On the last day of E3, I checked out the newly announced Hitman game, which is simply called Hitman. I also spoke with IO Interactive creative director Christian Elverdam, and he had some heartening things to say.
Most Hitman fans agree that 2006's Blood Money was the pinnacle of the series, and that game came out nearly a decade ago. I liked 2012's Hitman: Absolution, though many fans felt otherwise. (My feelings on Absolution, while still generally positive, have cooled somewhat over the last couple of years. Were I to review it today, I would be less celebratory than I was in 2012.)
Elverdam walked me through one of the new game's early levels while repeating talking points that seemed focused on addressing the concerns of Hitman fans who've recently felt let down by the series. He laid out the template for this new Hitman: To lift the best elements from each game in the series and create an "ultimate" Hitman game.
He identified those elements, more or less, as: The open-ended sandboxes and fundamental design ethos of Blood Money; the globe-trotting variety and high-class lifestyle porn of Silent Assassin; and the control scheme and overall playability of Absolution. Having played and enjoyed each of those games, welp, that sounds pretty good to me! Of course, we were at E3, the place where every sequel is going to be a perfect combination of the best traits of each of its predecessors. The eventual reality is usually less pristine.
I took everything Elverdam with a degree of scepticism, in large part because I didn't play the demo or even watch him play that much of it. Most of what he showed me was a fly-by of one of the game's sprawling levels. He was much more interested in showing me how intricate Hitman's sandboxes would be, talking about -- rather than demonstrating -- how players will actually mess around in them.
Even that can be seen as heartening, in a way; level-design is paramount in a Hitman game, so it's actually promising that Elverdam would primarily concern himself with it when debuting his game.
Here's what I saw, and why Elverdam got me feeling optimistic:
- The level I saw was a swanky palace located on the Seine river in Paris. The palace, normally a museum, was playing host to a high-class fashion show with hundreds of guests, service people, and guards in attendance. The bald-headed Agent 47 had two targets: A spymaster named Viktor Novikov and his business partner Dahlia, who operates behind the scenes.
- Elverdam walked 47 toward the party and pointed out that as long as he stayed in the main areas, he could walk around freely. "We don't have to pressure you up front," he said. I asked if they were deliberately moving away from the stealth-focused Absolution, which often had players creeping through hostile territory from the get-go. Elverdam said that the levels will all be a bit different, but gave me the sense that this sort of setup, where you're ok to walk around, explore, and plan things out up front, would be how most missions were arranged.
- Elverdam quickly zoomed out using a debugging tool and began to fly me through the level. I didn't actually get to watch him play; rather, he focused on showing me all the stuff that was going on behind the scenes. The building was very large, with all kinds of various opportunities for creative players to set up death traps. Among other things: Gas lamps that could be punctured and turned into a waiting explosive for anyone with a cigarette; a hanging PA speaker that 47 could loosen with a screwdriver, priming it to fall on an unsuspecting target; a bar where 47 could dress up as a bartender and serve drinks with a variety of lethal and non-lethal poisons; a barge off the back of the building with a raised platform that could make for a sniper's nest. Key takeaway: This level is huge and complex.
- Players will be able to save at any point in the mission. Elverdam said that they were still working out how to limit saves on the higher difficulties, but in general, it sounds like the Blood Money style of creep-and-save will return.
- Elverdam says Hitman's level design philosophy will closely mirror Blood Money. Each level will be a large sandbox populated by hundreds of AI-controlled characters. (For reference, Elverdam said that Absolution levels had between 20 and 40 AI characters that could challenge the player, but that there were 300 in the Paris level he was demoing.) For each level, 47 will have a target to kill, and that will pretty much be it. It's a marked change from Absolution, which often featured restrictive story missions with various objectives in between its more open-ended assassination missions.
- The story itself will be told in between assassination missions, rather than during them. There won't really be any linear "story missions" like there were in Absolution, where story events and cutscenes played out over the course of the level. Elverdam described the game as "about a hitman and his target," and said that "we won't force the player's hand by saying 'this needs to happen, that needs to happen.'"
