When it comes to strong, silent types, few are as strong or silent as Hitman’s Agent 47. Favouring silence over noise, piano wire over guns and a minimalist haircut over flowing locks, Agent 47 is the definition of anti-hero – you like him, but he doesn’t care about you and he’s not trying to impress you.
Whereas pulling out a gun was a one-way express ticket to the morgue in previous Hitman games, in Hitman: Absolution it can work as a legitimate tactic. We spoke to game director Tore Blystad to find out why.
IncGamers: Going from Hitman: Blood Money to Hitman: Absolution, what did you and the team indentify as key aspects to work on?
Tore Blystad: After Blood Money we looked back at all of the previous games, because they were built with an evolution of the mechanics in mind and we really wanted to take our time to take everything apart and look at everything in a different light.
One of the reasons that the old games worked was the basic premise of having targets in each level.., as long as that worked, everything else could take a back seat. There wasn’t always that much thought that went into every mechanic. For example, the Fibre Wire was often very difficult to use – partly because the walk speed meant you had to run-then-crouch, run-then-crouch to get into the right position. It was very difficult to control.
So, we’ve re-done some of the movements and made them so that the difficulty comes not from performing the kill but from containing your situation and making sure that no-one catches you. That allows you to concentrate on the strategy, rather than struggle with the controls – it’s the thinking you should worry about, not the doing. This game has a lot of mechanics but we’ve tried hard to make it as intuitive as possible.
IG: There seems to be more of a consistent story here, whereas previous games have featured levels that are almost completely independent. Is that fair to say?
TB: The story is very big for us and it’s the in-level story elements that are by far the biggest parts as we need to make sure it interacts properly with the level design – i.e. which stories do we tell on which levels and which characters do we use to tell them.
I think the script for in-game sections alone is about 2,000 pages. There’s a lot of stuff. As a player you don’t need to take notice of all of it as it’s not vital information, but it does build up the world and the characters within the world. Sometimes the characters will give hints as to the bigger picture but it’s not like you need to focus on every conversation.
The in-game story is also a good way of rewarding players that play stealthily, because if you sneak through the level you will hear far more of the dialogue compared to if you run through all guns blazing.
IG: But there is a story that carries through the levels and ties the whole thing together?
TB: Yeah, you could say that there are various stories that take place on different levels of importance. There’s the high level stuff which we have total control over and we want all players to see, then it trickles down to the mission specific stories. Within those missions there are also micro-stories specific to certain characters that may or not may continue through other missions.
We’ve really tried to make it as interesting a game as possible and those stories are one of the main pillars of the game.
IG: Would you say that the ‘professional’, or stealthy, style is the ‘correct’ way of playing?
TB: No, we don’t want to give the impression that we’re guiding the player in a specific direction. But we’ve seen from our tests that it’s natural for players to play in that way. It seems that when players sit down in front of the screen and they see the intro movie, or whatever, they fall into this idea that to play in that way is the proper way to do it.
It was a little bit surprising for us because we thought some players would go down the guns route and just set out to have pure fun. Players also seem to want to test the boundaries of what we’ve created and try lots of new things.
When we focused some of our attentions on making the gameplay of gunplay work properly – because in the old games it was really a last resort, and getting a gun out would usually get you killed straightaway – we made sure the A.I. reacts properly to what you’re doing. Our weapon mechanics are much more refined than anything we’ve done before. But that has been added in addition to everything else, it hasn’t replaced anything.
IG: Does allowing players to play however they want make the job of balancing that much more difficult?
TB: [Laughs] Yeah, it’s an… ongoing process. We’re constantly having to look into it and check that certain mechanics are not overpowered. For example, if we change the distance that it takes for a guard to be alerted (perhaps by only a metre) it changes the entire game.
It really is a balancing act to make sure all the different features work in their own right and also work together within the wider world.
IG: Do the enemies always follow the same path throughout the level? If I replayed the same level would I know the exact routes an enemy will take?
TB: There is a degree of randomness, but an amount of consistency is required. We tried a totally random setup but it’s very difficult for us to design around and also for the players to play. Usually, when a player fails a level, they will go back and follow largely the same path and try to work out where they went wrong. If it’s totally random each time it’s hard for them to work that out.
But, there is a bit of an uncertain element to the enemy’s movement and reactions. Plus, different difficulty levels make it harder by having the enemy react differently.
IG: What is it that the different difficulty levels alter?
TB: We try to make it more about forcing players to focus on improving their skill rather than just increasing their hit points or decreasing your own – that approach is a very cheap way of doing it. It’s more about the way that you play, you need to be a lot more careful if you play on hard rather than easy.
For example, the A.I. will spot you more easily or take less time to become aggressive. We’re still pre-alpha though, so we’re still tuning all of these things to make sure that the difficulty matches players’ expectations – players that play on hard want an unforgiving experience, while others don’t want that.
IG: Some people’s only experience of Hitman may be through the terrible movie that was released a few years ago, they may not have played one of the games before. Do you pretend that movie never happened, or do you take that into account in the gameplay and/or story?
TB: [Laughs] We try to take into account everybody, whether they know the past games or not. Our story comes after Blood Money but you don’t need to know anything about the past games to play and understand this one.
But if you’ve played previous games you will get information that might tie into those that newcomers won’t pick up on. We’re hoping that there will be a lot for everyone to get stuck into.