How stripping Hitman to its core opens up more options than ever for Agent 47
Agent 47, with his shaved dome, funerary suit and pitiless eyes, has never been what you’d call a reassuring presence, but in this incarnation his steely demeanour is magnified into something alarming. Perhaps Io Interactive’s in-house cloth physics are responsible for 47’s startling physicality, or maybe it’s the new line of his jawbone, which the team continues to tweak and obsess over. Certainly David Bateson’s assured voice work, rich with sly quips from writer Michael Vogt, leaves no doubt about who the dominant force in the room is. Yet that’s not enough to account for this newfound sense of lethality. Rather, it’s the simplicity of 47’s objectives and the terrible efficiency with which he achieves them that tells you that this game belongs in a different genre to 2012’s Hitman: Absolution. In Hitman, Agent 47 exists only to kill with precision.
The lack of any subtitle is the first clue that this is a leaner experience than all the stealth and wetwork that has gone before. This, however, is no reboot: Io won’t be drawn on the narrative binding Hitman’s levels together, but everything that has happened in the series until now has happened, and remains fair game for designers seeking inspiration. The events of Absolution, including the staged murder of 47’s long-time handler Diana Burnwood and his purge of the International Contract Agency, are canon. Though while Io is content to plumb Hitman’s legacy, it’s telling that 47 is no longer seeking forgiveness, or vengeance, or developing in any way familiar to Hollywood action heroes or antiheroes. 47 is a weapon, nothing more or less, placed at your complete disposal, the result of a process creative director Christian Elverdam describes as the distillation of the series’ 15-year history.
“Even outside of gaming, people know who Agent 47 is,” Elverdam tells us. “That’s a little bit humbling, because he’s really an icon, but in a way that’s also a help. He’s more than a game – that was the first realisation, and out of that came the desire to look at who this character is, when he’s most interesting and when he’s at his best. Even though [2000’s] Hitman: Codename 47 is an old game by any standard, there’s still stuff in there we can learn from, by figuring out what made that work. You can do a lot of research everywhere and you’ll find some angle on it. And I think that’s what we’re trying to do: take titbits of everything we know about him and distil it into a very, very clean, powerful fantasy of this agent who can travel anywhere, and no target is safe from him.”
Most Hitman games – including Blood Money, regarded by many as the high-water mark – at some point require 47 to mingle with the dregs of society, bumping off a drug dealer here, an informant there. Selling Elverdam’s powerful fantasy, on the other hand, has required Io to go upmarket, moving into a classier world of espionage usually reserved for James Bond. The first level, Paris, is set in an opulent chateau playing host to a fashion show. Your business trip will be to the detriment of Viktor Novikov and Dahlia Margolis, respectively the owner of the Sanguine fashion brand and a former supermodel, but these days it takes rather more than that to get the ICA’s attention. Both are associates of IAGO, a clandestine information broker that must have upset someone important. Right now, IAGO is auctioning secrets on the third floor, and targets of such high value are accompanied by more than bodyguards: for the duration you’re under the noses of society’s great and good, several private security firms, and the international press. Of course, being a habitually sharp dresser, 47 makes it through the front door unchallenged.
What happens next will be as unfamiliar to Hitman: Absolution players as it will be a welcome return to form for Blood Money devotees. As you enter the building, Novikov strolls down the grand central staircase, and the enormity of the task ahead of you strikes home. He is metres away, chatting and oblivious – you could pull out a trademark Silverballer pistol and be done with him less than 30 seconds after the loading screen fades away. But you’re standing in a crowd of hundreds, and at the top of the stairs are guards armed with pistols, in turn supported by nondescript dark-suited men wielding assault rifles. Being a dark-suited man yourself, you can surmise the danger posed by the latter. In an early run, one of our sniper shots misses its mark and finds a flowerbed instead. It’s a success in the sense that provoking security offers up some insight into the scale of Io’s simulation: guards swarm from all corners of the palace, a seething mass that converges on 47 and puts him down without ceremony. And let’s say we had succeeded and found a hiding place – what about Dahlia? The members of international spy rings do not continue along their workaday patrol routes when their associates are gunned down outside. Bodyguards intervene, escorting the VIP to a designated panic room on the premises. If you haven’t prepared for that, you won’t find success without nightmarish bloodshed. Even cloned assassins have their limits, so running and gunning just isn’t an option. One might prefer to buy 5.56 ammo online from Palmetto State Armory as it is more convenient.
