The history of Hitman is defined by its games. And gamers who have played them. What if someone could create a better story than what has been shown in the games? Someone tried.
The project was initiated in 2013 by the company named 20th Century Fox. It’s purpose was to create the video game movie. A story about human beings without emotion, or fear, or remorse. The resulting subject was called Hitman: Agent 47 (even though the previous movie was already known as Hitman: Agent 47 in several regions). The program was a financial success. But the price of creating a terrible movie loosely based on a video game is a slew of angry fans.
No-one had ever imagined, that in the end, it would come down to one, not little anymore and actually not a girl.
As the times went on, I thought I’d never find myself in a situation where I’m watching this movie. Hitman: Agent 47 was a sequel no-one ever wanted. Even the company itself as it canceled the previously planned follow-up to the 2007 Hitman and instead, rebooted the film universe. This time, the project was given to Aleksander Bach – a commercial director working mostly for Asian-territory based companies. He recalls the film to start out really small and then get bigger and bigger as time went on. The script was, again, devised by Skip Woods and was to feature likable characters and “great story”. “To make this successful, what you need first of all if you do a game adaptation — it really doesn’t matter if it’s a video game or not — you need a great story and characters”, the director said in an interview with BlackFilm. He also mentioned video game 47 being too cold to ever be relatable. “This is the big difference between the game and the movie, you need to create a character you care about.” That honestly makes me feel alienated in how much I personally care about the video game character of Mr. 47…
The protagonist was to be played by Paul Walker before his unfortunate death. Rupert Friend was casted in his stead and afterwards, a wave of news on the supporting cast begun to surface. Hannah Ware was to play a female role, Zachary Quinto joined the team as John Smith and Thomas Kretschmann as the antagonist of the story. Not many promotional materials have been released. Except for a few high action trailers and generic movie posters, the biggest promotion campaign happened during San Diego Comic Con 2015. That also featured two panels in which actors try their best in answering questions from the crowd and present the movie as appealing to the on-house audience.
Knowing all of this, I think it is time to finally jump into the film itself. If you’re interested in an in-depth experience of yours truly getting progressively more and more drunk in “White’s reaction to the second movie”, the audio recording is available on my Patreon, so remember to check that out as well. For now though, let us begin analyzing the unfortunately titled 2015 feature film – Hitman: Agent 47.
The first two minutes of the movie are filled with a long exposition/establishing speech from who we can only assume is Diana. It talks about creating a better version of man. A task that was apparently accomplished by a scientist by the name of Peter Aaron Litvenko. Do you know him from any of the Hitman games? Cause I sure don’t and I’m apparently the Hitman lore expert. Fueling the Agent Project, Litvenko focused on their abilities to kill and be rid of emotions. This meant they were perfect as hired guns and quickly took toll on poor scientist’s conscience. He fled. Shut down the project. The surviving specimens vanished into the world as well. Multiple efforts were made to reinvent the Agents yet everyone who has ever tried, failed. The man who got the closest – Dr. Albert Delriego – spent the last 6 years looking for Litvenko to get an insight to his brilliant mind. Finally, he has a lead. A photograph of a young woman.
This is the premise of Hitman: Agent 47 and pretty much the only piece of the grand story that we will see for a while. All of this in mere two minutes of the movie! It’s obvious that it takes inspirations from both Codename 47 and Absolution out of all the things. The CG of the intro scene is also very similar to Absolution‘s in its design choices which I guess should not be a surprise as it was the latest Hitman (debatable) game released at the time. I do however wonder why they opted to use the canon names of 47 and Diana, yet completely disregarded Ort-Meyer’s or Victoria’s. Maybe they were thinking their movie equivalents are different enough to warrant a name change. Personally, I think both have so little personality it truly doesn’t matter. And Victoria is so hated among the fanbase anyways, I doubt anyone would defend the possibility of destroying her character.
Hitman means world traveling so this time, we arrive at Salzburg, Austria. We are quite welcomed at the Syndicate International Research Facility – home to Albert Delriego’s investigation. Compared to the 2007 Hitman movie, everything here is weirdly high tech. Something which was never the case in any of the games, even the 2016 HITMAN. In fact, the older titles always managed to keep their campy feel so the choice of using a high tech aesthetic is baffling.
They aren’t the only ones looking for “the girl” or Katia van Dees as we can learn from the huge letters on the even bigger screen. A man with a barcode on the back of his head is also interested in her and he’s currently sabotaging the Syndicate machines by uploading a simple virus onto their servers. Via his smartphone. That’s it for the high tech computers. I guess some other piece of media has already shown us you can do pretty much everything just using your smart device so I should not be that surprised…
Using tracking devices attached to the Syndicate Audis (product placement!), he watches them on his super smartphone and then uses it to detonate a bomb, cleverly placed in the exact spot the cars were passing anyways. Then we are introduced to a self-sniping rifle (still no briefcase, though…) and a safehouse location which has apparently already been breached. Our antagonist demands to give him an update in a very similar manner to Absolution’s Benjamin Travis however. Or maybe I’m just delusional and try really hard to pick up some references to the source material.
Delriego attempts to convince the barcoded man that they are already working on the next generation of the Agents, but when that obviously fails, he plays another card – a chip implanted in his heart. Once that stops beating, his personal security service will barge through the door… something which I don’t understand why hasn’t happened already…
You need me.
No. I only need pieces of you.
This apparently convinces Delriego to give him the information he requires but also mentions Katia being a “ghost”. I think that fills the “ghost” quota of this movie. We are also witnesses of the “cool guys don’t look at explosions” moment because this is a Hitman movie.
Following is a high action scene with a tiny bit of Hitman which can be shown in one screengrab:
The fight at least seem to be somewhat choreographed this time around so it is a bit more enjoyable to watch especially as a guy is literally thrown down onto stairs handrails which he bounces off of and lands on the floor like a ragdoll… I guess that’s game accurate. And if you were looking for references – the barcoded man ends up with blood on his shirt in a very similar way to Absolution’s promo arts.
Another high tech environment, meaning we’re somewhere in the Syndicate HQ. From the barely even audible dialogue we can make up that Delriego was close to finding “the girl” yet now he’s dead. As his investigation lead him to Berlin in Germany, this is where we end up as well in the very next scene. There, we end up meeting who appears to be “the girl” herself. It seems as if she’s not only being hunted but also the huntress as we see her digging through papers and photographs. She’s looking for… presumably a man of… most likely Slavik origins… but there are literally 71,291 possible matches and… this dialogue speaks for itself:
You have to realize that millions of people have lived in Berlin over the past 25 years. I can’t be expected to sort through everyone of them for your mystery man, can I?
Our girl is also pretty sensitive when it comes to people touching her as it’s presented to us in a completely NON-OBVIOUS WAY BY FOCUSING A SHOT ON THE FACT THAT SHE ALMOST JUMPS FROM HER CHAIR WHEN THE WOMAN TRIES TO COMFORT HER. Unfortunately, without a name or really any lead what-so-ever except for the blurry photograph I’m sure Syndicate can easily CSI with their technological capabilities, there is nothing that can be done and she leaves unamused. A bus scene reminds us (already) that Katia doesn’t like physical contact. There’s also a suspicious dude looking directly at her as “you’ve gotta be emotional now” tune plays in the background. She exits the bus and with her, the suspicious dude does the same. “The girl” then attempts to purchase a false passport. The data strip is demagnetised and the seller is apparently very easily intimidated for someone working in such profession so she gets what she wanted after all. He leaves her with a generic “Be careful, little girl. This world is a dangerous place.” comment. Following that completely pointless scene, we establish that Katia is able to either sense or see or have weird visions of stuff around her and she helps out an innocent woman who’s getting beat in her own house by signaling the police.
In the meantime, the barcoded man exits an elevator. A badass music accompanies his slow walk as he enters a high tech apartment and takes out a tiny computer out of his huge suitcase filled with all kinds of tools of the trade. He hacks into the Berlin police servers and attempts to find a match for the mysterious “the girl”. He then puts his weaponry next to him and goes to sleep sitting up.
Katia returns home as well. Hers being messy and dark, to contrast with what we’ve been seeing so far. We get shown her own investigation as well as few disassembled pieces of machinery. She gets more weird visions, cries a bit, takes some pills and also goes to sleep. Just laying on her mattress and exhaling in an exaggerated manner. Back to the barcoded man. The tiny laptop has found a 100% match and presented it to him in a visually exciting way!
“47. It’s Diana”, says a woman of an… Asian… accent… Shortly, we can see her face and indeed, she ends up being of Asian origins. Who would have figured that Diana Burnwood, with her identifying characteristic being a heavy British accent would be portrayed by Angelababy – an actress almost exclusively taking part in Chinese productions before starring in Hitman: Agent 47? “47” is apparently having a tail. A Syndicate operative. They know nothing about him except that he’s found “her”, so they set up a contract. The barcoded man now has 46 (cause 47 might have been too on the nose) hours to eliminate both targets so he leaves immediately. I’d like to point out now that we’re at 20-minute mark and the biggest story development we’ve had so far was the intro info dump.
Back into Katia’s apartment. She’s dreaming of 47 (don’t we all?… just not this non-bald movie version), or rather has another weird vision. Knowing she’s in danger, she takes her time to get properly dressed, casually grab stuff off her wall and then storm out of the building. I’m sure she could have avoided leg work if she didn’t stick around her apartment for what seemed to be forever. The barcoded man finds her pills, disassembled machinery and a public transport map from which he somehow knows exactly what she’s been eyeing. The entire trio heads there.
Katia uses her weird visions to steal pills off some poor woman’s purse but is caught by the suspicious dude from before.
Are you some kind of cop?
How do you know my name?
I’m John. John Smith. I’d like to buy you a cup of coffee.
Katia’s obviously not interested, so Smith – here portrayed by Zachary Quinto as a generic sort-of handsome dude even though the main characteristic of agent Smith in every single Hitman video game was his red hair – asks if she’d be interested in living instead. This wooden dialogue leads to even more wooden delivery of “the girl” trying to pull of a Heather Mason.
“Walk away or I’ll scream”, she attempts to convey but doesn’t manage to convince anybody. Not even John. “He won’t care. He’s here to kill you, Katia. And I’m here to stop him. I know you don’t have any reason to trust me but look at him.” …what?
Few more unconvincing lines later, they come to a conclusion that they should indeed be working together. Smith mentions he knows Katia is looking for someone and that’s apparently enough for her to completely trust him. A high action scene begins. 47 uses such tricks as pushing some guy onto Smith to make him fall over and then shoots his pistol to move it out of his reach. He lines up to shoot “the girl” but John manages to jump on his back and they both fall down onto a moving train… and then down onto the train tracks. They casually wrestle in a terribly choreographed fight scene, so we get shaky camera movements instead to compensate. Apparently, this was meant to buy Katia some time but, as we all know how hasty she can be, both John and 47 get to her in record time. They run to the parking lot, where somebody who I can only describe as “some dude” waits for Smith behind a wheel. He nonchalantly asks “Where’s the Agent?” so Smith hurries him up and they drive away and this time it is 47 who’s looking unamused.
Only now Katia has the decency to ask who are the people whose car she’s is now sitting inside. “Some dude” manages to mumbles something about them “trying to protect her” and then immediately gets shot in the face (literally) so I fail to see how credible this statement is. Smith fires some shots for some reason or another even though 47 is miles away. Although he managed to somehow hit “some dude” in from said distance so maybe it’s not as unrealistic as I think given this movie logic. John reestablishes what we already know and they jog into the American Embassy. “We’ll be safe here”, Smith states and immediately draws his weapon to fire shots in front of the building.
Katia gets interrogated by the only character (called Sanders… in reference to Absolution’s Sanders?… I doubt it) consisting of any logic in this film. Just as 47 enters the Embassy himself with all of his weaponry on him. And obviously gets captured. Sanders fails at being the only smart person of the story by bringing a high caliber sniper rifle and pointing it at the barcoded man now sitting with his hands cuffed. If you can make up what the policeman is saying at this point in time, you are rewarded with a Hitman reference as the rifle is supposed to be a custom Blaser R93.
Why don’t we start out with your name?
This is not a name.
No. But it is mine.
The barcoded man then goes on to say that he’s an assassin tasked to eliminate “the girl”. Sanders obviously doesn’t believe him cause no-one would in this situation. 47 teases him with threats featuring the man’s family and then some more generic wannabe badass dialogue ensues resulting in a silly slow-mo action scene. Smith manages to break Katia out, 47 dresses as a cop and also leaves the building. I guess it’s not so safe if you lead the man who’s trying to kill you to the very place you want to hide at.
At the 30-minute mark, Katia asks the same question every viewer is having. This being “You want to tell me what’s happening now?” John reveals that Litvenko is her father which I completely misinterpreted the first time I saw the movie. Either because the plot dropped so fast I wasn’t expecting it or because I was really drunk. This is the only important information out of everything Smith has to say in this scene. Even he prefaces it by stating “I don’t know much” before retelling the same info dump we’ve had at the beginning of the film. Also his name isn’t really John Smith. It’s Brian. Cause that is apparently important. Even Katia calls him “John” in the very next conversation. And I completely disregarded the visually exciting sniping scene because nothing comes out of it anyways.
