no longer approach a game with three lives and three continues Hitman: Absolution eschews elements of old games and brings in new established tropes.

Such tropes include health that regenerates once you’ve stopped getting shot. Also new is a cover system where you stick to walls and low obstacles in order to remain hidden. The ability to slow down time in order to more accurately shoot whole groups of people in the face as pioneered by Max Payne appears. Saving the game based on checkpoints and shorter, more linear level design are also par for the course. These features are game-changing but their inclusion is often almost arbitrary in modern games.

Modern remakes of classics can often risk upsetting fans. Syndicate was remade as a generic science fiction first person shooter, a capable one at that, but it wasn’t Syndicate, it was barely anything. XCOM: Enemy Unknown took a chainsaw to its namesake, dozens of features and layers of strategy were brutally stripped away, but this was seen as a more positive change because the game that was left at the heart of this ruthless reduction was a much more tense and engaging affair than the original. It’s rare to find somebody who played the original UFO: Enemy Unknown and didn’t love it, but the games had always been mired in busywork and a depth of micromanagement that wouldn’t be out of place if you were sending your team off to their first day at primary school. Building extra bases and taking a mechanised platoon to an alien crash site instead of four troops was great, but not so great was ensuring everybody was carrying ammo, everybody had the right trousers on and that you’d built enough storage space or living quarters. In new XCOM you can lose everything with a bad move, with UFO you could blithely administrate yourself into a terminal situation without ever really knowing how.

Something that Hitman: Absolution has demonstrated is that it is not always enough to be a good new game with a revered old name. The fans of these old games are older now too, grown up men and women with a suitably grown up disdain for the new and the trendy. If developers want to win back fans when they revisit established franchises maybe they should look to what made those games popular in the first place and by doing so maybe they’d avoid stepping on a rake or two.

A still from Hitman: Absolution.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge