Are you ready for a world of assassination? Hitman debuts today as an episodic game where you can live out the fantasy of being Agent 47, a professional killer who goes to exotic places, dresses in tuxedos, drives fancy cars, and assassinates people without mercy.
But this is a different kind of Hitman, with seven episodes releasing over time in 2016. The first installment is a $15 set that includes a prologue (where you learn about Agent 47’s origins and learn how to take people out) and an open world in the city of Paris. With the assassinations, it’s sort of like the Bill Murray film Groundhog Day, where you have to do the same task over and over again, getting better each time.
In April, you’ll travel to Sapienza, Italy, to take out a virus hacker, and you go to Marrakesh in May to pursue a bad general. The disc version of all of the episodes isn’t coming out until January 2017. That’s a daring release strategy for publisher Square Enix and Danish developer IO Interactive. The storyline in Paris picks up after the events of the earlier Hitman: Absolution game.
Christian Elverdam, creative director, talked to me about the strategy and how the live events will unfold over the course of the year. Much of the content will come from the fans themselves, who can create their own “contracts” for taking out targets. Elverdam encourages replay, as the game gives you complete freedom of approach on how to creatively solve the various steps leading up to a clean kill.
The Paris level has more than 300 characters at a party where you have to take out a Russian oligarch. If you do it perfectly, you can make a giant lighting fixture fall down on top of the target on a fashion runway.
Elverdam talked about the gameplay features such as “elusive targets,” where you only get so much time and one chance to carry out a hit. If you kill a target, they’re dead forever in your game, and if they escape, you’ve had your chance.
The game can also “escalate,” meaning it will add more conditions the next time around every time you are successful with a particular hit.
Hitman debuts today on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and the Windows PC. You can buy an “intro pack” with the prologue and Paris missions for $15, or purchase a full year of content for $60.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: So you’re going to have content appearing that surprises gamers?
Christian Elverdam: The way an elusive target appears in the world is when we blast out a briefing for it. You won’t have any prior knowledge that they’re coming. We want to be careful not to spoil how many there will be or when they’ll appear. They’ll be quite frequent, and as the locations appear in the world—they can appear in many locations. Paris will launch and in a short amount of time, there will be a loose target in Paris because that’s the only level they can appear in. Let’s have a look at that.
Simple and straight to the point. You have 48 hours. Unlike normal targets, where if you press the instinct button you can see where they are in the world, you can’t tell where these guys are. They’re just like any NPC. You have to rely on visual identification and hints from the trailer about where you can find them. We like that element, that you have to stalk your prey like an assassin would.
GamesBeat: They could be anywhere in the city, then?
Elverdam: In Paris we haven’t built the entire city, but we’ve built the palace itself. For Sapienza, which is a small Italian town, they could be anywhere in town. That’s why we’ve built all the sandboxes to a certain complexity.
Let’s go back to the story and what it feels like to travel the world – both what the serial format does and how the tourism works. After you kill Viktor Nabokov in Paris, after you succeed in that mission, you’ve seen the spy ring at work. We do a little flashback to end the episode. The first guy you see here is Nabokov, the target you just killed.
That effectively ends the first episode. This is the case with many sorts of spy thrillers. We give the audience more information than they can understand. We’re not so much focusing on Agent 47 right now. It’s on this mysterious character from the opening cinematic and what he’s doing. We expect season one to feel like that at the beginning. You see these characters introduced, see some of the conflict, but the overarching storyline only becomes clearer toward the end of the season. And obviously there’s a cliffhanger that leads into season two, when you think you figure out what everything’s about. That’s what we want to go for.
GamesBeat: What was the bad guy’s name again, the one we see in the cinematics?
Elverdam: His name isn’t known yet. He’s played by an actor named John Hopkins.
GamesBeat: Is he meant to stretch across the entire set of episodes? He’s a part of that whole storyline?
