You stalk silently in the cover of shadows, gripping a sniper rifle in your sweaty gloved hands. Bringing the scope to your eyes, you see your target approaching, oblivious to your presence. You aim at his head, hold your breath and squeeze the trigger.
The bullet whizzes by your target's ear, alerting him to the presence of an assassin. All of a sudden, the place is crawling with beefy hostile goons whose only purpose in life is to reduce your sorry carcass to a bloody pulp. Throwing your stealth out the window, you draw your submachine gun and prepare for a bloodbath - when a stray bullet catches you between the eyes, sending you tumbling down onto the ground.
Dead? No matter. There's always the Restart button.
A man with no past, hunting those who will soon have no future.
That is perhaps the best description for the Hitman games (Hitman: Codename 47 and Hitman: Silent Assasin), which are among the hottest strategy/action-RPG games around. Prior to the first Hitman, most computer and video action games involved a lot of indiscriminate shooting and wrecking things. Take Half-Life or Duke Nukem, whose main game objective is to shoot anything that winds up on the business end of your gun, and blow up anything capable of going boom.
Blasting away anything that moves may give you a temporary adrenaline rush - but what's the point, if it's not real? You can't wield and fire two submachine guns simultaneously without severely dislocating both arms1, volatiles aren't going to be waiting for you around every corner for you to blow up - and most importantly, not even the most mentally-challenged enemy is going to leave stacks of ammunition and power-up health packs lying around at your disposal.
Enter Eidos Interactive, the company most famous for the Tomb Raider series. Realising the potential of the human element and computer intelligence in an action game, they collaborated with Looking Glass Studios and IO Interactive in 1998 to develop a game called Thief. The game was about a master pilferer and scoundrel called Garrett who had apparently not been familiar with Robin Hood's robbing principle in its entirety. Contrived storyline aside, the game's appeal lay primarily in its believable main character and computer artificial intelligence which responded to the players actions - which of course, you couldn't just run and shoot and hope to get away with it. The player's success relied heavily on his ability to sneak past enemies or, in typical Dungeons and Dragons style, take them out from behind. In other words, it simulated what was plausible in real life.
And then hot on the heels of Thief came Hitman: Codename 47, a game about the dark world of professional killing.
Why a Game on Assassination?
Many of us have often wondered what goes on in the world of the professional hitman - how he prepares for his hits, what it takes to sneak into enemy headquarters without being detected, and how to bring down a target without getting shot at. There are those of us who have idly toyed with the idea of going mercenary and working for the highest bidder, or just being given a seriously bad weapon and generally left to one's own devices. And then of course, there is the lure of big money and really cool black suits.
However, while the blood money and the thrill may be appealing, the lousy working hours and legal issues certainly aren't. You don't want to have to squat in some malodorous sewer for three hours waiting for your target to show up. You don't want the IRS and your bank becoming suspicious of your sudden wealth, and coming round to point an interrogation lamp at your face. You may not even have the guts - or the heartlessness - to pull the trigger.
Hence the game.
Inspired by movies such as Leon and Nikita, Hitman is a game that offers the normal Joe a chance to live the life of a professional killer without having to deal with all the muck, the opportunity to let out pent-up aggressions in a controlled single shot of the sniper rifle or psychotic random spraying of a submachine gun2. It brings together both the sneakiness of Thief and the visceral cold-bloodedness of conventional 3D shooter games. Unlike games such as Hardline where you go in with both guns blazing, this one requires minutes - even hours - of patience, waiting for the perfect time to act, taking out enemies quietly and stealing their clothes, and infiltrating hostile territory to get to targets undetected. Unlike most 3D shooter games, ratings and rewards are inversely proportional to the number of bullets you fire and the number of people who get turned into lead pencil - unless, of course it is the player's desire to achieve the Mass Murderer rating.
And at the end of the day, it is stealth and surprise that brings in the money, and not some psychotic killing spree.
