(transcribed by Ibbe)
ON TOP OF THE WORLD
DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
My first mission begins near the top at the Sceptre, which is being officially recognized as the world’s tallest building. Members of the global elite have gathered in Dubai to witness the formal inauguration and enjoy the lavish celebration. I’d love to join them, but I haven’t technically been invited. Of course, invitations are mere formalities for Agent 47.
For the time being, I have a more pressing concern: getting inside. While I’m technically near the top of the structure, I’m on the wrong side of the glass, following a successful HALO jump.
Agent 47 is standing on a narrow girder that’s only a few feet wide. I don’t know exactly how high up he is, only that if he cranes his head up a little he can see the Sceptre’s topmost floors. Looking at the surrounding haze, I can see the tops of a few hot-air balloons. Farther out, oil fields. It’s a dizzying sight, and it’s probably best to get inside. I wouldn’t want to keep my targets waiting, after all.
I drop down onto one of the structure’s massive support beams and begin working to find a way inside. I can see birds several stories below me, and even further down the tips of the buildings in Dubai’s skyline. I accidentally bump into a toolbox that a careless worker has left on a platform, and it tumbles over the edge. Its contents scatter out with a metallic clank, and I watch as they shrink to pinpoints before vanishing out of sight. I can only hope that there wasn’t anyone in its path on the sidewalk below. There’s no time to dwell on that, however, since I see a window-washing platform ahead.
Naturally, the window is locked. Fortunately, I have a little help. Lucas Grey, the so-called Shadow Client (and Agent 47’s frequent foil) is providing field support for the mission, and he instructs me to scan a nearby keypad with my camera — a new device that Agent 47 is packing for Hitman 3. After lining it up in my camera’s viewfinder for a few seconds, Grey is able to commandeer the window and give me access inside. It certainly beats breaking the glass with a brick.
Game director Mattias Engström says the camera has several different uses throughout the game, which I get to experience during my extensive hands-on time with its first three missions. In addition to scanning items like these keypads, Agent 47 can use it to provide his handlers with in-the-field intelligence. It also works as a camera, with different zoom levels, filters, and more. As someone who loves to get in as close as possible to read messages on screens or notes on in-game desks, this sure beats hauling a sniper rifle around for its scope. And as part of the World of Assassination, the camera is being retrofitted into the legacy missions, which include new photography challenges. Before you ask, no, Agent 47 is not going to be taking any selfies.
Once inside the Sceptre, I wind my way through a narrow access corridor filled with pipes and cables. Grey takes the opportunity to remind me of the importance of the mission. The targets — Carl Ingram and Marcus Stuyvesant - are the heads of two of Providence’s founding families. Hitman veterans will appreciate the significance; otherwise, all you need to know is that these two men help run a global shadow government that’s essentially been pulling the strings in world affairs for more than 40 years. If these two men learn that we’re here, they may get spooked.
If we’re going to spook them, it won’t be because we’re not dressed for the occasion.
We climb a ladder and walk through a curtain, emerging from the other side wearing a stylish gray suit. That baggy sky-diving gear and helmet may have done the trick getting us here, but they’d definitely raise a few eyebrows at this soiree. You’d think you could say the same for Agent 47’s now- exposed trademark barcode tattoo, but we all know the routine by now: Nobody notices that, and we’re fine with it.
I’m accustomed to seeing some incredible locations in Hitman games, but the Sceptre’s interior is jaw-dropping. The building’s interior is lavishly decorated, with an abundance of gold that covers everything from the railings on the balconies that line the entryway to the columns and architectural flourishes that are suspended high above the polished floors. It’s a physical reminder that the Al-Ghazali family wields tremendous power, and that the strings they pull are gilded.
Ahead, I hear the murmur of a crowd, so I head up a grand staircase to see what’s going on. As luck would have it, I’m just in time for the inauguration. Omar Al-Ghazali is giving a speech about this building being the culmination of a long-standing dream. He says it was all made possible after receiving a small loan from his father, which he was able to use to establish a construction empire that, ultimately, led us to where we all are today. He may have glossed over the parts about his family’s ties to international terrorism, but for now we’re focusing on the building. He proclaims that it’s for all the people in Dubai, before cutting a gold ribbon with a sword. And with that, the Sceptre is dedicated. And now the puzzle begins. But before that, let’s back up and talk about a misunderstood franchise.
