Agent 47's back! ...Again! Absolution's not even out yet, but Square Enix is already diving head-long into sequel territory. So said the publisher in a tweet announcing its brand new Montreal studio, which will apparently open up a whopping 150 jobs. Take that, the economy.
IO Interactive, meanwhile, will continue to meticulously craft sets of murder dominoes for Agent 47 to knock down, so this is beginning to sound a bit like the year-on-year model Call of Duty employs with Infinity Ward and Treyarch.
We've seen the sixteen minutes of Hitman Absolution footage above before, but not with an informative developer commentary layered over it. Their main focus is on the instinct system that powers Agent 47's guard-prediction and stealth abilities, and on all the different ways that they could proceed through the level differently. They reveal that it's possible to assassinate the sergeant directing your manhunt if you're skilled enough, and you can start a gunfight with the police force whenever you choose. As the fight continues, SWAT officers will start appearing to try and take you out.
The developers say that this is an early level, too, and it's worth remembering that Hitman: Blood Money opening mission was a completely linear turorial. After that, it opened up enormously. At the end of this video we also get a glimpse of the upgraded crowd tech that wowed us in the memorable Mardi Gras level in Blood Money. Combined with an impressive new engine, Absolution will hopefully be a worthy successor to the superb fourth game. Are you looking forward to Absolution?
Christian Elverdam is Hitman: Absolution's gameplay director, and that's his face hovering just above these words. Our combined E3 force caught up with Christian in LA, and pinned him to the wall with the full force of our questioning. In response, he talked about the varied approaches players can take in Absolution. Blood Money fans (of whom our own Tom Francis leads the charge) will be pleased to hear that the videos and demos they've shown so far aren't pointing toward a linear, prescribed route through the game. Instead, Christian points out that 47 will have a range of options at his disposal to complete his grisly duty.
Tim and Graham have seen the fifth Hitman game in action now, and it comes with some surprises. A cover system? Actual stealth? Donnie Darko predicto-vision? A rooftop chase under helicopter fire? What is this, a game that's slightly different in some way?
I don't know how any of those things will work out yet, or how much of the game they really represent. But the last game, Hitman: Blood Money, was so nearly perfect that you can see what they need to do next. This is what they need to do next.
1. Don't let the story interrupt the jobs Every one of the best missions in every one of the four Hitman games has been a straightforward hit. Every one of the worst missions in every one of the four Hitman games has been a story-driven scenario with a different objective. Whatever story you want to tell with Hitman Absolution, IO, please tell it with the contracts and the briefings between them.
We don't want to rescue a priest, we don't want to steal a tribe's idol, we don't want to walk across most of Japan in the middle of winter, we don't want to save Agent Smith again. Even if you write a great story, any time it asks us to do something other than get to a guy and kill him, it's going to grate. That's not what we're playing for.
2. Make disguise more of a game Disguises are what make Hitman interesting: it's a game about deception rather than conventional stealth. And every major leap forward for the series has happened when the deception logic got better. With Blood Money, it's finally reliable most of the time. But that also means Blood Money seemed to reach the limit of what you could do with it.
Each disguise type gets you access to certain areas, and each mission has one type of disguise that'll let you go anywhere without the guards hassling you. Once you figure that out, your strategy becomes a little reductive: get that disguise, and you're basically done.
I think the next stage is to have no perfect disguise. To make the player seriously think about: "Would this guy know I'm not a cop? Would that guy know I don't work here? Who's the one guy in this room I need to steer clear of?"
That's actually pretty simple to translate into game logic: your disguise is convincing to everyone except guards of the same type. Cops know you're not a cop. Bodyguards know you're not on this detail. Garbage men know you're not their buddy Frank, who's being slowly compacted in the back of their truck. Whoever you're dressed as, that's who you've got to keep your distance from.
I mentioned most of this to Graham, and he explained a bit about what they are doing for Absolution: Yeah, they've worked on those a lot, and they were one of the things they specifically flagged as being improved, mostly as an extension of the better AI. In the demo shown, 47 disguised himself as a cop. That prompted different groups of people to treat him differently. Like, one cop thinks he knows you, and chats away. Or you head into an apartment owned by some potheads, and if they see you, they get panicked, frightened, threaten you, might attack you. If you just go in dressed in a suit though, then they'll be more friendly, invite you to party, etc. There is a ton of dialogue in the game, and it changes based on what you're wearing.
