Much Obliged: Hitman’s Freeform Contracts

By Adam Smith on August 14th, 2012 at 4:01 pm.

eenie meenie miney murder

I’ve doubted, I’ve cursed and I’ve hoped. That it’s taken this long for Hitman’s new subtitle to reveal the glory of an older subtitle has given me good reason for the clip full of cynicism I’ve often been tempted to level at its gleaming tessellated cranium. But witnessing today’s announcement of the Contracts feature has filled me with a sort of giddy glee. It’s a creative murder-mode that seems to capture everything I’ve ever loved about the series.

Here’s how it works. In Contracts mode you can pick an area of the game (presumably one that you’ve already completed in the story) and can then make your way through, still as 47 but with no objective. IO are calling the style “play to create” because although it is, in some senses, a mission designer, there are no separate tools involved, just separate actions.

47 is the level design tool. He chooses the objectives, he chooses the optimal way for those objectives to be met, and he does that by performing hits. On anyone. Kill any person in the game, however you think it best or worst for them to meet their end, and get away with it afterwards and you have created a contract that is then uploaded to a server for other players to attempt.

This was demonstrated on the two earliest parts of the game ever shown publicly: the dimly lit, stormy Chicago library escape and a section of the same mission that takes place in an apartment full of bright lights, hippies and plants of dubious legality. So that library, with its feel of “not being an assassin but rather a cop killing escapee” is now a playground for Hitman to do what he was designed to do, just as the earlier games always were at their best. You enter, you mark up to three targets, you kill them and you escape through one of multiple exits.

The game tracks the weapons that the marks are killed with, the order in which they die, any non-contracted casualties, whether a change of disguise is used, whether 47 is spotted and which exit he leaves by.

So let’s say I want to create the most fiendishly difficult contract imaginable. I scout out the level, I look for people who are rarely isolated from their allies, who don’t wander into dark corners, who are cautious and well-armed. And then I decide that they have to be killed with a knife, up close and personal. Nobody else can die, so no shootout to reach the exit…and that exit is going to be at the farthest possible point of the area from the location that the final target normally calls home. Oh, and I’ll do the whole
thing with my barcodey baldness on display. No cop uniform, no way of hiding in plain sight.

To set all those parameters, I’d have to play through the level and execute the contract myself, without breaking the rules. If I have to duck out of another exit, that’ll be the necessary exit for anyone else playing; if a guard trips and falls onto a hail of bullets that just so happen to be spraying from my firearm, collateral damage is acceptable for whoever plays next as well.

There are rules, then, but they are rules that can be broken. One purpose of sharing the contract is to allow other people to try and outdo the originator and IO showed that in two brilliantly varied playthroughs of the same hit.

The first time through, the contract was created. This, to make it absolutely clear, simply involves playing the game and doing as one pleases. In this instance, it involved sneaking through a veritable indoor jungle of weed, finding one isolated dealer and stabbing him and then disaptching an isolated cop in a nearby room. Once done, escape was made by the building’s main elevator, which just so happens to be guarded by four cops. 47 slid along to another room on his aching haunches, switched on some disco music to draw the guards from the elevator, and he was done. Never spotted, never threatened. The hit was complete.

Playthrough number two introduced the scoring system. Completing contracts rewards the player with a paycheck, with deductions for each deviation from the rules laid out. The money earned can be spent on weapons and disguises. Any weapon in the game, any costume in the game, all are available to unlock for use in Contracts mode. Pleasingly, it’s possible to begin a hit wearing a chicken suit. Hitman’s taste for the playfully surreal is intact.

The second player in this instance chose to begin dressed as a cop and this immediately changes the possible paths through the apartments. Since there is a police raid happening as the contract begins, the bleary-eyed tenants will run away without causing the cops to react because, after all, they were already running away and panicking. As for the police, they won’t notice Hitman’s barcode unless he stands too close to them for too long, so it’s much easier to navigate this time. No crawling through the leaves and stalks.

A throwing knife dispatches the first mark and then it’s on to the cop. He’s a dirty cop this one I reckon, I think they mostly are, and he’s trying to find his way into a safe that he’s found in a back room of the apartment. Eventually he becomes frustrated and walks away. Learning the habits, paths and behaviours of each individual should be extremely important, and this is one example of where it pays off wonderfully.

Find the code – scrawled on a piece of paper nearby – and it’s possible to open the safe. Inside, along with the expected piles of a different sort of greenery, are some plastic explosives. Don’t question why because Hitman has now become what it always was in my memory, a kind of Looney Tunes hyperviolence with odd yet logically predictable chain reactions, more silly than sinister.

