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Improvisation, Experimentation And Dark Comedy: Hitman Is Coming Home

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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.

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