The first trailer of IO Interactive's next Hitman game, Run For Your Life, looks like a departure from the series. The last game, Blood Money, exemplified the best of what the Hitman games had become: open, freely roamable environments in which no-one is hostile to you until you do something wrong. Infiltration was based around finding the right disguise, and there was very little actual stealth.
The first video of Absolution shows more sneaking in the shadows than playing dress-up. It shows hostile environments where Agent 47 can't afford to be seen. And it shows a sequence in which you're fleeing across the rooftops of Chicago, evading the searchlight of a circling police chopper. It's not at all what we've come to expect, so we asked game director Tore Blystad if it's representative of the rest of the game.
“There are times in the game that we want to dictate a part for the player,” Tore says of the chase sequence. “But it is quite rare and in most of the cases we've decided against it on the team, after play-testing it.”
IO want Absolution to tell stories. “What's always worked well in the Hitman games is the strange and often seedy stories the player could encounter throughout the levels,” Blystad says. “It's very much a voyeur game, where you often feel like watching something that you're not supposed to see. We spend a lot of time integrating the situations and dialogue into the game, and the level designers work closely with the script writers to get the best possible drama out of the levels.”
In the same mission as the helicopter chase, an overheard clash between rookie cop Fizano and his sergeant adds a degree of humanity to characters that could otherwise be ignored. “There are all kinds of personalities and they have their own little feuds and disputes,” says Blystad.
When 47 subsequently takes the rookie hostage in IO's demonstration, the moment is charged. “We get a lot of comments from our play-through where 47 kills Fizano, saying that it's unfair. When the players get their hands on it they can choose the outcome by themselves.”
The chatter and scripted events that make up these stories go on while you play, so how much of them you experience depends on your play style. If you're interested in what's going on, you can stay hidden and listen to the whole thing. If not, you can start killing who you need to kill and sneaking past whoever you don't.
But while previous Hitman games have included incidental stories like this, the Fizano situation is unusual for the series. More commonly, guards and civilians were overheard bitching, snapping at each other or obsessing over sex – as Tore says, the stories are seedy. Their personalities seemed designed to encourage the kind of disdain a dispassionate killer might feel for the people he passes on his jobs, whether he kills them or not. “In a way you can say we do the opposite in Absolution; we want the NPCs to be more human and believable, so that the player thinks twice before going on a killing spree.”
Guards and bystanders are more human in other ways, too. “We have changed the way the AI works,” says Blystad. “They have far larger brains and they have a lot more information about the world. They can also communicate more logically. Previously they seemed telepathic, and if you set off one guard every NPC in the level would be on to you. In Absolution, things propagate more logically and the player can stop information from spreading if he reacts fast.”
The fact that the game has improved stealth mechanics – hugging cover, an indicator of who's seeing you, and a brief x-ray vision ability – is not a bad thing. What is more worrying in that first footage is the moment when 47, disguised as a cop, puts a hand over his face to fool some passing cops. Is that conspicuous 'blend in' power what disguise has been reduced to?
“The blend in is a powerful feature enabling the player to bluff his was past NPCs using instinct power. Instinct is an economy, and blending is pretty expensive, so it's only possible to use sparingly.”
The rest of the time, disguise is more organic. “The NPCs see through disguises from a distance, but it takes time for them to find out, so mostly the disguise gameplay is about 'surfing' on the edge of the NPCs' vision to scope the area, or using stationary interactive objects that are custom for each disguise – hiding in plain sight.”
“The doughnut trays from Run For Your Life are an example of this, which is specific for police. Interacting with these objects enables 47 to stay in character, and the NPCs will treat them as one of their own. So the player can use this mechanic to scope out the area and look for weaknesses in the defence.”
Finding the right disguise is no longer enough, you have to also play the role. It'll be interesting to see whether making it more of a game will overcomplicate Hitman, or if it will feel like the logical next step in social stealth.