Smith tries to discourage “the girl” from finding Litvenko but when she says “No”, he ends up telling her everything he knows about him anyways. Apparently her father has lung cancer which might be a way to establish an emotional connection. Also, there is a mention of the other parent being Sri Lankan. This entire conversation takes its sweet time so it’s only a good thing that 47 barges in and interrupts it. He shoots John in the chest, punches Katia in the face thus rendering her unconscious somehow and leaves with her casually hanging off his shoulder.
Apparently this version of 47 also has a safehouse in which he interrogates young women. They reestablish the same plot points once again but weird visions and flashbacks disclose that the duo are siblings. Or rather part of the same program. Even though the little 47 has green eyes and the adult one’s are more blue-ish. The barcoded man then tries to trigger a reaction in Katia by placing her in a dangerous situation featuring a high speed jet engine which she somehow did not notice beforehand …what?
“The girl” uses her enhanced survival skills to free herself and somehow the jet engine sucks in the chair and not her. She finds 47 and asks him about what she is, even though he literally just established that they were part of the same program. “Bullshit, I’m just Katia.”
And your name isn’t Katia van Dees. It’s “quatre-vingt-dix”. French for “90”.
…wha– You know, I actually like this.
Following is a high action scene featuring loads of artificial blood and a Wilhelm scream as 47 attempts to prove to Katia that she’s been programmed to deal with extreme situations. And by “high action” I mean “action at a moderate pace”. John appears out of nowhere even though he was quite clearly shot. His first words to the barcoded man are “I want you to know, I’m a big fan of your work, 47. It’s an honor to meet a legend.” which may be a reference to Absolution’s Attack of the Saints but I’m doubtful that’s the case. They wrestle a bit after Smith mentioning he’s “special”. 47 thrusts a knife into his chest but that quickly backfires and he ends up on the floor as John is aiming a gun at him and demands him to fuel up his ego. Katia comes to save the day. She shoots the glass window exposing the huge jet engine and a silly CGI death of two random armed men ensues. Smith’s survival is credited to “subdermal titanium body armor, injected under the skin in liquid form.” Something Syndicate likes to experiment with, their high tech capabilities and all. “The girl” reveals her father is in Singapore, as is the Syndicate Headquarters, conveniently. Diana ends up overhearing the entire conversation and sets up another man in black suit and with a red tie to join the party in Singapore.
Just as last time, Katia leaves a map from which other characters magically know where she’s heading to. 47 and her are now at the Singapore airport though and after acknowledging that the cameras are Syndicate’s eyes, the barcoded man disguises himself just as the Big Brother is clearly watching him.
Even though Katia did her best to stay out of sight, a camera still managed to snap her picture, thus the Syndicate knows everything rendering the previous scene completely pointless. “The girl” and the barcoded man attempt to have a bonding moment. Katia asks if the tattoo hurt and more incomprehensible details about the Agents program are given to us. Apparently, the barcode is given to them when they are born and the numbers when they become Agents. That’s both stupid and completely unreasonable as the barcode already is a way of representing the numbers anyways. Katia reveals that Litvenko will be “there” at 9AM and that he has lung cancer, trying to force an emotional response out of either 47 or the viewers. Both failed attempts. A conversation about suppressing emotions ensues before it is suddenly interrupted by the need to go to sleep. So 47 does that by sitting up and “the girl” continues on her merry ways which also means disassembling his guns. Which is apparently a thing she does when she cannot fall asleep. This also means the barcoded man is left without his pistols when some more folks join the fun first thing in the morning. 47 somehow knows they weren’t Syndicate. Instead, there is an open contract on the duo so everyone and their mother will try and stop them.
The siblings (ugh… I’m never using that word to desribe them ever again) finally get to meet with their father… somehow. The conversation between Litvenko and Katia is full of non-answers as he keeps reestablishing what we already know from the intro. His conscience was driving him mad so instead of trying to raise his children by himself, he instead left them to be further experimented on… what? Isn’t this what you were trying to stop?…
47 appears out of nowhere. Katia spurs something about people having a choice of who they want to be in life, therefore rendering the entire plotpoint about being programmed to kill pointless. Bad men cut short this very emotional moment and the trio escapes in a red Audi (not product placement except the logo is directly in focus of the shot. Multiple times.).
What do they want?
More of me.
Why would anyone want more of you?
What follows is a high action car chase which has the barcoded man leisurely sitting behind the wheel of the red vehicle as John Smith keeps hurrying up his collegue who appears to be the calmest man on the entire universe even though he is actively taking part in a high speed pursuit and Litvenko mentions being a part of the program working on the subdermal body armor.
Perhaps you should consider shooting him.
Subdermal body armour.
What, they actually got that to work?
I honestly cannot believe a “yep” is part of of the script but let’s move on.
Our heroes get out of the situation without a scratch, as is the red Audi even though it has been bumped and shot many times during the course of the scene. I guess you really need no more convincing if you ever wanted to purchase one. Suddenly, more plot is getting unveiled as the Syndicate chairman who we’ve seen for maybe two minutes at best actually has a name. Antoine LeClerq. Apparently, he never leaves his secure office and fourteen agents have already tried killing him. You know, I’d expect more from beings literally programmed to eliminate other beings but I digress. Syndicate uses their high tech capabilities to stick hooks in the poor red vehicle. Masked armed men attempt to rappel down onto the car but 47 activates his aimbot to shoot all of them down. Also understandably causing panic on the entire street. Cars are getting destroyed left and right, naturally though, our Audi is all fine and dandy.
Katia helps Litvenko off the busy street. He ends up getting shot in the knee which is apparently enough of a drawback that they leave him behind. Not before slipping him an inhaler previously stolen from a little kid in an elevator – a scene which yours truly didn’t mention as there was nothing more of importance. John Smith snatches Litvenko, brings him to the Syndicate HQ and interrogates him in almost a Bond-like fashion. He also learns that he’s a failed experiment and that is pretty much all out of the new plot information.
Le Clerq also gets frustrated by the lack of development in this story and exits his protected office. He wants to know how to build an army of Agents but gets nothing once again. Litvenko knows he’s going to die anyways so there’s no point in speaking up to anybody. In the meantime, 47 managed to get his hands on a helicopter and is now trying to reason with Le Clerq by selling her Katia instead… what?
So you want to trade him for her? Why?
Because I always close my contracts.
Either that, or because the script did not know how to drag a very basic concept onto a feature-length movie.
Katia breaks her ties once again and pilots her helicopter onto through the glass pane windows of the Syndicate building. She then exits the vehicle and begins either disarming or straight-up killing random armed men.
Plot twist: 47 was never actually on that helicopter. Instead, he somehow managed to enter the extremely secure office of Le Clarq. He shoots Smith in the hand as he walks in (a reference to Absolution, maybe?) and another wrestling match between the two begins. The fibre wire saves the day as it inducts electricity and finally manages to find a way to end John’s existence for good.
“When this is done, I will kill you”, Katia says and she definitely has my sentiment as a terrible Bond movie-like guitar riff track begins playing in the background. The duo clears their way up to the roof, Litvenko takes off in a heli and the barcoded man gets shot in the back trying to protect Katia. He’s not affected by it though and they both respond with a bullet to the attacker’s chest.
It appears the inhaler wasn’t just an inhaler. It was also a detonator… somehow. Litvenko knows that… somehow and uses it to blow up himself, Le Clarq and the poor innocent helicopter pilot leaving Katia in tears. Another plot twist – it was actually Antoine Le Clarq who 47 was tasked to kill. It was to stop the Agent program once and for all and to set Katia free. The barcoded man mumbles something about not having destiny, instead determining who we are by what we do. They try to leave but it’s never as simple as another Agent cuts in their path. A 48, no less.
Diana says “Hello”.
All of them shoot their guns and a terrible song plays over the credits. The end.
…Or is it?!
It isn’t as the mid-credits scene reveals that Le Clerq survives and is now an albino!
Hitman: Agent 47 fails to deliver as a video game movie. I’d argue that it also fails in many other aspects. Not only the plot can be contained in the intro info dump, all of the characters mumble their lines in almost incomprehensible fashion. Not to mention the dialogue is stilted and reminds me of the original PSX Resident Evil. The high action scenes are boring as they are often comical and fail to deliver the suspense. This is due to the characters taking forever in performing any actions and there is nothing to keep your attention on the film. At least there were no forced innuendos this time around…
And yet I still kind of prefer this one over the 2007 Hitman. Why? Maybe because I can see the potential in the story. Yes, they very clearly sequel-baited it in the end but I find it adorable that they tried to incorporate the games’ grand storyline into it in some manner. Would I watch it again? No. Would I recommend it to other Hitman fans? Of course not. But either because I’m partial to the albino subplot of Blood Money or I admire how the movie wasn’t simply about a superkiller on the loose, I’m not as offended as most people were when I talked to them about this film. It was still horrible but at least it tried. And I always give credit where credit is due.
I hope you enjoyed our little adventure in the realms of the Hitman movies. Whether or not you’ll decide to watch them on your own is obviously your choice. I personally would not recommend either of them unless you get really drunk like I did. If you wish to listen to my ongoing reactions to both of the movies, my Patreon is where you’ll find it. And thus, we end our Summer Bonus Episode. I certainly hope it was worth it, as many people asked me to cover the movies for much longer than “a while”. What will happen next Hitman-wise is to be seen but I more than encourage you to explore my articles on topics other than Hitman. I do video game analysis, so go check it out!
In the meantime, this has been White.
PS.: If someone can tell me where exactly is the credited footage of Absolution in this movie, please screengrab it cause I don’t want to see this movie again and yet I’m curious.
A big thank you to LadyFromEast for suffering through this with me as well as my Patreons for the continuous support! Remember to check out my Patreon for an audio recording of White’s drunken reactions to this movie. Don’t like Patreon? You can just buy me a coffee instead as a one-time donation!
Adapting an artform to a completely different medium has its ups and downs. It furthers the spread of the original material to new audiences. It allows for visuals for aspects previously only touched via the magic of letters and words, in case of literature to film adaptation, and it enhances the existing universe by adding auditory elements. It can fill in the blanks to show a different perspective, to shed light on other aspects of the story, in case of visual media to novel adaptation. Manipulating separate mediums is an art in of itself though and we haven’t had much luck when it comes to video game movies… That’s not an opinion. That is a fact.
Video games are still seen as a niche when it comes to entertainment. “Gamers” are prone to stereotypes but how many of the people you know still game in their grandparents’ basement wearing only their way-too-dirty of a t-shirt and boxers?… Except for me, of course. And yet, video game to movie adaptations are getting traction. Why? Money, probably. The industry and the market are changing, evolving. Video games now sell like hot cakes, and when you add the silly pre-order culture to it, I think you can get a clear picture as to why other businesses would be keen on getting at least a taste of the aforementioned hot cake.
This is why we have had such magnificent works of art as the Max Payne movie, multiple Mortal Kombat adaptations, the entire Resident Evil movie side universe and even a taste of the theatrical version of Super Mario Bros…. To add to that, there’s probably the most known line of video game adaptations, directed by the infamous Uwe Boll – a man who was told by Blizzard Entertainment that they will “not sell the movie rights, not to you…especially not to you.” when he expressed he’d like to work with their Warcraft IP.
Have we had some good ones? According to Wikipedia, the best scoring video game movie has a 44% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. That would be Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within – a title often associated with the phrase “uncanny valley”. Other than that, the Tomb Raider movies apparently weren’t that bad and some swear that Silent Hill’s adaptation is the best one we’ve gotten… as a Silent Hill fan, I might get to that one eventually… Today we will be looking at something entirely different. That’s also because I usually discuss video games. As a Hitman lore expert however, it would be a deep shame (that’s a lie if I ever saw one) to never get around to movie adaptations of my favorite franchise of all time… I already told you what I think of the novels and I wrote that extensive character analysis of Mr. 47, so what else is left for me to do? The next logical step would be to cover the Hitman Christmas Flash Game or Hitman Vegas if I ever manage to get my hands on that one again… For now though, let’s fuel the memes. Or rather, give actual context to the already existing “White’s reaction to the first movie” card in our Discord’s custom Cards Against Humanity deck.