Admittedly, Hitman: Codename 47 has a lamentably awful storyline. The gamer plays Agent 47, a hair follicle-impaired hitman with a perpetual scowl, whose first memory is waking up on a confinement bed in a padded cell in Bob knows what institution. A strange disembodied Voice3 alternates between giving Agent 47 instructions on what to do and rambling on and on about what an excellent specimen he is. Led by the Voice, 47 undergoes a crash-course in acrobatics and using various close combat weapons and guns. Eventually, after completing the training, he escapes from the institution by killing the guards - while the Voice smugly follows his escape on the security cameras.
A year later, Agent 47 finds himself working for an agency called Merces Letifer, hopping from location to location, taking out various criminal overlords4 for a number of customers. At first the missions seem pretty standard for a hitman - until he realise that all his targets were once in the French Legion and, from the letters he got off their bodies, that they all seemed to have known one another. Add to that the cut scenes at the end of every mission tour of a series of strange meetings involving decidedly familiar silhouettes discussing Agent 47's progress, and you start getting paranoid that there's more to his targets than meets the eye. Eventually, 47 finds himself back at the institution he escaped from a year ago - and face the truth about his past. Which, admittedly, you'd long since have guessed.
The second game, Hitman: Silent Assasin doesn't offer much more of a storyline, but it's a great deal more plausible. It's five years after the first game, and Agent 47, struggling to come to terms with his past, has sought sanctuary in a monastery in Sicily. Lest you think 47 spends the rest of his life happily tending the tomato plants and attending daily confession sessions with his friend Padre Vittorio, think again. Somebody wants him back in the business, and decides the best way of persuasion is to hold the Padre ransom because obviously 47 isn't about to dish out that kind of money. Forced by necessity, 47 decides to dig up his past by going after these goons.
Of course, once you retire from the business, it's a bit tough getting top-secret information unless you have friends in high places. So 47 makes a call to the agency. The good news is that they'll give him the data he needs. The bad news is that they want him to take care of business for them by means of repayment. And before you know it, there goes 47's retirement plan. Give an inch and they want a mile.
Locations and Missions
The different locations were either constructed with picture reference or by actually visiting the different places to get the atmosphere right. Either way the result is some concept-drawing that we follow. The Hotel in Budapest actually exists... and some of the guys checked it out in details. Then it's modified to fit the gameplay.
- Jens Peter Kurup, lead animator, IO Interactive.
Agent 47's line of work brings him just about everywhere - from rainforests to metropolitan cities to secret hideouts. The first game covers four locations:
- Hong Kong: eliminating a stereotypical Chinese triad leader while avoiding (or alternatively, killing) his incredibly stupid henchmen;
- Columbia: finding a drug lord's hideout, eliminating him while he's incredibly high on drugs and blowing up his drugs lab to kingdom come;
- Budapest, Hungary: stopping a terrorist from releasing a chemical bomb at a world peace convention; and
- Rotterdam Harbour, Romania: tracking down and killing a gunrunner who has a nuclear bomb to peddle, and stealing his ship. And trying to not get bitten to death by vicious dobermans.
The second brings 47 to six different countries:
- Sicily: killing the local mafia boss, and locating your friend the Padre;
- St Petersburg, Russia: eliminating four Russian generals, the reasons for which are never quite explained;
- Japan: tracking an arms dealer by feeding his son a transmitter bug and then killing him, killing the dealer and recovering a missile guidance system from his castle before anyone else does;
- Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: getting a hacker's greasy paws off a certain piece of missile defence software - terminally;
- Nuristan: retrieving the same captured merchandise you're been chasing all over the globe and taking out those who stole it; and
- India: for some reason, the nuclear bomb problem refuses to go away, having fallen - this time - into the hands of a Sikh cult. Three guesses as to what the mission is about.
(Interestingly enough, each game takes the player full-circle to the same place he started from at the beginning. For the sake of not spoiling the fun, the reasons for this will not be revealed)
At the beginning of every mission, Agent 47 is briefed via laptop5 by the Agency's Controller, Diana Burnwood, who provides him with his mission dossier - surveillance videos, target information and photos, mission objectives and a map of the hit zone. Mission details will often vary, but are in principle the same - take out your target, and make sure nobody sees you. Some of the missions are complex, relying on your actions to trigger a chain of events (such as the Hong Kong missions, where, in order to get close enough to kill the Red Dragon triad leader, you have to weaken the triad's influences and lift police protection off them); others are very straightforward shoot-and-steal-his-briefcase tasks.