3. Playgrounds, not warzones Blood Money got this, for the first time in the series. I'm a little worried that Absolution won't. The scene Tim and Graham saw has the cops hot on your tail, shooting at you from a chopper. That's a warzone - albeit an escapable one. Hitman is at its best when you're free to roam the levels, because it's only by scoping out an area that we can come up with an interesting plan to pull off a hit.
Graham did ask the developers about this. Here he is, telling me that: I specifically asked: would there be missions where no one knows you're a hitman, and you can just walk around and plot and set stuff up? And they said yeah, there would be. I don't know if that's the majority of the game or not - the game is certainly more cinematic, and the cover system and movement makes it look more action-oriented. But there was enough potential choice in just the one mission they showed that I'm pretty confident there'll still be plenty free-form stuff even if you are being hunted a certain portion of the time.
4. Let us upgrade what we like Each Hitman game brings us closer to a decent character progression system, but they haven't quite pulled it off. Blood Money had copious upgrades for every time of weapon and equipment, which is the right direction, but then it made them all ludicrously cheap to buy, but locked off until certain points throughout the campaign. In other words, you could easily afford everything available to you after each mission, so there were no tough decisions to make.
How about: don't do that. I know, they're worried we'll just upgrade the pistol to be silenced and awesome as soon as we can, and they're right: most of us will. That's because we like the pistol, and want to use it. It's the perfect assassin's weapon, which is probably why IO keep showing it in every concept piece and game box in the series. By all means make the upgrades for it pricier, and more in depth, but don't just artificially lock them off in the hope we'll give up and try other weapons.
I'd also love it if we could upgrade weapons we find and take from the scenes of our crimes. The silenced .22 in Hitman Blood Money is one of the most satisfying weapons in gaming history, so it'd be great to hang on to it and make it a little more accurate. I'm sure everyone has their favourites.
5. Reward subtlety That's the motif of the series, of course, but it feels like they're only just getting started with it. Hitman 2: Silent Assassin was about being a silent assassin. Blood Money introduced accidents: ways to pull off a hit without anyone even suspecting foul play. But there was no particular incentive to do so.
I'd like to see them keep running with that idea. Give us the satisfaction of seeing an obituary recounting a tragic death with no-one to blame, if we're smart enough to make it look that way. Better yet, give us ways to frame other people. The opera mission let us put a real gun in an actor's hand without him knowing, but again - no acknowledgement for it. Brief us on the victim's known associates, who'd have a grudge and who'd make a likely fall guy.
6. React to our performance better To be fair, the Hitman games are already far better at this than most. We get graded on both violence and noise, and even given a special title for our performance. But there's still plenty of room to expand on this.
The current system isn't great at understanding the difference between violence and sloppiness. Bodies discovered during the mission destroy your rating and increase your notoriety, making your face better known to guards in future missions. Yet the newspaper writeups after each mission detail every casualty, so clearly all bodies get found one way or another. If no-one sees you, why does it matter when bodies are spotted? Why would that give the cops a better photo-fit of your face?
I'd like to see Absolution track heat and visibility separately. How badly the cops want to catch me has no influence on how clear a picture they have of my face.
If I open fire on a crowd and let witnesses get away, then of course I should be more easily recognised in future missions. But if I silently stalk and execute every guard on the level, and no living soul sees my face, I should be as inconspicuous as ever.
The difference between that and a minimum-violence approach should just be how much manpower the police think they need to devote to guarding VIPs in future. This guy took out 20 armed guards? Let's make sure we have 40 on this VIP.
7. Don't make the tutorial the demo The frustating thing about being a Hitman fan is that when you tell someone Blood Money is one of the greatest games ever made, they can say this: "Oh yeah, I played the demo of that. It sucked."
It's frustrating not because they're wrong, but because they're right. It really did. The demo, which was just the tutorial level, advertised the game as being precisely what it was not: a linear, scripted obstacle course where the challenge is to figure out what you're 'supposed to' do.
Obviously IO should try to make a better tutorial, but even if they pull it off, it's not going to be a good way to sell the game. I want everyone to know why Hitman is inventive, rich, ambitious, brave and incredible. Put an actual mission in the demo, please.