Hitman was released in November 2007, after what we now call the “old school” set of titles were already out. Interestingly enough, the rights to adapt the franchise were negotiated starting February 2003, so even before Contracts hit the shelves. It was also to star Vin Diesel. The actor was also meant to be an executive producer of the title. The latter ended up a reality but the main role was given to Timothy Olyphant instead, with Olga Kurylenko, Dougray Scott, and Robert Knepper casted as supporting characters. The movie was given to a French director Xavier Gens and it was to be written by Skip Woods of Swordfish… fame… and Live Free or Die Hard which was apparently pretty good. The shooting began early 2007. It wasn’t without problems as the movie had to be pushed back due to several scenes needing reshooting. The script was changed to alter the main character’s origins (we’re off to good start, Hitman lore fanatics!). It also means I’m probably going to have a field day as I start disassembling this piece of art, especially given how the source material was disregarded even on the smallest of details. “47’s” eyes in the movie adaptation are brown simply because the director thought Timothy Olyphant looked odd in blue contact lenses. There are also rumors that Jesper Kyd’s music was to be featured in the movie before it was replaced by an original score by Geoff Zanelli.
But let’s not prolong this. Join me (or not, your choice, really) as I hit “Play” and share my thoughts on the 2007 adaptation of Hitman. If you want a more in-depth experience of White’s reaction to the first movie, I posted an audio recording of the entire thing on my Patreon, so be sure to check that out if you’re curious!
The film starts off with a pretty obvious reference to the franchise. Since the very beginning, we get to hear Schubert’s Ave Maria, cause it would not be Hitman if that wasn’t the case. At least we can scratch it off our bingo card early. Accompanying our magnificent song, we are shown a mysterious place in which children are actively being trained for combat purposes. DISCIPLINE is written in bold letters on a projector screen as rows and rows of small human beings with barcodes on their necks are brainwashed into stone-heart killers.
“Barcodes on their necks?”, you ask wondering if White’s Mind has already been damaged by the mere few seconds of the 2007 Hitman. The iconic placement for the barcode has always been the back of 47’s head, so what’s with the neck? Digging into the credits sequence of the film, we can also notice a small print informing us about footage reused from a different FOX-owned production. This was apparently to lower the costs after the previously mentioned reshoots.
Following this intro sequence, which ends up being completely meaningless over the course of the story as it explains nothing, we are then brought to a tiny neighborhood in London, England. A detective is coming back home in a stormy night after a long day of work only to find that his family isn’t there. Instead, another man welcomes him in his household. A bald guy dressed in a fancy suit, white shirt and a blood-red tie. He’s also holding a gun. And there’s a dead fellow right there on the floor. I’d argue that the milk and cookie was probably a way better welcoming gift.
The men apparently know each other. The detective seems startled but the bald guy comforts him, saying that his family is still alive. Just asleep. Of course we believe him and do not act as if being “asleep” isn’t simply a metaphor for being dead… Especially as the detective knows well who this bald man is. He’s been hunting him. Calling him a ghost. And here he is. A ghost right in front of his very face.
…I’m making this more interesting that it actually is, so let’s move on.
Mr. Ghost mentions he’s been stalking the detective for a significant portion of time, yet he still has not decided to kill him, so it’s probably not going to end up happening now, either. Instead, he simply wants to talk. He wants to know when does a good man chooses to end another person’s life and thus begins the proper story.
Three months ago, a bomb accident preplanned by our Ghost Fella has triggered Interpol, and subsequently our detective, to start following him throughout the world. The voice over gives us some world building exposition. Apparently, the mystery place from the intro sequence was a part of a training program by an establishment known only as The Organization. “So secret no-one knows it exists.” The inspector, going by the name Mike, paints an even clearer picture… somewhat. “No motive, no forensic evidence, no witnesses”, he says as he swivels on his armchair. We are also introduced to another Interpol agent – Jenkins – who manages to find holes in theories spewed by the Nigerian general. You know, there’s always this one character which seems self-aware about being a part of a terrible story and Jenkins might just be our guy this time around. Especially hearing dialogues like these:
It is our belief that Bwana Ovie
was killed by his own brother.
Oh, so he choked down
a pound of C-4… and knocked on Ovie’s door?
We then get a generic “he’s the best of the best” line from Mike himself and a nice shot of a world map with red pins representing Mr. Ghost’s kills. Not all of them, mind you. Just the ones the Interpol knows about.
The Hitman franchise is all about traveling the world, so we then move to St. Petersburg in Russia. A reference to Silent Assassin, perhaps, as our main character is tasked to perform a sniper kill on a Russian politician. But not before we see him in a hotel room, enjoying his ice cold whiskey. A random bystander jokes about killing him for what he’s doing with the beverage and he seems quite distressed before realizing she wasn’t actually serious. The woman is definitely interested in our protagonist yet he isn’t. Instead, we get a nice overview on some more preplanning that will end up being important as time goes on, so pay attention to the very blue ice machine! Ghost Fella then enters his own hotel room (No. 501 – a huge missed opportunity for a Contracts reference!) and we get more direct shots of important plot items.
What follows is a shower scene. I personally really enjoy shower scenes in visual media. Not because of the nudity (in fact there’s nothing to focus your eyes on here) but because they always manage to capture the purity and vulnerability of the character. 2007 Hitman does the same thing by incorporating flashbacks yet contrasts it with showing us a gun right next to the shower itself. We then get a glimpse of what’s happening in the background of the hired killer profession as Ghost Man contacts his agency… Organization… whatever. A robotic female voice (Diana, apparently, given the name tag), informs him that the payment is being completed as our main character is looking at a… “Man’s Guide to Women” article…
He can also be seen smiling a bit, either at the piece itself or the fact that Diana has just praised him for a job well done. Apparently, the next assignment is just getting more difficult as the client wishes the kill to be public. This triggers another reaction in Mr. Ghost. “I’ve planned something more… subtle”, he says. This one line might be to excuse the upcoming violence and high action scenes in a supposed Hitman movie but that may be giving it too much credit. Still, he accomplishes the task of eliminating Mikhail Belicoff and it’s all she wrote.
It’s never that easy, however. If it was, the film would be over in fifteen minutes and maybe that would have been for the better. Instead, we have an hour and fifteen more minutes to go. Our protagonist is also of an impression that it’s all done and well as we see him willing to depart St. Petersburg and be off to a new destination. Diana stops him. “We have a problem. There was a witness in St. Petersburg.” I’d argue there were many more witnesses, not just Nika Boronina. The kill was to be public, after all…
Said witness ends up being one of Belicoff’s prostitutes (spoiler alert?). Logically, our Ghost Fella is asked to get rid of her. A job he doesn’t complete as Nika simply looks at him and that stops him from accomplishing his goal… what? Then, another hitman appears. An inferior one, perhaps as he misses his target whilst the target is literally standing still. The main character escapes leaving the assassin clearly unhappy.
Remember Mike and Jenkins exist? Now you do cause they are up to something! Analyzing the record of the Belicoff kill reveals some interesting details such as way too much artificial blood used in the scene… no, that’s actually their conclusion, not my sarcastic comment! Mike also gets a tip that the ghost he’s been looking for has been spotted and someone even took a picture of him!
Where the hell did they get a picture?
MAN ON THE PHONE:
I don’t know, sir.
I’m clueless, too…
Back in the hotel, our protagonist argues with Diana over if Nika is or isn’t a witness because that is totally something a hired killer would do. This, paired with the fact that The Organization has also caught on something being off about the Belicoff kill means Ghost Fella will not be getting his money. As you’d imagine, he’s quite upset about the situation, especially as it seems his agency has completely doublecrossed him. This is almost an Absolution-level of a plot setup!
A new challenger appears! Chief Agent Yuri Marklov of FSB has some business with Mr. Ghost as well but gives no reasons as to why. Mike seems to be distraught about it as well, further revealing obvious holes in this script. The Russians decide to storm the hotel and in the meantime, Diana calls our protagonist directly. Apparently, the client was Belicoff himself. She also mentions the police being around the corner which means maybe she didn’t doublecrossed him after all!… only that she was following The Organization’s orders or… is this Absolution?
Following is a long hotel escape action scene featuring the most Hitman thing in this movie… an actual Hitman video game. Interestingly enough, played in French. Given that our hired killer is supposed to leave no forensic evidence and no witnesses and overall be a ghost, he leaves the building completely destroyed, on fire and with a pile of death bodies inside of an elevator. All of the previously shown preplanning ends up coming into play though, giving us an insight of how much of a mastermind our Ghost Man actually is!
Thankfully, that fulfills the quota for at least one person with enough hindsight in this entire plot as one of the Interpol agents has none of it and permanently destroys Ghost Fella’s laptop. Mike and Yuri have a bit of an argument about whether or not the killer is a freelance or connected to the CIA, Mike accuses the FSB of manipulating the photographs and that’s pretty much all this scene involves. The entire Interpol versus FSB conflict seems completely pointless in the end anyways and honestly, it feels like padding. It seems as if it was to balance the action scenes yet there’s so little content involved in them that you might as well just skip them. But then, if you’d also to skip action scenes, there would be nothing left of the hour and a half film, so the choice is yours.
Mr. Ghost goes on to find Nika Boronina in her own apartment. A good place to start looking, I’d say. He influences her to open the door by hiding behind a bouquet of red roses. He then forces her to enter the trunk of his car and takes her to his secret hideout place… that he owns apparently in this entirely foreign country… to interrogate her. Excuse me, he’s taking her “Somewhere safe”. That’s not something I’d believe if a man literally grabbed me by the neck and threw me into his car.
Nika doesn’t know much of importance, or the plot would be too competent for the lowest common denominator demographic to understand so instead, we are given a simple “Mikhail has a body double.” And if you can’t picture that, she also explains “Just as Saddam Hussein” as if that was to help. She also mentions Belicoff having a brother – Udre – who sounds like a man I’d not go to a coffee shop with.
He runs slave girls, drugs, weapons. Both the C.I.A. and F.S.B. want him dead.
Our protagonist asks her why she’s tattooed her face, giving us a connection between the two… sort of… and both an emotional and a bonding moment so the audience has at least one character to root for in this story. Ghost Fella ends up taking Nika with him, wanting to protect her from Belicoff (for some reason…) as he still wishes to complete his original contract.
Exiting St. Petersburg won’t be as easy as getting in as both the Interpol and The Organization apparently wants our main character dead. Another high action scene follows, featuring pointlessly leaving a man alive just to finish the job later and a sword fight between four random barcoded men. A disguise becomes a prominent component reminding us that we are watching a Hitman movie.
Mike gets told by other people. He also tells Yuri to fuck off filling the “fuck” quota of the film. Again, this aftermath seems completely unnecessary but it’s there so I’m going to comment on its lack of existential reason. Back to Ghost Fella and Nika, we have a second quick bonding moment between the two as Nika’s backstory is getting revealed a bit more. That goes with the actress herself just that in her case, her entire body ends up being revealed for us in a topless female nudity scene – genuinely the second of the most popular keywords on the IMDb page of this movie. The “no witnesses” ghost our protagonist is, he makes a huge scene in front of an entire crowd of people but the bonding moment does its job and he even forces a joke and a smile out of Nika at the end of it. We are also explicitly told that he doesn’t want to have sex with her so if you were in the cinema just for that, you might get up your seat and leave in this very moment.
It appears Mr. Ghost isn’t the only character knowing the art of preplanning as Mike does the same! The audience is informed with a very obvious sort-of-a-flashback-but-not-really that our detective has placed a bug on Yuri the last time they’ve met and him and Jenkins can now listen in to Yuri’s conversation with a higher up! But they are quickly interrupted and that’s another Mike scene wasted…
In the meantime, Nika meets up with a new character which doesn’t get properly introduced and we don’t exactly know where he comes from and why he is there. Ghost Fella is observing them via a sniper rifle scope cause that’s apparently more common than binoculars. At least we get a pretty clear Blood Money promo art reference reminding us that this is a Hitman movie. “After all these years, I’d think you’d trust me a little more than this”, the man starts off his phone conversation with the main character. That is the only line establishing some form of a previous connection between the two, so I hope you enjoyed it!
The man is apparently a part of the Central Intelligence Unit but also has some insight to the whole Belicoff situation and the fact that The Organization has doublecrossed “the best of the best” because it obviously made sense to do that. Since the CIA wants Udre Belicoff gone, our guy decides to do the dirty work. In return, he only wants a “small favor”. That’s obviously not the case but a part of a bigger preplanning operation so let’s roll with it as we travel to Istanbul!
Nika wakes up almost completely naked to try and force our Ghost Fella to pay attention to her. He isn’t interested though, instead browsing the files of a German weapon dealer whom Udre is doing business with. “We’re going to dinner”, he exclaims suddenly and follows it with a “We need to buy you a new dress.”
“You know, you’re really quite charming when you aren’t killing people.”
Istanbul serves as a bonding place for our main character and a… Bond girl… as they walk down the streets and make accidentally silly faces. They then head to Gelato Tower to do some more preplanning! Apparently Mr. Price is going to be there, as Mr. Ghost already knew from the briefing so I have no idea why he felt the need to doublecheck it other than to maybe make a reference to Traditions of the Trade or to point out how stupid it is for “the best of the best” to leave a witness unattended for a prolonged period of time.
How did you know I wouldn’t just take off?
I didn’t. Come on. We have dinner reservations at 8.