THE SILENT ASSASSIN
The Hitman series is deceptively simple:
You play as Agent 47, a skilled assassin who travels the world taking out targets. Most games drop the character into sandbox-style levels, giving players the freedom to explore their surroundings and come up with a Plan that best suits their playstyle.
While it’s absolutely viable to go loud, grabbing guns and taking out enemies in commando-style raids, that’s almost never the best course of action.
“Once you understand all the possibilities, how deep it is, and how much freedom you have as a player — all the nuances — it’s pretty amazing,” says executive producer Forest Swartout Large. “l think a lot of people just look at screenshots and think that it’s an action/shooter.”
Instead, the most rewarding moments in a Hitman game come from taking the time to surveil, listening in on conversations to figure out security gaps or points of vulnerability. If you’re a “go-go-go” type player, Hitman’s lengthy periods of inactivity may seem excruciating, but they’re also a large part of why successfully hitting your objectives and slipping away undetected can be so rewarding.
“It’s a game about patience, and it has a certain aspect of voyeurism where you’re just looking into peoples’ private lives,” Engström says. “You’re meant to take it slowly and figure out the puzzle and then it’s up to you how to solve it, basically. It’s hard to put that into a trailer.”
When the team at IO Interactive talks about Hitman being a puzzle game, they don’t mean Agent 47 has to solve Tower of Hanoi challenges or push crates onto pressure plates. Instead, each sandbox level is hand-crafted to be an intricate puzzle box.
Calling them “levels” or “sandboxes” is a disservice to the designers, however. Every mission is a methodically detailed showcase, taking players to Paris for a fashion show or to the fictional Italian seaside town of Sapienza, for instance. Once you arrive, you’re given your objectives and free rein; if you want to disguise yourself as the wait-staff and poison your target, go nuts. Or maybe you could arrange a private meeting with your prey — after walking the runway as a model, of course. Once you get into its peculiar rhythms, coming up with a plan (no matter how ludicrous it may seem) is the easy part. Executing it is the challenge.
In many levels, one of the tricks is figuring out how to even approach your targets.
Hitman 2’s Miami level is a perfect example. It’s set in and around a racetrack, and one of your targets, Sierra Knox, is participating in a race. If you activate Agent 47 's instinct mode, which desaturates the colors and highlights targets in red, you can see her tiny silhouette whizzing in circles in the distance. The puzzle then becomes: How can you get access to her? Can you intervene during a pit stop? Or maybe wait until the victory celebration? Different options reveal themselves as mission stories if you explore and listen enough, giving more structured objectives that often have darkly comical or horrifying resolutions.
Back in the Sceptre, I turn on instinct mode for a few seconds and see the tiny figures representing my targets high above me. According to the mission briefing, Ingram is in his private suite on the sheikh’s penthouse floor. Stuyvesant, on the other hand, is checking out an art exhibit inside the building. I’m weighing my options near the hors d’oeuvres table when a conspicuous ponytailed man in a burgundy blazer walks up and starts peppering the server with questions. He’s particularly curious about the guest list, which is clearly beyond the scope of this woman’s job or interest level. She deflects, telling him to talk to security. He wanders away, and I follow at a safe distance.
We’re about halfway to a guard post when Grey interrupts my surveillance of Mr. Ponytail with a request. He says he wants to address the Providence partners directly, so they can fully understand why they’re being killed before I handle the task. As effective as it may be to, say, drop a piece of art onto Stuyvesant’s noggin, Grey isn’t interested in making this look like an accident. He wants these men to suffer first. To do so, that means we 'II have to get them both together. He has an idea, but it requires accessing a building directory first.
Grey’s plan sounds like a winner, but I can’t resist listening to ponytail guy make his case to a clearly disinterested guard. He asks if the guard has access to the guestlist, adding that he’s done some investigating and found a couple of particularly cryptic names. The guard isn’t having any of this, and he tells off the partygoer/sleuth. I file this little bit of info away, determined to follow this thread further along the next time I replay the mission. In the meantime, I see a kiosk.