Prime the explosives and retreat to the shadows. Wile E Copote eventually makes his way back to the safe and – whaddyaknow – he’s excited to see that it’s open. He calls in his friends, the ones who were guarding the elevator. He must die, that’s one of the rules laid out in the contract, but there was no collateral damage in the original passage of play. This time there is. The trigger is hit, the explosion finishes the job that curiosity started, and 47 has a clean route to the exit.

It’s the piano falling on the head, the rake flipping up into the face. It’s farcical, it’s creative and it’s just one possible ending of one possible scenario.

Because of the unwanted casualties, the score is lower, the payoff is less and even though faster, which earned extra points, the hit isn’t considered as successful as the first. There is that competitive edge, and there will be leaderboards and highlighted user-created contracts every week, but even if you don’t care for competition at all, the Contracts mode should still be an extraordinary assassination sandbox, encouraging exploration, engagement, and the creation of ludicrously violent punchlines rather than believable brutality.

Before introducing the mode, IO said that it had been inspired by watching people play the previous games and realising that they didn’t just want to perform the hits they’d been given effectively, they wanted to explore, to find new targets of their own. Maybe there’s a character who has dialogue that rubs you up the wrong way, treating everyone around him like crap. Make him a target. Maybe you just want to see if it’s actually possible to perform that one ludicrous environmental kill that has always looked so tempting and nonchalantly stroll away afterwards.

It’s those self-imposed challenges and emergent experiences that were so much a part of my favourite times with Hitman in the past and to see a mode built seemingly entirely for me is quite flattering. That it seems to have a decent method of dishing out unlocks through online integration and creative competition is a bonus rather than the meat of the mode, I’d argue. The meat is the murders and all the strangeness that they offer.

It’ll take strong level design to make this mode as good as it could be, but that said, I wasn’t at all convinced by the library level when I first saw it because it seemed like a linear pursuit and not at all what I expected from a Hitman game. People said, quite rightly, that it was probably just a bad level to demonstrate the possibilities of the game with. In Contracts mode, it’s become a bloody good level to demonstrate those possibilities with and that’s enough to make me forget (if not forgive) that trailer, for now at least, and only makes me want to see what else is up those exquisitely tailored sleeves.

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44 Comments »

  1. noexes says:

    Suddenly I’m excited for the new Hitman.

    Seriously, every game should have a mode like this. Start with a freeform mode, and then design missions for the more guided core mode.

  2. woodsey says:

    Slowly, The Subtitle is redeeming itself. Still completely baffled by the assertion that they’re apparently doing levels based around the story, and several previews have made some levels sound like, well, levels. Complete Area 1, checkpoint, progress through Area 2, checkpoint, target is in Area 3.

    Disappointing that they seem to have entirely ignored the obvious trajectory for the series post-Blood Money, but at least it’s beginning to sound like less of a ball-crushingly cynical attempt at getting a foot into the Stealth-Action singularity.

  3. sinister agent says:

    This is a fantastic idea, and frankly I can’t imagine how they can fail to pull it off well. You’d have to try pretty hard to get this wrong.

    • UmmonTL says:

      Well no, getting it wrong is quite easy. Like Adam said, it needs good level design, if there are no other difficult targets then it ends up being pretty pointless. Or they might end up adding targets like that cop who tries to get into the safe just for this mode which could end up feeling very artificial.
      I like the idea but the levels will have to be rather large with lots of different things going on at once to make it worthwhile. If they pull it off however the resulting levels should be glorious as a setpieve for the normal missions. With much more life in them than you had in blood money or any of the other hitman games.

      • sinister agent says:

        Yeah, but getting any of those things wrong would be screwing the whole game up anyway, and working contrary to how they’ve succeeded in the previous games. They’d have to be really trying not to do it properly for it to be pointless.

  4. AJ_Wings says:

    Exactly why did Square-Enix gave this apparently wonderful game awful, unrepresentative marketing is beyond me.

    Sounds cool though.

  5. MajorManiac says:

    Absolute genius. Saints Row 3 could benefit from something like this.

  6. Assaf says:

    now bubbles’ voice won’t leave my head.

  7. Zarunil says:

    This gamemode sounds fantastic and managed to get me hyped up about Hitman again.

    • jezcentral says:

      The guys on hitmanforum used to do this. They’d post just such alternative ways to play a level. I wonder if this is where IOI got the idea from?

      • beema says:

        Is Hitman forum still active? I used to post on there a lot back in the day, but sort of stopped around the time Blood Money never got patched and everyone started hating on I/O (myself included).