We change places for a second for another almost pointless Mike scene. The Interpol now knows that Belicoff has a body double. And we’re back to Istanbul! Great use of two minutes, there!
Our beloved couple has another bonding moment, as they are having dinner at Gelato Tower. Their conversation mostly involves exchanging random observations, mild sexual jokes and leaves me craving the soup of the day (red lentil and mint with sautéed onions and diced tomatoes). This nice environment soon changes as Mr. Ghost suddenly stands up and asks Nika to get the check. In the meantime, he enters the bathrooms, uses his preplanned asset to eliminate both Price and his bodyguard (a right man on the right job as he doesn’t even see it coming whilst facing a mirror). Nika’s “What the fuck?” pretty much covers it all. She still manages to grab a wine bottle from the table and apparently drinks all of it before they head back.
Well, that was lovely. Right up to the time you dragged me out by my hair.
Another attempt at seducing our protagonist fails thanks to a syringe filled with some sort of a sedative which affects the victim in less than a second. At least that’s game-accurate.
Having Nika out of the picture for a bit, Ghost Fella meets up with Udre Belicoff under a guise of Mr. Price. For some reason, I fail to believe Udre either did not get the memo that the real Mr. Price is dead, no-one has found Price and his bodyguard up to this moment or even that Udre has no idea of how Mr. Price looks like. Disregard any logic, as we have another high action scene, this time involving hookers, cheap weaponry and dollar bills. Our protagonist ends up killing Udre in a way-too-risky of a method for the “no forensic evidence” type of a hired gun.
Fade out, fade in back to the room where we last left Nika. Mr. Ghost thinks about it once he sees her naked but covers her up instead. His facial expression gives out a truly distressed feeling as if he’s a teenager watching a porno for the very first time. Honestly, this also might be because of how young Timothy Olyphant looks in this movie…
The next morning, the duo have even more bonding moments cause we have to pick up the pace with those. Nika fixes Ghost Fella’s tie before they head off to a great adventure. During the car ride, she begins reading aloud the same article previously read by our main character in St. Petersburg. We get to learn such plot-important details as that “when the male penguin meets the female penguin he knows in the first 10 seconds whether he’s gonna like her or not”. Terrible sex jokes later, Nika mentions she always wanted to have a vineyard when she was a little girl and that is actually a plot-important detail you should remember out of that entire scene.
Did you know that there is a substory to this movie? I certainly didn’t but here it is. Mike has been digging through the retrieved briefcase of our protagonist and has found a small bag containing a cross-shaped key. “I never thought our boy is a religious type.”, he mutters maybe referencing Silent Assassin to remind us we are watching a Hitman movie. “That’s strange.” Indeed. That’s also the end of the Mike scene.
Ready for our last bonding moment? I told you we needed to pick up the pace. Ghost Fella interrupts Nika’s nap to inform her it’s the last time they ever going to see each other. Just… it’s not as dramatic as I’m making it out to be cause the script obviously tries but fails at delivering this level of drama.
Nika. I have to go.
So much for happy endings. I don’t want you to do this.
Belicoff needs to die.
I don’t care about that.
As long as he’s alive, they will never stop looking for you.
At the next station, get off the train as soon as it stops. Move with the crowd.
But I don’t even know your name.
The place I was raised, they didn’t give us names.
They gave us numbers.
Mine was 47.
Finally! I was waiting for it all this time! If you were wondering why I am not calling this character “47” for this entire time, it was because, disregarding the few seconds the number appears during the calls with The Age– Organization, it is never mentioned up to this moment! Nika has the nerve to answer “Well, that explains a lot” even though it actually doesn’t and they split up.
When was the last time we’ve seen Yuri? I personally don’t even remember anymore but here he is again and, it appears, he has been working with Mikhail Belicoff all along and the man is furious. And drunk. Next is Mike and few quick establishing moments of “the FSB wants the Interpol to drop the investigation”, “Udre’s been found dead” and a convenient TV report about Mikhail Belicoff attending his brother’s funeral which triggers Mike to add two and two together and realize Mr. Ghost… or “47” has been using his preplanning abilities once again.
If revealing the number of “47” reminded you that we’re watching a Hitman movie, this might be the only time to appreciate the source material as this nighttime scene is actually quite suspenseful and features multiple Hitman references – the fibre wire and the coin distraction (not a pistol distraction, this was way too early for that one). A shame though that the room Yuri ends up in is more akin to SAW than any of the Hitman video games. Unless maybe you count Sturrock’s brother’s playground from Meat King’s Party. A rubber ducky also makes its appearance in the tub accompanying Yuri’s bath. Apparently “47” now wants him dead… for some reason… and he’s using a complicated machinery to do it for him.
In the meantime, the authorities are preparing a setup themselves. Mike is worried about the civilian casualties but that is to be avoided with a gas-based sedative. The grand star arrives. We’re ready for the climax. Yuri is forced to direct his own hitman to shoot Belicoff instead but the glass pane stops their plans. TARGET LOCKDOWN.
Mr. Ghost or “47”, I guess, uses the newfound distraction to obtain a masked disguise and massacre even more people. This means a clear cut way to his original target. Mike also makes a connection between the cross-shaped key and the church they are in, by the way. It feels like he understands a lot more than I do cause he comes to a conclusion that our protagonist has set all of this up from the very beginning. How? I literally do not know. Apparently, Ghost Fella knew from the start that Belicoff has a body double, that The Organization is going to doublecross him, that the FSB is working with Belicoff to cover everything up and has even been carrying this random cross-shaped key knowing well that Interpol is going to get a hold of his suitcase and find it. What a mastermind.
After a high action scene, “47” forces Belicoff into a room and they have a little talk. The Russian wants to negotiate with the killer but he’s not interested and shoots him right in his pretty face instead. His plans are not over yet however as he purposely sets himself up to be found by Interpol and then have the previously seen but not properly introduced up until now character get him out. It appears that the guy we’ve only seen in one scene is actually agent Smith of the CIA. I know, I wouldn’t guess either based on his appearance. And I’m the Hitman lore expert! Thus, in this very convoluted way, “47” flees into the unknown having completed his original contract and leaving Mike with nothing once again.
Except for milk and cookies, cause we are back to the suburban neighborhood in London.
So now what?
Now you have to answer my question.
Are you a good man, Inspector?
And yet you’ve killed men.
So, Inspector… how does a good man decide when to kill?
Mike ends up muttering a few words which don’t make any sense what-so-ever, so the entire plot set up and therefore, the entirety of the movie was completely meaningless. It is then clear that the preplanning went even further, up to this very moment. Mr. Ghost has not only found Mike’s family house but is also giving him what he always wanted – himself. Killed by Mike. Sort of. Cause it’s not him but a different barcoded man. And he wasn’t shot by Mike but his weapon. But you get the gist. He also says his last goodbye to Nika. By setting her up with her very own vineyard. The end.
So there we go. The 2007 Hitman movie. To be fair, there’s not much to discuss as it’s barely even a Hitman movie. The number “47” has been mentioned once throughout the course of the story. Diana is a robotic voice who only has few lines in the entire script and The Agency is pretty much none existent. There are few references here and there but it’s definitely not enough for it to be Hitman especially given how high action and loud the film ends up being. Even as a movie, it’s lackluster and pretty boring. As I’ve mentioned before, the Interpol vs. FSB subplot is forgettable to say the least, the dialogue can be illogical or outright stupid and the characters have little to no motivation. It’s a typical Hollywood action flick so I guess we shouldn’t expect much. I simply do not know who is the target audience for this movie. It’s definitely not Hitman fans and it’s not generic action movie fans as the film ends up being mediocre at even that with it’s obvious horrible looking CGI and excess of fake blood. Maybe it tried to grab viewers attention by plastering the lens with Olga Kurylenko’s naked body but even that need (if you personally have it) can be easily circumvented by browsing the internet.
What is worth mentioning is that the original script was much different from what we’ve received. Even the ending scene was changed. Nika was supposed to get killed right in front of “47’s” eyes. But I guess that would make it pretty grim and the lowest common denominator prefers happy ending. What a shame. Can you believe they wanted to make a sequel to this movie? It never ended up happening cause they canceled it and rebooted it in 2015.
…Wait. They did what?…
Yes. Hitman was successful as a movie after all and even though plans for a sequel were ruined, that did not stop Fox from taking another bite of the license. And since they did it, I guess I also have to…
Join me here next month for another batch of “White’s reactions to the Hitman movies” as we tackle the 2015 Hitman: Agent 47.
A big thank you to LadyFromEast for suffering with me through this movie and a huge thanks to all of my Patreons for the continued support!
Remember to check out the bonus’ bonuses, too! Including the audio recording of White, LadyFromEast and Toffi reacting to the first movie!
As a Hitman lore enthusiast, I often find myself analysing the smallest details of the games, their stories and characters. The series would not be what it is today without its (forgive me for using this word) iconic main well-suited character and his bald head decorated with a (let’s hit all of the cliche words!) signature barcode. But it’s not the tie or the black leather gloves what made Mr. 47 so endearing for yours truly. You know my thoughts on the character as well as the recent developments of his personality. You know I’ve been digging and digging through all of the games to bring you the best analysis of our beloved protagonist and you might have thought my extensive piece is where I draw the line. Today, I’d like to prove you wrong.
There were itches unscratched in this lore-loving heart and this is why today I present to you the real insight to 47’s mind. An interview with David Bateson.
This is what happens when the lore expert talks to Mr. 47 himself…
First of all, thank you so much for agreeing to do this. It’s great to see you are so open to interact with the fanbase. I was always enthralled by 47’s personality and how it was presented throughout the games. So naturally, I would love to ask a few questions for the man voicing said character and undoubtedly is the main reason as for my passion for Mr. 47. I am so glad we were able to make this happen.
Could you tell us what were the first pointers you were given when voicing the role of agent 47? Was he always meant to be a tough guy with a troubled backstory or did his past was unknown to you during the recordings for Codename 47? How much of the story was even known to you?
As I recall, I wasn’t given much information for that first recording. But reading the script, which I seem to recall were just inner monologues, I got an idea of how it should read. However, the atmosphere of the images I was looking at were haunting and stark, so the scene was set – it was moody and ominous from the start.
They were of Hong Kong – both concept art and sequences from the game, as I remember. Very black and white, shadowy. Quite Japanese in look. but on the whole it reminded me of Blade Runner.
Ah, so you already had an insight to what the aesthetic was going to look like and played off that! That’s really interesting. So what was your opinion on the character when the role was presented to you? What influenced your choice in taking the offer?
I was deeply impressed and “moved” by those first images and graphics. A character that is created – with a specific purpose only – intrigued me. There is no history, nothing to hang an “attitude” on. So it felt like it gave me a broad blank canvas to draw on and shape, according to what was subsequently told to me and according to how my personality interpreted that. Looking back, though I am convinced that the original guys who developed Hitman and created Agent 47, knew or at the very least, had a good idea of how he should be; but because nothing existed before that time, it really felt like there was room to influence his development. As an actor, I am drawn to characters out of curiosity. I want to find out how they think and feel and then allow myself to think and feel like them. No filter, or at least, as little as possible. It’s a real trust exercise, in a way.
What will always intrigue me about Agent 47, is that I will never fully know him.
So you do, in fact, play a huge role into the creation of Mr. 47! I guess I have to thank you for creating my absolute favorite fictional character of all times. I don’t think anyone will ever fully know him… and believe me, I have tried!
How did your perception of 47 changed once it came to voicing Silent Assassin? The main storyline of the game heavily revolves around 47’s moral journey. A quite interesting turn of events when it comes to hitmen stories.
Now we’re getting to the point… You know, as I see it, every single thing we do in life, is a choice. We may be dealt some crap cards sometimes, but we choose how to play them. That choice is based on one’s own definition of morals. Does this feel right? Should I do this? Do my actions and behaviour benefit or harm others?
Well, it’s clear Agent 47 has a very purely defined moral code. He is programmed to fulfil a contract. That contract involves the taking of life. There is no doubt or repentance of what he does. It is as if he is either autistic or psychotic in that he is completely detached from his feelings. And yet…. he is not. It would be utterly boring and uninteresting to play him 100% like that. There is something in the cocktail of his genetic make-up that lingers. He is a human, afterall.
We’ve seen it before, in films from Total Recall to Blade Runner to Oblivion, where a character is haunted by something in their past DNA that makes them search for who they really are. It’s actually the same in real life. I see in my own children, behaviour patterns and quirks, that are mine and that were definitely not taught or consciously passed on by me. Where does that come from? Agent 47 may never find the answers as to who he is and what makes him the way he is. But it’s the subconscious search that makes the journey interesting. There is nothing new here. It’s life. But part of the appeal of the character of Agent 47 is that just ever so slightly, we are haunted by him. At least… I am.
This is where the origin of my interest of Mr. 47 lies. There is so much you can wonder about and yet I feel this side of him has been lost throughout the years and especially in the newest installment. I personally thought they could do so much more with him in HITMAN but as I understand, they focused on establishing the World of Assassination this time.
