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47 returns: IO's Blystad on bringing back Hitman

Square Enix isn't having a very big gamescom, but it does have a small presence, notably featuring Hitman: Absolution. Johnny Cullen speaks to game director Tore Blystad.

If you were in the business halls and were aware of a lack of a Square Enix booth yesterday or today, that's because the company had decided not to come to the show, at least first-hand. So no Tomb Raider and no Final Fantasy XIII-2 - but through a distribution deal in Germany, its showing two titles at the Koch Media booth. The first is Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which is only a few weeks away.

But the other title is the one we're focussing on right now. After a few years out of the spotlight with Kane and Lynch taking up most of IO's time, Hitman is back. The Danish studio plans to bring Absolution to the market next year after quite some time out of the limelight.

The demo shown to very select press - we were the only website outside of Germany to see it in action - was the same one shown at E3 back in June. The bald-headed Agent 47 is being hunted for by the Chicago police in a library. It seems to show the same old Hitman we're used to, but is Absolution a reboot? Don't count on it.

"We really don't see it as a reboot," game director Tore Blystad tells VG247 an interview yesterday in Cologne.

"The first four games were very much in succession, an evolution. We knew the technology was kind of holding us back, so we wanted to start from scratch and build something better.

"And we got the time, the money from the board to actually make a new engine. We've had very little compromises from our management building this game. So it's very much the Hitman game we wanted to make."

The team at IO is currently at pre-alpha, but it's working on the next piece of the game it's going to show to the public. But, according to Blystad, "it will be quite different from this one." Freedom of choice has also played a big part in Absolution in terms of how it can give players a "mindful" choice within the game.

"We build levels, we come up with the setpieces and whatever ideas we have from the game and level design. So we believe there is probably more freedom of choice in this than there was in any other games, but it also depends on how we see it," said Blystad on developing the freedom of choice.

"One of the things that was difficult with the old games was that there was a lot of freedom, but you really had to dig it out, it wasn't really presented to you at all. So you could start a level and there was ten doors open to you and was like, 'well, where the hell am I supposed to go? I don't know, I'll just have to try the first door, oh I got killed, now I'll try the second one.'

"That kind of freedom is not very interesting because it's not really a choice, but you just try it and then you see if you fail and then you try something else. Now, you're very mindful to present choices to the player that might be more binary in a way because there are physical choices, but in the level. There is also [inaudible] choices of how you want to play through it as a player, based on, 'do you want to be a silent assassin or do you just want to get through the game and have a good storyline and experience?

"We're catering for a large spectrum of players from the most-ultra hardcore to the people who play third-person games and they enjoy that and they just want a good experience."

Some of those fans are also probably giving feedback on Absolution. The team at IO is very much up for that, but make no mistake: it isn't going to be ruled by an iron fist from the community.

"There's always people in the office checking up, especially on the Hitman forums. We want to probably know what they're thinking, and we want to make a game that people like, not just a game we like and no-one else cares about," said Blystad.

"We really don’t see it as a reboot. The first four games were very much in succession, an evolution. We knew the technology was kind of holding us back, so we wanted to start from scratch and build something better."

"We'll listen to them, but we won't be dictated to by the fans because we also have so many segments of fans that we could listen to one group say, the game has to be more difficult than any other Hitman.' Well, that's going to be hard for us to pull off if you make a game of this magnitude."

Absolution is running on a brand new engine called Glacier 2, and going by our demo yesterday, it makes the game looks incredibly sharp and detailed as we see 47 trying to sneak around the Chicago library. It's after taking a cop hostage and being discovered that he starts making a run for it, in which he is chased by police helicopters. It's here that Glacier 2 makes its money's worth.

"There's no off the shelf solution for us," says Blaystad, "so we had to do everything from scratch.

Blystad continues, referring to the AI and sound: "And it's something we're continuously evolving because it is a very difficult beast when the player has so much freedom of choice. They can choose to attack from any given angle in any way, so the AI has to be able to support that in a believable fashion.

"Another one is sound design. We've built a very dynamic sound and music design system to follow this AI. So if you pull in the game in the action direction, everything you do will get kind of get more action feeling within the music.

"But if you let the game pull back and let it go back into a more stealthy direction, the music will dynamically follow. And every single action you do will be supported by the music. It's something thats been very difficult for us to achieve, but now we believe its come very far."

As he tries to escape the cops, we then see 47 come through a hippy drug-filled apartment - we even see one NPC trying to flush down the toilet to no avail what appears to be a cannabis plant out of paranoia - whilst in a police disguise to help get out and escape the police. Some parts even slow down as passing cops get suspicious of who he really is.

After a few tense moments, he gets out and mixes among the Chicago public at a subway station who are interested in seeing what's going on. It's there that our demo ends, and we walk away from what I seen impressed. But Chicago isn't the only place in the game, nor does it seem to be the only place revealed so far.

When asked about the CN Tower in Toronto, referenced in an AR game which IO pulled on the Hitman community before the game's formal announce back in May, Blystad locked down again. That said, the IO dev did give this nugget.

Watch on YouTube

Hitman: Absolution E3 debut teaser.

"I think we have more levels in this game than any other Hitman game, probably more diverse than we've had before. Hopefully, every player will find their own favourite level in this game."

Its been years since the last Hitman game, at least six years since Blood Money (five if you only bought the 360 version). Needless to say, the community - both Hitman and IO communities in general, probably feeling burnt after Kane and Lynch - is looking forward to seeing what can be done next with IO's mainstay series. No pressure, then.

"It has to be great. There's no option. Everybody in the team and in the studio is focussed on this, it's the most important thing for us," says Blystad.

So if the game succeeds - and going by what I saw yesterday, it very well might - what next? It's obvious: DLC. Right? When pushed if it was thinking about implementing DLC after the game's release next year, Blystad wouldn't talk about it, but dropped this big thing called a hint.

"It's a perfect game for DLC. You're a hitman, you do hits. How hard can it be?"

Hitman: Absolution launches next year for PS3, 360 and PC.

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