  8. greenbananas says:

    It’s odd to see 47 continually evolve in all but the one way with the most potential, that, while ambitious, has been blatantly obvious since game 1, mission 1. That’s the mission where you (if memory serves) assassinate one of two triad bosses who are meeting in the middle of a park, in the middle of a city. “I can’t wait until, sometime in the future, you’ve the whole city instead of the small section of it where the hit is supposed to take place, cordoned off with invisible walls and streets ending in wooden barriers”, I probably said at one point. I guess I shall keep waiting.

    Because why not sandbox the heck out of Hitman? At the time the first one came around it wouldn’t be do-able, but nowadays, when you can’t throw a rock in a games store without hitting a game that has one?

    Give the man a city. Give him a list of contracts and you a choice in which to pursue. Make the plot emergent depending on your choice in hits and how you carry them out. Give targets habits, ones that you have to learn yourself by staking the target out instead of hints on a computer. Make targets alternate between 2 or 3 particularly well designed areas that let you enact the typical Hitman gameplay. Have (some) mission be specific about the fashion (and/or place) in which the target is assassinated, like having you make it look like an accident or auto hit-and-run or something of the sort. Make the player responsible in getting to the sites on time, make him responsible for procuring his armament in the city, make him responsible for developing relations with the suppliers for extra toys, etcetera, etcetera.

    The possibilities are endless (as would the development, but hey, ambition!).

    • SiHy_ says:

      An open sandbox world that reacts to your actions; that’s always been my wish for the Hitman series. The Thief series too, come to think of it.

      I must admit, though, the latest information they have provided about Hitman: Subtitle has actually changed my mind from complete dread to hopeful expectation. It actually looks like it’ll be more Hitmanny and less Splinter Cell: Convictiony.
      Shame about the black hole that is “Thi4f” from which no media or information can escape.

    • Dervish says:

      Consider the level of detail and scripting in a Blood Money level vs. that of any existing open world game.

    • Vandelay says:

      The idea could potentially work, but it is more likely to end up with the rather wooly mission structuring of Ass Creed. Not that I think it could never happen, but I’ve yet to play an open world game that is made missions that are as compelling or offer the range of possibilities as a well crafted linearly structued level based game. Those that come close generally allow you to easily circumvent obstacles or end up requiring some form of restriction to your movements, such as a mission area you can’t leave, in order maintain any sense of challenge.

    • Mad Hamish says:

      I’m pretty sure the first mission in the first game was where you have to kill a police chief or something in Honk Kong. He’s in a restaurant and there’s an open window in the toilet. I think the one you mention was the second, but I could have it the wrong way around

      Though most of my memories of that game involve when I figured out there was a slow motion button that totally exaggerates the physics. Your tie starts flapping like crazy and bad guys fly backwards and flip on to their front when you shoot them in the face.

      You’re totally right though. I’ve wanted a sand box hitman from day one.

      Oh and you should have a historic mission mode where you can go back and take part in everyone’s favourite assassinations and maybe do the job right on Reagan.

    • Iskariot says:

      I strongly believe sandbox, or at least a detailed and immersive open world, is the way to go for many games, because that has so much more to offer than limited linear levels.

      But they have to do it right. The way 2K did it with Mafia 2 was a big failure, because the open world almost immediately felt fake, like a dead decor and therefore it broke immersion and confronted you even more with its disappointing limitations than a linear level structure would have done.

    • Moozhe says:

      I don’t think sandbox open worlds are good for every game. And I think Hitman can be better without one.

      One of the cool things about Hitman is the levels vary from Hong Kong, to Italy, to Russia, to South America, to suburban United States. With a sandbox world it is impossible to span that far. Worlds like Skyrim and Fallout and pretty similar from one end to the other.

      There will always (or at least for a very long time) be technical limitations and compromises for having a sandbox world. Compare Grand Theft Auto IV to Skyrim. GTA has more actors (including vehicles) on the screen at one time, but most buildings you cannot even enter. There are fake doors everywhere. Skyrim has more of a realistic world where each house can be entered and each square foot is accounted for, but the actor count is greatly decreased and the world is split up by loading screens when you enter an indoor area like a house or a cave.

      If I were technologically myopic I would love an idealistic sandbox open world with the same level of detail and graphics that the Hitman games currently have, but I know it’s not possible.

      What I’d prefer is that the developers focus on creating lots of rich texture sets and models for different environments (Hong Kong, Italy, South America, etc.), and release a full mission editor. Modding communities are the best thing that can happen to any game but developers rarely make the tools available. How many huge franchises were birthed from modding? Counter-Strike, Team Fortress, DotA (which led to League of Legends), DayZ (more popular than the game it modded).