How do you perceive 47’s interest in religion? Is it something you can identify with?
Absolutely. I was really fascinated by the religious element that the developers and writers allowed themselves to express. Religion, any religion, is a set of profound beliefs felt and followed by billions of people in every corner of the world. Never under estimate the power of religious faith. Ever!
When we are younger, we tend to perceive life and sets of religious beliefs in pretty well defined terms. Good, bad, right wrong. With a few more years and experiences on our shoulders, I think it is fair to say that there is a good chance we may accept more nuances as to what is right or wrong. So when IO went down the religious road it made sense, as the fanbase was predominantly young and questioning. On the one hand, risky, as it might alienate this young audience. But on the other hand, appealing to the more clearly defined moral codes of youth.
I can identify with this. However, I will leave my personal faith out of this conversation.
It is really interesting how you mentioned young and questioning – as 47 can be seen as young and questioning as well. Yes, he can be described as adult by the time of Silent Assassin but he’s been truly free to explore and create his outlook on the world and his own life for a much shorter period. As for alienating younger audiences – I don’t think back then they were even attempting to reach that demographic. Part of why I find the older titles so endearing. They were mature for a reason and I love that maturity.
47’s character shines when dealing with side characters. There were many throughout the Hitman series but none as prominent as his handler. What do you think of their relationship? Do you think it is strictly business or have they grown to care about each other over the course of their work?
Well, what made Diana and Agent 47’s relationship so good from the get go – and this wasn’t in any way planned – was that Vivienne McKee happens to be my theatre company boss! Vivienne and I are close friends and when we started working on Hitman together we had already known each other 9-10 years. I think there was and is still, an unspoken chemistry between them. Of course, it can never be expressed and Agent 47 probably would not even know what it is that should be expressed!
However, I sense Diana’s instinct to want to look after her agent in the field both professionally, but also dare I say it, personally. This is not a bad thing to have in the mix. It just adds to the complexity of how we as players, become involved with these characters. I think there were some intriguing elements of this expressed in Absolution, when we experience Agent 47’s horror and dilemma of having to fulfil a contract on Diana – with all their history together over the years. I would like to think that that experience has made them even closer.
Personally, I think it’s a deep shame that Vivienne McKee wasn’t a part of Absolution. This particular moment in A Personal Contract would be so much more meaningful if that was the case. I always saw it as this missed opportunity for creating a truly powerful moment in the series, especially for the already existing fanbase. In the end, they did not only change the voice actress – they also made that scene completely inconsequential storywise.
All I can say is: Vivienne was majorly bummed at being replaced!
Did you ever happen to record with Vivienne McKee when it came to the Hitman series?
You know, we never recorded together. Occasionally, our paths would cross in the studio, as one finished and the other would go in to record. But sadly, for my part at least, there has never been the opportunity of recording across from one another.
There are also other prominent side characters in the series. Padre Vittorio is obviously 47’s friend and his moral guidance but we also have agent Smith whom 47 seems to dislike. Were there any directions or reasons given to you for why that is? And if not – do you have any suspicions?
What still intrigues me to this day, is that the writers don’t always tell me everything. And I try not to ask, sometimes. I mean, I need to know what happens before a moment of monologue/dialogue but as a character, I actually don’t need to know what comes next. Bit like real life, really. I thoroughly enjoyed my relationship with the padre – man, does that ever sound wrong, in these day and ages…! Ha ha! You know what I mean. I like the idea of having a mentor or someone to be able to ask those big meaningful questions, and trust in the integrity of their answers.
Agent Smith, I do seem to remember them keeping me a little in the dark, about him. This feeling of ambivalence helped me deliver lines about him. Truth is, I don’t want to know everything. Wouldn’t that be dull.
Absolutely. I imagine that would also show in the delivery. Knowing what 47 should not know might void some of the emotional impact!
Have you noticed any form of change in 47’s character as he evolves overtime? Do you agree with the changes or do you think some games did not portray him as well as others? (In particular – the dreaded Absolution!)
You know, I got to ask a lot of fans at the EGX in Birmingham, England, as to what their favourite game had been, up to that point. The majority of fans that day said Blood Money was their favourite. Here’s the thing: I loved doing Absolution! It had everything going on for me as a voice actor and to be able to more fully express some complex feelings of this otherwise, pretty surpassed character and dear friend – Agent 47! I also liked his reluctant relationship with Victoria. I personally thought the writing was brave and ambitious. Perhaps too ambitious, in hindsight, as the fans felt they lost some of the open sandbox of Blood Money, in the pursuit of such an “emotional” plotline. That’s definitely been rectified with the latest episodic release of the latest instalment this last year!
What is so cool with this franchise and the evolvement of it, is that the people who create it, from the programmers, graphic artists and creatives, to the writers who populate the games, is that they really, really care about what they are doing. May sound cheesy but it’s true. Added to which, the amount of time I have spent recording with them over the years, has meant that there is an immense understanding for this character and the direction in which they want to take it. Not everything works. That’s human. Personally, I can’t wait to see where we are headed next – both in terms of plot and character development.
Remember, no one stays the same. We all evolve and change in some ways, over the years.
Again, I have to agree with you. From my personal experience with the team, I can clearly see they care oh so much! Whether or not it shows on the outside is often another story…
You mentioned Absolution‘s plot being too ambitious… sounds a lot like what I’ve been saying in my HITMAN opinion pieces… It is a shame the writers might be making the same mistakes.
What kind of story do you like best when it comes to a Hitman story? Is it the more personal approach with the storyline directly involving 47 or do you enjoy seeing what else the World of Assassination has to offer?
Got me here! It’s both.
As I say, I liked the more personal approach of having Agent 47’s character tested and pushed, in terms of self discovery. But that’s just cos I am an actor! However, the World of Assassination has proved to be one big fat adventure! So I am equally drawn to the prospect of more of the same.
I will say this, though. I was at the BAFTA Games last year and I watched the BAFTA’s again this year, and the notion or theme being heavily appreciated, both by gaming experts and by the jury in some of the awards, is that a good storyline and character development should not be underestimated. Fans of course, will always want more of the same from their favourite gaming franchise. But they also want more. Of everything. So, more of the same is not enough, in itself, no matter good the graphics.
As humans we need to be engaged and drawn in to the action. That takes a strong storyline, great characters and a well crafted script. We need to feel for the them and be entertained by the story, otherwise what is the point? I know that is not the case for every game. Pokémon Go does just fine without all that.
Funnily enough, it was the storyline of Hitman that made me love the series, not just the gameplay. It all needs to flow together nicely to create an appealing package. And you are definitely a big part of it as well! How much involvement do you have in shaping the character? Do you sometimes step in and say “This isn’t how he would act”?
Good question. Occasionally, I will step in and say: “this sounds wrong or at least, not quite right”. The writers are in the room when we record so it will be discussed and alternates suggested and tried out. Normally, we all end up in agreement. After so many years working together, it tends to go pretty fast, if we have any disagreements.
I often record lines in groups of 3. Either the first instinctive approach is right or the third delivery is right. Never the second one. However, I need the second delivery to get to the third one. Time consuming and a little frustrating, sometimes. But with so much dialogue to get through, the rhythm of recording this way seems to work best.
What do you consider the main appeal of the character you’re voicing?
He’s cool. In every way. Strong, silent, determined, utterly ruthless. Yet, haunted. searching. Not quite vulnerable – at least not in any obvious way. With just a touch of very dark humour…
That dark humor we all love so much… I like how you described him as “searching”. That pretty much covers his entire journey up to this point!
Was there any moment in particular that is memorable to you out of your entire career of voicing agent 47? Any interesting tidbits or stories to share?
That’s not fair. I have many but I’m afraid I’ve run out of time. The memorable moments have mainly got to do with my relationship to the writers and people of IO, and the physical process of recording the dialogue. It is simply unique – not only to be playing the same character for all these years, but to feel like I really have got to know him. He is a close friend of mine, and as such, I accept that I don’t know all of him. Like a real good friend, we accept them for who we think they are. That’s good enough.
Do you have any favorite quotes or moments from the series?
“I need to use the bathroom” will probably be engraved on my tombstone! Actually, there are others but they are either quotes or misreads that occur during the many hours of recording, and I can’t think of any now. If I do, I will drop you a line with a quote. Promise.
I’ll hold you to that promise!
How do you see the character going forward? He’s been through so much already, I’m sure his mindset now is completely different from what we’ve seen in the past? Do you ever see him taking a well deserved retirement?
You know, I honestly just wait for the next adventure to unfold. That’s the joy of my part in the process. Everyone else at IO has to work for months – if not even years, sometimes – on all the practical aspects that go into making the next instalment. I just get to turn up on a recording day and have a lot of fun, finding out what happens next.
Agent 47 has grown so much and evolved and matured, even. Though he did get a bit younger in appearance, from Absolution to World of Assassination 1, I noticed! I think he can cope with a lot more than he could 17 years ago.
As for retirement…. I doubt that very much.
Thank you to Mad Max for helping me with figuring out a title for this piece.
Thanks to Mr. Torben Ellert for checking up on a few things.
And of course, a big thank you to all of my Patreons!
Hitman isn’t the only game I pay a lot of attention to. I take great interest in the gaming industry and am a fan of many franchises. I enjoy taking part in unique experiences and try not to get boxed in a single genre. I also love exploring the legacy and culture of video games and frequently play catch-up to learn about older titles. This is how I’ve grown to love American McGee’s Alice – a horror-themed 3D action platformer loosely based on Lewis Carroll’s creations. The game has never received a sequel at the time I first played it and a continuation wasn’t even planned. This has obviously made Past White truly saddened as they carried on without a hint of hope towards either an Alice 2 nor Hitman 5. Both of these are titles which will be discussed in this piece as, even though very different, present similar flaws in execution. Join me, as I will tell you a tale of missed opportunities and misunderstandings in this “what the hell has happened here?” type of article!
First though, we have to get at least a basic overview of the victims of our analysis. I highly recommend you play some of these games for yourself (and trust me, you’ll know which ones I’m talking about). Unfortunately, this particular one isn’t available digitally and pretty tough to get a hold of otherwise but I trust you will manage. After all,
“Only a few find the way, some recognize it when they do, some don’t ever want to.”
American McGee’s Alice has been released in 2000 by a company called Rogue Entertainment. The game’s title was branded with its creator’s name – Mr. American McGee – but this choice was made by the publisher – Electronic Arts – to differentiate the franchise from other works based on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This version of Alice was unlike any others. It definitely did not look even remotely similar to Disney’s. It was dark, edgy, almost putrid. Madness has been presented as a realistically scary concept instead of rooting itself in goofy clumsy characters. Alice was also the first Electronic Arts game to have received a rating of 18+ or, in case of American territories – Mature. The letter M was previously given to such titles as Mortal Kombat, DOOM or Resident Evil – all of them thematically far from a colorful world of Wonderland. That is because this Wonderland also was not full of joy. It was a place of misery, created in the protagonist’s mind.
Taking place after the events of both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderlands and Through The Looking Glass; American McGee’s Alice shows us the continuation of Alice Liddell’s life. The brunette (yes, Carroll’s Alice was, in fact, brunette!) is a troubled young lady introduced to us in a short FMV scene. From said scene we can learn that she is the last surviving member of the Liddell family as her parents and sister died tragically in a house fire presumably caused by their pet cat. This traumatic experience has lead to Alice blaming herself for the fire and become mentally unstable causing her to get locked away in Rutledge Asylum under the care of Dr. Heironymous Q. Wilson. We can find his notebook in the manual of the disc release of the game (remember game manuals?! Also, don’t you find weird that the other series in focus also has a casebook written by someone calling themselves a doctor?).
Alice was comatose for almost a year. She’s been recovering from her wounds quite well but she’s delirious, has severe memory issues and responds poorly to outside stimuli. Her only possession is a toy white rabbit which she deeply cherishes (more similarities between the franchises!? What are we going to do?!). As her physical and mental state were both in a dangerous territory, Dr. Wilson has decided to use her for the final evaluation of his experimental serum. But not before testing it on other patients. Alice has heard their agony-filled screams many times at night and began putting blame on herself for their pain and mistreatment. She was seen as completely insane and with little chances of getting back into society. In truth, Alice was alive and well, only on a different plane of existence. She was stepping into the backdoor in her own mind – the only home she was left with: Wonderland.
In there, she has lived accompanied with creatures like Cheshire Cat or The White Rabbit. She began drawing those characters in the real world as well and Dr. Wilson noted that the cat in her doodles is barely like any cat he has ever seen. Alice was muttering words and describing places which could only be of Hell. The experimental treatment has begun and soon the girl was acting either dormant and still or belligerent and destructive. She now has willingly been taking her next doses, presenting the staff with even more images of nightmarish places filled with abominations. She spoke tales of chess, rabbits and tea parties. When there’s no pencil in sight, she turned to poetry instead. She started mentioning particular details: a blade she’s supposedly carrying, a place called the Fungiferous Forest and a demon by the name of The Red Queen. Dr. Wilson soon realized that it’s Wonderland Alice was stuck in. The Red Queen was the one who has bound her there and will only let her escape once the girl slays her.
