Hitman Absolution: Catering to an assassin's every need?
9th Dec 2011 | 19:30
Hitman Absolution's E3 demo is an all-action thrill ride littered with broken glass, bullet casings and dead police bodies. But while this cinematic footage broadens Agent 47's appeal, the demo is terrifying the Hitman hardcore into defensive outrage.
It begins in a library with 47 under siege by Chicago police. Sneaking behind cover and hanging from ledges, he takes the cops down one by one before stealing a uniform, taking a hostage, and shooting his way out.
47 flees across rooftops while under fire from a helicopter, kills two cops in a hippy drug den, and evades SWAT police by munching a doughnut before disappearing into the streets of Chicago.
But Hitman is a game of disguise and deception, not firefights and cover systems. It's a game where - if you get everything right - the only one who dies is your target and everyone else believes it to be an accident.
It's a game where the highest honour is Silent Assassin - no shots fired, no alarms raised, no unnecessary kills, no evidence left behind. Absolution, IO were quick to point out, can be played with that Hitman elegance, but nobody got them on record about how.
So, we asked them: how?
"The way we play through the E3 code allowed us to naturally introduce a number of mechanics while keeping up a dramatic storyline," says Absolution's Game Director Tore Blystad.
"But the Hitman games have always been primarily about stealth and this is still where we put our focus and effort. If the player wants to play with disguise as a primary focus they would take down the first lone police officer and steal his outfit - but the library is packed with police, so it's not going to be easy."
It makes for a dull spectator sport at E3, but it's possible to blend in and walk straight for the library's front door so long as you don't get stopped on the way. In previous Hitman games the right disguise was the key to almost any door, but in Absolution things are different.
"The disguise allows the player to walk around in the open as long as he doesn't get too close to the NPCs in a similar outfit," explains Blystad. "They'll start to see through the disguise when you get too close. The player can use Instinct to blend in, but it has to be used sparingly."
Instinct can be used to enhance disguises or to see through walls, as 47's take on Batman's Detective Vision. In the classic Hitman games enemy movements could be watched from the map screen on the standard difficulty setting; Absolution replaces the powerful map with a limited range Instinct view, which drains 47's Instinct meter.
Like the map, Instinct is a silly piece of gamification which makes no sense except in how it makes the game better.
Instinct is awarded in the E3 demo for bashing a cop's brains out, but in the final game it'll be awarded for more subtle actions. As Blystad explains, "We reward both the purist Silent Assassin stealth, which is remaining unseen, and the action stealth, which is silent takedowns and cleaning up the mess.
"If the player unsuccessfully tries to fool the AI the situation can be controlled by taking them down in a secluded area," non-lethally, of course. "If the whole scene falls apart SWAT police will arrive as reinforcements. A SWAT outfit will give better protection against bullets and is a better disguise as it has a face mask."
You'll want that SWAT uniform if you're going to war with the Chicago PD. Hitman's last title, Blood Money, was filled with guns, but even the most ardent assassin will concede gunplay was never 47's strong suit.
Playing for Silent Assassin was the best way to play because it drew the least attention; extended shootouts looked silly, played sloppy, and were easily exploitable. In Absolution, for the first time, guns are a viable option if you'd rather make some noise on your way to the contract.
"The firearms were never given much love in the previous games," says Blystad, "And the fibrewire was really hard to use as the sneaking speed was slower than the NPCs' walking speed, and it only worked at a very short distance. This led to what I believe the Hitman forum calls the 'dance of shame' with a combination of sneak/run/fibrewire attempts."
So, you wake up and decide to be the most prolific cop killer digital Chicago has ever faced. What happens now? "Getting a gun is easy - just find that lone cop you would otherwise steal the uniform from and break his neck," Blystad says.
"From there on it's lock and load; the NPCs are ready for a fight from any direction. Believability is closely linked with the NPC behaviour and reactions to the player, so we added a 'reasoning grid' that allows them to have awareness of the world they inhabit."
An invisible mesh covers every level, highlighting places where players might hide, might fight, and might set traps. It also highlights valuable cover and advantageous positions for the cops.
"If the player wants to be efficient it's best to start in a corner and quickly get through the enemies before the alert can spread too far. Worst case - everyone is alerted and SWAT are called in with even bigger guns and Kevlar vests. The combat AI works in groups, so using the new cover system would be a safer solution than going head-on.
"If it's too tough you can always retreat and find a hiding place, which will send the AI into hunt mode. Depending on the damage you've caused they will, over time, stand down to an alert state that matches the damage.
If Agent 47 simply fired a couple of shots they might continue talking about the weather, but if their friends are killed they will continue being on the lookout. For the player just wanting to let off some steam, playing through guns blazing is a fully viable - though messy - solution now."
Watch the best Hitmen on YouTube and you'll see them sneak complex areas without even grabbing a disguise. It's possible to play Blood Money like Splinter Cell if you try hard, but it's an emergency solution rather than a first port of call. In Absolution, the very best Silent Assassins keep their heads down and lurk in shadow.
"The cover system is built specifically for a smooth stealth experience." says Blystad. "If it's used in conjunction with Instinct it lets you navigate complex rooms like the library with a large number of NPCs.
"There are agility paths for players looking for alternative routes. This adds some verticality to the levels and for the exploring player may lead to otherwise unavailable areas. There are also vents and air ducts that can reveal some unseen areas.
"You can distract NPCs by taking out lights with a silent gun, using interactive objects like the fuse box in our E3 demo, or throwing found items, but they'll get smart if you do it too often. We've added a number of inventive 'body containers' to help cover your tracks, and it would be a good idea to collect the security tapes.
"There's a large number of stealthy takedowns, from bare hands to improvised weapons to various firearms. And of course the classic fibrewire, which has been given a mechanics overhaul to be a real potent stealth weapon."
The fibrewire takedown is now a single button press behind an enemy's back. Blood Money veterans will hate that. They'll hate the scripted action sequences that punctuate the levels, the new musicians replacing usual composer Jesper Kyd, and the new checkpoint system which replaces the old quicksaves, too.
They're the players who remember the pillow kill in Beldingford Manor and the shark tank in A Dance With the Devil, the ghost in Traditions of the Trade and the prop gun in Curtains Down. But so do IO, and they're trying to recreate those moments.
"I'm probably the worst judge of Blood Money," says Blystad, when asked what was so wrong with it.
"I know every little corner of it and I know all the dreams and ideas we had that didn't get fulfilled, as well as all the bugs and design flaws. We often boot it up to check on the old ideas and what always stands out to me is the strength of the fantasies and the concepts which are still pretty unique even today.
"But... the presentation is quite archaic and there are a lot of mechanics that are hard to understand - especially if you were new to Hitman games. We've really investigated all the components in Blood Money and rebuilt the mechanics to fit a more empowered experience.
You shouldn't be fighting the game mechanics or struggling to understand the layout of the level, but focusing on your strategy, containing situations, exploring the environment and deciding what kind of Hitman you want to be.
"We've made Absolution the hardest Hitman game when it comes to purist, hardcore play style. We're planning some fiendishly hard challenges for them with rewards that'll match the effort. This is Hitman. Silent Assassin is still the most sought after rating you can get as a hardcore Hitman player, and the perfect playthrough is when nobody even knew you were there."