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How Hitman 2’s developers turned its gigantic levels into ever-evolving playgrounds

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Image: IO Interactive

2016’s Hitman reboot was a fascinating experiment in reviving a classic formula with a new twist. IO Interactive, the developer behind the assassination sandbox series, decided to combine the best efforts of 2012’s more linear but highly polished Hitman: Absolution with the open-world spirit and heavy experimentation of the series’ first three major entries.

The result was one game with just six levels and a loosely woven story linking them together. But each one of those levels, released in episodic installments over the course of many months, was a staggering achievement in scale and realism, sending players everywhere from a complex re-creation of a Paris art museum to a seaside Italian town housing an underground bioweapon plant. Each level contained a multitude of locations to explore, algorithmic systems to memorize, and elaborate cause and effect mechanisms to discover.

It didn’t really matter that each new locale arrived one month after the last; these levels were so large and complex that you could spend 10 hours or so just knocking out the easy challenges before moving onto the hard-to-find and more difficult ones.

With Hitman 2, which launches on November 13th, IO Interactive finally has all the pieces in place to deliver the most cohesive version of the game since Hitman: Blood Money more than a decade ago. Having purchased the rights to the franchise from Square Enix and partnering with Warner Bros. to publish the game, IO is moving from an episodic format to a full-fledged, all-in-one release for Hitman 2. But all of the learnings it gleaned from treating the game like a persistent, ever-evolving platform have remained intact.

“The episodic model was really successful for us, but we also see it in a different way,” says IO’s Sven Liebold. He says the first game was mainly about “reintroducing Hitman to new generation of gamer,” and the episodic model helped re-educate people about Hitman’s core pillar: replayability. The secret sauce of Hitman, Liebold says, is unearthing every secret, trying every route and tactic, and truly immersing yourself in the game’s complex systems. The episodic model helped accentuate how IO wanted its game to be experienced, and it also gave IO the tools to gather player feedback and improve the next level before it came out. The sixth and final level of the game, set in an advanced medical facility in the snowy mountains Hokkaido, was the game’s most intricate and impressive.

Now, with the rebooted model more well established, IO is building bigger, better, and richer environments for players to experiment in and having them all ready at launch. Case in point: the new Colombia level, which IO designed to be among its most complex destinations. The level will feature large swaths of jungle, an elaborate drug manufacturing facility, a massive village, a construction site, ancient ruins, a cartel-owned mansion, and a cave system that will link key segments of the environment together through underground tunnels.

Three cartel-linked targets will be placed throughout the level, all with connections to the shadowy criminal organization Agent 47 unearthed in 2016’s Hitman reboot. Players will have dozens of methods for approaching the mission, including feeding each of the men to the same rather hungry hippo, Liebold tells me. More importantly, the level isn’t just large for bragging rights. Every element, down to a majority of the individual non-player characters that number in the hundreds, serves a purpose. “We don’t set out to create massive gigantic levels, but we have a tendency to do so,” Liebold says. “We don’t want the player wandering aimlessly with nothing to do.”

He says the development team is often guided by what IO refers to internally as the “Swiss cheese principle.” As Liebold puts it, “No matter which entry you choose, you have to make sure there’s no visual dead ends and you can come out somewhere.” Not only that, but the team has to make sure that these pathways are intuitive or, if they’re designed to be harder to find, that the NPCs can help guide you there through key dialogue options and other environmental hints. “For every single NPC, we ask the question, ‘Why is this guy here, what is he doing?’” Liebold says. “We don’t want to place anyone in the corner or in a chair for no reason, and the same goes for every single room and every single item in the room.”

Image: IO Interactive

With 2016’s Hitman, IO was able to improve these systems in iterative fashion as it released each new episode, as well as incorporate direct feedback from avid fans, streamers, and speed runners. The goal with Hitman 2 is to have each level feel much more consistent and less like a work in progress, and for IO’s more robust live service to allow for fun Easter eggs to be planted later on, like the Paris level’s secret holiday-themed Santa outfit and the unlockable Godzilla appearance in Hokkaido. Liebold says players can expect the new levels to similarly change over time as challenges are added and more limited time contract missions are released.

For instance, the game’s first elusive contract, which requires players kill an unmarked target without any checkpoints or the ability to save your progress, will feature actor Sean Bean. These missions force players to use their knowledge of the map to find targets without any visual indicators whatsoever, and they typically involve a twist that threatens to spoil the run, after which it cannot be replayed. In this case, Bean will be playing a fellow assassin with a penchant for faking his own death.

Liebold says another major change Hitman 2 will offer is competitive multiplayer, a feature he says IO has always wanted to try and that players have been asking about for years. The developer is calling it “Ghost Mode,” and it will pit two real human players against one another in what is best described as an assassination race in adjacent universes — or a little like a ghost run in a racing game where you compete against your best self. You’ll be able to see your opponent as a ghostly apparition, but you cannot injure them and the actions you take in your world, like accidentally attracting a massive police presence, won’t affect the other player. Whoever eliminates their respective target first wins the match.

Image: IO Interactive

There will, however, be the opportunity to reach across into your opponent’s game world and affect it, starting with the ability to toss a “ghost coin” at your opponent’s feet that sends a guard walking in his or her direction. “This game mode will definitely grow a lot over time,” Liebold says. IO will ship Ghost Mode with Hitman 2’s launch next month on the Miami level, with plans to expand it to every level in the game as well as all six levels of the 2016 Hitman legacy pack, which come bundled with the sequel.

All of this is culminating in what sounds like the most ambitious iteration of Hitman to date. But it wouldn’t have been possible had IO not taken a risk and ditched its typically solitary, single player structure for one that was more live and community-driven.

As a prime example of how IO wants to evolve its sequel over time, Liebold points to an Easter egg it added many months after the 2016 Hitman initial launch. In March of 2016, the Rooster Teeth-owned Youtube channel Achievement Hunter posted a video detailing how they inadvertently electrocuted nearly 100 NPCs in the Paris level using a single puddle of water, a video Leibold says the IO team found quite hilarious. Now, if you happen to eavesdrop on a certain two characters in the Colorado level, you’ll hear one tell the other about a freak accident at a Paris fashion show that resulted in the death of more than 70 bystanders.

“Of course, when people hear that, especially the guy who did it,” Liebold says, “they will freak out.” They did in fact freak out, and then they posted a video about it on YouTube.