Below a short opinion-piece on what makes Hitman good and unique, and a list of ideas on what could make it even better along the same lines, in the eyes of a now 30 year-old professional creative and a (teenage-years) veteran of the series.
WHAT MADE HITMAN 2016/18 BEST SO FAR
Throughout the years, in search of its own voice and themes, Hitman has been a lot of things, evolving both mechanically and thematically.
In terms of story and atmosphere, a lot of its iterations were plainly cartoon and cliched: from barcoded bold-guy genetic clone storyline of the original game, through the grotesque, near-satanic atmosphere of parts of Contracts and Blood Money, to the absolute melting-hot John Woo cheesiness, ludicrous storyline and elementary school-level toilet humour and writing of Absolution.
In terms of mechanics, Hitman has finally hit its target, recognising and reconciling its nature in Blood Money - a first truly mechanically-accomplished, balanced and polished game in the series.
Absolution, as unorthodox mechanically and unbelievably corny story-wise as it was, brought to the table what was always missing before: functional stealth, along with some very enjoyable, fluid movement and combat mechanics. It worked, and it felt great.
Starting with 2016 Hitman, you, IOI, have clearly considered everything that made the franchise good and bad till now, and brought us a game that largely stripped of the bad stuff, and combined all of the best things that Hitman had to offer.
Although one could always point to a specific things from the past that they liked or would like to see make a comeback and you will never cater to everyone, the reboot is without a doubt the best, most polished Hitman game to date and you deserve all the kudos for making such a strong comeback that ticked mostly all the right boxes.
In 2016-2018 the story is… functional. I’m 30 years-old and quite well-versed culturally, so while I’d hope for a slightly more mature and less-cliched approach in computer games in general (from a perspective of a Hitman game, think of it as films such as ‘Heat’ or ‘Munich’ vs film such as ‘John Wick’), knowing this is a game industry and things still need to consider adolescent audience and necessity for an ongoing franchise material - the storyline is ok. It is without a doubt the most clean-cut and elegant it has been in the series to-date, and that says a lot.
So what is it exactly that made Blood Money, then finally again Hitman 2016/2018 so enjoyable to play? A lot can be said, but to summarise it in one word:
REALISM (AKA a combination of game mechanics loosely equivalent to what one would consider actual realism in the business of professionally killing people).
Security checks, enforcers, functional mirrors, crowd-hiding, briefcases, pat-downs, npc noticing crimes blood and illegal objects, fire-alarms, proximity linking me to crime, smuggling equipment, intel, witnesses, CCTV… I’d argue that it is the total sum of everything that makes Hitman feel more serious, tense, emergent and immersive that makes for most enjoyable gameplay.
The polar opposite to that is the ‘game-ness’ - everything that makes it a low-brow, cartoony and silly experience, reminding me that I’m playing a computer game meant partly for children. This can be a lot of things, from story and dialogues, through music, unrealistic AI behaviour, clown/cowboy costumes, fish as an ICE melee weapon, to specific flavours of scripted methods of silent assassinations.
A lot can be said here again, but instead, I’d just say that the more simulation-like and immersive you will make the game and the further from it’s arcade-ish and low-brow humour elements you can take it, the stronger an end-product Hitman will become, as proven by changes from first 3 games to Blood Money. Despite the fact that a certain corniness became something of a staple of Hitman’s DNA, you’d just proven that by getting rid of it in large quantities in the reboot - you’ve ended up with a stronger product. Keep going. Just whatever you do, don’t become Ubisoft too much please, with its copy/paste tom clancy pseudo-serious rubbish formulas for prepubescent boys. Be more like the venerated Looking Glass Studios, if anything, there’s one to look up to.
Complex AI and its contextual awareness: an absolute cornerstone of your game, really.
I’d like to see npcs who have a degree of a memory of previous interactions with 47. If I’m caught trespassing 3 times in a row by the same guard or even civilian, they should know something is up now. If I’m dressed as a guard and escorted from a no-go area by another guard, he should not be addressing me as ‘sir’ or otherwise as if I was a guest at a party. Also having all the guards in various places around the world constantly spamming flashbangs does not lend itself to immersion at all neither.
instinct and scouting rooms
Balance the game in such a way that the rather ridiculous instinct ‘easy-mode’ is not as such necessary to play, yet that I’m not punished by switching it off completely (which I do since it ‘breaks’ the gameplay immersion for me, and which I am since there’s no way to quickly scout what’s around a corner of the next room, due to 3rd pp camera).