Of course, the agency only provides the data you need to complete your mission. How you execute your hit is entirely up to you. You can be totally sneaky by stealing a uniform to infiltrate the target building and take out your target by poisoning his champagne or planting a bomb under his car, or you can wreak havoc and mow down everything in sight. Of course, this being a game of stealth and cunning, killing everyone isn't going to help your scores any.
Weaponry and Equipment
A vast selection of weapons and equipment from the silent combat knives and piano wire to devastatingly loud submachine guns and sniper rifles to non-combat gear such as binoculars are available in the Hitman games. In Hitman: Codename 47, each mission briefing comes with a shopping list of non-traceable weapons that can be bought with the money paid to Agent 47. Other weapons not on the shopping list may be found on site, either in secret locations or caches, or on the bodies of enemies6. Unfortunately, with the exception of the Columbia missions, the weapons bought or pilfered during a mission cannot be carried over to the next. Bob knows what the Agency did with them.
The second game, Hitman: Silent Assassin, featured improvements on the weapons inventory. Now that Agent 47 had his own weapons shed in the monastery, weapons obtained during a mission could be brought back and mounted on the wall as prizes or taken to other missions. The arsenal was also broadened to include chloroform for pacifying enemies and a variety of incredibly funny - and yet deadly - objects ranging from golf clubs to fire axes. Interestingly enough, a substantial pile of ammunition always awaits 47 in the weapons shed following a mission.
Unfortunately though, the amazing array of weaponry available in the second game blatantly contradicts the primary objective of the game - stealth. You can't exactly be stealthy and carry an automatic rifle at the same time.
Ratings and Rewards
The player's success in executing each mission is measured by the kills he makes and the money he earns. The less efficient he is in eliminating his target, the less money he brings home at the end of the day. To discourage the player from getting too aggressive and playing the first game Doom-style, fines are incurred for every innocent kill made7.
The second game had a more interesting approach to rewards - it had a rating system. At the end of every mission, the player is shown a chart analysing the efficiency of his actions (the number of alerts he raised, the number of shots fired, the number of guards or civilians killed etc), and is given a rating based on his performance. The Silent Assassin Rating (high on stealth, low on aggression) is the most coveted - and most difficult - to attain, and sometimes comes with rewards in the form of weaponry; Mass Murderer or Psycho are ratings to be avoided except on really bad days.
The main driving forces behind Hitman are two major game developing companies: Eidos Interactive and IO Interactive. Eidos, founded in 1990, rose quickly among the ranks of entertainment software developers from a new games company in 1995 to the label for some of the gaming world's most popular multi-platform titles, including Commandos and Tomb Raider. IO Interactive, a newer player in the game of entertainment software, was formed in 1998 as a joint venture between Nordisk Film & TV A/S and the game developer Reto-Moto, and develops advanced 3D computer games for the global market. Their first game, incidentally, was Hitman.
Ironically enough, the Hitman project was started as an experiment by a bunch of game programmers from Frederiksberg, who had hoped that the money the game brought in would free them up to develop other games. Instead, they found themselves with their own office building, more than 100 workers - and their game expanding to cover just about every major gaming platform available.
For something that started off as a mainstream roleplaying game, though, the resources that went into the development of Hitman was anything but mainstream. The animated characters weren't blocky and predictable - thanks to motion capture, they tumbled and slid. The sounds weren't from sound effects tracks - the developers actually sent a team to Finland to shoot up a storm with 'just about every available weapon on earth'. The music wasn't cheesy, tacky stuff - it was stirring, atmosphere-driven music written and produced by Jesper Kyd Productions, a Manhattan-based company that specialised in music and sound design for interactive media, film and TV, and performed by the Budapest Symphony Orchestra. And the developers had also shrewdly decided on a non-platform specific engine - which isn't exactly what you'd use for a game you don't expect to succeed, unless you expect it to transcend the platform you developed it for8.
