Hitman has been one of my favourite games of the year so far, with its episodic model proving to be perfect for exploration of the vast, open environments that Io have released. I got a chance to sit down with Torben Ellert from the studio to discuss their plans for Episode 5, set in Colorado, and beyond! (SPOILERS FOR EPISODE 4 IN THE FIRST PARAGRAPH!)
Fresh off the back of Agent 47’s dispatch of Jordan Cross and his lawyer Ken Morgan, he is tasked with taking down not one, but four new targets. 47 and Diana have found that there is a “shadow client” pulling the strings behind all of the targets that have been taken out so far, and Diana deems it necessary to find out who this mysterious entity is. So, 47 is off to Colorado to take out the four secretive individuals in question. Torben described this as “Probably the most dangerous mission of 47’s career, infiltrating a militia camp and taking out all four of their leaders”.
We were then shown an expert assassination of two of the targets, which I won’t spoil here, but needless to say they were typically brilliant Hitman executions. The camp in question is entirely hostile, so there are no “safe” areas until you can get your hands on a disguise, and there are a total of 300 armed individuals in the level, which would be “like arming everyone in the Palais De Waleska”. The Colorado environment, like the others before it, is superbly detailed, with old farm machinery dotted around, and plenty of spots for 47 to blend into the background before taking out an unsuspecting victim. One of your targets is an explosives expert, keen on making the perfect blend of explosive to blow open a safe, but leave the contents intact, and I’m sure you can figure out one of the Opportunities from here!
Because the level is based around a military camp, there are strict rules on who can go where in the level, so some disguises will work much more effectively than others, as we’ve seen elsewhere in the season so far (Marrakesh being a particular example). In fact, it feels like all of the previous levels have built up to this one, and will no doubt make you feel like a deadly creative genius as you finally get to within breathing distance of your targets throughout the level. It’s a level that will benefit from multiple playthroughs as well, with Torben stating “None of the paths are particularly difficult, but understanding exactly what parts you need to interfere with to make it happen is the challenge”.
Snaking his way through the compound, 47 finally reached the nerve centre of an operation to assassinate a politician, via a series of clever identifications and disguise changes. One particular disguise acquisition included a conversation that we were told has had so many lines of dialogue recorded, the team never heard the same line twice whilst recording the footage for our demo, despite it being done 10 or 15 times.
Overall, I was excited for what I saw with Colorado. The level has been intricately designed to provide an incredibly tough challenge, and is fully enclosed, allowing you to walk a full 360 around the perimeter if you so wish, in order to get a decent look at everything before breaking into it. Much like everything before it, Colorado brings a fresh challenge to Hitman, with a unique and huge map promising to be yet another dangerous playground for our anti-hero to mess around in. And, of course, there is plenty of nonsense to get involved with as well, with Torben proclaiming “I can’t wait to see the first Silent Scarecrow assassination!” I then had a chance to talk to Torben about the season in general, and that conversation is below:
I love the fact that you guys “embrace the silly” with Hitman, it’s led to some dark chuckles from me since March!
Well you have to, don’t you? We’re dealing with some fairly grim source material here! Any questions?
First one, how come there was an elusive target during E3?!
Haha! I’m so, so sorry about that! Did you get Busey though?
Yeah, I shot him in broad daylight then high-tailed it out of there in a speed boat! Looking at future content, I know a lot of people were sceptical before launch about the episodic model, but I was confident given how I typically play Hitman, exploring the levels etc. Were you guys worried about that?
I think this was a perfect storm in many ways. Hitman is a sandbox game, so because of the way we build the path for 47, we don’t do it with helpful mechanics like bullet time and things like that, we do it by encouraging you to become as good as Agent 47 would be in Sapienza. Admittedly you’ll then come to Colorado and think “what the f…”, but you build your skills. You’re right though, I don’t think we didn’t help ourselves with some unclear messaging at the start, we know that. But everyone I meet, everyone I talk to amongst fans and media are seeing it the same way as you. Everyone has opinions on how to do things, such as escalations, our gameplay driven challenges. People get really hot under the collar for example, when we use land mines. We were live streaming from Copenhagen, and we had land mines all the way through the crowd in Marrakesh that would only blow up 47, nobody else. People in the chat were saying “What is this?!” – we explained that these aren’t land mines, merely a new way to navigate your way through the space. We got into trouble, we knifed one of the targets, and we then had to walk out through all these god damn land mines! Escalations are purely gameplay driven, there’s no narrative in them at all, and it’s another example of how we’ve extended the gameplay.