8. Maybe don't delete our savegames? Yeah. That was an odd one. Blood Money limited the number of saves you could make per level, which was annoying but not actually a felony per se. What was strange, or 'pointlessly dickish' to be more specific, was that it would delete these savegames if you quit mid-mission.
I don't mean that in an abstract conceptual sense, that by not storing them it was effectively deleting them. I checked: it creates the files, you can see them on your hard drive if you alt+tab out. Then it deletes them.
It's the kind of treatment you might expect from a virus rather than something you paid for. And it had no effect on the game's difficulty, it just arbitrarily punished people who didn't always have time to play a long, thoughtful and creative mission in one sitting.
Maybe don't do that.
Both Tim and Graham came away impressed by Absolution, and it does sound like they're doing something cool on the disguise front. I just hope they're not going too crazy with the scripted stuff, and that they don't change the basic formula too much. It was just hitting its stride with Blood Money, I couldn't bear to see it turn into the sort of guileless beat-em-up the first trailer shows.
It took the Hitman series a long time to get it right. 2006's Blood Money was an apex: by far the best game about silently mudering a man and then sliding away into the mist. In LA, I'm about to see if the follow-up - Hitman: Absolution - can do better.
The demo begins in a Chicago library. It is clearly a new, high-tech game. Agent 47 - more pumped than I remember him - is hiding behind a bookcase. It’s a gorgeous slice of grotty dilapidation; dusty, old, ruined, but still beautiful. 47's been chased to the abandoned building by the local police. He’s got to escape. Simple mission. Simple objectives. Hard problem.
But stealth has changed in the time since Hitman: Blood Money. Splinter Cell: Conviction showed that you didn’t have to feel fragile if you kept to the shadows, Batman: Arkham Asylum showed that being fragile doesn’t mean feeling vulnerable. And both those games showed the importance of slick, instinctive control systems that fluidly understand what you want to do and help you achieve it, rather than twisting your fingers into spaghetti as you crouch, aim and hide.
Absolution’s first solution is going to be controversial: a cover system. Agent 47 hides behind the bookshelves, ducking between each slice of protection as the cops move around. It’s the same style cover system we’ve seen in Gears of War, in Splinter Cell: Conviction. The second; a system for showing when and how the guards move called 'instinct' – when turned on, you can see a glowing orange path that shows where they’re going. It’s about helping players visualize the space and allowing them to plan ahead.
The next few minutes are spent with Agent 47 ducking and weaving between bookshelves trying to get closer to the roof. He clambers up, and then shuffles along a balustrade, dodges a patrol by hanging from a ledge, and eventually ducks right past two guards as they chat.
Meanwhile, the guards talk. And they really, really talk. One officer is sniping at another, a rookie, teasing him about how he doesn’t really know anything about being a cop. The dialogue is sharp and funny, a real step above gaming's usual idle chatter. A side-plot is already forming – one in which Hitman can clearly intervene.
He does, brutally. First, he shuts down the power to the library by sabotaging a fuse box. Fat sergeant and rookie wander over. “I know nothing about this,” says the Sergeant. You’re on your own, buddy.“
He then wanders off. 47 picks up an abandoned piece of cabling and sneaks up behind the sergeant. Then stabs him with the sharp end, right in the neck. It’s a gruesome take-down, and in performing it, 47 alerts other cops.
There’s a shoot-out, and during it, Hitman takes a hostage, using a cop as a human shield. 47 ducks back out of a door, and dashes up the stairs, under heavy fire. He finally manages to shake his pursuers by shooting at a chandelier, which falls through the stairwell, smashes at the bottom, and scatters the police. Agent 47 dives through the door to his freedom.
This first section of the demo showcases combat and technology. But it could be any stealth shooter. It’s slick, clearly fun, but doesn’t necessarily have that unique blend of silliness and sadism we expect from Hitman. That’s to come.
Before we get to that, though, we’re given a demo of why Hitman’s action and stealth sequences should be at least as well put together as any competitor’s: the tools and tech the team at IO are using to create them are built from scratch to help their designers rapidly iterate.
Martin Amor, IO’s technology director pauses the demo and starts moving the camera around – shifting giant purple waypoints around as he sees fit. He restarts the action, and the patrols of the guards are instantly changed. For the better, hopefully.
The point is that the developers can play and play and play, forever polishing their work until it feels right, until the levels work, and that players can plan ahead, execute and understand a strategy and still have fun when it all goes wrong.
