Interview with Hitman: Absolution producer, Luke Valentine

It’s been about six years since Hitman was last on the scene in Blood Money; that’s quite a long hiatus for any game series, and a long wait for eager fans. You won’t have to wait too much longer, as Hitman: Absolution will be released later this year. After checking the game out, I sat down with Luke Valentine to talk about his latest game, and what changes might be in store.

RS: Okay, so Hitman is a little bit of a different game, but…

LV: Different from other games?

RS: As opposed to, you know, typical straightforward action games. Do you see this game appealing to those people who are just looking for the straightforward action, or are you okay with selling it as a game that has a slightly different gameplay experience?

LV: I mean, the Hitman games are quirky. They’re dark with a very kind of black sense of humor to them. They have a certain appeal, which doesn’t necessarily appeal to everyone, but it’s made them cult classics. We have a proud heritage that we’re building from on this particular game. As for people’s play-styles, I think, with Hitman: Absolution, we’ve got the cover mechanics, we’ve got the gunplay for people who like a more aggressive or free play-style. The thing is, for the purists who’ve played all of the previous Hitman games and who’ve been waiting six years for a sequel, we have all of those original elements; we have the sneaking, the stealth, the observation of AI patterns that people expect and want from a Hitman game. All of those elements are in Hitman: Absolution.

RS: How do you feel that this game has evolved from the past games, or is it similar to the past games?

LV: We obviously wanted to make sure that anything that was previously seen as frustrating was no longer frustrating. So what we knew from previous Hitman games is that our AI was considered to be unforgiving, so we wanted to make the AI less unforgiving. We’ve invested a huge amount into our new engine and our AI system. What we have in our AI system is states of AI which communicate to the player via text and the attention HUD where you can see the colors going from blue to yellow to red, and this attention HUD gets drawn towards the direction of the area of suspicion. It’s a way of saying to the player, “Act”. You have some way of controlling this. Move away. Use instinct to blend in. Do something, because you’re about to be spotted. Before it was more binary. Before it was, “You’re fine, you’re fine, you’re fine” ::snaps finger:: “You’re not fine.” When you were not fine, all of the AI in the level would leap on you. So that’s something we’ve worked on. We wanted to make sure we don’t have that frustration anymore.

Also, in previous Hitman games, people found the controls frustrating. So long as you were sneaking around and stealthy, you’re fine, but the second the game entered into combat, people found the controls too difficult to use and they got frustrated. We’ve worked extensively on balancing the controls and the movement to make sure that it’s smooth and that it’s competitive with the industry around us. The other thing I’d say that we’ve improved upon is the amount of time players will spend in the map screen. Personally I would say probably between 30-50% of the time I would spend in the map screen (in previous Hitman games), because that’s where I would understand the AI’s patterns. We’ve invested a lot in 3D graphics in this game, we’ve got beautiful environments, and we wanted to make sure that people stay in the game world, so we’re introducing instincts. Instincts are a way of enabling the player to see the world through the eyes of 47. So basically, all the things that you would use the map screen for, such as seeing the intended direction of an NPC, we have these instinct trails, and they show the exact path the AI are going to walk in.

RS: About how far ahead can you see the path of your target?

LV: Until the point where the AI’s going to stop next.

RS: What would you say that Agent 47′s goal or motivation is in this game?

LV: I mean, we know at the beginning of the game that he kills Diana; and Diana, throughout the Hitman series is Hitman’s link with the agency, and therefore Hitman’s link with the world. Diana’s the only person he speaks to, and is therefore the only person he has any attachment to. So, um, through killing her we’re telling more of a personal story this time about Hitman, and he’s been asked to look after a girl called Victoria. In this game he’s trying to look after her, and at this stage that’s about as much as I can say about the story or what his objective is. But rather than in the previous Hitman games where each level you had an objective to take out a target, and the order of the levels wasn’t really story-driven; they weren’t story-dependent; Now the story is this kind of arc throughout the entire game, and it’s more story-driven than about individual hits. But, as we’re showing today, yes we do also have hits in Hitman. Please don’t worry.

RS: Might there be a chance to include a co-op mode, or an online mode in future iterations?

