Hitman Is Low-Calorie Stealth No Longer
Although 2012’s Hitman: Absolution was an excellent action title, it diminished much of what made the series unique. As a fan of the earlier games, it pained me to see IO Interactive’s sandbox assassination series begin to lose its complexity in favour of a focus on action and bombast.
At its finest hour (Blood Money), Hitman felt like peering into the guts of a grandfather clock, examining all the interconnected pieces, admiring the beautiful harmony in which they worked together, and then detaching the one piece that kept it all ticking.
I’ve come to accept that simplifying this formula may have been a commercial necessity. The Hitman series was always a beast too complex for consoles to contain, in part due to its roots as a PC series. But now, if the Hitman reboot shown at E3 2015 is any indication, IO Interactive appears to be done with low-calorie stealth.
Although we weren’t given an opportunity to get hands-on with the new Hitman, IO Interactive creative director Christian Elverdam took us on an in-depth tour of one of the assassination contracts from the game, highlighting the numerous ways the new Hitman returns to its roots.
The area demonstrated to us is the same as the one featured in the gameplay trailer, above. In the video, Agent 47 emerges from a limousine and walks along the red carpet towards a VIP fashion show, his invitation held high as an array of blinding camera flashes break out.
For long-term fans of the series, the invitation is an important detail. Agent 47’s relationship with the International Contract Agency had become strained in the more recent editions of the series. In Absolution, his former employer was in fact hunting him, but for the new game Agent 47 is back in the ICA’s good books. This means he begins missions with the full backing of the agency, so you arrive as a guest.
The ICA’s support of Agent 47 also informs the feel and pace of the game. You’re no longer the dog backed into the corner by its master, as was the case in Absolution, so this new title is less about desperation and survival. Instead, you are again the fully-resourced apex predator, with the time and freedom to stalk your prey and come up with a perfect assassination plan.
As Elverdam takes control of Agent 47, two targets are designated for assassination, but for the purpose of this demo, and in the interest of not spoiling too much, we’re told the focus will be around Victor Novikov. Although his public-facing persona is a powerful oligarch, he’s also a member of a spy-ring known as IAGO, which deals in secrets capable of toppling governments and compromise covert operatives.
"Even this early, it seems the studio has confidently struck a balance between the approachability of Absolution, and Blood Money’s depth and freedom."
Elverdam guided us through the area by popping into a freecam mode, and moving between points of interest to highlight key areas of the game. First up, a top-down perspective over the sprawling location, which is fully accessible to Agent 47, provided he meets the right conditions to access them.
“The entire palace, from the cellar to the attic, and the grounds outside are all your playground,” he said. “There’s life everywhere. There are guards patrolling, there are things happening, there are different security zones to bypass throughout the whole level. It’s very much what you expect from a Hitman game, just on a much larger scale than you’ve had before.”
Hitman’s freedom of approach was best showcased at the very start of our demo. At the end of the red carpet, standing in front of a lavish water fountain, was a TV reporter and her camera-operator. As Agent 47 walked through the shot, she stopped, watched him for a few moments, and then resumed her recording. In most games, players wouldn’t think twice about a random NPC. However, in Hitman every character could provide an opportunity. On this occasion, if players listen to her report for long enough, she reveals she will be interviewing Victor Novikov later in the night. Obviously, a perfect opportunity to take him out. In front of the world, no less.
We then move onto a quick overview of how to tamper various objects in the environment, and also how to lay traps; a pillar of the Hitman series. The area was filled with dozens of objects and environmental features that Agent 47 could put to use.
There's a gas canister, which, if you have a screwdriver, can be punctured. There are chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. There is a bar fully staffed by waiters serving the rich and famous--including Novikov.
Within the sandbox, there’s so much opportunity for expression. Let’s take the bar as an example. Should you decide you want to take the subtle approach and take out your target by poisoning him, you’ve got the option to use a lethal poison that kills him instantly, give him a drawn-out death with a concoction that makes him violently ill before he gives up the ghost, or simply knock him unconscious. Importantly, every choice you make in the lead-up to taking out Novikov, has the potential create a domino effect that changes the parameters of your mission.
Taking Novikov out lethally, for example, may put security on a higher state of alert, which means taking out secondary targets, or even reaching the extraction point, becomes significantly more difficult than if you sneak in, knock him out, hide his body, and vanish.
Later in the demo, an explosive is planted on the floor near some guards. Agent 47 then throws his trusty coin near the explosive to direct security’s attention towards it. Instead of going straight into an alert mode, the guard approaches it, diffuses it and then walks inside the building. According to Elverdam, players can choose to follow him he will take them to a weapons armoury beneath the mansion.
The puppeteering element of Hitman also returns. Novikov won’t just stand around waiting for you to appear. He’s a man with things to do, at any given moment he can be behind the stage getting grief from a fashion designer who feels she’s been forced to sell out, trying to hit on a model, or walking around the grounds outside the mansion. Luring Novikov, and any of the other NPCs, into where you need them, requires some forward-thinking and finesse.
In our demo, Elverdam pointed out a series of barges floating on the river surrounding the mansion. At the end of the fashion show, these launch fireworks to illuminate the night sky and dazzle guests. However, with a little effort, Agent 47 can also set these off early to lure guests out of the mansion, spread a little confusion among the guards, and slip through the cracks in the security unseen.
There have also been a number of other smart tweaks in other areas. The Instinct mode, for example, is less about telling the player exactly what to do and what’s around them, and instead now represents Agent 47’s innate assassin’s intuition. It shows enemies in his immediate surroundings that he could conceivable hear or see, and points of interaction that he’d naturally gravitate to.
Of course, since it is based on Contract modes, that means other players around the world can create new scenarios and designate the dozens of other NPCs in the area as a new target for Agent 47. Which means the sheer variety of strategies available to players is almost overwhelming.
What we’ve seen so far is highly promising. Using Absolution’s Contracts mode as a foundation on which to rebuild the classic Hitman experience has obviously worked for IO Interactive. Even this early, it seems the studio has confidently struck a balance between the approachability of Absolution, and Blood Money’s depth and freedom.