Elverdam: We’re building what I’d call a more lasting cast. I can’t reveal who might die when, obviously, but we want to build some characters around 47. We want enough characters with enough conflicts that we can build a plot where the point is not 47 changing, but rather what goes on between these other characters. We introduce him in the first few episodes and introduce other characters as well. Some of them die.
GamesBeat: The hook that keeps people playing each episode, then, is the overarching story that goes across all the episodes.
Elverdam: Yeah, yeah. As you can see, we’ve introduced a guy who knows 47’s past. He’s singled out another guy who runs a small spy ring and stolen his secrets. Behind the scenes in the next episode, you see him pulling some strings, talking about fighting a stronger opponent. Something is happening here. There will also be cinematics that feature Diana and 47 and some of the other different characters that take part in season one.
GamesBeat: Is she also part of the glue, then?
Elverdam: Diana? Yeah. She’s a major character. You see her in the prologue as well, 20 years ago. 47 and Diana’s relationship and how they see the world is pretty important.
GamesBeat: Some players wouldn’t mind playing each episode 20 times over or something like that.
Elverdam: Or even more, yeah.
GamesBeat: For people who need more clues in order to keep trying to succeed, how do you help them along inside the episodes?
Elverdam: In Paris, for example, we have the opportunity system that I talked about in the very beginning. Fans found it upsetting because they felt it gave you too much guidance. I think that’s absolutely crucial for a newcomer, though. In Paris we have quite a few opportunities. I think we have eight, effectively eight small storylines inside the mission. Or actually more than that, but these are eight that we’ve singled out as an introduction for players. We’ll give you waypoint guides if you need help in following them.
We hope we can ease you off those assists, of course. You start with them, but as you get better, you accept not having a strict waypoint guide – just a loose idea of what to do. In the end you might turn it off completely. It’s up to the players.
That adds a lot of replay value already. As you complete these opportunities, as you complete Paris in different ways and find new things, we have a challenge system. For instance, killing Nabokov on stage might be a challenge. Killing Navikov with the light rig. With Paris I think we start with just shy of 80 challenges. That’s easy for us to expand as the season evolves.
Each of these challenges gives you a little bit of experience points once you complete them, and then we have something we call level mastery. By completing these challenges in Paris we give you more options in Paris. You might start in a new location. We have quite a few starting points. On top of that we have undercover locations. You might start as a stylist in the fashion show or a chef in the basement. That might give you a strategic advantage if there’s a loose target about. Or you could skip some effort by starting in a certain location. Level mastery also unlocks new items for you. They might be new poisons or new weapons.
Every time we have a new location, we have a new mastery tree you can go through. We have 20 levels in Paris. That’s a big encouragement to try and find all the story nuggets and replay the game. I still think that’s the best way of playing, depending on your inclination. Some people like to play more or less, but I think the fascination most people have comes from this Groundhog Day sensation. By the end you know everything and you’ve completely mastered the location.
GamesBeat: Were there any interesting statistics you gathered or other things you learned from the beta prologue?
Elverdam: One thing that didn’t show up as a statistic, but more like what we call soft data, is what I talked about with the opportunities and seeing how people reacted to that. In terms of hard data, what actually happens in the level, we could see that our tutorial worked. We could see that people followed a lot of the steps and completed a lot of the challenges. If we’d seen people completing only half of the challenges, that would be a problem. Some challenges did get completed more than others, but that’s to be expected.
We also saw from our data that in the Cuban mission, the airplane hangar, a lot of people completed the opportunities we had. As I said, those can be almost too easy for some fans. But we could see that they completed them roughly with the frequency we expected. We have the ejection-seat moment which we billed as one of the opportunities that’s easier to find – sabotaging the jet. That got 85 percent completion or something like that, which is very high.
GamesBeat: I remember triggering an alarm in the main office and having to fight my way out. Not a very good example.
Elverdam: We have an autosave system on top of our manual save system, so if you get into trouble, there’s a likelihood that even if you didn’t remember to save your game, you can go back a few minutes and get out of that kind of thing if you wanted.