Hitman: Absolution – Preview and Interview with Torben Ellert
Of all the big games that are coming out this year, one of them has caught my eye as the most interesting, and the one that I’m most excited about, not least because I’ve been a fan for a long while now. Yes, after a six year absence, Agent 47 is back in Hitman: Absolution, and he’s got a heap of cool new things with which to show us that he’s still the world’s best assassin. Of course, you probably know all about the new instinct mode and the fun that comes along with that; this time around, Square Enix and IO Interactive wanted to show off something totally new to the series: Contracts Mode.
We were first introduced to the new mode at an event that took place in the rather beautiful Residenz Astor Film Lounge, where lead gameplay designer, Christian Elverdam and the lead designer of Contracts Mode, Torben Ellert, took us through things. The scene started in familiar surroundings – the library level we saw at last year’s E3 – and we watched 47 traverse the level in much the same way he did last time. Except here, after listening to a young police officer get berated by his senior, our guides paused the game and showed us the Featured Contracts. During a level, you can pause the game and check out a contract on a character in the level, which in this instance was the arsehole senior officer.
It was then that we were thrown into Contracts Mode, an entirely separate mode from the main game that allows players to tackle the main levels but with a completely different objective in mind. You get some information on who the hit is from (the junior officer who was getting yelled at, in this case), how much money you’ll make, and any other requirements you have to fulfil, such as making sure all the bodies are hidden, or using specific weapons or disguises. I’ll come back to that later, but for now, let’s focus on the senior officer.
With the level restarted and 47 back in his original hiding place, our guide decided to take a completely different route through the library, quietly taking out a copper and nicking his outfit before ditching the body in a box. With this new disguise, 47 was able to get right next to his target, before distracting everyone with a well-thrown statue and strangling his mark before anyone had a chance to notice. The kill finished, our favourite assassin strolled out of the building and earned his paycheck.
This was pretty exciting stuff already, but there was still plenty of time for IO to dazzle us. Next up on their agenda was the ability to make your own contracts, and this is where the real meat of the mode is found. Players can choose any level in the game, pick their starting weapon and disguise (which are unlocked with money made from completing contracts), and start making their own hits. In the demo, set in a drugs farm filled with hippies and cops, Torben decided to sneak into a field of marijuana and carefully sneak around the cops swarming the place before settling on his target, a lone cop in a different room. Marking your target is as easy as hitting Y when the button appears over their head, and you can mark up to three targets per contract. After marking him, 47 quickly sneaked over and strangled him with his trademark garrotte wire, before running away. The game records the weapon you use and the disguise you’re wearing at the time of the kill, which you can then set as a condition for your contract.
After wandering through the level and quietly taking out another target, Torben saved his contract with a few extra objectives – the player would be penalised for killing people other than the targets, and they had to use the pistol for the second target. At this point, he sent his contract to a friend so that they could tackle it. His friend turned out to be Christian, who decided to take on the mission in a completely different fashion.His 47 ran into the first room, shot the first target in the head, then planted a bomb for the second one. He then drew attention to the bomb, ran away, detonated, failing two of his objectives by not using a pistol and killing about four other cops, and then ran out the front door using the explosion as a distraction. Interestingly, his score wasn’t hurt too much by his failure to adhere to the objectives, as Contracts Mode also uses a timer, so that if you decided to do the hit quickly and with little care for the conditions set for you, there’s still the chance to get some pretty good scores.
The score is given to you in dollars, and this cash can be used to buy new weapons (and upgrades for these weapons), as well as a selection of disguises to choose from. While there was the chance to use disguises that would fit the scenario, such as a cop outfit, I did notice some sillier options, such as the birds from the New Orleans mission in Blood Money, which just goes to show that the series has not lost its humour. These can be used on each and every contract you take up, so you can tackle anything your friends throw at you in a different way and see if you can get any better results. You can download other people’s contracts to try too, not just the ones your friends challenge you to, and, each week, IO will choose five of their favourites to feature in-game, so it’s in your best interest to make cool and exciting contracts.
With the presentation over, it was time to get my hands on the game. I’d been looking forward to this since Absolution was first announced, so long ago, so my expectations were running high. We were given the chance to check out Contracts Mode in a busy Chinatown square, where there was the option to play an easy contract, with only two targets and no restrictions, and a hard contract, which had three people to take down, along with the restriction that all the bodies had to be hidden, no shots could be missed, the targets had to be killed in the order they’d been marked and no one but the targets could die. Since I like to think of myself as a Hitman veteran, I took on the hard contract, and immediately had my arse handed to me. Good to see they’ve not made it any easier, I guess.
The first target was easy enough: a lone cop hanging around an alley with barely anyone around to see. I grabbed a nearby bottle and threw it against a wall to distract him, then snuck up behind and strangled him, before ditching the body in a box. Simple. My next target, however, was a cop chatting to a woman, right out in the open. I stood watching him for a couple of minutes before it clicked; he will never, and was never supposed to, move from that spot. My brain imploded at the thought, and rather than planning out anything clever, I whipped out my pistol and shot him in the head. Within minutes the police gunned me down.
