E3 2011: What we want from Hitman: Absolution
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.