Fans of core games don’t tend to like hearing that a developer is aiming for broader appeal with the next title of a franchise – something Hitman art director Roberto Marchesi certainly understands. Regarding IO Interactive’s goal of making Hitman Absolution an easier game to understand than its ancestors, he is quick to point out that this doesn’t mean the game will be dumbed down. “We want to create a game that communicates its intention in the best possible way,” he says. “When we say ‘accessible’ and ‘broader appeal’, it’s not making it easier – I really can’t stress that enough – it’s simply just making it clear to the player what the rules are. The game is all about replayability and freedom of choice, but if the player doesn’t know that, he’s just going to play it one way.” Sure enough, our hands-on time with Hitman Absolution showed that despite rumours to the contrary, new game mechanics do not dilute or streamline the experience.
The biggest addition to the franchise is that of Instinct, a limited resource that may be activated to give players a view not unlike Batman’s Detective Mode. On easier difficulty settings, Instinct highlights all enemies and their walking paths, visual representations of sound, places to hide, and useful items, and it also gives hints on how to kill targets. On harder difficulty settings, these abilities are scaled back or gone altogether. An attentive player can still predict the behaviour of some NPCs though, as Marchesi points out. “The game needed to communicate better, and that’s why we’ve added so many new animations and dialogue for the NPCs. They talk to each other; they tell each other their intentions. This serves two purposes: one, it’s entertaining, but it also tells the player what they’re about to do, so the player can set their tactics accordingly.”
Instinct may also be used to make a disguise temporarily more convincing as for the first time in the series the AI is suspicious of 47 even out of his trademark suit. “In the previous games, when you put on a disguise, everyone who was wearing that same outfit would consider you a friend,” says Marchesi. “That worked, but we realised that from a gameplay point of view, the opposite could also work. We communicate that by letting the player hear that target’s thoughts. It’s not Agent 47 hearing them – he’s not telepathic – it’s just our way to communicate to the player why the target isn’t stopping 47.”
Should an NPC see through a disguise, the propagation of that knowledge is also handled in a much more realistic way, with only those that NPC comes into contact with – directly or via radio for example – learning 47’s identity. This makes silencing witnesses easier, but from what we’ve seen there are many more around so remaining undetected is always the best option. There are only so many closets, dumpsters, and toilets within which to stash bodies, after all. Fortunately, using Instinct isn’t the only way to deflect scrutiny, with 47 able to hide in plain sight while interacting with items as one in his disguise might – eating donuts around cops, for example. Tied to Instinct is another new mechanic, Point Shooting. This gives 47 the ability to slow time and manually select where to shoot a number of enemies. It’s useful for clearing out a roomful of guards, but uses huge amounts of Instinct, and so cannot be leveraged particularly often.
The game’s difficulty setting doesn’t just influence the effectiveness of Instinct, but also whether players can quicksave, as well as enemy numbers and their reaction time. “The level is the same, but you might find the guard that’s usually ‘here’, is now ‘over there’, guarding that fuse box that I sabotaged last time,” says Marchesi. “We also change the routes guards take a bit. Of course the guards also have a better attention span, they’ll spot you faster, but these are just numbers we tweak. It’s more interesting to change their behaviour in front of your eyes, and that will hopefully give players a challenge.” Speaking of, the gold standard for completion of a Hitman level has always been the attainment of the Silent Assassin reward – basically completing a hit without being seen. However, optional level-specific challenges are available Absolution that will push pro players even harder, daring them to never disguise for example, and rewarding them with small stats boosts for their trouble.
Also increasing play time is the game’s Contracts mode, which allows players to set assassination objectives for their friends simply by playing through a scenario themselves. “We were wondering how we could add a social element to the franchise, some kind of online feature that would give us broader appeal, and realised the community had been doing that for us all along,” said Marchesi.
In the mode, contract creators simply select a level from the game then choose up to three AI characters within it to be eliminated. The requirements for how other players must perform said hits are then set by the creator playing through the level themselves, creating a game of virtual one-upmanship that while fun and intuitive, isn’t especially deep.
As it arrives six years after previous Hitman instalment Blood Money, it’s no surprise that Absolution runs on a fancy new engine. “We didn’t want Blood Money gameplay with better graphics. We had to have a deeper experience, smoother gameplay, a more believable world – better acting and animations – everything,” said Marchesi. “To do that, we had to create a new engine, Glacier 2. That was kind of a given, because Glacier could not cope with all the things we wanted to do with this game.” Unfortunately while the game looks incredible, it seems that aging console hardware also didn’t cope well with IO’s ambitions and Absolution’s levels are smaller as a result.
We also disliked how easily guards were distracted by thrown objects, or that we were able to shoot our way through what seemed to be an entire precinct’s worth of policemen on one level rather than go for one of the 11 ways of completing the level. However those gripes were almost certainly due to a media-friendly difficulty setting, and the bottom line appears to be that Hitman will indeed be friendlier to the less hardcore while still giving franchise fans the stealth challenge they have waited so long to receive.
Hitman: Absolution is scheduled for release on November 20, 2012 for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Windows PC.