It’s not a major addition, but Hitman 3 adds some nice touches like interactive computer terminals. In this case, I’m able to interact with the terminal, and then choose different menu options such as learning more about the sheikh, or, more relevantly, get a look at the building’s floorplan. Grey says that I’ll need to worm my way into the server room via the staff area, which is a key step for him to deliver his personalized message. And with that, my plan is coming into focus.
“For many players, that feeling of, ‘Holy s—!’ can be daunting,” Engström says.
“Especially on the bigger missions, where you go in and you have up to three dots and they’re far away, and you’re like, ‘How am I even going to approach this?’ It’s exhausting, I think, for many players. But it’s also one of the strengths of the game, right?”
The door to the staff area is, unsurprisingly, secured. There’s a keypad next to the door, but Grey is able to access the camera feeds and see where someone has written the combination on a whiteboard. Oops. I punch in the code — again, like with the terminal, actually entering in the digits one at a time — and enter.
“I’m a huge fan of immersive Sims, and I think the Hitman games aren’t straight immersive sim games, but it definitely does straddle the line,” Engström says. “l think a lot of the features that we did add in Hitman 3 are actually in the immersive-sim genre. Like, we have the keypad, which is one of the new set-pieces that we wanted to have. It’s a new way for us to create a puzzle element for you to get behind an obstacle. How do we make sure that players find a password? That was something that players or our developers could use to create puzzles.”
I’m now in the staff area, but I’m now officially trespassing and need to be cautious. Using instinct mode, I see some employees around the corner. Rather than choke one out in front of his friend, I decide to tum on a nearby vacuum and hope that somebody decides to investigate the sound. Before I hide, I grab a hammer from a nearby crate.
Sure enough, the worker wanders over to turn off the device. I emerge and toss the hammer at his head. I’m not a huge fan of the gold brocade, but I take his event-staff outfit and drag the employee into a locker to sleep it off. Sorry, man.
The server room isn’t a straight shot from here; I have to go out another window and do some more scaling and climbing. Even though heights don’t usually wig me out, I’m not looking forward to dangling over oblivion again if I’m being completely honest.
IO really did an effective job of conveying the sense of height that’s at play here — and that’s not even considering how it is in VR (see “Hitman VR” sidebar). As I learned, that was something that took some effort.
“The location kickoff, the keywords were ‘vertigo’ and 'verticality,”’ says Swartout Large. “We wanted to make sure that we were really delivering on that promise, and Mattias [Engström] felt like, 'Yeah, we’re not really coming through on that, so we need to look at what else can we do. How can we fix this?”’
“For the longest time, you always started inside of the elevator and you’d go up and you walked into the inauguration,” Engström says. “That was cool and awesome, but you didn’t really get the connection that you were super high up, and we didn’t feel happy about the way that you’re in the highest skyscraper in the world but it didn’t connect immediately. We really wanted to have that feeling established immediately. Why not just start outside where the intro cinematic ends and let the player enter themselves?”
Or, in a few other cases, exit themselves. After some more back-and-forth between being on solid ground and feeling like I’m going to fall to my death, I’m in the server room. According to Grey, the targets know that moves are being made to undermine their power, and they’re keen to retain it. We can capitalize on that by setting up a Phony meeting with a third party by hacking their calendars, then luring them into a lounge area that can conveniently be sealed off.
That functionality is ostensibly for privacy and security, but we’re going to turn it into a trap.
The server room seems fairly secure, so I grab a disguise from a hapless maintenance worker just in case I run into any other employees. I pause by a nearby whiteboard and see a bunch Of notes scribbled on it, including a Post-it with a “Talk to Allan for details” message on it — a gag that’s become one Of the series’ recurring Easter eggs.