“I wait for the day when she claims victory over the Red Queen and her minions, when Wonderland will be restored.”, he claims. “Perhaps by this Alice will cure herself, regain her balance and leave this place of her own volition.”
This is how the backstory of Alice paints itself in this version of her adventures in Wonderland. Although the tale of the game itself isn’t very sophisticated and comes around to a classic “do this, get that” idea of video game objectives, the writing is still absolutely amazing. And you only need one character to prove it. The Cheshire Cat.
Of course, The Cat isn’t the only character with outstanding lines. All of them speak in distinct patterns and have unique personalities attached. The supporting characters are all native creatures of Wonderland. We briefly see The White Rabbit, The Catterpillar is a major figure in the quest, The Mock Turtle is a helpful ally, The Duchess is one of the first antagonists Alice has to face and even the fabled Jabberwock appears acting as the protagonist’s Pyramid Head. And those are not the only familiar faces either.
Alice herself isn’t the naive, clumsy cliché girl protagonist we’ve been taught to expect. She is fierce and determined even though she realizes the risks (“I am destined to battle The Red Queen. The outcome is uncertain.”) but also has visible character flaws. She takes blame for every bad thing that happens around her (“Everyone I love dies violently. I’m cursed. Why go on? I’ll just hurt others.”) and ends up being quite rude to others that try to guide her on the right track (“Or, perhaps, there’s more than one way to skin a cat… if you pardon the expression.”). Her wits and drive definitely make her a likable and somewhat relatable character and you end up rooting for her not minding all of the horrible mutilations she commits with her range of weaponry.
And those are many. You will need to use your whole arsenal to deal with variety of enemies placed in clever positions throughout the levels. This game is brutal, especially on higher difficulties. It knows it offers a Quick Save feature and makes players use it frequently as it does not checkpoint at any point except for major location changes. It also doesn’t matter that the enemies all drop Sanity (health) and Will (mana) refills (Meta-Essence). They hit hard and later encounters often have to be played strategically to balance Alice’s HP and MP. A great example of that is the first boss battle in fact. The Duchess hits like a truck and even though refill pickups are dotted around the room, you don’t want to run through them once you end up without a Will to fight. You are better off leaving them until you need to get back your Sanity instead. This can lead to Vorpal Blade kiting and sniping battle pretty quickly as you dodge The Duchess’ projectiles and worry on survival until the pickups respawn. The Blade is the only weapon which secondary projectile attack does not use mana. This makes it a reliable tool to switch to on the fly even in later parts of the game. American McGee’s Alice does a fantastic job in making you want to use all of the weapons available. They all have two types of attacks and serve different purposes. They are also amazingly balanced. Some have homing projectiles but are weak so you might want to leave them to deal with more annoying yet more fragile enemies whilst using a higher speed projectile weapons for more dangerous opponents.
Remember how I mentioned the game plays off the Quick Save feature? It isn’t afraid to be difficult or even straight up unfair at times. Everything leads you into dangerous situations, even The Turtle takes you through every single bit of every single room in the underwater section just so Alice can get her toes bit by a few piranhas on the way. Her tools of the trade aren’t the only aspect with variety. Much care have been put into the design of enemies as well. Both visual and gameplay. The opponents are threatening. They not only do loads of damage. They look ferocious, too. From classic Card Guards to flying beetles, ants and even demons – each enemy is distinct in their looks, animations, sound effects and actions. The game places them in locations unfavorable for the player for an even bigger difficulty curve. The beetles hover around Alice dropping explosives during a semi-automatic leaf-riding section. The ants can easily pick her up and throw her off great heights. The Boojum are often encountered in already tough platforming levels and their one screech is enough to fling Alice off her course.
This title understands pacing. Not just in storytelling but gameplay-wise, too. It isn’t just wave after wave of opponents to beat. For example – after an enemy gauntlet, we are presented with a pure platforming level. Then, an intense boss battle followed by a story cutscene. Speaking of platforming sections… American McGee’s Alice isn’t as unforgiving as it may appear. It offers some help in form of a visual representation of player character’s jump length and hidden pickups. One of them can temporary turn Alice into a demon-like creature and up her damage output. Interestingly enough, Alice does cry in pain every time she uses said pickup, further signifying how terrifying and agonizing this experience is for the protagonist.
The game makes great use of the theme it carries. Every single detail makes sense in the world. You could already notice that as soon as I mentioned Sanity and Will. The environments are beautiful. They still manage to carry the feeling of Wonderland albeit broken and deranged. The motives such as clocks, chess and mirrors are used for minor puzzles dotted around the levels and the game makes a great deal out of everything appearing dangerous and eerie. Major antagonists are introduced well before their respective boss battles and the player learns to despise them. Not only because we are told that some of the characters are villainous. The environmental storytelling does its job, too. The Jabberwock, for example, uses Alice’s greatest fear – fire – to hurt her, and the battle with it takes place in a burned building. We can also see Mad Hatter’s twisted creations and realize for ourselves why he must be stopped. If American McGee’s Alice can portray simple roses or chess pieces as life-threatening danger, it must be a sign that it is doing it right.
I cannot stress enough how important it is that it does things right. The game deals with themes of depression, trauma, delusions and extreme loss of sanity. It never makes a single joke out of mental illness and it never glorifies it, instead treating it with utmost respect. It uses imagery and atmosphere to make its statement on the importance of mental health and I honestly think it’s doing a remarkable job. It is mature because it has to be. It doesn’t simplify or disregard Alice’s issues. It takes its themes and runs with them and it is exactly why I fell in love with it.
As you can see, a bunch of aspects featured in American McGee’s Alice mimic the ones of my absolute favorite franchise of all time – Hitman. I fell in love with Hitman because of its maturity. I adore how it shows death in a different sense that we’re used to in media. Yes, it is still a silly video game about putting laxatives into the virtual food of polygonal figures but it’s so thought-provoking in its narrative and atmosphere. That I believe I have proven in my previous pieces. Silent Assassin is the greatest example. 47’s moral journey is the point the game is centered around. Pairing that with religion, guilt and arising sense of revenge in our protagonist is absolutely brilliant in my opinion. Playing Silent Assassin and noticing those tiny changes in Mr. 47’s behavior is a thrill as the experience gets enhanced, the tension gets higher and peaks when the player returns to the Gontranno Sanctuary for the very last time. Same can be said about Contracts in particular but there are definitely some of those moments also present in Codename 47 and Blood Money.
Time has passed as I was lurking the online forums hoping to see a glimpse of another entries in my favorite franchises. The rumors were spreading and thriving, as it happens so often on social media. 2009 brought us a vague announcement of “The Return of American McGee’s Alice” complemented by a steampunk-inspired concept art. But it was the next year that officially announced the sequel to Alice’s adventures.
Alice Madness Returns – claimed the title card at the end of a dark and moody CGI trailer. First interviews with the series creator also have started to appear. American McGee spoke highly of the fans of the original Alice, saying that the game became sort of a cult classic in a sense and definitely assuring that the team is going to do it justice with the sequel.
“This is a natural sequel, a narrative sequel to the first game. So we get back in there and people who know the first game are going to have a lot of reward in terms of seeing locations that they may have seen before, characters that they knew from the first game.”,
he said setting up a framework for Alice’s return to madness. It appeared that the creator is on the right track when it comes to analyzing the success of his product and wants to play off those even further:
“The first Alice was actually EA’s first M-rated game. We are trying to seek common horror — not that it’s simple or expected, but instead of being that in-your-face cliché horror, we’re trying to go for a much more psychological, deep, disturbing horror. The kind that would juxtapose something like the blood and the teeth and this beautiful girl to try to create — that is a dissonance that you’re trying to pull up.”
“Whatever she sees or experiences in Wonderland has to be derived from something that she might have seen or experienced in real life.”
The team, albeit a completely new one, knew what they had to do. According to American McGee, the basics of Alice was to create a solid platformer with memorable art and story. The latter was accomplished thanks to R.J. Berg who was confirmed to be on board with Alice Madness Returns as well. This focus was what guided the development of the sequel: American McGee wanted to create a satisfying platforming experience in a gameplay sense but also to be on par with storytelling, art design and puzzle elements. This image of Alice Madness Returns ended up rooted in fans’ mind during an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit:
“The first game is often knocked for being both too difficult and too simplistic. It’s sad to hear when people loved the game but were unable to finish it because it impossible to get past some stage or enemy. Fortunately, we’ve made sure to address all those issues with the new game.
The first game was much like I imagined it – but I never expected the sort of response I received.”
The comments have already noticed the fact that this difficulty is a big part in what made American McGee’s Alice such a memorable and thrilling experience. None of us were expecting that the creator’s words were to end up being a double-edged sword, however. Or, I guess, in this case, a double-edged blood-sprayed Vorpal Blade…
CGI trailers tend to be misleading, although they often give out a fair assessment of the product’s atmosphere and general theme. This, as well as the fact that Spicy Horse – the studio responsible for Alice’s sequel – has hired Ken Wong to direct the art style of the game, cemented the idea of a dark, mature title. Why was Ken Wong such a big deal? He was previously a fan of the original American McGee’s Alice and was so inspired by the art design that a fanart of the protagonist appeared in a doujinshi fan book. From there, he was contacted directly by the series’ creator himself to work on returning Alice to her state of madness. Weirdly enough, however, albeit still quite beautiful and unique, the environments shown in the first gameplay trailer weren’t even close to moody scenes featured in those three CGI teasers.
Here, we can catch a glimpse of the cutout animation style that was then used in the game itself to deliver greater story aspects. Speaking of story, this framework is also being set – Alice is heard having a conversation with, presumably, her psychiatrist whom we’ve not heard of before, admitting that she is trapped inside her own mind once again. The trailer shows us major locations featured in the game before shattering the screen as our protagonists mentions Wonderland being destroyed.
This wasn’t the only gameplay trailer however, as we can easily dig up a video full of beta content. This, in addition to analyzing concept arts and going through leftover files of Alice Madness Returns, can give us a pretty good idea as to what the game was going to look like if not for various cuts and changes. Before we can take a look at those however, let’s see how the final product turned out, just so we’re on the same page.
From the very first seconds, the tone is already quite different. We are introduced to Wonderland by Alice herself during one of her many sessions with a man whose voice we’ve heard in the trailer. Doctor Bumby guides her through a peaceful day spent having a tea party with The White Rabbit before the world starts shifting and disrupting its balance. Alice wakes up in Bumby’s office in London and we hear a sad violin soundtrack accompanying this Victorian setting. In addition to the main Wonderland portion of the environment, we can also run around the English capital city itself, although it appears merely as filler content between the five chapters of Alice’s adventure. Yes, the game is split into five different chapters, distinguished by five major Wonderland locations. Each of them is approximately two hours in length and every time, Madness Returns throws the player back to London to present a quick inside into the life of actual physical self of Alice Liddell. Unfortunately, there isn’t much gameplay during these parts. They all come down to mindless running through linear levels with few instances of “interactions”. I say that in huge quotations as said “interactions” are simply boxes of text featuring Alice’s thoughts.
It’s a shame that London isn’t used for any meaningful gameplay segments. The feeling of melancholy is captured perfectly. The art style and the choice of colors represent exactly the mood I’d imagine in a Victorian London setting. Conversations we can overhear mostly during our first visit could have easily be improved upon to paint a better picture of how the outside world sees our protagonist, though. There are bits of dialogue that touch on said subject and honestly, I was expecting there would be more emphasis put on physical Alice in addition to the expression of her mental self. Especially because there is one surprisingly clever detail never clearly explained in the story and it’s a real treat for the player once they piece it together themselves. I’ll give you a hint – it’s about Alice’s hair length.
As it is, England isn’t seen much and isn’t very memorable – a missed opportunity considering the ending which heavily revolves around merging the physical and mental interpretations of reality. We do see the London streets gradually twisting around Alice and the same thing is true for Wonderland but those changes are never as drastic as to be notable. In fact, those scenes are so forgettable I catch myself thinking “oh yeah, that happens” every time I replay the game.
How does the game play, you ask? It is as close to the original game as it is far away from it. The framework is quite the same. That, once again, being a 3D action platformer with puzzle elements. It features a storyline revolving around a troubled young woman dealing with mental issues and finding her solace in escapism. Much more focus was put onto combat this time, as the game borrows heavily from titles such as The Legend of Zelda and incorporates a lock-on system to compliment much faster pace of enemy engagement. You can see how Alice Madness Returns wants to be a hack’n’slash in addition to all of the other genres it tries. Unfortunately, if you decide to cram all of the video games inside one product, none of it will end up competent and this is the main issue with this sequel.