This is specifically in regards to assessing danger in adjacent rooms - with 47 having trouble seeing what’s ahead due to 3rd person camera angles and current door behaviour. Offer a middle way. You could either allow 47 to ‘listen at the door’ presented as a more visually-abstract instinct, limited to horizontal 3-metre radius so that 47 can assess general activity behind closed doors with little-to-no distinction between guards, civilians and VIPs, as based on his assassin field experience and as a way of imitating his hearing of noises.
Alternatively, do away with necessity for instinct entirely: allow long-pressing ‘use’ key on doors, so that instead of opening them outright, 47 gets an angled sneak-peek akin to the one when hiding in wardrobes. This way he can scout ahead a little, however can still be discovered doing so if npcs are too close nearby to visually notice or hear him, if he opens the door just a little too much.
Or combine both methods into one. You get a good risk/reward balance, without breaking the game world’s sense of immersion with full-on instinct god-mode as is currently the case.
’radio-hiss’ warning sound
Hitman 2 on Master with instincts switched off is already easy enough when played correctly (though slightly punishing due to the above point) - please consider refining and toning down the laud and obvious ‘radio-hiss’ sound when being observed by enforcers. It’s definitely very useful but oftentimes it’s just too laud and obvious for far-away entities, warning me much about being observed way too soon in advance.
separate displaying mini-map from world event notifications
Please allow all the world status messages such as ‘hunted’, ‘engaging’, ‘hiding in crowd’ etc, to show up without the necessity for a minimap to also be turned on.
Stealth elements should put a bigger emphasis on movement speed and surfaces involved, like in the original Thief 1/2 by Looking Glass studios or Splinter Cell Chaos Theory. Using functional mirrors is a great visual equivalent to that already.
Limits to physical dimensions and/or carry weight of items holstered on the body should play part in effectively remaining hidden. Where are the crowbar, screwdriver, wrench, mine and two pistols hidden under my polo shirt exactly? Get me to make tough choices, stashing things away in strategic places, hoping they won’t get noticed.
It would be great to see a much greater realism in body damage, from limb shot effects - a person shot in an arm dropping their gun or holding it while they stumble away, to someone shot in a leg crawling away to cover, being dragged to cover, or perhaps still shooting from a ground etc. Currently the implementation is not so good and could see dramatic improvement.
gun variety and modification
There’s a need for more variety of guns, mostly for npcs within the level. Even a cosmetic one - the way a gun sounds and looks will make for a big difference to the immersion and believability. On the point of modifying guns, it’d be ok to have it in some fundamental form, however I for one like the fact that you brought things back to basics here, without crazy, dual-weld, fully-automatic silenced pistols with laser sights and scopes. Let’s leave this to John Woo, John Wick, and some of the past Hitman titles.
The new mechanic allowing me to put a thing away with precision is a great idea but not working very well. I’d like to be able to put things away in precise places where noone will consider it an accidentally dropped object (i.e. a shotgun on top of a desk in a security boot, if there was one there before or if it makes sense for it to be there contextually). As of now there’s very little use for it.
Running, when security is in specific elevated-alert states and where other npcs around aren’t running, should cause suspicion.
Pulling out a small handgun in a large crowd preoccupied with something else (like a fashion show or a race) should not be noticed, at least not immediately by everyone around. 47 would no doubt know how to do it discreetly.
Human Shield in Blood Money and Absolution was great. I gather it may break the game balance currently, but bringing it back would be great.
Civilians picking up dropped guns and taking an aim at you was also a great feature and should come back in new hitman however only in the most extreme case scenarios of crowd pressure when people are fighting for their lives.
Security/Civilian spacial awareness
Security and civilian npcs should have a very different level of perception and vigilance when noticing dropped objects. Their acute perception of a small gun dropped in a corner in deep shadows should also be toned down overall - with security specifically sweeping all the nooks and crannies, and civilians paying much less attention to them.