      • greenbananas says:

        “With a sandbox world it is impossible to span that far.”

        It is. That’d be the most obvious casualty. A lot of the mission maps would be relatively easy to insert, like the asylum, the opera and the casino in BM or the hungarian hotel in 1 (2?), but you wouldn’t be getting both rainforest-Peru and swamp-Louisiana in it at all. It’d be a matter of taste, a compromise I’d be willing to take, but I obviously can’t speak for everyone.

        “If I were technologically myopic I would love an idealistic sandbox open world with the same level of detail and graphics that the Hitman games currently have, but I know it’s not possible.”

        It’s largely a guess, but I don’t think we’re that far off of it, if at all. Take one of your examples, GTA IV (one of the two I thought of when typing that), and remove everything Hitman could do without. That’d be 80%+ of the cars, all the airplanes/boats/helis, reduce the radio stations to one or two, take the TV channels, take the Internet, take the RC vehicles, the bowling and those sorts of shenanigans and reduce the map by half. Now put all those resources into making detailed and expansive interiors and a “radiant “AI”" simile. Impossible? Consider the other example I thought of, DE:HR. Condense all the individual hubs into a single one. Notice how detailed the interior sections (the police department, for one) already are in it, at this point. Furthermore, consider this: one of those games is already a couple years old, and while the other one is relatively recent, they’re both made to run on aging console hardware, the same hardware that’s going to support the upcoming sandbox apparent that is Watch Dogs. True, the exact same graphical quality that each individual map had over a whole city is a stretch, but I don’t think dialing it down to GTA IV-quality is unacceptable, given what you’d be getting in return.

        It doesn’t seem like we’re going to be able to know for sure, though, at least not in this current console generation.

      • Soggy_Popcorn says:

        I disagree; full sandboxification would take a lot of work but would fit right into the Hitman paradigm.

        Think about it: each mission is already a small/medium sized sandbox with tons of detail and some scripting.

        So nest the sandboxes. Have like 5 cities, each a moderately detailed sandbox. Then, within the cities, have specific areas (much like someone previously suggested) that are full of extra detail and scripting, just like previous hitmen. The macro would be like a cross between Hitman, GTA, and Ass Creed, and the micro would be ALL HITMAN.

        I’d buy it right now.

  9. S Jay says:

    Well played, IO.

  10. gschmidl says:

    BAN THIS VIOLENT SICK SEXIST FILTH oh look a cool idea PREORDERING NOW

  11. jezcentral says:

    If they make a level editor, I will never have to buy another game.

  12. msarge says:

    One step closer to my dream open-world modern day assassin game.

  13. Iskariot says:

    What a novel idea. I love this.
    I really hope the game is not as shooty as the trailers did suggest.
    I am still moderately optimistic about this title.

  14. LionsPhil says:

    Conducts and “indirect” multiplayer, in the same way that Nethack’s grave files are? Cool.

  15. beema says:

    I’m tepidly optimistic about this game. This sounds like a pretty excellent mode, but I could see it falling short of expectations in many ways if not executed with exquisite finesse. My enjoyment also hinges on a “proper” PC version. I’m guessing RPS viewed this on an Xbox demo? Hitman was one of my favorite all time games, but Blood Money did a lot to shit on the brand in my mind. One reason being technical: I/O never released a 2nd patch for a bsod crash that a lot of people were having on the PC version, the other reason being artistic: I felt that they completely fucked up the story. After they made Kane & Lynch I sort of lost faith in their abilities as a developer. But it’s been a long time since then. Maybe this will be awesome. I hope.

  16. D-e-f- says:

    Genius mode is genius!

    Let me polish up my piano wire now…

  17. Shooop says:

    OK, now I’m getting interested. Well played IO and Squenix, you may yet be forgiven for that one abominable trailer. This in particular is a brilliant-sounding idea.

  18. Jakkar says:

    … Official support for exactly what I’ve been doing with four Hitman games in a row for the last ten years? Yes please! :)

    <3

    Should I break my rule for this and buy it new? Should I? Should I?

  19. lordfrikk says:

    Small-ish highly detailed city with some kind of online in-game sharing of user-created missions would be probably the best thing ever.

  20. RegisteredUser says:

    Okay.
    So there are these nuns in this bath, and you have to dispose of them..without any weapon!
    Ha! Nobody will be able top copy my intricate evil mastermind plan of porno-nun-death by znu-znu!

  21. zaxus says:

    “The meat is the murders…”

    Smiths much?

    Back on topic, this sounds like a blast, and a great way to add some replay value to a single player game.

  22. RegisteredUser says:

    Clearly this games needs to go the way of F2P with hats.

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