Apparently no professional hitmen were consulted in the making of the game, although the game developers did manage to get advice from bodyguards and army instructors who knew how hired assassins and snipers reacted and worked, and supplied their own wicked ideas on how to cap a person.
The Voice and Tumbling Bodies
An interesting feature of the Hitman games is the realistic behaviour of the characters. Agent 47 has his own jaunty strut and, when being stealthy, a peculiar way of crouching and sneaking. Enemies who get killed don't simply collapse to the ground; depending on the type of weapon, they can crumple like rag dolls, struggle and go limp, or simply fly off the balcony. Bodies left at the top of staircases will gradually slide or roll down as gravity takes over. Even more exciting - and often hilarious - for the gamer is the fact that these same bodies can be dragged just about anywhere, and into just about any contortion the human body is capable of.
The marvel behind amazing life-likeness of these bodies is motion-capture technology. Basically motion capture is what its name suggests - capturing human movements for the purpose of animating 3D characters so that they move realistically. An actor wearing a tight spandex suit with reflective ping pong balls marking the joints and other key anatomical features is filmed performing certain actions or movements. The movements are computerised as a moving matchstick man, which is then used by animators to create 3D characters.
The man who provided the motions for Agent 47's body is Bo Thomas, a stuntman, stagefighter and motion capture actor most famous for his stunt work in movies such as Star Wars, Patriot Games and Minority Report. However, Agent 47's voice came from another source - Danish actor David Bateson9.
I was at the release party for Freedom Fighter and David Bateson was also there. We were walking around saying here comes Hitman, him as the voice and me as the body. Talk about split personality!
- Bo Thomas.
To further confuse the reader, Bateson is actually an Englishman who was born and bred in South Africa before returning to England, and then being lured by the Danish landscape to live in Denmark. His experience in showbusiness include over twenty years of stage and film acting; however, it was his voice-over work in advertisements that caught the attention of IO Interactive and secured him the contract as the voice of 47.
Continuing the Hitman Series
Eidos Interactive and IO Interactive are currently developing the third instalment of the game, called Hitman: Contracts. The details for this game are not yet known, although the poster that appeared at Eidos' stand at the E3 trade show suggests that part of the game will take part in Las Vegas. The game is expected to hit the market sometime in 2004, and will be available for a number of platforms - excluding Nintendo GameCube. The budget for the game has been speculated to be approximately $43.3 million.
A great deal of work seems to have been done, or is in the process of being done. Jesper Kyd is once again composing the score for the game, and most of the motion-capture work is complete. However, the voice cast for the game has not yet been confirmed - both David Bateson and Vivienne McKee (who plays Diana, the Agency's controller) have been contacted to reprise their roles, but the result of the contract negotiations that took place in October 2003 are yet unknown, as is 47's fate10.
Although IO Interactive has yet to declare plans for further instalments of Hitman, it was found that they had registered the domain name hitman4.com, which proves that the team has at least considered the possibility of continuing the series.
Hitman the Movie?
Eidos is apparently in 'serious talks' with certain major film companies to make a movie version of Hitman, as reported by the Danish paper Børsen. Io Interactive finance manager Morten Borum is said to have told the paper that it was not so much a question of if as when, and hinted on the possibility of Paramount Pictures handling the production. Casting details have yet to be confirmed.
In the meantime, a bunch of die-hard fans and German hobbyist film-makers are entertaining themselves by making their own Hitman movie. The team, named 'Eastfrisian Pictures', have yet to finish the movie, but they have released a number of stills, which you can view here. The trailer is due out sometime soon.
- Read the interview with Jacob Andersen, Lead Designer of Hitman 2 from IO Interactive.
- Read the interview with Jens Peter Kurup, lead animator at IO Interactive.
- Read the interview with David Bateson, the voice of Agent 47.
- Read the interview with Bo Thomas, the motion capture artist for the Hitman games.