Inside the server room, I see four massive banks of servers. There’s a terminal in the middle of the room with calendar access, but it’s currently locked. Grey tells me to pull one of the server racks out, which seems a little suspect. Sure enough, I pull one out at random and a silent alarm is tripped, putting the room on lockdown and shrouding it in an ominous red light. I hide behind one of the Clusters while a pair of security guards investigate the issue. They go about their rounds, but I’ve played enough Hitman to know their usual behavior. That predictability is important.
“You have to be able to rely on the AI,” Swartout Large says. “It has to be consistent. We will live with the stupid-seeming A.l. if it means that we’re adhering to the rules of the game.”
“We’d rather be in a place where the game is fun and interesting to experiment with, and also sometimes the A.l. will feel a little bit stupid,” Engström says. "We are lenient in that way, and we don’t want it to be hard.
We can make some puzzles hard, and that’s part of the puzzle element, but that’s specifically designed to be that way. But the systems, they need to be wide and lenient enough for our players to experiment and have a good time figuring out the puzzle elements. You can make the A.l. look very stupid in some situations, and we say that’s fine. When people put it on YouTube and laugh, we will laugh, too."
I won’t spoil the rest of the mission, but, surprise, Grey’s plan is ultimately a success. Along the way, I get a few tantalizing glimpses into some other potential scenarios, including one that involves a lockdown drill, thanks to a loose-lipped guard freely giving away the location of keycards and the passcode. My favorite, however, has to do with a disgruntled employee and an exploding golf ball. That may not have the elegance or sophistication of giving the partners a speech before killing them off in a hacked room, but it does sound like fun. And that balance between the absurd and grim is a fundamental part of the Hitman experience.
“l think the deadpan humor leaves so much room for the player,” Swartout Large says. “Sometimes Hitman is, at its best, peak role-playing. That deadpan [tone] allows you to sort of put whatever flavor or spin or mood you’re feeling in that moment.”
Before he got involved in the Hitman series, Engström says he thought Agent 47 's stoicism made him a little boring. But he’s grown to love him, particularly how willing the assassin is to take a mission to its end, no matter how absurd it may be — even if that means dressing up in a mascot costume. “l think he has a way to play things super serious and he doesn’t really care if he’s a flamingo,” he says. “And he’s dressed up as a flamingo and he’s going for a kill and it’s pretty hilarious, but he doesn’t really realize it himself. He’s just playing it straight. There’s some sort of irony in not seeing the fun in that himself.”
WHERE DOES HITMAN DRAW THE LINE?
Death is an inescapable part of the Hitman franchise; even though your targets are almost always irredeemable monsters, you’re still killing them. The series has given players creative ways to complete their missions over the years, sometimes comically (dropping a moose statue onto a target during a TV interview), sometimes disturbingly (drowning a man in a hot tub). Walking that tonal razor wire is challenging, particularly in a game that offers players so much freedom. That had me asking the question: Where does the team draw the line when it comes to violence in Hitman?
“l think we’re careful,” says game director Mattias Engström. "We do find ourselves in situations where we say no to stuff. Maybe it’s too creepy or not aspirational enough. It’s still a pretty brutal game, of course, so not to be hypocritical, but I think there are some things we stay away from. I think when it becomes too creepy or sexually predatory, that’s what we want to get away from.’
“An example of that is Alma Reynard from the New Zealand level in Hitman 2,” says executive producer Forest Swartout Large.
“We had to recast and rerecord her, because the original take was too young-sounding. We fixed that with a more mature-sounding actor, and we changed her outfit as well. We just weren’t comfortable with the previous version.
…We do celebrate player freedom, and we are offering a large and deep toolbox to the players, but we’re the ones creating the tone and the environments in which the players are executing sometimes very brutal kills. We’re creating and curating that toolbox, and it is a big responsibility.”
PlayStation owners who pick up Hitman 3 will be able to play through the missions in VR at no additional charge. You have to pick up the legacy packs to play through earlier missions that way, but all of the World of Assassination trilogy is going to be available for PlayStation VR.
The team says it was curious to see how shifting Hitman’s traditional third-person perspective into a first-person VR experience would work. Would the sandboxes translate well? Would the visuals hold up to that level of viewer scrutiny? Was the sound good enough to provide players with needed context?
