Interview: Hitman Freelancer Developers On The Challenges Of Randomizing Clockwork Worlds

With the release of Hitman 3 back in 2021, IO Interactive completed the mission it began with Hitman (2016), flawlessly executing a modern gaming trilogy in under five years. Around the same time, it was announced the studio would be swapping out 47 for 007, to develop an officially licensed James Bond game. Between that, and a rumored fantasy title codenamed Project Dragon, it may be a while before we get a new entry in the studio's flagship franchise.

But, that's okay, because Hitman's new Freelancer mode feels like it was designed to keep 47's faithful fans satisfied in the interim. The Danish studio's roguelike take on the series' assassination vacation formula gives Agent 47 a safehouse to plan his hits from, and randomizes the targets and item placement in familiar maps to give players a fresh challenge each time they infiltrate old reliable locations like Sapienza and Hokkaido. Though Hitman's maps have often been supplemented with additional missions over time, Freelancer represents the introduction of completely unscripted, unplanned kills to the trilogy.

"Freelancer was definitely built as an attempt to do a forever game that would double down on the huge amount of replayability the main games already offer," Jonas Breum Jensen, an associate game director at IO, who co-directed Freelancer with Torbjørn Vinther Christensen, tells me via email.

"Since Hitman 3 was the end of a trilogy it felt like good timing to give that to the players, especially in combination with the World of Assassination release that made globetrotting freely possible."

Jensen is referring to the rebrand the latest game went through recently, dropping the 3 and adding the subtitle World of Assassination (which is also the name for the trilogy as a whole). That name change came with the choice to move all the content from all three games under one umbrella, allowing players to purchase one game and have access to every map IO has produced since 2016.

The studio had been building to this for a while. When Hitman 2 launched, players could load up any maps from the 2016 game inside Hitman 2, and that process continued with Hitman 3, making all the levels from the entire trilogy accessible from one launcher. And, while one team at IO was focusing on making a new map for that collection — Ambrose Island, released last July — another Hitman team was focused on retrofitting all the previous maps to be playable in Freelancer.

"We were looking to offer something that would really make players experience our locations in new ways and take advantage of the fact that you can visit all of the locations in the World of Assassination edition. We wanted experienced players to almost feel like they were visiting a map for the first time again, and we wanted to have interesting interplays between the maps across the main game campaigns," Jensen says.

A roguelike mode seemed like the best way to do that, allowing the team to randomize gameplay and push players to try new approaches on familiar maps. Each of the locations are grouped together in campaign dossiers that 47 can choose from at the beginning of a run. One might include, say, Dartmoor, Mumbai, and Colorado. If you know that you have, historically, struggled to get through Colorado's panopticon-like gauntlet unscathed, you may want to hit it first.

Failing any map causes the enemies to be on high alert when you arrive at the next. Failure only makes each location more difficult, and at the last stop, you need to identify your target from a list of characteristics given at the beginning of the mission. So, you may want to save the location you know best for last. But, that's all up to you, and that's part of the fun of the way Freelancer recontextualizes familiar maps.

Historically, Hitman maps have been the same each time you load them up. Maybe counterintuitively, the map and NPCs moving with clockwork precision provides a strong framework for loose, improvisatory play and allows speedrunners to know that they'll have the same conditions each time they start a map. But, with Freelancer, IO began to play around with procedurally generating certain aspects of play.

"In Freelancer, on the other hand, we early on decided to fully embrace randomization, in order to achieve near endless replayability, without having to script everything by hand," says Christensen. "It’s been an interesting challenge to make this work, but also very interesting, as every time you play it genuinely feels like you’re experiencing new content."

That means that Freelancer can be just as fun for the devs who worked on it as it is for the players diving into it upon release.

"Personally, I’m really enjoying playing Freelancer at home, which is something I’ve never tried before, right after a release, as you usually know the game inside out after many years of development," says Christensen. "With Freelancer this is not the case, which is why I still very much enjoy doing a bit of freelancing in the World of Assassination."

And, hopefully, that enjoyment will last, for devs and players, until Agent 47 returns. Whenever that ends up being.

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