Also when dropping a suitcase either in a crowd, in a very laud environment, or in places where it would make sense (i.e. bar etc) with other npcs pre-occupied with their conversations, should not cause that much attention.
npcs checking wardrobes and hiding places
It would be a good idea to make those places searchable for npcs ONCE you’ve been caught coming in or out of one and the witness lives to tell others about it. That will mean a mistake on your part can open you up to further danger, npcs possibly now finding witnesses you’ve left behind in other wardrobes as well as hiding places no longer being perfect safe heavens.
npc patrols and stationary posts should be more diverse and less obvious. Let them change a pattern sometimes, go for a cigarette or a lunch break; let them notice things that aren’t there at random every once in a while, to come investigate a false alarm not caused by you, even moving a few steps away from their post every now and then for a muscle stretch, would make the world more believable than when they’re completely static and fixed-patrol bound. To hell with speed-running memorisation complaints, it’s not how games are meant to be played to start with.
A smooth-faced, bold assassin is a perfect material for facial disguises such as fake hair, beards etc. Agency could provide an optional stash point, allowing 47 to change appearance in an emergency, making him just a little less easy to spot once his description goes public within a given level. Also a great pretext to spice up the way 47 looks, from hairstyles to facial hair.
CLOSING THOUGHT: KILL SCRIPTS VS MANUALLY PULLING THE TRIGGER
To close, I’d like to give a little example and illustration of a final, crucial point: a difference between ‘scripted’ silent assassin accident type kills, and ones performed with a gun or a melee weapon, manually, even when within a partly-scripted situation.
The accident scripts are great - a now indispensable, staple mechanics of Hitman that should definitely stay and be elaborated upon.
However there is a case in point against focusing too strongly on pure accidents and instead giving some more space to scripts that open opportunities to simply get closer to the target for a manual kill.
The gist of it is that there’s a subtle yet very potent psychological difference between activating a pre-made, accident death animation script, vs a fully-manual action of assessing a situation, pulling out a gun (even a melee weapon) in the right moment, pointing it at a target and pulling the trigger, each bullet represented by a single mouse click and an appropriate wound and body rag-doll of the target resulting.
The difference is simply in knowing, at the back of one’s mind, that one was a fully emergent and manual event unique to you and you only, while the other was result of a pre-made script and required ‘pulling a lever’, with little personal involvement, skill and timing.
The difference of satisfaction between the two experiences, at least for me, is staggering - like night and day. Which is why my most satisfying and immersive gameplay style in hitman is always about stealthily and cleverly getting close to the target, but almost always ending it with a personal, manual kill, often involving a bodyguard or two as collateral - which sometimes creates a messy situation, meaning I have to get to an escape point with place on high alert - making for a very tense, improvisational and highly-rewarding experience from that point onwards. To hell with score-boards. A scripted killing, no matter how ‘perfect’, almost never ever carries the same weight and satisfaction for me, with situations like sniper shot on Sierra Knox’s racing car being a good example of an exception - here scripting comes together with manual shooting and still delivers immense satisfaction, requiring dexterity and skill of a well timed shot.
It’s a personal thing to a degree, and I’m certain there are players out there who enjoy scripted lamps falling on target heads over and over, just as much, involving themselves in purely the puzzle aspect of Hitman - the great strength of Hitman is allowing that flexibility.
However, the difference in satisfaction between the two is so staggering for me that I’d like to point it out to you for your consideration. I believe there should be a bigger focus on scripts that bring the two elements subtly back together and somewhat back to basics of assassination (pew pew, two to the chest, one to the head). I feel if your scripts focus too strongly on constant pre-made accidents, it will not only necessitate a constantly more exotic and ludicrous ideas for deaths, it will grow boring and uninvolved for the player. One of the things that Absolution did well was the viscerality of the experience and the tension which was sometimes missing from Hitman, when it decided to focus on scripted puzzles too much.
I hope to see Hitman 3 once again refining the formula further, by re-centering the experience between those two pivotal points a little more.
All the best IOI, god speed,