Improvisation, Experimentation And Dark Comedy: Hitman Is Coming Home

I find his trigger finger terrifying

Absolution might be a fitting tag for what looks like a return to form and a casting off of the sins of the past, but since that subtitle’s already taken, I’m hoping I’ll be able to justify referring to this one as Hitman: Redemption [official site]. So far, the signs are good. I spent some time in the company of IO Interactive’s studio head, Hannes Seifert, as he played through a mission set at a Paris fashion show. As he manipulated NPCs behaviour and demonstrated some emergent possibilities, Seifert said all the right things about recovering the best of the series’ past. The game – this portion of it at least – backs him up convincingly. It’s looking good.

The easiest way to understand what I want from a Hitman game is to read my review of Absolution. If the game had entirely failed, it wouldn’t have been so frustrating. It wasn’t quite dead on arrival though, and the slim possibility of recovery struck me down with the deadliest weapon of all: hope. I’m naturally wary then, not wanting to suffer the same fate again. That doesn’t mean I can pretend to be anything other than excited though. Hitman, and Blood Money in particular, has a special place in my heart, and IO clearly have their sights set directly on that spot. Everything that Seifert says is pitched as reassurance that the studio remembers how to make the game that people want.

The last time I saw the studio at Gamescom, I was seduced by Absolution’s Contracts mode. That mode remains an inspired piece of design, converting the canvas of sandbox assassination into a competitive toolset. Contracts is brilliant because it encourages creativity, focusing on exactly the kind of absurd improvisation that made levels like A New Life such a pleasure to play with. It’s a small level but packed with possibilities. That’s something that Seifert acknowledges: “There is no point in a huge world if there is nothing to do in it. Density is more important than sheer size. We have more death traps per square meter than ever before.”

Along with a story that reached for grindhouse but only reached the flophouse, Absolution’s greatest sin was the linear and unimaginative nature of many of its maps. They were restrictive – not so much canvasses as postage stamps – and often pushed the player from one point of interest to the next. Hitman doesn’t highlight its points of interest and allows you to make your own. Within the large building in which the fashion show is being held, there are backstage areas with electrical equipment to tamper with, gas heaters on balconies that could prove that smoking kills, and death from above can come in the form of light rigs and chandeliers. There are foodstuffs to poison, towers to snipe from, fireworks to cause distractions, NPCs with schedules to follow, and numerous ways to smuggle weapons into restricted areas.

If every area in the game is as thick with potential subplots and experimental ‘accidents’, Hitman will be a rich game. That, Seifert explains, is the reason for the distribution model. If every map is to be as large and complex as the fasion show, IO will need time to create them. Rather than releasing a game of uneven quality or delivering late next year, they reckon they can provide enough material in the first release to keep people entertained while they spend their time perfecting the next set of maps. The best laid plans don’t always work out but I’m cautiously confident that a steady drip of new locations will suit Hitman.

None of the maps will be restricted to online play – the ‘Live’ experience involves temporary hits and Contract competitions, but none of that is necessary – and the gaps between release should allow for reactive design based on how people play with the already-released areas. That last aspect seems enormously important seeing that the way in which people eked enjoyment out of the Contracts from Absolution has been a strong influence on the design of Hitman. The Contracts provide a loose framework for the kind of Looney Tunes comedic invention that made Blood Money such a joy to play. The tone here is playful rather than grim and gritty, and even though these sandboxes are really snuff boxes, the violence is cartoonish rather than cruel.

The loadouts you can select are geared toward the same freedom of approach that the maps attempt to capture. You can take explosives, sniper rifles, lockpicks, wrenches, axes, silenced pistols, automatic rifles and more. New items are unlocked as you play as are stash points, locations within the level that can be seeded with fresh equipment to collect. Explosives can be placed anywhere and the most reassuring part of Seifert’s one-on-one demonstration showed how the AI will behave convincingly while playing into 47’s hands.

