With Hitman: Absolution, Danish developer IO Interactive is crafting a darker, more personal story than fans are used to. But, more controversially, it's also crafting a more cinematic experience, with plenty of action and shooting. At least, this is what it looks like IO is crafting.
According to lead producer Hakan Abrak, there's more to Absolution than meets the eye. Hardcore fans can, if they wish, play the game the way they're used to (and it's been set up to offer them something special). What's different this time, he tells us at the Eurogamer Expo 2011, is everything's just that little bit clearer.
Eurogamer: How did the project begin?
Hakan Abrak: It started out as a creative process first, with what we wanted to focus on. The foundation of the Hitman games is the AI, the moments within the game, the stories. Technology has also always been a part of our DNA at IO Interactive. So, once the creative ambitions were in place it was pretty apparent from the start it wouldn't be able to be done with just an upgrade on the Glacier 1 engine. We needed to build up a new engine from scratch to make the game we wanted to make. So, one of the first things we realised was we needed to make a whole new engine to realise this game.
The other thing, from a creative point of view, with the story there is a big change. In the prior games the structure of the story, the pacing of the story, was linked to the hit structure. Diana would give you a hit and that would push forward the story, with the next hit and the next hit. It's very different in Hitman: Absolution as we wanted to make the story a more personal one. Hitman is betrayed and on the run. So he needs to make the decisions now. You become a lot closer to Hitman, get to know a bit more about his background and who he is. You get to make the next steps, the next moves as Hitman would in the game.
Eurogamer: Why did you decide to create a more personal story?
Hakan Abrak: There are a lot of interesting stories to be told with Hitman in the universe we built around it. It was something we never did before. It's very interesting to come a bit closer to the fact he's a clone. What is driving him? What are his ambitions? His nature? To understand that a bit more was very important and interesting for us to explore.
It was also linked to the very high ambitions in terms of the cinematic experience we want to deliver. We are working with Hollywood actors on this. On that point, it's very ambitious. So, I guess it's only natural, if they're compatible with having a more personal story and digging in a bit deeper into Hitman. It's a huge opportunity for us to explore that.
Eurogamer: You've made some important decisions around the gameplay. What are the key differences and why did you make those decisions?
Hakan Abrak: We want to emphasise on the core of our franchise, which is the freedom of choice. In the earlier games you would be dropped in the middle of a level and you would go round and explore how to solve the different obstructions and challenges in the game. You still have that choice. To one challenge, there are several ways of overcoming it, with different play styles. It was important for us to make those choices clearer.
The choices weren't clear before, and that was a challenge. And sometimes the controls were also a challenge. So we emphasised streamlining some of the controls in order to have the controls not be a challenge, but what's happening in the game, the obstructions in the game, the challenges in the game be a challenge. It's very clear to you what choices you have, then it's up to you what approach you take for that challenge and how you solve it.
But at the same time, we give you more choices than we have. Before, when you screwed up the stealth path, then it all went into action and then it was very hard, or the controls weren't up to spec. It's definitely a viable way, if you want to approach an obstacle, a challenge, in a very violent way. You can do that, and you can have a compelling experience out of that. If you want to do the extreme stealth assassin, it's very much still in there. You get a compelling experience from that as well. If you want to switch, there is a possibility to do that as well. So you can mix your play style, which wasn't possible in the earlier games.
Eurogamer: In the gameplay demo you've shown, Hitman sneaks about a library killing many cops, before he sneaks out. Would you be able to replay that level and not kill anyone?
Hakan Abrak: Yeah. It's not only the way you play it, you can take other routes as well. This demo is a cinematic experience. It's very intense, and we wanted to convey our disguise and impersonation. We wanted to convey some action, some stealth. It's choreography. There is a path to it. But it's very important for me to say you can not only choose to play it like stealth or action through the whole level, you can actually take another route through it.