“And what we found was, ‘Oh my god, this game, we actually made it for VR without knowing it!’” says lead game designer Sidsel Marie Hermansen.
Any questions about the game’s visual fidelity holding up when zoomed in via a first-person view were tossed out the window early on. Senior game designer Eskil Mohl gives an example that centers around an in-game USB stick. “It’s an intel item, something you pick up and you just go, ‘Bloop!’” In the normal version of the game, it’s only a few pixels on the screen, and it’s obscured by the Ul. In VR, he says you can look at it closely and see that it was originally modeled with a little light on it and a detailer wrapper. “It almost had fingerprints on it,” he says. Similarly, the team discovered that weapons that were never designed for first-person combat were modeled with details like functional holo sights — details that would have otherwise been unnoticed.
VR lets players become more attuned to the action, which can lead to humorous situations like having a virtual makeup artist dab brushes around your face while you’re taking on the role of model Helmut Kruger in Hitman 2016’s Paris level. It’s also easy to see how the game’s violence can take on a more intimate feeling in virtual reality. That wasn’t something that was lost on the team, either.
“In that way, it actually feels more personal, the stuff you do,” Hermansen says. “If you f— up, if you have to murder some innocent civilian, then for me, personally, I feel pretty bad. I’m not going to do that again. Like, next time I’m going to do better, because it’s on me to be a good assassin.”
In addition to the metaphorical changes in perspective that VR may provide, the team is particularly excited about giving players a chance to experience levels in completely new ways. For example, the cover system has been reworked. You don’t lock into a cover mode now. Instead, VR players can stay out of sight by physically crouching, and moving Agent 47’s hands up to see if anyone can spot him. And players now have free-form movement with many of the game’s weapons, which sounds like a liberating alternative to the original design’s approach of using scripted animations for many of those attacks.
Hermansen says that what started off as a small experiment has turned into a passion project within the team, which numbers around a dozen or so core members. “That excitement has really driven us, and we’ve done much more than should be possible on a relatively small team because of the excitement,” she says. “l don’t know if that was surprising, but it’s been a beautiful thing.”
DEATH IN THE FAMILY
Originally, all three Providence partners were gathered at the Sceptre for its opening ceremony. It was an irresistible opportunity, even if Grey and Agent 47 were only able to dispatch two-thirds of the trio. The final member, Alexa Carlisle, realized that some- thing foul was happening, and she fled to her family estate in England. Thornbridge Manor may be secluded, but she’s about to learn that it’s already been compromised from the inside.
The Carlisles have assembled to mourn Alexa, who is still very much alive. She’s faked her own death, giving herself time to shore up Providence, which is now quite clearly a house of cards. Its former second-in-command, Arthur Edwards (aka “the Constant”), has been working behind the scenes to consolidate both that organization and the International Contract Agency that Agent 47 and his handler Diana Burnwood work within. It’s a complicated situation made only further so by the revelation that, while Alexa is alive, there’s still going to be a funeral at Thornbridge: Alexa’s brother, Zachary, is dead. She suspects foul play, leading to one of the Hitman series’ most fascinating missions yet. Don your tweediest coat and get your notebook ready - there’s a mystery afoot!
Agent 47 arrives on the scene via motorcycle, which he discreetly parks away from the manor’s main gate. It’s a gorgeous sight, even though the weather is about as English as it gets. The skies are cloudy and gray, and a layer of fog clings to the surrounding moors. It all frames the manor itself, which is an imposing structure in the distance.
I slowly walk over to the main gate, staying out of the guards’ sights the best I can. They’ve got their hands full at the moment. A man introduces himself as Phineas Witmer, a private investigator from London. The guards call the house to confirm his story that he’s been summoned by Alexa herself. Once satisfied, they open the gate and let him in.
I follow along through some bushes, luring him closer by throwing a few coins his way. “A lot of our NPCs, they’re poor,” Engström jokes. Sure enough, Witmer leans over to pick up the prize and exclaims, “Killer!” at his good fortune. If only he knew. A well-placed punch later, and I’m back on the road in his clothes, with nobody the wiser. I’m welcomed by a member Of the staff, and she says that things are very tense right now, as evi- denced by the fact that people are being frisked by security before they’re allowed inside. Fortunately, I didn’t bring any firearms or prohibited items along with me during the mission’s planning stage.
