Hitman Absolution, “the first assassin,” goes gunning for story and mainstream success
Hitman Absolution is a tough game to play in demo form. I’m dropped into a mission where I have to kill a man in the center of a busy street, and I notice how much of the mission has been gamified. I get hints about what to do next. I am scored based on certain decisions. I ended things by picking up a sniper rifle in a nearby apartment and shooting my target in the head. I’m spotted as I walk away, although I’m not sure what gave me away. I ran to the exit.
The story of 47
I spoke with Luke Valentine, the game’s producer, and asked what goes into creating each mission. “Are you thinking this is a mission, what you’ve just played?” he asked. Well, yes. From my point of view it was a self-contained hit, with a beginning, middle and an end. “I think of it as being more free-form. We’re not thinking of it in a military sense,” he explained. “It’s a story driven game, and there is a story behind this particular level, but it’s a level that happens to have a hit, which is a clear objective. Of course everyone is focused on the hit, but it’s not…” he paused for a moment. “I don’t think that’s the first thing we’re thinking of.” Hitman: Absolution has a story to tell the player, and that story is important to the team behind the game. “I would say on one level, the story comes first,” Valentine said. “Let’s tell an interesting story about Agent 47.” The hit within each level is just an extra layer used to make that story more interesting to the player. It’s an interesting answer to my question, but Agent 47 is a hitman. It’s the name of the game. The iconography remains strong: the bald head, barcode, dual-wielded “ballers,” and red tie will be instantly recognizable to most gamers above the age of 20 or so. When we remember the past games, however, it’s usually in the context of an in interesting hit, not the overall story of that particular game or the franchise. That seems to bother Valentine.He also hinted that there would be portions of the game that don’t revolve around specific targets or hits. Even though the focus is on the story, I was promised the missions will continue to give you the freedom to choose your own strategies.“There are parts of the game that are more story-driven, but much of the game is very open,” Valentine said. “We’ve communicated already that we have a checkpoint system, so the sequence of the story is linear as Chapter 2 follows Chapter 1, but the progression between those checkpoints is very open. The story remains the same, but how you complete it is very free.” You can shoot your way through each level, but you’ll miss much of what makes the game unique. There are ways to set up kills so they appear to be accidents, and those are based on scripted events, but you can also explore the area and find other ways of finishing each mission. There is a scoring system in place, and you’ll be able to stack yourself up against your friends, your region, and also the world to figure out who is the best assassin. The hint system is turned on during the demo so, although I finish things off with a sniper shot, I have some idea of how to do things with more elegance. I’m reminded of Nels Anderson’s excellent post about what makes stealth elements satisfying as I try to figure out how I tipped off NPCs in certain situations. One of the core rules of difficulty is that you should always feel like you messed up when you fail an objective, and not the game. There were several moments where I was caught in the demo that seemed… suspicious. I may just need to practice more. What’s striking is the number of characters in the level; it almost felt like an Assasin’s Creed game. Moving in and out of the crowd was an important skill, and the game gives you hints about whether or not you’re drawing attention to yourself. I couldn't seem to get into the groove as I played the demo, and I felt like the game held my hand while punishing me for doing things I didn't understand were wrong. These could be issues with the game's systems, or the fact I'm trying to play a tense, methodical game in a party setting. It was stressed to me that the difficulty levels are still being worked on. The similarities between Hitman: Absolution and that certain other franchise with a new entry launching near the end of the year aren't lost on Valentine. “We want success, we’re hungry for it,” he said, stating that they’re hoping to beat the sales of past Hitman games. “One of our messages around the campaign is that Hitman is the original assassin. Let’s be upfront about that. He’s been quiet for six years. And a lot can happen in six years, but we were there first. We want that space.”