I’ve really enjoyed going through the Opportunities, and I loved how they started off as “go here, do this” hand holding, but as the season has progressed they’ve gotten more vague – how do you guys strike that balance?
As a dev, that’s one of the great things to come out of the episodic format. Other games have done post-release content, but those studios will probably roll around 90% of their dev team onto something else. We still have our entire dev team on Hitman and the Japanese level right now. If we need to make changes, we have real muscle behind us to do that. It means that for the entire duration of the season, we’re engaged with developing the game. It seems like a small thing, but it changes our ability to do things with the game.
How is the player feedback influencing things in terms of the design or things that need tweaking?
Well it’s all about pipelines. Colorado has been in development for ages, but we can adapt and focus, and be more targeted in what we do, because we can see how people are responding. There are places we can do this faster. For example, we’ve changed our reward system for elusive targets, and we may change it again depending on feedback we get from people. Soon we’ll adapt things from queries, such as “Why are there no rewards for silent assassins in elusive targets?”. We’ve adapted some of the weapons too. The lethal syringe was built to be a portable accident, but we were worried it would be too powerful, so we made it a noisy attack. Just ahead of the Busey target, we took the noisy “tag” off the syringe, and we saw a lot of people leaving an audio distraction on the street, running up behind him and giving him a heart attack, because hey, he’s had a rough life! So yeah, we’ve learned some of the lessons of Marrakesh and Sapienza in Colorado in terms of the flow and feel of the level.
With regard to content such as the Gary Busey hit, are there any plans to roll that back into the main game at any point? Maybe any of the other elusive targets too?
I think that the studio position is that elusive targets are never coming back. We may look at similar experiences that could be unlocked in certain ways, but I think it’s really important that, like with the twins, where one is the target and the other can’t be harmed, that moment is kind of crystallised. I honestly feel that it would be a supremely bad idea, much worse than any benefit you’d glean from it, to bring it back. So the position is that really, and the support we’ve had from Square to make them is absolutely wonderful.
Absolutely, and it sounds like there’s an awful lot of work going into these unique moments
There is, and we don’t compromise. I wrote and directed all of our elusive targets, and we tolerate a lot more weirdness in the elusive targets because they’re just so tense to play. You’ve probably noticed that “Ze Cardinal”, with his German accent will switch to cockney if you make him mad! We tolerate more stuff like that to allow you to complete the mission, so really, the man behind the curtain would become much more obvious if you could replay them. So I think it’s circular. We could bring them back if we really, really wanted to, but we feel that the benefit of the few consumers playing them would far outweigh the destruction of this very pure idea, this moment in time. I mean, we all took on the cardinal alone, but we were doing it together. And we’d lose that if we could replay them.
I agree, and I had one of those moments when I accidentally shot the wrong twin after following them for so long!
One of my favourite moments was from a Swedish streamer during the Cardinal mission. He’d gotten the weapon into the church, gotten through the frisk zone and into the confession booth, it was just perfect. He pulled out his pistol, the priest and the cardinal walk out, he lines up the shot, yells “YOLO”, then runs out into the open and gets gunned down within seconds. I was left screaming “YOU BEAUTIFUL BASTARD! I LOVE YOU!” and he’s done others which were amazing as well. You just come out of them feeling like an absolute badass. A lot of games don’t do that, and with good reason, but that’s the choice we’ve made.
I know there’s been a bit of social media rumbling about seasons 2 and 3, are you able to comment any further on those?
It’s one of those things when we hold our hands up and think “What the hell did we just say?!” But the party line is that we are committed to a long project. Read into that what you will. (At this point one of the other devs chimed in with “You can’t do a huge story arc in a TV show with one season, right?”)
During our streams, people would ask us questions like “Why aren’t you fixing this” or “When is this coming?” and we wouldn’t answer certain things. We got plenty of comments slating us, but we’ve started explaining why we don’t give that info out, why it is we don’t talk about things. We will start talking about things once it’s committed to branch, once it’s in the pipeline ready to ship. I said that on the stream, and people started to understand. The big thing we’re trying to do is not to fuck it up. We promised an elusive target within the first week, and this turned out to be…
Slightly over ambitious?
…A problem. We’ve licked our wounds and we’re trying so hard not to promise things until we KNOW we can do it.
Totally understandable, and I think the game is all the better for it. Looking forward to getting my hands on Colorado!