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Finally, after six long years, Agent 47 is about to return.Six years is a long time in gaming. In mid-2006, Hitman: Blood Money was released on PC, PS2, Xbox, and the fledgling Xbox 360. There was no PS3 version, as Sony’s new console was still six months away from release.
I recently spoke with Roberto Marchesi, Art Director on the long-awaited Hitman: Absolution, which goes on sale next week. When I asked why there has been such a long hiatus in the series, he explained that it was, at least in part, to avoid burning out the studio staff.
“We always wanted to make another one, but when you have so many great people working for so long on a certain type of franchise, if you want to make the best possible game you also need to give them something else to work on,” he told me. “Between Hitman games IO Interactive worked on Mini Ninjas and the Kane & Lynch series. So they needed to just explore different games at the time.”
Apparently refreshed by the time spent on these diverse, the team returned to the murderous adventures of Agent 47 just as several other elements came together. “We wanted to make this the biggest and most advanced Hitman game in the series, and that would require new technology,” Marchesi explained.
IO has never been a big user of third party tools, and all of their games have used their own proprietary 3D engine, dubbed Glacier, used by all of their games, right up to Kane & Lynch 2. “For this one we created a completely new engine, named Glacier 2,” he said. “The engine and game have been built in tandem, and they’re tailor-made for each other.”
He explained how the two teams have worked together, with the game designers bringing features requests to the engine team, and the engine team in turn bringing gameplay suggestions to the designers based on newly-introduced features.
One of the main things that the new engine will allow is a lot more computer-controlled characters – over 700 of them at once, in fact. “That’s one thing that’s really neat about the Hitman games: the crowd, which we use very actively as a gameplay element,” Marchesi said.
The game’s first level shows this technology off to great effect, as Agent 47 walks down a dark alley, through a gate, and into a crowded marketplace in Chinatown. The space is packed with people, and as you move through the crowd, they all respond intelligently to you – turning their heads to watch you, grumbling if you bump into them, and stepping around you as they walk. I’ve seen larger groups in games before, but never so detailed and life-like.
Marchesi went on to explain how the levels were designed, with the first step being concept art, which then gets built into a large space by the environment artists, which in turn is then turned into a game level by the designers. The process is very fluid, and he explained how the creative process would then feed back into itself.
“A really easy example is if you build a level where there is, say, a vent with steam coming out of it,” he explained. “The first thing the level designers will think is, we need an accident where people can get burnt to death by steam. They just build it in grey blocks, it doesn’t matter how it looks, as long as you understand how it plays. Once the gameplay works, that’s then given back to the graphic artist, who start creating the tiles, the walls, whatever is present in the level to make it look good.”
Of course, the big design precedent for Hitman: Absolution is the existence of four previous games in the series, and a passionate fanbase who has been waiting a long time for a new instalment and don’t want to see a good thing get broken. I asked Marchesi how the team at IO respected the established Hitman gameplay while still making something new and fresh.
With a smile, he replied, “I personally approach it with a mix of respect and irreverence. There were some things we really didn’t want to tamper with, and some things we just wanted to blow up. That was our mandate at the beginning of the project: destroy everything, and make it bigger, better, bolder than the last one.”
“If you have too much respect for the original material and you don’t want to touch it, then you’re not going to move yourself,” he elaborated. “But you also have to have your wits about you. One of the things that’s really strong about the franchise is the look of Agent 47: the suit, the red tie, the shaved head, the barcode. So if we said, oh this time with Absolution, we’re not going with red, we’re going with blue, we would be losing an incredibly strong identity element.”
“Agent 47’s personality is relatively blank, and contrary to people’s perception he doesn’t talk much through the games. They thing he does, though, because they’re not playing him, they are him when they are playing. That’s one of his great strengths. But then we can get irreverent, like when he takes off his suit, when he has to dress up to get away with murder.”
While 47 stealing costumes off his victims in order to disguise himself is a design element that has always been present in the series, Absolution seems to be raising the bar of ridiculousness. Among the standard police, cleaning staff, and delivery man disguises I saw while playing, there were also a sports mascot that resembled a cartoon chipmunk and a fast food promotional character in the form of a giant chicken. “He is so cool that he doesn’t care how he looks,” Marchesi quipped. “He has a job to do.”
That job, the serious business of killing people, has not changed too much in 12 years, but Marchesi explained how the gameplay has evolved in Absolution. “What we wanted to introduce was a better understanding of the game,” he said. “We wanted to make the game more transparent to players, show them exactly what is going on.”
“Gameplay-wise, we’re introducing Instinct, which is a completely new feature we didn’t have previously. It’s just a way to communicate to the players. The world is so complex, it has so many details now, that the rules have changed from a communication viewpoint. In the old days, you knew when you entered a room that the chair over there was the one you had to pick up, because it was the only good-looking object in the room!” Instinct can give a range of clues, including showing where enemies are, highlighting their patrol paths, highlighting usable objects, and so on. Old-school purists will be pleased to know that it is disabled on higher difficulty settings, so using it is not a requirement.
“We’re also working hard with lights to make it a really subliminal element, to communicate to the player, okay, that is something that’s important. That’s probably where I need to go,” Marchesi said. “For example, if you have a dark alleyway and you have a door at the end, you have a flickering light above the door, or a beam of sunlight. It’s not in your face, we tried to do it more subtly.”
“The AI is also more complex now, so we have them tell the player what is happening. They talk a lot. It’s a communication device. If a cop comes over and sees a dead body, he will shout out to his friends, and you will hear it too. Then if his friends answer back, then we know that more people have this information now.”
The programming team has made AI communication very realistic and organic. Rather than an alarm going off and putting all guards onto high alert, the message is passed on verbally from one to the next, meaning that two guards in different areas can have different alertness levels if one has not been given the same information as the other. The player can also hear this communication, and can keep track of what is happening in the world.
Marchesi explained this in more detail. “If a cop finds the dead body of one of his colleagues with no clothes on, he knows that someone is wearing that costume, but he doesn’t know it’s you if he hasn’t seen you close-up yet. If another cop sees you doing something suspicious while wearing the cop costume, he will also be suspicious, but he won’t know you have killed someone. The two cops meet and talk together to chare their information, and everyone will probably then be alerted very fast, because they’ll put one and one together. But if you manage to take both of those guys down before they manage to convey this information to the other guys, the rest of the cops will not be suspicious of you yet.”
It certainly sounds like this may be the best game of the series so far, and I have certainly enjoyed my hands-on time with it. Really, the best thing I can say about it is that it feels like a proper Hitman game. As far as I could tell from my hour or so of playing, IO has not messed up the formula.
There are new features and refinements, but IO knows Hitman was never broken so they haven’t tried to fix it. You will all be able to play it for yourselves and make up your own minds next week when it goes on sale.
– James “DexX” Dominguez
DexX is on Twitter: @jamesjdominguez
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