And with that, I’m led into the manor’s large foyer. Moments later, I’m in the unusual situation Of interacting with my target face-to-face only a few minutes after starting the mission. I could snap her neck right then and there, but that seems a little gauche, not to mention unnecessarily risky. Instead,
I decide to hear her out and see why I (in my Whitmer disguise) was summoned.
She tells me that she needs a situation handled. Her brother has been killed, and she wants me to investigate the crime scene. His death has been presented as a suicide, but something about it doesn’t ring true. “In my experience, a thorough examination Of a potential crime scene is half the job done,” Agent 47 replies. She’s a busy person, So she leaves me to Fernsby, the manor’s butler, for further instruction.
“The wish to do a murder-mystery level has been strong and long-going at IOI, but always been daunting,” Engström says. “How do we pull it Off? Is it going to be a new killer every time, or do we want to go all-in on one story? It’s all these things. And how do we tie it into the gameplay? It’s not really core for Hitman, but at the same time it really, really fits a Hitman game. We talked a lot about this. Should we do it? Should we not? And then it was like, 'F— it. Let’s go for it, because it will be awesome.”’
“Hitman 3, we definitely had the core fans in mind,” Swartout Large adds. “This is closure for the fans. But selfishly, it’s also for us, too. We saw this as an opportunity. All those things in the backlog, all those things that we dreamed about and talked about at the bar on Fridays — all the things that we wanted and previously have been too afraid to do or there wasn’t enough time, we just said, 'Let’s do it.”’
Fernsby restates the importance for discretion for this investigation, saying that there would be consequences if word got out that Alexa Carlisle is still alive. “I’ll consider her dead when I leave,” Agent 47 responds. He leads me to the crime scene, and I’m able to soak in the manor along the way. It’s not a bright space, but it’s cozy nonetheless. Dark wood and brass dominate the décor, and family portraits and other works of art line the walls. Ornate carpets muffle footsteps in the halls, and you can practically smell the pipe tobacco through the screen.
I ask if, because the artists on the Hitman games are working on half a dozen or so environments in each entry rather than a fully open world, they have more time to hone their craft while working on smaller, more intricate levels. Swartout Large says “No,” professing a teasing admiration to their incredible attention to detail. “They’re just really, really good,” she says. “They’re so skilled and so fast, and they are brave.
They just plow in — and it’s really annoying, actually, because they’re always finding ways to make it better and better and better, to the point where I have to say, ‘It’s good, it’s very shippable — I thought it was shippable four months ago.’ [laughs] But it’s part of the craft, the passion for quality.” She says that one of her biggest Challenges has been getting artists and other developers to peel themselves away from whatever it is they’re working on at the moment.
I bring what I hope is a fraction of that attention to detail when I enter Zachary’s room. Alexa’s younger brother is dead in his bed. His room was locked from the inside. I walk around a bit, looking for clues. I find his purported suicide note, which Diana tells me on my earpiece will be handy for comparing to other handwriting samples to rule out other suspects. A nearby laptop shows that he was shopping for rainboots the night he died, which is a little odd. And then there’s his body. I scan it with my camera and see the markings on his throat. Agent 47 recognizes the cause of death as poisoning by a plant-based toxin — probably ingested via the whisky on his nightstand. Agent 47, who knows a thing or two about poisoning, places the time of death at around 10 p.m. the previous night.
I look at the room with Agent 47’s instinct vision, and I see a highlighted book on a shelf. Pulling it reveals a secret room. Inside, there’s a blueprint of the manor with secret passageways, which explains how the culprit may have been able to leave the door locked from the inside. And with that, it seems as though I’ve seen everything there is to see for now. I talk to Fernsby, and he helpfully adds a list of family members to talk to. According to him, the staff hadn’t arrived before Zachary’s death, leaving the members of the Carlisle clan as the only possible suspects. Well, them and Fernsby, but who could possibly think the butler had anything to do with this?