Set in Austria, at Guillaume Maison’s palatial country pile, Hitman: Sniper Assassin sees Agent 47 presiding over a wedding in far from priestly fashion. He perches cross-legged on a craggy cliff, overlooking the ceremony through the scope of his sniper rifle. The entire thing has a Greek feel to it: Maison’s maison is done up in Corinthian columns, framed by rolling hillsides and cascading waterfalls, and 47, from his mountain throne, resembles a smooth-scalped Zeus, hurling death down at the dinner guests. Bolt-action of a different sort, one might say.
More than just a canny image, there is a deified approach to play. If the true gods are the designers, then scrutinising these rococo puzzle boxes from 47’s pale remove makes you feel like one of them. Fittingly, these missions are carried out in accordance with a singular commandment issued from on high: look, but don’t touch. For the Hitman games, it’s the only one you need live by. Scuffing your shoes and casting off your couture are mere afterthoughts to a plan best laid in the mind, using 47’s – and your – most effective weapon: the eyes.
Which isn't for a moment to suggest we’re under-equipped; the ICA stays true to its motto – ‘Merces Letifer,’ meaning ‘lethal trade’ in Latin – and keeps us at the very height of deathly fashion. Nestled in 47's lap is the Sieger 300 Ghost sniper rifle, a glossy black bullpup so menacing he likely led it there on a leash. On top of that, or rather below it, is a blanket, (black, of course) studded with what looks like memory foam and laid out as if for the world's most funereal picnic. To the left, shiny clips containing different ammo types are set out carefully on the grass. Oh, the glory of a workman and his tools!
Hardware to one side, we're also given a few intangible gifts: a gentle squeeze of the right trigger makes time flow like syrup off a spoon, allowing you to line up shots with divine intervention; and the world, seen from such distance, is completely quiet, which means you paste your own stories over pantomime gestures. Indeed, this mission saw one of my targets, Doris Lee, nursing what I took to be a cocaine addiction – otherwise, why all the scurrying off into secluded rooms? Another one, from the snowy sweep of his hair, was the spit of Donald Sutherland, and with his scarf flowing over his shoulders like papal robes, I imagined him embroiled in a Vatican conspiracy. It helps not to hear the NPC chatter; it's always about something dull, like arms dealing.
Even so, the real treasure isn't what you imagine, but what you see, and Sniper Assassin is a feast in that regard. Most Hitman levels are, at heart, dolls' houses; the main games open the frontispiece and expose the inner compartments, whilst here the facade is clasped shut, with doorways transfigured into keyholes to peep (and shoot) through. It's half way between the chessboard miniatures of Hitman Go, with their varnished wood frames and Subbuteo figures, and the sublime, fully explorable worlds of the games proper.
As you replay Sniper Assassin again and again to exhume its secrets, you'll notice a choreographic feel about the whole affair: the helicopter hovering in from stage right, the limousine idling from stage left, the base jumper and the mountain hiker, minor players with charming roles. Seeing as your position never changes, it feels like watching a well-worn play; you don't want to sacrifice your view of any part of it. Boring down into the mazy chambers of IO's levels takes away your view of the entire stage; even from your rocky vantage, the clicking of the lens zoom is instinctive, like the blinking of an eye, and it's always tempting to pull back for fear of what perishes in the periphery.
The dream of Hitman has always been one of isolation and separation, of floating through human dramas like the spectre of death. Even when he walks in crowds 47 sees through the thick, glassy study of a scope. It comes down to a simple choice: would you give up the quickening of the feet, for the roving of the eye? For me, the answer is easy. Merces Letifer: a lethal trade, indeed, but one well worth making.