The Hitman [official site] trailer shown at E3 gave a promising tease for a game which is provoking anxiety as well as anticipation. The sentiment I've heard echoing through editorials and comment sections boils down to "more Blood Money, less Absolution, please" but IO Interactive's creative director, Christian Elverdam hopes to marry the best of both games, distilling them to find the essence of Hitman. Eau d'Assassin, perhaps?
"We're trying to distil the essence of [Hitman]," Elverdam tells me. "We've been doing Hitman for fifteen years and we felt we had a chance now to try to build... I wouldn't say the perfect hitman game, but the aspiration is to build the perfect Hitman game."
We're sitting in a little room at the back of the Square Enix booth a little removed from the scrum of the E3 show floor. Elverdam is about to take Agent 47 to a Parisian fashion show in an enormous mansion – possibly an art gallery. It's at this swanky gathering that you'll attempt to find a way to take out a gentleman by the name of Viktor Novikov.
"There's a lot of legacy," says Elverdam of the franchise. "When we looked at a game like Hitman Blood Money we had a very big sandbox game with a lot of freedom and this general promise that all missions are going to be hit missions. You're a hitman; it's why you're there in the first place. That's something we felt was a good starting point. With Absolution we felt we came quite far in building these living worlds. NPCs in our game are quite advanced. They can talk about a lot of stuff they see – they're generally very talkative about everything. We wanted to keep that detail even if we went bigger, which in itself is a bit of a challenge."
He adds that in Absolution the studio felt they had good controls, a good core that they could use. "What we're basically saying is: imagine if you take the best parts of Absolution and marry them to the best parts of Blood Money. That's the essence of the game we are building [...] Mood-wise or tone-wise it's a bit more mature and a little more modern. We also talk about Agent 47 being in his absolute prime, hunting these high profile targets. really powerful targets, across the globe. We felt that, looking back, one of the beautiful things is the feeling you can go anywhere. The world is basically 47's oyster and he's just waiting for contracts on high profile targets to come in."
Hence the fashion show and hence Viktor Novikov.
Novikov's public profile pegs him as an oligarch - the billionaire owner of a fashion label. But the contract you're taking care of relates to his behind-the-scenes activities as a part of the spy ring, IAGO. IAGO is about to compromise a number of covert operatives and thus you are tasked with taking out Novikov.
As the level begins you see a journalist – "Lindsay Le Couer???" is what my notes have her named as – doing a piece to camera next to an ornate fountain. Elverdam explains that she's meeting the target later in a subplot 47 could take advantage of if he (or you) were so inclined. We switch to debug mode and Elverdam sails around the space pointing out little outbuildings where you could stash equipment or weapons so as to avoid being asked awkward questions like "Why do you have that sniper rifle slung across your back, then?"
We glide inside and through the party crowd. There's a fabulously well-stocked bar on one side of the ballroom and I recall the conference footage from a previous day where an Agent 47 in a bartender outfit mixes and serves a lethal cocktail to the target before slipping away. An intentionally stark contrast to the axe to the stomach in full view of everyone which was also part of that footage.
The fashion show is in another large room, with a catwalk upon which the models will strut. A backstage area is peppered with stylists, models and other associated people. You can become a stylist, Elverdam point out, marking another potential disguise (alongside waiters, security guards, crew member and so on) to help you carry out your dastardly deeds.
"Can 47 become one of the models?" I ask. I mean he's a stylish man and I think Vogue is crying out for an editorial about barcode head tattoos to sit alongside their obituary for Novikov.
"At the moment you can't. We really want that to happen but you can't at the moment. We're still debating what the rules would be for the model. The stylist is a bit easier to figure out."
You also can't impersonate your target despite your extensive dress-up skills. He's simply too well known. "Why is Viktor Novikov not blonde anymore? Why is he bald?" says Elverdam, doing an impression of the in-game party guests' potential reaction to 47 glamming it up as a famous Russian billionaire.
We only have a few minutes for this demo so we continue with the breakneck tour, past a speedboat which I earmark as a potential getaway route and a sniper vantage point in the gardens. Towards the foot of a staircase is a frisk zone where security will pat you down for weapons. You'll get arrested if you're caught carrying so you'll need to find a way to bypass security if you want to take your contraband upstairs. Or you could just get through unarmed and improvise.
