Shooters are getting smarter. Whether it's Half-Life's engrossing, story-driven world or Thief's unique emphasis on sneaking instead of blasting, action games are branching out and engaging players' brains, and not just their reflexes. Now, Eidos has taken its Thief concept of stealth gaming to the present day - and while its new project shares a basic design philosophy with Looking Glass' groundbreaking game, it has a style and design all its own. The new project is Hitman - Codename 47, currently being worked on by Danish development house IO Interactive. Eidos unveiled this new game at E3 last month, and we just got our hands on a preview build, which gave us a look at the game's training level and first mission.
In Hitman, you are a genetically engineered clone who has been created with the DNA of five crime bosses. This makes you genetically predisposed toward killing. In fact, the Hitman even looks like he's bred for that one purpose, and the barcode on the back of his head makes it clear that he's more machine than man. However, his skills won't develop unless you train him, so the game has an extensive training ground in which you can practice your craft. The training level will give you the chance to practice hand-to-hand combat on a dummy, take in some pistol or rifle practice at the gunnery range, and test your reflexes by walking through a shooting range with friendly and enemy "targets" popping up, which will force you to distinguish between friend and foe. There is also an obstacle course. In short, everything a biological killing machine could want is right there at your fingertips.
This skill development is critical, as there are a lot of different weapons in the game. There are pistols, knives, shotguns, automatic weapons of various types, and even trademark assassination weapons like piano wire and sniper rifles. For certain jobs, it'll even be necessary to rig up explosives or perhaps to booby-trap a car. Choosing the right weapon for a job is critical, because if the only way you'll be able to take out your target is through a window from across a wide street, you'll find that being stuck with just a pistol will make things quite difficult. You can purchase more weapons and items during the game, and you can use your money to purchase information, which will help you complete missions. The missions in Hitman will take place over several continents, giving you a variety of environments in which to immerse yourself. Throughout the game, you can feel the ethos of the hired gun: You are a trained killer who makes gunshots count, and then disappears.
Hitman will contain five real-world locations, each painstakingly detailed to achieve a high level of accuracy. The mission information will arrive via the Hitman's laptop and will bring different goals and pay rates. A total of 27 missions will comprise the game. These missions will typically be assassinations, but will also include sabotage, rescue, and even simple reconnaissance (although you can bet it won't be all that "simple"). You will be paid depending on how well you complete each mission. Getting away with a kill but alerting the entire police force to your objective will result in less money received for the completion of the mission. Because you can use money to buy information and new items, low scores in previous missions might come back to haunt you later. If you find yourself needing extra money, you may be sorry you tripped all those alarms.
Because of this, stealth and secrecy are key. As in Thief, gameplay in Hitman will demand careful consideration of how to make as little noise as possible when it counts. Walking instead of running, traversing carpet instead of marble floors, and hiding around corners all figure into the strategy that Hitman requires. This will not simply be a case of figuring out the one "right" way of completing a mission, as each mission will have multiple completion paths. Some may work better than others, although the game won't force you to follow just one method. There will also be several plot twists, which can't be revealed now because they're meant to surprise you while you play - but what this all means is that Hitman has been designed to keep you alert and to also give you a reasonable level of replayability.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Hitman is the way the game places you in a dynamic environment and then forces you to deduce how the environment works. For example, the world of Hitman is populated by a host of people. These people are not simply for show, nor are they there to fill in the scenery: All of them are part of the particular location you're in, and observing their behavior to figure out the best course of action is one of the things that drives Hitman's gameplay. Simply walking around, opening doors, and looking for keys that open locked desk drawers are guaranteed to arouse suspicion and perhaps even the police. Thus, you will have to plan a careful strategy, which might involve finding an item or following a person into a room that you might not otherwise have access to - and then killing the person. But gunshots will definitely give you away. Should you buy a silencer? Or a garotte? And what will you do with the body? Leaving the body on the floor in a pool of blood is guaranteed to set off a general alarm as soon as someone stumbles upon it. These kinds of decisions will be crucial to the successful completion of Hitman.
For all its intricate design, the basic controls of Hitman are simple and easy to master. The arrow keys are used for movement, and the mouse for aim and viewing. The game is played from a 3D perspective, and there are two camera modes to choose from. Switching weapons, opening doors, picking up items, and other similar actions are all quickly accomplished with one or two mouseclicks or keystrokes. Hitman will have three difficulty levels, and will be single-player only, with no options for multiplayer. After all, hitmen work alone!
The level we saw consisted of a hit on an Austrian terrorist, Frantz Fuchs, in the Hotel Gallàrd in Budapest. The hotel level is extensive, with three floors and numerous rooms, including a pool, a sauna, and a restaurant. The entrance to the hotel itself is guarded by police manning metal detectors, as there is a UN conference taking place at the hotel that Fuchs is trying to disrupt. Because of this, the garotte (piano wire) will be a good weapon for you to take inside, since it is made of fiber rather than steel - and thus won't set off the alarms. Once you are inside, you will have to get a feel for the comings and goings of the place. For an action game, the amount of time you'll spend actually fighting is rather short. But combat can't be wasted: You will have to make your attacks count, or the whole plan will fall apart. Hitman won't tolerate many mistakes.
Instead of a licensed engine, IO Interactive has developed its own engine for the game, which looks excellent. The exterior environment we saw looks particularly good, and it gives a nice feel for the urban setting of Budapest and the stony elegance of the ancient city. The interior environments we saw are in the luxury hotel level and are stylish in the way that luxury hotels are - plush and a bit dark, with a combination of wide hallways and expansive rooms. The training level is in a bunker-like complex, and is mostly gray and brown. Character animations are interesting, with the facial expressions particularly well done.
The Hitman project is led by Janos Flösser, who was born in Hungary, and thus he is probably at least partially responsible for the first level being set in Budapest. Flösser, who used to work as head of post production for Nordisk Film, started IO Interactive with six other developers and artists in 1998. Jacob Andersen is the lead designer, and he has a number of console and PC titles to his credit. In all, about 20 people at IO Interactive are working on Hitman, and if all goes well, the game should be available by Christmas 2000. We'll bring you more information as the game takes shape.