What we saw in our playthrough of Hitman: Absolution demo level was pretty choreographed, designed to show off 47’s new moves. There are plenty of alternative approaches in this sandbox, of course. He could have easily shot his way out of the library, or snatched a downed cop’s outfit for a convenient disguise. But sandbox or not, this closed-off and self-contained library segment is simply one part of a greater whole. For the first time in the Hitman series, levels will be divided into discrete checkpoints. Many of these will be as large and open-ended as the levels from previous Hitman games, but others, like the library segment we’ve just seen, will be tighter, more focused sandboxes.
“Old levels were built like a checklist,” game director Tore Blystad explains. “There were all these elements we had to have: we had to have a fusebox, we had to have a hiding closet, a body container, yada yada yada. Now it’s more ‘what’s the focus on this checkpoint? What’s the focus on this level?’ and we build everything around that. We can say: ‘OK, there are no hiding places on this level’ and that’s completely fine because we can build the gameplay around that.”
The point is not that the classic Hitman gameplay has disappeared – many levels will still take place in large, sandbox environments complete with unsuspecting targets – it’s that IO hopes to build a greater variety of gameplay challenges around that core.
Despite being over quickly, the nature of the sequence we see in which Agent 47 encounters a helicopter as he exits the library is scripted and unavoidable. It marks a significant departure for the series.
“We need some pacing tools in the game,” explains Blystad. “They’re contained enough that the classic Hitman player won’t mind them, and they’ll get an experience that they wouldn’t normally have, and we can put more focus on the production side and make an interesting helicopter moment, rather than a generic one that would have to take everything into consideration: ‘Are you playing action? Are you playing stealth?’”
“It allows some more story-driven elements,” adds gameplay director Christian Elverdam. “This level is very story-driven, and others are way more explorative, and that’s how we’ve paced the game. It’s actually quite refreshing – you’re not always in exploration mode.” Another bonus of the checkpoint system is that it allows what IO refers to as ‘containment-based gameplay’ – players will be able to restrict their foul-ups to one section of an environment rather than inciting the wrath of a whole level’s guards.
Our demo ends with 47 losing himself in a crowd, but we suspect that’s not it for the level. Will bustling crowds play a significant part in the rest of the game? IO has flirted with such technology before, of course – in both Blood Money and Kane & Lynch. “It’s deliberately a tease at this point,” says Blystad, smiling. “We’re super-excited about this. It’s one of the areas we’ve been working on most on the tech side. The ways we’re using [the crowd] now will be very different.”
Elverdam adds: “We have this family of stealth and it’s part of that family – how you deal with crowds.” At the moment, however, neither is willing to divulge more.
For all the changes, Absolution is unmistakably a Hitman game – it retains the black humour, the freedom, and most importantly, it presents the player with situations which are as much puzzles to solve as they are challenges to overcome. And as fundamental as its changes appear, they’re calculated to empower players in the process of making these moment-to-moment choices. “It was very controversial within the company,” says Blystad, “going for a more checkpoint-based approach and scaling down some areas, but when we implemented it and had users coming in, it’s been unanimously praised rather than hated. Everybody loves the fact that it’s more contained, more forgiving. It’s easier to improvise within sections rather than having to put your entire level progress at stake at any given time.”
The Hitman series has always promised the chance to be Death in $20,000 suit, yet it forced players to learn the rules of its expansive and opaque sandboxes first. How well the new, tightly designed levels will work alongside the series’ classic open-ended designs remains unclear, but, for those who never warmed to Hitman’s idiosyncrasies, Absolution may finally deliver the dark fantasy IO always promised.