Upstairs and away from the fashion show a secondary plot is unfolding. There's a clandestine auction involving Novikov's partner, Dahlia. Elverdam explains that the level felt big enough that it needed a secondary target, hence Dahlia. Secondary targets won't just be confined to the Parisian fashion show but will appear in other levels too.
I ask whether the Paris contract is one of the biggest levels, trying to get a sense of the scale of the game and its missions. "This is one of the bigger levels but all levels are going to be very big," says Elverdam. Later in the interview he mentions a play session in the studio's home city of Copenhagen. In four hours of Paris playtime the attendees only completed the mission once or twice and none managed to become silent assassins.
"They didn't find all the things they could do and none became silent assassins yet. There's a lot of stuff you can do within Paris and the big point of Hitman is not so much about taking out Novikov but how you do it and finding all the different ways of doing it. That's what I would say to people. It's going to be a big game."
One of the most intriguing aspects of this new Hitman game is the content delivery system. When we first heard about it Alice described it as sounding like a "strange mix of expansion, DLC, early access, and episodic ideas." I ask Elverdam to explain in a bit more detail.
"We're doing something bold and new. The basic idea was – when we talked about 'What is this Hitman universe and what feels right?' – we really like the idea that you travel the world and [...] new missions will appear over time. So Diana will pop up and say 'Hey 47 we're going to Italy!'
"What we're basically saying at this point is we'll have this Paris mission that we have talked about and hinted that there is an Italian location and there is an African location in Morocco and more after that. We're obviously not talking about those yet."
One of the ideas they can talk a little more about is the secret, time-limited targets:
"We could also have a secret target in [Paris] that only appears let's say in the weekend. The plan is at the moment to say the only thing you'll get is a portrait and you have to find him. It's not like everyone is competing against each other. He's live in your sandbox but the thing is he's going to be gone in 48 hours and will never come back. There are going to be some unique challenges.
"What we expect to happen is that people will go to Twitch, they'll start debating what's going on, where's he going, what are his habits in this level... Once you try to go for him that's your one shot. If you kill him, he's dead. If you killed him in a brutal, messy way that's going to be the story of how he dies. If you do it silent assassin that's perfect, that's your shot. We really like this idea. No matter what – you've seen all the Twitch feeds, you've tried to do everything the experts are doing – now it's you doing it."
So it's looking like a blend of solo and community play. The chance to discuss, to crib strategies, to learn from the failures of others and then, perhaps, attempt a silent assassination that culminates in a gory public blood bath disaster of your own.
"You have these locations that will appear over time and they'll continue to have a lot of stuff going on. Also all these player-created contracts will be in there as well. The world will continue to grow and the story will move forward with each location. That's my explanation. I don't think there's any model – if we had a simple word for it –"
Another gentleman who has been counting down the minutes until the interview is over chimes in at this point.
"Yes – please help us!"
It wasn't a serious request (not exactly, anyway) but I've come back to thinking about this several times since the interview. The process it most reminds me of is trying to learn something – maybe a dance routine – from practicing using YouTube videos, then going to perform it at the school dance show.
"People should feel like they're taking part in this world as it happens, right?" Elverdam talks about players hopefully getting excited for new locations and events. "When you're playing it you know people are playing alongside of you. The Hitman community talks about the stories – how did you do it? what happened?"
In terms of the pricing Elverdam assures me there's no subscription fee attached to this ongoing development.
"It's very simple. You pay the sixty bucks and that's it. Then the levels will appear and have an overarching story that will conclude at some point. It's very much akin to what you expect from any other game in terms of content and playtime. It's a huge game – bigger than Absolution."
Contract modes should also be live when the game ships and Elverdam adds that IO expect to find new ways to manipulate contracts and play with them. They want to listen to fans and keep a close eye on how they play as the game eolves - what they like and what they don't like, or what they find and what they don't find in the levels.
So will there be an early access element as part of that learning process? Elverdam is emphatic with his answer: No. When the game ships it will be the finished product. Well, as finished as you can get with an evolving, special event-peppered world...