- The Hitman series has often stumbled when it comes to handling female characters. I asked Elverdam about some of the criticism that accompanied Absolution's lurid tone and marketing campaign. His response: "I think that if you take computer games as a medium, I think it's super good to be critical about what we do in general. I think the tone of what we're doing here is a little bit different to Absolution. Absolution was in many ways a game that was over the top, and here I'm speaking in a general sense. Everything was just a little bit more crazy […] So what we wanted to do this time around is create a world that feels a little more grounded." Will 47 be garroting any latex-clad killer nuns in this new Hitman? "No."
- Players will be able to choose their loadout for every mission, and will have to consider which weapons and tools to take with depending on how they want to play -- another return to form after Absolution's story mode.
- The pre-mission briefings will give access to information about the target and a map of the level, but the majority of hidden tricks and traps will be up to the player to find. Elverdam said they don't want to overwhelm players at the outset.
- Hitman's disguise system has been changed significantly. In Absolution, you could dress up as any type of character, but that same "type" would recognise you if you got too close. If you dressed up as a security guard, the cooks in the kitchen would let you pass, but other security guards would quickly recognise you. It made a sort of sense, but wound up curtailing the player's freedom outside of a few specific instances. This time around, if you're in disguise, you're generally good to go, though certain specific characters will be more attentive and harder to fool than others. Elverdam mentioned how Novikov's bodyguard -- who, naturally, is by his side at all times -- would be able to see through just about any disguise. To get to Novikov, first you'd have to deal with the bodyguard.
- 47 will no longer be able to hide his face to magically slip by guards, and Elverdam said that Absolution's Detective Mode-like instinct system, while still present, has been simplified. He made it sound like equipment and loadout will play a larger role in determining a player's tactical options, and said that 47 wouldn't have any "superhuman powers."
- Bombs and other explosives can now be placed on any surface, and the world in general looks much more flexible and reactive than in past games. To demonstrate, Elverdam had 47 place a remote-detonated bomb on the ground, then toss a coin onto it to attract a nearby guard. The guard saw the bomb and disarmed it, then picked it up and carried it inside, presumably to an office somewhere. Elverdam pointed out that not only did this get the guard to take one of his explosives inside the building, it also caused him to leave his partner standing alone, which would make him much easier to take out. Elverdam said that kind of complex AI routine will be commonplace in the new game.
- Absolution's interesting Contracts Mode, which allowed players to go back into levels and create their own custom assassinations to share with other players online, will be back. Elverdam wouldn't go into too much detail about how it will work, saying that wasn't the focus of this particular preview. I'm guessing it won't be all that much different from how it was in Absolution, only now players will have much larger, more complex levels to work with, and a whole lot more potential targets.
This new Hitman will be released in an unusual way. It will be available digitally on 8 December and it will be incomplete. Players who buy the game will receive regular updates into 2016, with each update bringing new missions and locations. Eventually, it will be a full game that can be bought on a disc. Hitman will be full-price at launch, but Videogamer reports that all the additional content will be at no extra charge, and that there will be "no DLC or microtransactions," per IO studio head Hannes Seifert. Seifert also tells Videogamer: "It will be a very big release on day one. There will be hours and hours of gameplay."
Elverdam told me that while there will be a story that proceeds in a particular order, there will also be missions that simply involve 47 doing his regular (bloody) day job. Some contracts will be limited-time events; Elverdam described a single character, somewhere in the world, with a limited time window for players to find him and kill him. You wouldn't have any assistance, and would need to identify him the old-fashioned way, by looking at a photo and finding him in the crowd. Wait too long or botch the job, and you'd miss your opportunity forever.
Given that Hitman will be out in December, I was disappointed not to have a chance to actually play it at E3. The way Elverdam described IO's design goals -- and the ambitious level he showed me -- both have me feeling optimistic. "I would be ballsy and say I think this is better [than Blood Money]," he said. Confidence!
It's hard to say what the actual game will be like, particularly given its unorthodox release structure. As is the case with these sorts of hands-off demos, we won't be able to separate the hype from the finished game until we have a chance to play it... and even then, the game we'll play in December won't be complete. For now, it's nice to hear a Hitman developer say so many promising things.