IO had a very controlled message for the new Hitman game revealed at E3: “We had a chance to look at, and discuss: what is the best possible Hitman experience we can build?” studio creative director Christian Elverdam told me at the show. I later found out he told everyone that. And I thought we were special.
The message was carefully crafted, though, in order to press all the right buttons. “It became quite clear that we honed in on Blood Money - that came up quite a bit in conversation,” Elverdam continued, while also mentioning the tone and “high stakes” of Silent Assassin, and the living worlds, online Contracts and controls of Absolution.
This new game is IO’s attempt to take all the best bits from the entire series and sort of smush them up into one uber game. I tried to create some sort of Frankenstein/Hitman portmanteau here to imply the monster it’s trying to make by stitching all the best bits together, but ‘Franken-man’ doesn’t really work. And Hit-stein is going nowhere.
How about we say it’s MGS 5 Ground Zeroes set at Paris Fashion week and Snake’s bald now. That work?
You see, Hitman’s always fallen into a slightly niche ground; loved by fans and of little concern to everyone else. It’s one of the reasons Absolution had such a rough ride. For the record I like it: I think it’s about as good a contemporary Hitman as anyone could make if you were trying to modernise the series based on a Batman or Splinter Cell-style template. But it angered the core fans and failed to win over new ones.
This new Hitman, on the other hand, is uncompromisingly doubling down on the core elements of the classic game, and in doing so is creating the sort of open world sandbox that should appeal to any gamer. The first level, a Parisian palace being used for a fashion show, is huge. A large world full of opportunities and chances to experiment (I counted 26 very Hitman things you can do in a 20 minute walkthough).
It nails that essential Hitman-ness that no other game does - the level is a clockwork simulation of a living environment that, with enough observation and experimentation, you can manipulate. The barest environmental push or routine disruption is enough to get you the result you want, changing the world without a hint of suspicion until you’re ready to strike. Get it right and you do nothing, it all happens around you.
It’s the only game you can ghost while standing in plain site of the target and all their security.
One of the series’ strengths the new game is trying hard to recapture is that feeling that every level has somehow been designed for you and you alone. There are so many options, and potential opportunities that only the ones that make sense to you spring out. Of course I'm going to tamper with a patio heater so the target has a tragic explosion-related accident while smoking. Why would you try anything else? Like the waiter sneaking a quick break and whose uniform gains access to the secure first floor. Or the TV crew carrying in boxes just the right size to fit a bomb in. Or the loose chandeliers? The ability to poison the drinks? That handy looking sniper point over the river? The (hit) list goes on.
The sense of scale is impressive for the single location currently being shown. There’s a full fashion show being arranged inside a palace, complete with models, dressers, stage management. A TV crew getting set up to film, a party and a bar with full catering. There’s security, guests, several floors, grounds outside, a river with boats you can make use of. It’s dense with opportunities. “Every part of this level is fully playable. From the basement to the attic to the gardens outside, everything is running at the same time,” explains Elverdam.
That alone would be an impressive amount to play with, but the game is also adding Absolution’s Contract modes. For the uninitiated, when playing in that mode you can kill anyone in the level, marking them as a challenge for your friends to beat. Easy if it’s the bloke on the gate, not so much if it’s a guard behind several security checkpoints and your mate’s specified a ‘suit only’ run (so no disguises).
However, by far the most exciting prospect are the challenges and missions IO can drop into the game (almost like Destiny’s Daily Heroics). For example: picking targets from the crowd and giving you a strict time limit to take them out. “The idea at the moment is that the target will appear, Instinct won’t reveal him, you’ll get a portrait and you know he’s going to be gone in 48 hrs,” explains Christian. "People will start debating: who found him? Where is he going? What is his behaviour? What is he doing in the level? I feel this is a beautiful thing because I expect people will start putting things on YouTube, Twitching what they’re doing."
“The thing is, though, there will only be one death, it’s final,” he explains, adding, “so it’s not like you can replay it and then become Silent Assassin. You need to figure out what you want to do, and then that’s what’s going to come”. It’s a simple but a powerful idea thinks Christian. “That’s something we haven’t been able to do before. This feeling: if I screwed it up? I screwed it up. He won’t come back again. I can’t wait to sit there with a sniper rifle knowing that when he’s dead he’s dead. This is the shot that counts”.
While the game is tying heavily into old themes from the series’ history - like stern, patient stealth and methodical planning - the new ideas make it all feel instantly modern. Its distribution model is also experimentally reaching into the future - the Paris level shown so far will be the first released online, with other levels to follow. Morocco and Italy have been named, with the trailer showing a holiday-like location and some sort of sealed laboratory.
“The specific pace of it we will talk about a little bit later,” says Christian. ”But for now, just imagine there is going to be a location appearing which I would call some of the bigger beats”. He describes the idea that “Paris has has gone live and the location has launched” within the game. “That’s probably where you’ll find the story moves forward." Then there is also what we call the pulses which is the ‘live’ part of the world. Which are missions that might not be on the storyline, so following 47 as a professional assassin”.
With that model in mind the game will grow with the community. Having seen the scale of the Paris location the ‘one level at a time thing’ seems like a good call, as there are weeks of options and choice to mine through there. It’s not really ‘a level’, it’s ‘a world’, albeit an enclosed one. Having the time to explore it without the pressure of time weighing down is welcome.
But if you would rather sit down and play it as a full game in one hit then it’ll be headed to disk once it’s finished online. You’ll lose all on-the-fly challenges and extras that IO plan to run while the game’s ‘live’ but according to Christian, “Once we’re done building all the locations we will put it on a disk so you can buy it as a disk if you want. That will be a game that’s bigger than Absolution, a substantial triple A game”. The crucial thing with that prospect says Christian is this: "we went back to the formula, it’s about a Hitman and his target". Sold.