Typically, there will be three or four approaches to almost every situation in the game. You have stealth assassin achievements, so you can complete the game as a stealth assassin.
Eurogamer: So, for fans who played previous Hitman games and loved them, they can play this game just the way they want to?
Hakan Abrak: Definitely.
Eurogamer: There seems to have been a bit of confusion about that. It seems difficult to work out exactly what kind of game this is.
Hakan Abrak: We have a lot of difficulty levels in the game as well. Rest assured, the hardcore fans that like to have replayablity value in the game or want to have this stealth assassin - you know, I'm the ultimate stealth assassin - that playing style, those achievements, are very much in the game.
We appreciate our fans and we know way back from Blood Money, there are YouTube videos of different ways of solving a hit, coming up with very smart ways of doing it the developers probably think of, even. That freedom we really want to have in Absolution as well. There's a huge replayability value in it and we have some features in the game I cannot speak about that will enhance this and make this easier, and heighten the replayability value for the hardcore players as well.
Eurogamer: Does the hardcore difficulty level have a special name?
Hakan Abrak: Yeah, it has a very special name. And I'm pretty sure it's going to please the hardcore fans. I can't say what it is.
Eurogamer: What's your take on the multiplayer issue with Hitman? Is it something that simply doesn't fit the game?
Hakan Abrak: First of all, I want to say we do have something very, very interesting coming up in Hitman: Absolution on the online side. We're not ready to talk about it right now. Hitman is an assassin who works alone, but you never know in what form or in what way we could give you an online experience. It's unfortunately not something I can talk about right now, but I can say, in the story part, Agent 47 definitely works alone.
Eurogamer: You created a new game engine to make Hitman: Absolution. What are the challenges you're facing making a new engine as you're making a new game?
Hakan Abrak: It's very challenging. That's not a secret. But there are also some opportunities there. The ambitions for the engine can be aligned and compatible with the ambitions you have creatively. When you have a talented engineering team working on it as well, it gives a good symbiotic effect on the guys who really want to do something extraordinary here both from a technology point of view and with the game. Coordination and planning wise it's a huge challenge. But from the ambitions and what we want to achieve, there are really great opportunities when the creative and technology parts work close together.
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Eurogamer: Is Glacier 2 scaleable to the next-generation of consoles?
Hakan Abrak: If I had my technical producer here he would be able to answer that in more detail. We are very happy with our engine. The ambitions are definitely very high. It's also future proof. It's exceptionally good when it comes to workflows and pipelines. This is not platform or generation dependant. The way it was built up, I know the guys have made it future proof. We have great hopes for Glacier 2 in the future.
Eurogamer: This is a huge project for IO. When did development start and what size team is working on it?
Hakan Abrak: I can't speak about the team size. When we started out on the journey for creating Hitman: Absolution, it was apparent early on we would have to build up a new technology from scratch. It's very challenging to do technology and a game at the same time. It's been on the way for a while, since Blood Money.
Eurogamer: So development began soon after Blood Money finished?
Hakan Abrak: I can't be precise about that. It's difficult to say when it really took off. When you've got a franchise, you always generate ideas. But one thing is certain: this is the most ambitious project IO Interactive has ever done. Everything, with the look of the game, with the assets, with storytelling, I believe this is by far the most ambitious project we've ever done.
Eurogamer: The movie came out after Blood Money. I imagine there will be some people who saw the movie and enjoyed it, but have never played a Hitman game before. Their reference point for Hitman is the movie, rather than a game. Does that influence the design of Absolution in any way?
Hakan Abrak: No. I wouldn't say that. We've been working on this game for a while, so the vision for it, this darker, twisted story, the feel of it, is something our own directors have come up with. But it's super cool. We're very proud there's a blockbuster movie made about our franchise. And there have been conversations between the creative at IO and the people making the movie. It's always great. But the story of Hitman: Absolution was very dear to the guys and without many changes. It's been pure all the way through to release.