Back to the demo. Hitman is being chased across the rooftops of Chicago by a helicopter. A machine gun is ripping through the attic in which he’s hiding, spraying bullets with no regard for the pigeons that roost in there. At one point, 47 leaps between two roofs, and the action slows down for a brief moment. In that moment, I swear I see two pigeons explode into a mist of feathers and blood.
It’s then that 47’s next move becomes clear. A solitary police officer is wandering the roofs, torch in hand. He’s quietly knocked unconscious, stripped, and 47 walks away in police uniform. Over a bullhorn, the pilot of the helicopter yells “Any sign of him?” 47 doesn’t respond.
Then, it gets weird.
Part of the new emphasis within Absolution is giving in-game, non-hostile characters a range of reactions. 47 walks into a top-floor flat. It’s full of stoners, draped with psychedelic posters saying “Fuck the Police”. This should be fun.
The local hippies are all gathered at a window. They’re looking at the police below, clearly terrified. One panics, grabs his prized cannabis plant and runs to the toilet, flushing it down the sink. Out of sight, 47 simply watches, dodging their movements. On a sofa, one of the hippies is completely off his face, entirely unmoved by the bald, terrifying, fake policeman watching. 47 takes his bong, and walks over to the hippies. And then smashes them both over the head with it.
Drugs are bad, mmkay?
47 leaves, as police rush up the stairs, and start going door-to-door. Some glance over at 47, ask each other “isn’t he going the wrong way?” But most ignore him. When they do get slightly suspicious, time slows for a brief moment, and 47 ducks his head. It’s a very cool, very cinematic touch.
Finally, we’re at the lobby, and it’s a clear homage to the final scenes of Leon. 47 is dressed as a cop, but there’s a wall of police ahead of him, all dressed in full riot gear. He’s not getting through. 47 spies a box of doughnuts. A solution presents itself. 47 grabs a doughnut, and starts munching away.
“Hey, I know you,” shouts one of the bored beat cops. 47 barely gives him the time of day. Instead, he’s watching the riot police, who start running up the stairs. The escape route is clear. He leaves.
He walks down the street, and turns right, onto a train platform. There are hundreds of people waiting in the rain, all milling about – far more people than we’re used to seeing in a game. 47 walks straight into the mass, blending into the crowd, and the demo ends.
Hitman: Absolution won me over. At first, the stealth combat, with its freshly grown cover system, reminded me too much of Splinter Cell. In Hitman games I’m used to wandering around a mansion - or the White House, or a cruise boat, or a bayou wedding chapel - mostly unchallenged, figuring out the clockwork of a level and the vulnerabilities of our target before striking. In this demo, Hitman didn’t assassinate anyone; he simply fled.
However, the second section, with its bizarre bong kills, and phenomenally tense escape through hordes of police, was spectacular. It wasn’t just a cool stealth game; it was a step above what we’d expect from Hitman. After the trailer, and this demo, I can’t wait to play it.
Codename 47 will go to any lengths to perv on a lady in the shower, equal to and including: holding a man's head underwater until he dies, punching another guy so hard he dies, garotting a man with a wire until he dies, dangling a man over a banister until he dies, and launching a man's head into a wall. I think he died too. The trailer has the right level of moodiness, but there's zero in-game footage. Lucky then, that Tim will have a full preview for you in a few minutes.
Some prototype box arthas been spotted by Kotaku in a marketing survey, showing three possible covers for Hitman: Absolution. Amusingly, the game's listed in the mock-ups as Hitman: Subtitle. It's likely they were created before the Absolution subtitle was decided. You'll find the three pics below. Which would you choose?
IO have followed up on yesterday's Hitman Absolution teaser trailer with news of the sequel's brand new engine, and a few hints about Absolution's dark, conspiracy-laden story.
Absolution has been built "from the ground up" in the new Glacier 2 engine, created by IO Interactive, and will have Agent 47 running from the law "on a personal journey through a corrupt and twisted world" that will be "both a familiar and yet significantly different experience to any of the other Hitman games."
Agent 47 has been betrayed by his most trusted allies (again), and must take on a new and dangerous contract to uncover the truth behind the conspiracy that surrounds him. IO say that Absolution will be "something our silent assassins will relish as well as those who are new to the Hitman world.”
Keep an eye on the new Hitman Absolution website for more information in future. Hitman Absolution is slated for release next year.