This is the first in our three-part series of articles on Absolution. Here's our second, an examination of IO's more controversial introductions to the series, and our third on the challenges of building AI for stealth games.
Our demo of Hitman: Absolution opens with a start screen which depicts a rain-splattered window looking out onto a stormy city at night, half-hidden by the title of the game. Game director Tore Blystad, who first worked on Hitman: Contracts, was Blood Money’s art director, and has been working on Absolution in some form since the completion of that game begins to set the scene. He informs us that the city beyond that rainy window is Chicago – “a good place for a hitman to lie low” – and that the Agent 47 we’re about to meet isn’t on a hit, but on the run. And then our demo begins.
The window smashes to pieces as a familiar bald and besuited form crashes through it, then dives out of sight. As the camera pans around, we see the building 47 has just broken into is a library – and a library rapidly filling with members of the Chicago Police Department at that. When the camera finally catches up with 47, he’s taking cover behind a pillar on the first floor. A close-up on his face reveals two things – that IO’s new Glacier 2 engine is capable of rendering faces with astonishing detail, and an Agent 47 who looks calm, but distinctly under pressure.
Seconds pass before the first changes to the series formula become apparent. Agent 47 occupies the scene’s foreground, with the CPD spreading out to explore the stacks below. As we watch, 47 drops lithely to the floor, slinking along railings and sticking to book stacks using what is unmistakably a cover mechanic. The assassin has always been stealthy, but also cumbersome. He’s never moved this gracefully.
“We wanted the player to feel like the ultimate assassin and not just have the fantasy on the box cover,” explains Blystad. “Most people, I mean normal humans, when they play Hitman games – the old games – they kind of feel like a rubbish assassin that just has to bring out his guns and then start shooting everybody. Movements and the controls should be easy to use.”
Gameplay director Christian Elverdam interjects: “We spent a lot of time making core movement very responsive, because in Hitman, if you overstep a little bit and you get busted, you don’t really appreciate that, right? So we really worked hard on making it ultra-snappy. As for the cover system, it’s a choice whether you want to use it or not. We made it so that if you are crouched and moving around, you are below cover height.”
IO has designed each level to be possible to play without being seen to gain the classic Silent Assassin ranking
The 47 of old could stay out of sight when he needed to, but there was an ungainly quality to his moveset. If you found yourself somewhere out of bounds, it was better to be disguised than hidden. But if the demo is anything to go by, 47 can now creep, skulk and stalk with the best of this generation’s stealthy protagonists.
He’s borrowed some other tricks from them, too. Down on the ground floor, 47 hides behind a bookshelf while cops patrol the stacks. The screen darkens, and enemies begin burning with a red glow. This is Instinct mode, which works similarly to the Detective mode in Arkham Asylum, albeit with some improvements. As well as allowing 47 to monitor enemy movements through walls, burning-red trails highlight the patrol routes enemies are about to take, and the mode highlights points of interest such as climbable ledges and vents, too. As with the smoother controls and cover system, it’s a calculated addition, designed to improve the player’s ability to duck and weave among enemies and improvise responses to their behaviour. This new feature will be restricted in use, powered by a bar that refills as a reward for silent, stealthy takedowns.
Most importantly, Instinct mode replaces the map screen from previous Hitman games – which, on normal difficulty at least, gave 47 exterior and interior views of the locations he infiltrated, letting him track guard movements anywhere in the level.
“People were playing in a top-down mode rather than sitting in the game and making choices based on what is on the screen,” explains Blystad. “The AI is doing a lot of stuff. In the old games they would have patrol paths that could be ten minutes long. We’d rather have them do more organic paths, and we found that we needed a tool for the player to be able to anticipate whatever the AI would be doing, so that they could feel safe and not be busted at any random time.” Look out on Friday for an in-depth look at the challenges Hitman's AI has posed IO.