A guard was lured toward an armed explosive, controlled by a remote detonator. He was alarmed but knew how to deal with the situation. Crouching down, he disarmed the device and took it inside the building to dump in a secret armoury. From our perspective, he’s just smuggled a dangerous weapon inside, which we can now find and re-arm. If a civilian were to find it, he might pick it up to show to a cop or guard, not realising what exactly what it was but recognising that it might be dangerous. In doing so, he would become a walking bomb that could be triggered at any point. Or he might leave it alone, running away to alert security. These are not scripted interactions, they’re the result of NPCs following coded behaviour that is triggered by objects or sounds in the environment, and that allow the simulation to deviate from its original setup.

Simulation is a key word. Seifert acknowledges that the behaviour of Hitman’s world is not entirely realistic but claims that it will be credible. As long as the player can understand how and why NPCs might react, the simulation is believable and it’s possible to exert control over it by causing ripples of reaction using a few simple tools and actions. And there will be plenty of possibilities – the fashion show is around six times larger than Absolution’s biggest level, and contains 300 active NPCs, all of which can be targeted in Contracts mode. IO describe the maps as being like “swiss cheese”, riddled with holes that can be exploited. There are numerous points of entry and exit, and it’s even possible to take out your target (in the story mode, that target is running the fashion show as a front for a gathering of international spies) and escape in his private helicopter.

What I saw of the fashion show seemed like the best of Hitman, and that’s precisely what IO are hoping to capture. “We want to keep the best of the previous games and drop the parts that people didn’t like so much,” says Seifert. “Disguises are important, freedom is important, a linear story and level design is not. Hitman is a creative stealth action game.”

They have at least one good map to play out those creative stealth experiments. Questions about the content available at release don’t have answers yet but those answers are coming soon. It’d be good to know how long the wait between the release of new maps will be as well, and how many will be included when Hitman is complete some time late in 2016. “It will be bigger than Blood Money”, Seifert says, making an unprompted reference to the highpoint of the series.

Is there any temptation to include some levels from Blood Money in the new Hitman? It’d be great to revisit them with Contracts mode enabled. “I don’t think I can say too much about that yet,” he smiles. It’s the kind of smile that suggests Vinnie Sinistra should be watching his back and that we might be swinging by the opera house again while we’re in Paris. If the quality of the levels throughout the new game is as strong as this first close look at the fashion show suggests, Blood Money’s masterpieces would be in good company.

18 Comments

  1. celticdr says:

    The old skeptic in me is actually looking forward to this one – if they can make the maps as varied and fun as Blood Money we are in for one hell of a good time.

  2. Penguin_Factory says:

    My only concern with this is how much content will be here at launch- the fact they’ve only shown the Paris level is making me somewhat wary.

    On the flipside, I also hope that Square Enix keeps the new release model in mind when evaluating the game’s sales. I can see a lot of people choosing to wait for the whole thing to be “complete” (whatever that might mean), and we all know they’ve been jumpy in the past about declaring something a failure early in its release.

    By the way, I know they’ve said all of the post-release content will be given to people for free, but I wonder if, once the game is declared “finished”, they’ll put out paid DLC? If I enjoyed the base content enough I wouldn’t have a problem with paying extra to get even more levels.

    • Vandelay says:

      The main reason to give substantial post release content for free is to maintain longevity to sales. They must know that the game is likely to be selling over a long period, rather than all at once. They also must have put some thought into how they will be paying (and making money back on) the wages of those that will be working on the content.

      Then again, the stupidity of publishers has surprised all of us before…

    • DarkFenix says:

      I’m one of those people who is going to wait for them to ‘finish’ the game before I so much as think about paying for it. Especially since I can just imagine the suits deciding to declare the game finished early so they can sell the rest for more money.

      Assuming it does ultimately make the standard though, further missions as DLC would be right up my alley. The format of Hitman makes it easy to seamlessly slide in new levels, and the level design is what provides most of the joy of the series. If they had made mission DLCs for Blood Money I’d have eagerly snapped up every single one.