LV: If there’s anything I can say about co-op is that Hitman’s the kind of guy who works alone. So co-op is gonna’ be kind of hard. There’s a lot of criticism from consumers about so-called “stuck on multiplayer”, and we certainly don’t want to be criticized for sticking on multiplayer, but as to any online features in Hitman, let’s say that they sound very interesting, and who knows what we’ll be talking about in the next few months…

RS: The Hitman series seems to pride itself on the variety of ways in which you can accomplish your missions…

LV: Yeah. So what we’re showing today is that this level, the King of Chinatown level, is a small-ish level, but the number of possibilities to complete the objective are quite hard to count, actually. I don’t know how many ways there are to take out the king. As a completionist, you’ve got a lot of work to do to complete all of the challenges in this level, and also to get a very high score; because the score matters too now. We’re bringing the video game back into the video game, and we’re telling the player, “There’s a fantasy. Enjoy the fantasy. Enjoy the story, but it’s a game as well, and it’s competitive.”

(Luke goes on to include the fact that leader boards are being included)

RS: Are there any series out there that are maybe similar so that the fans of those series might want to try out Hitman?

LV: I can’t think of anything, really. I mean, this is the, like, Hitman is the original assassin, and uh, this is not a cliche. IO has been doing this the longest, and uh, we have the coolest game character. I can’t think of any cooler video game character. The imagery associated with Hitman: the red tie, the Fleur De Lis agency logo. These images are really strong; like the barcode, the public awareness of them is unbelievably high. Like, you could just show a red tie to a guy of our age in the Western world and he will recognize that as belonging to Agent 47. The franchise is worth its weight in gold, and we feel very lucky to be working with it.

(This is a somewhat hilarious exchange I had with Luke where he seems to be reeling from an unexpected question. Sorry, Luke!)

RS: So, I noticed in one of the trailers there was a sign that said “Dexter Industries”. Was that kind of a reference to the TV show?

LV: What TV show?

RS: Dexter.

LV: Oh, right, no, no, no. It has nothing to do with, no, no. I mean, Dexter’s a name, like it’s uh…yeah.

RS: I thought it was a reference. Are you sure it’s not a reference?

LV: I’m sure it’s not. Yeah, yeah, it’s a, it’s not umm, I mean…

RS: Like, maybe one of your team snuck it in there?

LV: No, there’s nothing, there’s nothing like that. No, seriously. It’s like um, it’s a, no.

RS: Because I don’t think it would be a legal problem.

LV: No, but it’s not um, no. Because the, because the, no.

(Here’s where I note that doing PR can’t be easy)

RS: How many different locations or regions are in the game?

LV: Nothing that we’ve revealed so far, but a lot of the game does seem to be taking place in Chicago.

RS: Can you tell me a little bit about how the disguises work?

LV: Basically, we wanted to make sure that the disguises had a kind of armor value, and an easy-to-get-rumbled value, and basically, you’re more likely to be spotted wearing a disguise of someone else who’s dressed the same. If you’re trying to get past a cop, you’re best bet is to be dressed as someone else, so long as that person isn’t trespassing by being where he is. The pagoda in the middle of Chinatown is a trespassing area. Like, you’re not supposed to be there. You try and go in, the cops will stop you, whatever you’re dressed as. Of course a cop can get in there, but the cops will smell a rat if they get close to you. So you have to find a window of opportunity when the cops are far away, and using blend in, you can get past them. An alternative in that situation would be to take the drug dealer’s disguise, because the drug dealer is trusted, and he would be allowed in the area. See, you have to be aware of trespassing rules. Where you’re allowed to be, where you’re not allowed to be. Who’s allowed in the area, who’s not allowed in the area. If as Agent 47 you’re not allowed in an area, and there’s cops, if you can find another type of person who is allowed in the area, then take that person’s disguise, because it’s going to be less susceptible to being discovered than the cops’ disguise. It’s all under instinct, and instinct is the umbrella for all of these super human abilities that Hitman has. Blending in is one of them. Point and shoot is another (it allows you to slow down time and take out a lot of targets). And that will use a huge amount of instinct.

I would like to thank Luke Valentine for his precious time, and you, the reader, for yours.

Hitman: Absolution will be available on November 20th, 2012 on PC, PS3, Xbox 360, and OnLive.

Ryan Southard

Ryan Southard is a video game enthusiast, dissecting games down to their tiniest details. Whether it’s new or it’s old, as long as it’s awesome, he’ll play it. Follow him on Twitter at @Ryan_Southard

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