On some level, roughly 95 percent of games have always been about assassination: go to point A and kill prominent entity B, fighting your way through goons C through Z to get there. Most games tend to come up with a morally justifiable pretext for all the violence - rescue, vengeance and self-defense are only a few - but more and more, we're seeing games that drop the act and let you be what you've secretly known yourself to be all along: a remorseless killing machine bent on destroying your targets by any means necessary.
These games have produced an entirely new breed of hero, and whether they're deeply conflicted about their professions or simply don't give a shit, they all have two things in common: 1) they kill people in high places for money and/or glory, and 2) they are deeply, insanely awesome. Here are some of the best:
Last seen in: No More Heroes (Wii, 2008)
What's his deal? Having taken up the life of an assassin for lack of anything better to do, Travis Touchdown has just one goal in life: to be America's greatest hired killer. Rather than accomplishing this through a lifetime of hard work and carefully managed connections, he takes the relatively quicker route of simply killing the 10 best assassins in the country, all of whom conveniently live in the same crappy California town that Travis does.
Signature weapon: A lightsaber-like "beam katana" that he won in an online auction.
Highest-profile hit: The CEO of Pizza Butt. Three times.
Why he's awesome: Skinny, punked out and unbelievably dorky, Travis Touchdown is probably the least likely assassin ever to star in a videogame. He swings a lightsaber that looks more like a fluorescent light bulb. He's constantly shown taking a dump. He has to work at crappy jobs just to raise enough money to murder people. And his attempts to woo his sexy handler, Sylvia Christel, are repulsively awkward.
So why's he on this list? Because despite failing at life, Travis is actually a pretty talented assassin, able to go toe-to-toe with gunfighters and effortlessly reduce legions of armed thugs to screaming fountains of blood. What's more, all those deep, embarrassing flaws make him interesting. He's an antihero in the truest sense of the word, a self-absorbed loser on a meaningless mission, and while we wouldn't exactly say he "matures" over the course of his misadventure, he at least becomes less of a dork.
Also he has a big-ass motorbike that can do wicked jumps.
Last seen in: Assassin's Creed (PS3/360, 2007)
What's his deal? A talented but arrogant member of the Assassin cult living in the Kingdom of Jerusalem during the Third Crusade, circa 1191, Altair is ceremonially "killed" and resurrected after catastrophically botching an extremely sensitive mission. Stripped of his rank, he's then forced to slowly re-learn all his cool abilities while stabbing his way through a hit list of evildoing Crusaders and Muslims.
Signature weapon: The "Assassin's blade," a small, concealed knife that retracts handily into a forearm-mounted sheath.
Highest-profile hit: Robert de Sable, Grand Master of the Knights Templar and - in the game, at least - conniving would-be backstabber of Richard the Lionhearted.
Why he's awesome: Well, Altair can climb walls, for starters, and then leap from vertigo-inducing heights into tiny haystacks and get up without so much as a cracked rib. He can sprint like the wind and hide in plain sight just by folding his hands, and when cornered he can rapidly cut down any number of enemies (provided you know what you're doing, anyway). Cool talents aside, Altair's a pretty compelling character in his own right, gradually growing out of his arrogant-prick phase to become more noble and altruistic. And as he does, he begins to actually question the morality of what he's doing, something few of the other assassins on this list ever do.