      • JiminyJickers says:

        Me too, I’m not touching it until it is completely finished.

  3. Orageon says:

    This is all nice and instructive and wordy but I am still unclear about a CRITICAL point : do they still have those wretched Save/Check points ? Because if they do, no amount of “back to basics” is gonna save the sale for me.

    The main thing that ruined absolution for me was the check points. blood money had it perfectly fine with limited saves depending on difficulty level. And it saved everything, unlike the checkpoints in Absolution which worked like crap.

    Until I know for sure there are no check/save points (or at least like in Abso where they forced you go to through certain places, and didn’t even save everything you did beforehand), then I don’t care about all the rest, it’s not a buy.

    • stonetoes says:

      Good point, I’d forgotten how bad that was.

    • ng.aniki says:

      As seen in previous interviews of alpha testers, there is no more checkpoints, and there is a real save/load feature, like in bloodmoney.
      No idea how they will limit the amount of save/load on a playthrough though.

  4. hungrycookpot says:

    The thing that really bothered me most about Absolution was the animation and control system. 47 didn’t feel like 47 anymore? He used to move like a real person, you turned a corner or walked down a hall and felt like you had weight: no instant acceleration to sprint, no instantly spinning a 180, when you dragged a body, you more or less felt like you were dragging a body and not attaching a model to your own and lowering your max move speed. I really hope they can recapture that feeling in this game, because I couldn’t even get deep enough into Absolution to notice all the poorly done maps and missions that people complain about.

  5. Iskariot says:

    I do not have high hopes for this game.
    Hitman Absolution was a horribly failed game on so many levels that I could give a summary of 2 pages as I kept a list of all the horrors while playing that wreck of a game.
    If the same people create the new Hitman, then I can not image it becoming a good game.

    • Cross says:

      Thing is, those were again the same people who made Blood Money, so your cynicism is frankly a bit much.

      • Vesuvius says:

        They weren’t- the art team were the same but the design guys weren’t

  6. Paul says:

    Jesper Kyd ? He needs to come back. Don’t be stupid IOI.

  7. Vesuvius says:

    Glad to hear about the design claims, but really:

    *Since Blood Money they lost the designers who had defined Hitman, and I don’t believe any have come back

    *Huge real world time gaps between levels asks a lot of players- it can kill the flow of the game or interest in sticking with it for the next installment, and can make you lose the plot. Only the die-hards like to replay a lot (I’m one of them), but even they like having variety rather than just playing solely one space.

    *This approach may make a lot of hits all take place in very few spots, which kills the globe-trotting allure of the series.

    *There is a high high likelihood of monetization being built into this style of release. The last Hitman game had MANY exclusive pre-order items, and a lot of DLC. There is every reason to believe that this style of release means those elements will be amped up.

    For now, I think we all need to hope for the best but remember the context for this game.

  8. Stellar Duck says:

    I’ll believe it when I see it.

    I paid £8 for Absolution and that still felt like a rip off. That game was so dire. :(

  9. HighlordKiwi says:

    You are giving me hope, you monster.

  10. Sunjammer says:

    I consider myself a fan of this series, even though I always thought the story was completely uninteresting and the character silly (really, that tattoo not giving you away ever?).

    Something I want to know, and this is out of genuine curiosity: What was it about Blood Money that made people so happy? I remember the grand majority of it playing out pretty much the same every time I played it and being punished harshly for ever trying to be creative within the bounds. It “faked” player innovation in a nice way, I thought, making me feel clever when I pulled things off, but at the same time a lot of the things strewn around the maps felt more like red herrings or even traps than valid approaches.

    Can someone tell me some cool stories that represent how great Blood Money was to them? I liked it, but I just don’t understand why it’s still held up as The Best One. IMO Hitman 2 was pretty good fun, Contracts too. I even enjoyed Absolution for what it was.