By valuing stealth, careful observation and meticulous planning over the run-and-gun bulletstorms of its contemporaries, the Hitman series has earned a sizable fan base over its long and celebrated career. As coldblooded antihero Agent 47, the player quietly stalks his prey through a Kafka-esque maze of guards and security measures, donning disguises, blending in with the crowd and evading or subduing threats in order to efficiently fulfill his latest contract kill. The key phrase here is blending in; in Hitman, to stand out is to be detected, and to be detected is to die in a hail of gunfire.
This tense, analytical formula has served Hitman well over many successful sequels. But the steep learning curve and unforgiving stealth segments have also proven polarizing, preventing some newcomers from embracing what is by all accounts a uniquely rewarding stealth-action title. Taking a cue from 2011’s successful launch of Deus Ex: Human Revolution — another stealth game that sought to broaden its appeal without betraying its roots — Hitman: Absolution seeks to have its bloody cake and eat it, too.
To put it bluntly, Agent 47 no longer sucks in combat. In previous games, Agent 47 was a ghost, not a fighter. He stiffly plodded through the environments like an avenging automaton, poisoning donuts, setting up nasty “accidents,” always preferring to do his dirty deeds behind closed doors. In Hitman: Absolution, he’s capable of killing openly and gracefully, swapping lead with military precision and managing cover like a pro. But the classic stealth approach is fully supported, too. For the first time in Hitman history, you have a choice between two radically different but equally engaging interpretations of Hitman.
To prove this point, I sat in on a recent demo of the game running on PS3 — and looking mighty fine, may I add. A producer at developer IO Interactive played through a lengthy sequence using Agent 47’s time-tested skillset of distraction and deception. The result was a succession of nailbiting sequences in which Agent 47 narrowly avoided detection, weaving and rolling between cover, setting off small distractions in the environment to lure away and separate roaming guards, and donning disguises to penetrate deeper into the compound. Then the producer replayed the same scenario using Hitman: Absolution‘s overhauled action gameplay. Instead of misdirecting his foes to avoid combat, Agent 47 brutally dispatched every poor sap he came across, hurling fire axes into craniums, bashing brains in with giant crucifixes, and double-tapping enemies at close range using a recovered pistol. The climax was a shootout against a mob of thugs using a room-clearing shotgun, cover-based shooting tactics, and a slow-mo burst of firepower called “Point Shooting.” And you know what? It looked like a helluva lot of fun.
Stealth or shooting: In Hitman: Absolution, the choice will be yours. To discuss the nitty gritty of this 2012 stealth-action title, I armed myself with questions submitted by @PlayStation followers and caught up with Lead Producer Hakan Abrak for an in-depth interview. If you have questions, leave them in the comments!
PlayStation.Blog: Is Hitman: Absolution a direct follow-up to Blood Money? (asked by @KnightAttack09 and @APakwashee)
Hakan Abrak, lead producer, Hitman: Absolution: It’s not set in a specific Hitman timeline. The setting is a bit different and we’re taking the story somewhere else — you start the game by killing Diana, the only truly human connection Agent 47 has ever had. And that changes the stakes immensely. In earlier games, Diana’s contracts set the tone and direction of the story. This time, Agent 47 is on his own. He must choose his next steps on his own.
PSB: Why does Agent 47 kill Diana?
HA: I don’t want to go into too many details, but something’s happening at the agency. Agent 47 suddenly receives a contract to kill Diana, and … well, he’s very professional! He kills her. Diana has been Agent 47’s connection for a long, long time, so when she makes a dying wish for him to seek out a girl named Victoria, he takes it on as a personal mission. There’s a strong connection to the the title of the game, Absolution. He’s seeking absolution for … something.
PSB: Is Hitman: Absolution a re-envisioning or reboot of the Hitman premise?
HA: I don’t know that I’d go that far, but we are exploring different aspects of Agent 47. The story is darker, more personal. You get to experience Agent 47 being placed in an unusual situation. He’s not just taking on contracts; he’s being hunted and he’s hunting for personal reasons. If you’re a longtime series fan, you know that’s very unusual for the cold, calculating Agent 47.
PSB: What was your primary goal from a gameplay perspective?
HA: We’ve been developing this game for a long time, and it’s very much linked to the technology, especially creating more complex, more believable artificial intelligence. Early on, we knew we couldn’t achieve our ambitions with the older Glacier 1 engine, so we decided to create Glacier 2. It’s a huge challenge to create new game technology, but it brought a lot of benefits.
PSB: Such as? What does Glacier 2 enable you to do that you couldn’t do before?
HA: We wanted to bring more fidelity to everything, to expand this concept of a living, breathing world. The characters are less binary and react in a lot of new ways. But we also wanted to enhance Agent 47’s skills and abilities, so we’ve introduced this concept of Instinct — an umbrella feature that conveys his keen senses. Agent 47 was genetically engineered to be the ultimate assassin, and in the past we’ve had a hard time communicating that through game mechanics. But with Absolution, I think we’ve succeeded in integrating his keen senses into the moment-to-moment gameplay. The way he can sense others around him, see through walls, shoot multiple targets almost instantly with Point Shooting…
PSB: Hitman is much loved for its stealth gameplay. What have you done to enhance it?
HA: When you’re making a stealth game, it’s important to find new ways to build tension. We built a lot of prototypes for Hitman: Absolution, and we learned that creating a “Giger counter” effect was a very effective way to communicate that the player is about to get spotted — you’d better move! In earlier games, it could be frustrating because you didn’t know when an enemy was about to spot you. And that “Giger counter” effect has the bonus effect of making you squirm when you play, it builds more tension. I find myself saying “ooh! ooh! ooh!” when I’m sneaking around.
PSB: Are you expanding on Agent 47’s use of disguises?
HA: Disguises are another area where we’ve added a lot more fidelity. If I’m wearing a guard outfit, guard characters will have an easy time seeing through my disguise…but other characters will be less likely to notice. Disguises have different ratings, too, and also different armour ratings: a SWAT disguise will give you far more protection than a doctor’s outfit.
When he’s disguised, Agent 47 can also act his way out of trouble when he has to walk near an enemy: he can scratch his head, pretend to speak into a radio to briefly deflect attention when he has to walk close to an enemy.
PSB: Is it fair to say that stealth and aggression are equally valid strategies in Hitman: Absolution?
HA: There are many more options for different emotional states and approaches to the gameplay. Some players do prefer a more violent approach; in earlier Hitman games, you were punished for that. If you screwed up, the entire level would come down on your head. But now, action is a more compelling option. But to our veteran fans, rest assured, the stealth is fully intact and better than ever!
Voyeurism has always been a key storytelling focus in Hitman, and we still have a lot of these small stories peppered throughout the game. It’s where a lot of the replayability comes in, actually. If you go into the game guns blazing, you’ll get a unique experience … but if you’re stealthy and explore more thoroughly, you’ll learn a lot more about the world and characters by overhearing conversations and the like.
PSB: Finally, do you think multiplayer is an important feature for a Hitman game? (asked by @yasemann)
HA: Agent 47 works alone.