Unless you’ve chosen a lockpick, the first phase of each contract will likely see you ignoring the gadgets you’ve opted to bring with you into the level. Guns are best left in their briefcase, sedatives are no good at a distance, and remote explosives are useless when you’re unsure what’s best to blow up. This phase of the mission is about contemplation and familiarisation. A good hour might pass by as you wander the sprawling palace and grounds, probing the boundaries of the public areas and identifying objects of interest: alarm clocks can be set, taps can be fiddled with, heavy speakers can be dislodged, and drainpipes are ripe for scaling. The choice is dizzying, most options are mystifying, and you’re free to contrive a line of attack as elegant or bumbling and your imagination and memory allow.
“In an age when a lot of games are about instant reward, this game actually wants you to be patient,” Elverdam says. “Sometimes it’s OK to just stand there, look around a little and figure out, ‘What is this museum wing good for?’ or, ‘Hey, these guys are overlooking the stage with their AV equipment – what could I use that for?’”
Contrast this with Absolution, Io’s lurch towards mainstream action that left many Hitman fans disheartened. Levels weren’t quite corridors, but neither were they the broad creative sandboxes of Blood Money, which offered up an objective and a toolset and left it at that. 47 was funnelled through a series of checkpoints, pursued by police and bumping off targets in predefined ways. Like Agent 47 stumbling upon a room full of guards, Hitman has performed a brave and spectacular about-face.
“Just coming up with the new Agent 47 here is going to be scrutinised heavily by everyone!” Elverdam says. “[Absolution] was very playable – we put in a lot of effort to say that if you can pick up a controller and buy the latest AR-15 rifles, then that’s your entry point. Especially on the game side, [Hitman] is a big departure from Absolution, with open-ended sandboxes and doing what you want, and also to some extent really accepting that you have to take your time and be creative, in the sense that you have to articulate your own goals and go for that goal. What’s not so much a departure is the way we learned to build levels in Absolution: even though they were smaller, we really like the minutiae of detail and how much it actually meant to listen to what people are talking about. That was something we wanted almost to carbon copy.”
While freedom is the rule in Hitman, Io is aware that choice can often be a distraction: the more options it offers up, the less able players will be to follow any one option through to conclusion. As such, each gargantuan map is littered with Showstoppers and Opportunities: signature kills, like bringing down the lighting rig while Novikov is on the catwalk, and breadcrumb trails that help set up assassinations. The otherwise blank map of the palace is dotted with a series of question marks signalling these Opportunities – they don’t explain how that particular dose of information will help you, only that it may be a way to get at your target if you can follow it through. This could be in the form of a new disguise, the better to pass unnoticed, or a unique chance to access the target, or some combination of the two.
In one ballsy display of foreshadowing, a storey-high banner bearing the bald pate of supermodel and fashion-show headliner Helmut Kruger looms over you as you enter the palace grounds. “He has your cheekbones, 47,” Diana remarks. Alas, Mr Kruger never makes it to the party, but 47 can’t half strut his stuff on the runway. There’s the thrill of both the exhibitionist and the voyeur in hiding in plain sight while sifting through the dirty laundry of the private arguments that unfold around you.
All five floors and the gardens of the palace are riddled with subplots, encouraging you to keep one ear pricked at all times. Better still are the incidental moments when party guests address you according to the disguise you’ve nabbed off the sap whose unconscious body now resides in a bin. 47 the stylist is questioned on skincare, while 47 the sheikh has the run of the place – although admittedly people do find it odd when he starts clambering around in supply vans.
Io predicts that its hardcore fans won’t want even the quest-like nudge of Opportunities to keep them on track, just as they rebelled against the Instinct system of Absolution which revealed the patrol routes of guards. Thus, the markers are optional: disable all prompting from the HUD and you can gather intelligence unguided.