Every time I play Alice Madness Returns (and I truly wish this is the last time I had to), I start it off thinking that it can’t be as bad as I remember it. The first few chapters aren’t horrible, albeit they definitely overstay their welcome. The problems start arising as the game progresses though and you notice small annoyances, non-polished mechanics and segments which are straight up lacking any meaning or content in the long run. Those, unfortunately, include most of the present storyline.
Remember how I mentioned that American McGee’s Alice grounds itself in the most cliché of “go and do that thing cause you are the hero” video game logic? The sequel does it to extreme by making the protagonist do chores for side characters in order to “progress”. Again, I use that word in huge quotation marks as it never feels that way. The first couple of chapters are waves of fetch quests, often asking the player to receive three items or rescue three characters. Honestly, if I wanted to go on such a quest, I’d just pop in any game in The Legend of Zelda franchise instead, as the experience Alice Madness Returns offers in this regard isn’t the most exciting or, again, remarkable.
Let’s stop wording things nicely – major portions of Alice Madness Returns are straight up boring. There are long gameplay sections with no story progression, as the player runs around from person to person. None of them say anything meaningful or further the plot. They simply give you another random objective so you can traverse further into the world. There are no satisfying conclusions to conflicts, either. There’s a suspicious lack of end chapter bosses even though certain characters are clearly set up to be large-scale antagonists. Dormouse even goes as far as to say “Battle time, missy!” before a massive robot rises in front of Alice and is immediately shut down by The Mad Hatter. This happens multiple times throughout the game, too. Chapter 4’s The Executioner would be a perfect late game boss if only you could actually fight him head on. In place of this imaginary encounter, Alice promptly states that the opponent is too powerful to combat him and the conflict is resolved later in a short cutscene. Thankfully, an ending boss does exist and I’m not going to lie, the fight is quite clever thematically, but at that point, the player simply expects more.
Maybe it’s for the best that we didn’t get those big boss battles though, as combat in Alice Madness Returns is a bother. The enemies are varied but they often only have one way of dealing with them until you get your next weapon or upgrade after which it feels as if you are simply swatting waves of flies. Weapon array has greatly diminished. Instead of presenting you with a new toy to play with, the game wants you to spend imaginary currency to improve said toys. Those tokens being teeth; a common dream sign often interpreted as an extreme symbol of fear. The sequel to Alice still plays fairly well with the themes it features, but strays further and further from the original concept of Wonderland, instead focusing on the concept of memories. Those are mostly prominent in the storyline itself as well as the title’s collectibles.
Don’t know about you but I do enjoy secrets and hidden rooms in video games. Everything to break through the monotony of a linear level design and make me feel as if the world is a lot bigger than in reality. Alice Madness Returns features a variety of collectibles, ranging from classic concept art unlockables, additional pieces of dialogue portrayed as the protagonist’s lost memories, bigger secluded areas which include challenges rewarding you with the game’s idea of TLoZ’s Pieces of Heart (thematically brainy though as those are vials of red paint used to turn white roses into red ones akin to the subject matter) and, of course, the pearly or gold variants of the game’s currency. Those are usually uncovered by peppering a Pig Snout – or, in simple terms, using your ranged weapon to activate a trigger. Again, I have to admit that I do like how Pig Snouts have distinct sound effects that help you with locating both them and the secrets themselves. There is also a shrink button which allows Alice to squeeze into tiny mouse or key holes to uncover hidden rooms. The game of hide and seek in Alice Madness Returns is rather impressive and even though I came close on every occasion, I still haven’t managed to 100% it.
The problems start arising once you notice how it disrupts the natural progression of the game. The shrinking ability makes you realize how many invisible walls are scattered throughout Wonderland, therefore breaking its illusion. You end up picking up so many teeth throughout your adventure that the game economy feels lackluster and it is revealed how short and linear the game becomes once you decide to skip going out of your way to pick up imaginary items. Which you are encouraged to commit to. The weapon upgrade “mechanic” is introduced as early as in Chapter 1. Here we meet up with our friends Quotation Marks once again, as it is simply boosting your weapons’ damage output and adding another attack to its “combo”. This allows the player to be able to press A even more times than the regular combat demands it. Not only the enemy engagements are quite boring to begin with and Alice does not have many tools in her arsenal to make them more interesting, the combat itself revolves around hitting a button… a lot of times. There are no multiple button combinations to test out player skills. Alice is equipped merely with her four weapons (two melee and two ranged), an umbrella used for deflecting projectiles and the most compelling of all – the Clockwork Bomb: a tool for both puzzle solving and distracting opponents. She also has an ability to dodge and you will be doing this as often as hitting A. All of this may be compared to the system popularized by the Batman Arkham series, but somehow even more simplistic in its execution. It’s mind boggling how a game heavily featuring combat makes it feel bothersome. Not only that, the player is required to fight as Alice’s sequel borrows from actual spectacle action titles such as Devil May Cry or Bayonetta by locking progression until you clear out a room of enemies.
The shallow nature of AMR’s gameplay only becomes more prominent because of its terrible pacing. The first three chapters drag on forever, featuring fetch quest after fetch quest. Those are filled with either basic platforming segments or lengthy combat sequences, none of them being particularly enjoyable. There is no penalty for dying so there’s never any feeling of danger. Not even from the enemies’ looks as it was the case in American McGee’s Alice. This time, the opponents are much more cartoony and even barely threatening on some occasions. There are also just a few variations of them if you really think about it as most of the basic melee enemies act in similar fashion and Bitch Baby is very close to being a rehash of a previous ranged baddy. I often point to the case of Menacing Ruins – an unfortunate name as its design is a bunch of smaller enemies mashed together and it takes a considerable amount of time to do its counterable attack… in a counter tutorial.
The other big portion of Alice Madness Returns is its platforming sections and those aren’t the best either. It can often be fiddly due to weird collisions, mostly seen once the game starts adding obstacles between the platforms themselves. The player character has an ability to clear long gaps thanks to multiple jumps, twirls and hovers but that also makes it hard to judge the distance you can actually reach. This, in addition to invisible platforms – the other downside of the shrinking “mechanic” – and many other gimmicks piled on top of each other creates a frustrating experience furthered by instances of fixed camera angles in certain rooms and the last big focus of the title…
I mentioned how the title wants to be many genres at once and does none of them well in the end. In fact, every time I play Alice Madness Returns, I think of other games I would rather play that do what Alice’s sequel attempts. I dream of those that do 3D platforming, cutout aesthetic 2D sidescrolling sequences, rhythm games, 2D shooting portions, ball rolling and barrel mini games, quizzes, chases, chess puzzles, sliding puzzles, actual slides, giant character setpieces, theme and glitches better than Alice Madness Returns does and I am sure I forgot at least one other gimmick. Chapter 2’s ship is slow and janky as the game wasn’t made specifically for it. Chapter 4’s chase levels are uninteresting as there are no obstacles in your way and the only thing you do is mash the dodge button to make it go faster. If you end up wanting to cram every genre into your product, you will never polish any of them. This is the reason as to why swimming sections in video games are so dreaded. Titles that feature them never focus on those segments specifically so the controls and physics aren’t designed to be used under special conditions. Chapter 4’s giant Alice level is a fine setpiece but it is boring and clunky and I think someone didn’t get the memo regarding rhythm minigames. Those are usually fun because the player hits buttons to the song’s rhythm, not seemingly at random. And don’t even get me started on the ball-rolling minigames in Chapter 5. The physics do not compliment such gameplay mechanics and neither the ball nor the camera want to do their thing. I truly wish there was at least an ability to skip those frustrating segments like you can do with chess or sliding puzzles. There is no penalty for skipping those, in fact, the game prompts you to do so. Why then does it require me to play through sequences that are clearly broken instead?
Once you make your way through the first few chapters, it does become quite apparent that the game was never truly finished. Chapters 4 and 5 are notably shorter than previous ones. Granted, this actually does Chapter 4 a favor as it feels better paced in result. Chapter 5 however features segments beginning and ending in an abrupt fashion and The Infernal Train is a set of huge empty rooms, cutscenes and loading screens. All of this for a major portion of the story being thrown at the player at the last possible moment instead of maintaining the tension throughout the entire adventure. In fact, the dialogue in early chapters sound like a filler, especially if you consider that most of it is trying to explain vague connections between level themes and the storyline. I already mentioned how the game strays from the subject matter of Wonderland and you can clearly see it in the environments. Granted, the art style is beautiful and if there is something positive to be said about Alice Madness Returns is that its world is simply gorgeous. The fairytale feeling is definitely there. The game is colorful and bright, the character design is clever and stunning (origami ants come to mind) and some portions even feel like the original American McGee’s Alice!
…That is because most of the title unfortunately doesn’t. Only Queensland, with its grotesque imagery truly makes the original Alice come to mind. Every other location is held together thematically by strings of dialogue hidden as glorified audio logs.
The biggest offense to that is my beloved Vale of Tears which changed from being desaturated and visibly miserable to cheerful and twinkly instead. Mad Hatter’s Domain still remains as a place full of half-broken machinery and robots. Chapter 2’s Tundraful is a stretched reference to Through The Looking Glass. Deluded Depths and its Barrelbottom makes you seem as if you’ve taken the wrong bus albeit the Dreary Lane Theatre is absolutely beautiful. Chapter 3 features Oriental Grove inspired by Asian territories… I guess because Spicy Horse was a company based in China. And Chapter 5’s Dollhouse is there because… porcelain dolls can be creepy? As much as I love the art design of all of these locations, there are way too far from the unique American McGee’s Alice aesthetic and come closer to Disney’s version of Wonderland – something that strips the character out of the series and makes it forgettable as a result.
So what about the storyline, you ask? It’s nothing to write essays about, as I’ve already said. The major portion of the game revolves around fetch quests as Alice blindly trusts everybody even though she clearly knows better, questions their loyalty and they end up double crossing her every single time. The writing itself took a huge dip in quality. We could point at The Cheshire Cat during our look at AMA and we can do the same here, as I honestly have no idea why The Cat is even featured in the sequel. He serves no practical purpose and his quotes aren’t witty or smart. Some are repeats from the original game and he ends up stating the obvious on more than one occasion. Let’s compare some of The Cat’s quotes from the original game and its sequel, as I don’t think I have to say anything more once you see it for yourself.
As for the rest of the plot, Alice Madness Returns does the worst thing a sequel can do in my opinion. It is basically a huge retcon as it is revealed that the events leading to Alice’s condition actually happened quite differently. It also introduces an entirely new character which ends up being the original antagonist as well. This renders American McGee’s Alice meaningless, highly diminishes the value of the original game and thus, can be seen as almost disrespectful. I personally think this is the biggest crime the sequel commits, especially seeing how it had a chance to bring the series back to its former glory and present it to the new generation of video game enthusiast. What it ended up as was a half-broken lackluster forgettable product which did not have its own personality and instead was a subpar platformer with bothersome combat system and an gameplay identity crisis.
This is where we come back to the aforementioned beta as it portrays a much grander and fuller experience. Cut content would not singlehandedly save Alice Madness Returns but it would at least make it seem like a finished title. A lot of the problems definitely come from the fact that the development team working on the sequel was derived from people mostly new to the franchise, in fact, it was the same team which worked on American McGee’s Grimm – a fairly simplistic episodic title. A major portion of the Alice assets were outsourced and even then, the studio did not meet the deadlines and throughout the development cycle, the creator’s role in the project was slowly changing from actively working on the product to merely supervising. During another AMA session, American McGee says it himself:
“(…) we knew the game was uneven and bloated as we got towards the end of development. I asked for more time (a month or two) in order to trim and polish. That request was denied. I think if we’d been given the time we could have made the game an 80+.
Now, the reason I put “” around “blame” is that I can’t honestly blame EA for denying a request related to our team’s failure to deliver what we’d promised in the time we’d been given.
And yeah, we had internal problems. “Too many chefs” problem, “ambitions bigger than abilities” problem and more.”
The PC version got shafted as a result. An even bigger punch to the face is the fact that additional dresses (altering gameplay and absolutely gorgeous mind you) which were later sold as DLC, came with the PC version. They were just disabled and required simply changing the value of one of the strings from False to True. More importantly, though, instead of being properly optimized, the game got locked to 30 frames per second. The framerate can easily be unlocked by changing a few strings in the configuration file and the animations look and feel great once you do it but the screentearing is almost unavoidable.
“I didn’t personally lock the FPS to 30 on PC, but I imagine the engineers did that as a function of the console build being locked to 30 FPS and not having enough dev time to optimize the PC version in any way. We were pretty constrained at the end of the dev cycle”, the creator states once again.
All of that is still not enough to save Alice from herself as it seems like there was no clear focus for the gameplay. There was much more pressure put on the themes, the story and overall presentation which can be clearly seen in the final product. The plot is the main culprit here, as originally, it was much more fleshed out. If you remember, Alice Madness Returns was also supposed to be an M-rated title. Just like the first game. The team struggled with deciding on the level of violence they wanted to feature but the breaking point of the Mature rating was to be the plot itself. As it is now, the biggest reveal is only briefly being mentioned in hidden audio logs and the story feels like it’s missing at least a few lines explaining what has truly happened before the fire which killed the Liddell family.