Take two, and this time I went for a different approach; a previous bit of scouting had revealed a sniper rifle in my third target’s base, so I ran over there, distracted the cop standing guard by destroying a fuse box, took out my third target (incurring a penalty for doing the hits out of order) and grabbed the rifle. Then, I simply popped one in the head of my immovable cop, and another in the chest of the alley cop who had decided to, rather wisely, run for his life, before making like a tree and getting the hell out of there. Remarkably, I had the third best score of the day, despite incurring every penalty possible. It’s nice that you can still score highly while doing things your own way, and it means you won’t be pulling your hair out trying to find the “right” way to do things.
After gorging myself on an event and hands-on time, I also had the absolute pleasure to sit down with the lead designer of Contracts Mode, Torben Ellert, who rather kindly showed me where I was going wrong with my killing. He pointed out that I could use distractions to lure the cop somewhere secluded, or even get seen killing the first cop, alerting a nearby chef, who would inform the copper, and then taking him out when he came to investigate. And after schooling me at his own game, he also took the time to answer some questions.
The game itself seems to have shifted from the usual Hitman formula to a stealth-action game, would you say that’s fair?
Well, it’s interesting, we’ve had this question quite a lot, and a lot of this is because of the nature of marketing, which shows certain aspects of the game as opposed to other aspects. I don’t think it’s fair to stamp it as a “Splinter” clone, because the key thing in the Hitman franchise, and very much in Absolution, is the freedom of choice. The Chinatown square, I think, is a prime example of that. You can go in guns blazing and pull it off. You can sneak in and go guns blazing and pull it off. Or you can find out where the guy has lunch and make sure he has bad sushi.
As you say, there’s a variety of different ways of doing things, how difficult is it to design levels with this amount of choice in mind?
It’s tricky. We do a lot of it with an eye to the story, so we think about, well, who is the king of Chinatown? What kind of things would he do? Well, if he had a car, then he really wouldn’t want people messing with it. So we’ll set it up so that if you go and bang on the car and set off alarm, he’ll come and see what’s going on, and you can use that to lure him away. But because we also have this emergent AI, we can actually use a lot of these things who are not targets in story mode, and that’s where it becomes awesome for Contracts. So you can use the distraction system, or even the way that civilians will run off to tell policemen that something’s wrong and lure them away from patrol routes; all these things can be done because the AI is quite robust.
The whole thing is that 47 works alone. So when we were thinking about what we could do in Absolution to add a more social aspect to the game, we looked at what fans were doing with the games since Blood Money and before. They’ve been creating contracts, but they had to do it by YouTubing their playthrough, then making note of their score in the comments and something like that. So we thought, why not make it a game mode? Why not make it possible for a player to create a challenge simply by demonstrating how awesome he is, putting it on a server, scoring it, telling his friends about it, creating leaderboards around it and then inviting other people to do better?
We know that our players are going to break the rules in some amazing way, and instead of putting rules in place to prevent that, we wanted to embrace it. We basically said, “look, you guys are going to come up with things that we never would have thought of – so go ahead”.
There’s a lot being said about the community keeping the mode alive with their own contracts, but will you be supporting the game with new contracts made by the team?
Oh yes, and there’s several different ways that we’ll do that. In the game itself, we have what we call Featured Contracts. These are contracts that appear in story mode, almost as an advertisement for Contracts Mode, and we’ll be using our own contracts for that, but we’ll also be using contracts from the community. So if you make an awesome contract, it could end up being the most played contract in the world if it gets featured on a level that people play a lot.
The other thing we’ll do is create competitions. Those could be regional competitions – you can imagine, UK vs France, that could lead to some competition. And players will of course create competitions between themselves. We’ve got this really robust community tool that we’ll use to create competitions and featured contracts, so that we keep the challenge alive, and we keep the conversation between the fans and us going after launch.
We should probably touch on the controversial trailer a bit; did you think it wouldn’t be as badly received as it was?
We didn’t see it coming, absolutely didn’t see it coming. The thing with the Hitman franchise is that we’ve always had slightly over-the-top characters. Like, in Blood Money, there’s an angel running around with a swordstick, and ludicrous things like that. Hitman is a straight up and down guy, that guy does not make small talk at parties, and if you’re going to have a game that isn’t really dark, you need to foil it with something, and that whole dark humour has been key to the series from the beginning – there was this wonderful quote from the first game where your target is this big fat guy, and Hitman walks up to him and says, deadpan, “fatty foods can kill you”.
Did the backlash from the trailer affect the team at all?
Well, I mean… we basically just focused on getting our jobs done.
Hitman: Absolution will be out on November 20th.
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