Normally, we're not of the opinion that video games make people violent, but after our session with Hitman we wonder whether there may be some truth to it. We pass the rear entrance to a theatre where goods are being unloaded, and rubbish bags are being dragged out. If we had to sneak in and assassinate a crime lord who enjoyed the evening's performance, would you sneak in disguised as a worker, or should you rather go for the dishwasher, grab a box of fruit, and move into the kitchen unnoticed? There are so many possibilities and our mind is racing having just played the latest Hitman.
Following the reveal of the next chapter in the Hitman series, simply called Hitman this time around, there has been a bit of confusion about the way it would be released. Originally the game was set to a partial release in late 2015, with content subsequently released continuously throughout 2016 - without extra cost or the need for a season pass. The release was postponed and the game was changed to a fully episodic AAA title. The intro package will be released on March 11th, then all the planned locations such as Thailand, Italy and Japan, will be published monthly, until the end of the year when a full disc based version is planned. You can initially choose to simply buy the initial package, but you can also choose to buy the full game at the start, and all future content will be available without having to pull out your wallet again. The intro includes a prologue and Paris, and this is what we were allowed to sample during the preview event.
This release model may seem a bit strange, but Hannes Seifert, head of IO Interactive, reasons thus: "Hitman has been around for fifteen years and in that time we have only released five games. [...] After 'Blood Money', we spent six years on Absolution."
Hannes explains how this gave them little opportunity to respond to what players wanted, and to interact and expand the game after its release. Absolution was the first time they tried to adjust the game based on player feedback, and the first time they tried to implement a sort of multiplayer, in the form of Contracts, which were far more popular than expected. This inspired the idea of doing things in a slightly different manner, and publishing the game episodically in order to exploit the new opportunities that come with being constantly connected through the Internet. Traveling around the world as a murderous tourist was one of the most popular aspects of the previous games, and the developers wanted to combine these things, a concept referred to as the World of Assassination.
World of Assassination is a kind of open-world for the player to roam around in. The game is not open-world as we know it from the GTA and the like, but on a world map you have a number of locations with different potential targets which you can choose from. This world is going to have a living element where developers will add events and tasks on a weekly basis. For example, people of interest will appear, so-called elusive targets, which will only be available for 48 hours and then disappear forever. Naturally there will be prestige associated with assassinating these subjects, and if you at the end - of what the developers refer to as "season one" - have gotten your hands on all of these targets, you are a serious assassin. Less hardcore options will also be added continuously.
The Contracts mode from Absolution is back in an expanded and improved version, and in addition to the contracts the community creates, IO Interactive will also add them in the form of escalation contracts. As the name suggests, they will start out as simple tasks, but will gradually escalate in severity, and can trigger extra points for quick and creative implementation. The points will open up new equipment, so you are better able to carefully design your approach to missions, even before you travel, by choosing the right weapons and gadgets.
All of these features and the ability of developers to continuously follow players and make adjustments should ensure that the world feels alive. This approach to the game world pushed back the narrative a bit compared to Absolution, which was largely story driven. The game will have an overarching story, but it will be integrated into the levels themselves, you'll meet important people and can listen in on conversations that can provide insight into what is going on. At present this live element is only a promise, and obviously not something we could see in full during our time with the game, but it sounds like an interesting approach, which done properly, could really enrich the game.
What we were allowed to try in the few hours we had was as mentioned, roughly equivalent to the intro package. The prologue goes back twenty years, to when Agent 47 first started at The Agency. Here we meet Diane for the first time, and go through 47's training, which acts as a tutorial. These are rather amusingly set up as a film set where you need to recreate famous (fictional) assassinations, carried out throughout history. The gameplay is classic Hitman, but it is quickly obvious how much focus has been given to empowering the player to be creative.
There are a lot of obvious ways to proceed, but there's less obvious methods too discover too, and it's fun to discover them all and try them out. Of course, we try the classical approach first; to dress up as a waiter or a security guard to get as close to the target as possible, but there's a new feature called opportunities can help you find more creative ways to assassinate the target. These can be found in various ways around the levels. In the tutorial we were tasked with murdering a man named Jasper Knight. We overhear some mechanics' conversation about a fighter plane Jasper needs to test and suddenly the screen says "opportunity revealed". We subdue a mechanic, steal his clothes, and sneak into the hangar.
There's a safety checklist and we discreetly remove the safety from the ejection seat in the aircraft. We call for Jasper, who comes down reluctantly to check the plane, assuring him that the ejection seat is off, but he just has to try the button - and one must assume that there must have been a subsequent search for his remains. As a more casual player you are given some pointers on how to be creative about your objectives. However, you can turn them off altogether if you want more of a challenge.
After completing the prologue we jump forward to present day Paris. Here we find Viktor Novikov, a big shot in the fashion world, setting up a show where the who's who of the fashion world is set to attend.
Coincidentally, he is also a member of IAGO, a large international spy network that has stolen a NOC list, and therefore Agent 47 has to end his life. If the prologue seemed to have multiple options, it is nothing compared to when the game really gets started. The mission takes place around a large mansion that normally serves as a museum. It is surrounded by a large garden, full of thin fashion models, reporters and security guards. You don't have to move far before you begin to spot all the different approaches you can try.
Model Helmut Kruger, who thinks he is more important than anyone else, is causing problems for Viktor. We follow him, and wonder whether we should get him out of the way, and try out a modeling career for ourselves, but on my way through the mansion we hear a waiter talk about Viktor's favourite cocktail. We steal the recipe from behind the bar; find a lonely waiter who will no longer need his clothes, and head down to the kitchen to mix a cocktail with the added spice of rat poison. Unfortunately, we get a little overconfident and try to tamper with the guards' monitoring equipment. We're exposed, and they don't seem to mind shooting a suspicious waiter with his fingers on their expensive equipment.
There seems to be a myriad of opportunities and ways to go about your mission, and Hannes Seifert also points out that they have a "Swiss cheese approach" to the level design: There is always a way in or out of an area; a shaft you can sneak through, a disguise to steal, or even something more obscure. Unfortunately, the preview build we played was quite unstable and we never managed to see any approach all the way through to its conclusion. The level in Paris shows that they are on the right track, and if the rest of the content can keep this standard, and even add levels that are more interesting, we could end up with a really good game.
Our initial thoughts about violence in computer games was obviously meant as a joke, but nevertheless Hitman challenges your inner creative assassin. The countless ways you can approach the game's missions are like puzzles, each with their own little story attached, and they'll challenge many of your skills as a video gamer. We did not get to see the full scope of opportunities in this preview, mostly because of the state of the early build we played, but it is obvious that IO Interactive has the opportunity to create one of the best Hitman games so far. Their publishing method enables them to follow the game closely, and update and adjust continuously in accordance to the needs and behaviour of their users. We just hope it's not an excuse to publish an unfinished game. Our impression is that the developers have given a lot of thought to the distribution model, and is fully determined to exploit it to the player's advantage. Whether this is indeed the case, we must wait and see.
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