That was indeed the case. Digging through the game’s files uncovers its true story. Not only it was supposed to be paced throughout the entire adventure, it was also to feature a lot more active involvement from the player rather than sections of walking simulator in form of the streets of London. Starting from the tutorial, which was meant to be a police escape, Alice would find herself most likely violently killing people in the real world whilst fleeing to Wonderland in her head. The beta trailer shows off these escape sections and various existing moments of the story point at this being the case as well. Specifically, Alice’s meeting with Doctor Radcliffe and most of her sudden faints. London itself was meant to be used for so much more. In the same video, we can clearly see Londerland coming to life and being actually playable instead of having its role stripped to merely last segments of the narrative. There were multiple characters scrapped during the development – namely someone called Jack and Mr. Payne, whom Alice mentions once and he’s never heard of again, as well as talking chess pieces – and, of course, the entire point of the overall story which would push the game to receive the Mature rating. [Spoiler warning – Doctor Bumby being in love with Alice’s sister which then led to his obsession, causing him to rape Lizzie and set the Liddell family house on fire.]
We can only speculate if that was done in order to keep the image Alice Madness Return was blessed with during its marketing cycle. As you can remember, the actual first gameplay trailer was quite different thematically from the three CGI videos. The horror inspirations were gone and with them, the uniqueness of American McGee’s Alice’s Wonderland was, too. Putting blame on the marketing side is what the creator has stated himself and this was the origin of controversies back in the day:
“What was frustrating was how EA Marketing interfered – telling STS [Shy the Sky – the company responsible for the first three CGI trailers] from the start that ALL creative direction and final say would come from them, not from us (the developer/creator of the story/tone). That resulted in trailers that were much darker and gorier than the game … and that was a calculated disconnect created by EA. They wanted to “trick” gamers into believing A:MR was a hard-core horror title, even though we refused to develop it in that tone. Their thinking is, even if the game isn’t a hard-core horror title, you can market it as one and trick those customers into buying it (while driving away more casual customers, like female gamers, who might be turned off by really dark trailers). It’s all a part of the race to the bottom EA, Activision and the other big pubs are engaged in. Expect to see it get worse before it gets better.”
He later apologized and backed down on his words, saying that “tricked” gives out a bad impression but it is not the only time he blamed the marketing side of the gaming industry for his misfortunes. In fact, American McGee’s Grimm would probably succeed in the creator’s mind if not for the way it was marketed and distributed. Same with the platform which allowed the episodic nature of Grimm – GameTap. The consumers are also to blame. “Games aren’t special and they aren’t exempt from the forces of that shape business and commerce.”, he has said on the topic of downloadable content in fully released titles. There are continued mentions of American McGee not believing that people will pay for entertainment, as his company’s focus was on creating Free 2 Play titles and it’s next (and only) major game was Akanairo – again, a title with amazing art style but not much substance gameplay-wise – before moving to mobile platforms and closing its doors with barely any explanation given in the second half of 2016.
Before the latter happened however, there was another Alice-branded project in works. Alice: Otherlands was the name of a Kickstarter campaign launched in July 2013. The pitch was to gather enough funds to purchase an Alice movie license, in addition to creating a couple of animation shorts to present to the higher ups. Interestingly enough, the concept of Otherlands was originally for a third game in the series but Electronic Arts was not in favor of funding it. The next idea was to crowdfund the project (concept arts were presented and the game was to be a Massively Multiplayer Online title) and release it independently after getting the rights to the Alice franchise. That portion of the Kickstarter itself was successful – it has received $222,377 – but the game never came to be. In fact, this was the only aspect of the campaign which wasn’t rid of problems, as those were gradually rising until the breaking point.
In the end, only two out of ten animation shorts were created. “Somehow” the goal wasn’t high enough and the company had to spend 105% of the funds. Most of it was on physical rewards for backers, instead of the actual animations which were the promised product. There were long periods of silence and continues delays. The physical reward aspect was problematic and lead to being unsatisfactory for a lot of backers. The plans to buy rights to the Alice movie were unsuccessful and once the shorts came out, they were heavily criticized for the subpar quality. American McGee’s retaliation was to say “You don’t like the style of the Otherlands stuff? Don’t watch it.” and disregarding people’s complains by claiming that the original pledge was to pay for the film license. Once again, the blame was put on communication between the creators and the consumers and I suspect it will not be the last time it happens.
To finish this segment on a lighter note, let’s see what Alice Madness Returns could have been if not for many of its unfortunate cuts:
The beta trailer shows of sections of swimming in Chapter 2’s Deluded Depths as well as London police escape sequences and a playable Londerland. Concept arts present us with a bigger arsenal of weapons and combos, featuring a fan favorite Ice Wand returning from American McGee’s Alice. In fact, the weapons were to be based around Tarot cards and Alice’s dresses were to change color depending on the tool she was holding. This was later changed for her style to compliment the location she was in and the dresses themselves were an homage to fans. Since Alice fanatics loved to cosplay and draw the protagonist in various clothes, the creator also wanted to give them more material to work with.
Rabbit was to play a bigger role in the story, guiding Alice throughout Wonderland. There were clearer objectives given to the player both in Wonderland and London portions of the adventure. The locations were supposed to be bigger and more distinct, as the Oriental Grove had an East and West sections. A lot of memories were either removed or rewritten, same with multiple characters’ dialogue – most notably Cheshire Cat’s and The Red Queen’s. And of course, there were cut enemies and locations which did not appear in the final product. We do not know if the game would succeed if those were in place. Maybe it would still suffer from subpar quality and overextending it’s boundaries to every video game genre it can think of. And after following the series for such an amount of time and witnessing the return to Wonder-, Londer- and Otherlands, I honestly don’t think I still wish to know…
At this point, I am pretty sure all of you coming here strictly for Hitman content might have closed the page but if you are still here by some chance, we’re now onto talking about my favorite franchise of all time! …Unfortunately, that meant I had to dabble into the unspeakable as this time, we’re are taking a look at Hitman Absolution.
Just like Alice, the sequel was long overdue. I fondly remember my excitement every time even a slight hint to a mention of Hitman 5 appeared in the wide sea of the internet. Those were, of course, fished out by the most diligent of fishermen of the HitmanForum community. Lack of proper news led to overextending as much as it was possible and multiple actions were then required to stop rumors floating around the murky water. It was 2007 when Xbox Magazine published an article with a so-nicely-looking word and number combo of “Hitman 5” but after that, a silence worthy of the Silent Assassin himself was in place.
This might have been because of financial problems of Eidos – the published of many titles now known under the banner of Square Enix. That is because the Japanese company bought out Eidos after an unsuccessful attempt to restructure the business plan by laying off old Eidos management and making entry for SCi Entertainment – a British publisher responsible for, more notably, Rally Championship, Carmageddon and the Futurama video game. Their regimes did not go as planned and after cutting ever more losses – closing off Rockpool Games for example – they accepted an offer of over 84 million pounds and became a part of Square Enix.
It was 2009 when more rumors resurfaced. In an interview with Gaming Indians, Ian Livingstone – the appointed “Life President of Eidos” – revealed that Io-Interactive is actively working on three projects. Those being a sequel to a third person shooter Kane & Lynch, a fifth entry in their beloved Hitman franchise and, surprisingly, a completely non-violent kids game by the name of Mini Ninjas. There were also mentions of the story being partially related to the then-soon-to-be-released movie (funnily enough, this has happened on both occasions when a Hitman movie was coming out) and Rocksteady Studios helping with motion capture (a mistake made by an actor working on the project). 2010 brought us David Bateson confirming his role in the new installment and swiftly removing the statement from his website, more opportunities for the phrase “Hitman 5” to appear due to new people adding the title to their LinkedIn profiles, a fake trailer which was revealed to be an April Fools joke, a fake poster created for the artist’s portfolio and having nothing to do with the game itself (although looking at it now, some story/thematic connections can be made), Peter Peter confirming that Hitman 5 is, indeed, in the works as he has contributed his skills to the audio department of the game, more interviews with Mr. Bateson and suspiciously quick responses by the spokespeople of Io-Interactive and even more fake concept art and rumors!… phew.
But all of this wait was to be worth it as April 2011 was the birth of the greatest Hitman-related picture there ever was. And it was a photograph of caster sugar sprinkled donuts.
~ Nick Price, Io-Interactive, February 14th, 2011
Valentine’s Day could not get any better in 2011 but the fans were understandably suspicious. We have witnessed so many leads going nowhere. So many rumors and fake assets floating about. Why should we suddenly believe a random ad in, what ended up to be, the Sundance Film Festival catalog? Barcodes are quite common and the box of donuts has nothing to do with the bald assassin. Still, there was hope. And a handy tool known as e-mails. Not expecting anything to come out of it, a virtual letter has been sent to the project manager of an advertising company called Faircount Media Group.
“You are on the right track” was probably more than on the nose. Even more-so was an image attached to the e-mail. I think I can claim that this hand is probably the most famous of hands ever featured on the HitmanForum and what a handsome hand it is! …There’s also everything else beside the hand, like, for example, a giant barcode and a page straight from some sort of a script. Almost as if they are working for the CSI, the fans have started to grab every piece of possible data from this simple image. You don’t need any fancy IT-work however to notice the speaking character’s name in the script.
This is my last gift to you.
There are also mentions of a strange NECKLACE, the Hitman himself, a “beautiful girl”, a BAR CODE, of course and a key word “Gameplay” at the bottom of the page. What came next was (after an intense period of indescribable excitement) analyzing each scribbling and detail. That led to connecting Nick’s posts (“Interesting doughnut fact: In Denmark, we call this kind of jelly doughnut a berliner. They can be filled with jelly or custard. They tend to be covered in caster sugar and we hold contests where you have to eat them without licking your lips until youre done. Its surprisingly difficult but lots of fun.”) to the only text in the return e-mail’s body. “Greetings from Berlinale.” Another film festival. This time, held in, you might have guessed, Berlin.
The donuts were hinting at something else, mind you. Fat Thursday was coming up soon and with it, the Game Developer Conference 2011. Yet another big event and yet another photograph. Similar premise once again. Scribbles, barcodes, a storyboard featuring the Hitman insignia and, most notably, a glimpse at the famous hand. Feminine hands were about to click on the huge “ACTIVATE” button on the laptop screen in-front of them and I can only presume it was to fuel another wave of excitement on the HitmanForum.
Thankfully, not all of the fans have lost their minds at that moment. One of the yellow sticky notes shown on the photograph was full of seemingly random numbers. Those ended up to be coordinates leading to the Toronto Direct Energy Center. This meshed well with the other set of seemingly random numbers from the first picture as those were a Canadian phone number. Even more-so, the Direct Energy Center was a home to the 2011 edition of Comic-Con. I guess the track was right.
And so it was, another picture, right from the CN Tower in Toronto. No hand this time, but you might have noticed that each of the photographs shown had something in common. A barcode. The numbers were slightly changed in each one and after looking at them closely and comparing them to the original barcode sitting on the back of Mr. 47’s head we can deduct a date of June 7th, 2011. What else than the date of Electronic Entertainment Expo, better known as E3! …But that was not it, as there was something more hidden in the shadows. The metadata guided the fans to another picture. Confirming for the last time that they are on the right track. Not a photograph this time, but a peak at what’s to come. A CGI hand! A moving CGI hand, as it was revealed by the first Hitman Absolution teaser trailer!
The first trailer for the game has indeed show up during the 2011 edition of Electronic Entertainment Expo. (My personal memory of it is that I was about to head to sleep after watching all of the conferences which was around 4AM my time and was checking the HitmanForum one last time. The trailer was just leaked and I managed to sneak a peak before it was removed. Best 4AM ever. Suffice to say, falling asleep failed after that.) It wasn’t void of controversy among the fanbase. The trailer documented 47’s infiltration of Diana Burnwood’s mansion, featured heavy focus on action although the overall atmosphere felt right for a Hitman title (at least in my honest opinion). Before all of that, however, a few concept arts came to the light of day. One picturing a rainy night, the other showing our protagonist leaping from a ship. A slew of media was thrown into the hands of the HitmanForum, as a few members already played Absolution during a community event in Copenhagen. The mission they experienced was “Run For Your Life” – the same one which was then shown behind closed doors during E3 itself. A consensus was made that the game has shifted into more of a third-person stealth action genre rather than a 3D environmental puzzle title the series was known for. New phrases appeared, wanting us to pay attention to them. Gameplay mechanics such as “Instinct”, “Point Shooting”, “Cover system”, “Subduing”. Names of “Glacier 2”, Tore Blystad, Marsha Thomason, Keith Carradine. Mentions of a more personal story, using performance capture technology to put emphasis on the human emotion, advanced AI, combining classic gameplay features with more modern additions to the arsenal and more. Hitman was back after spending five years in the hidings. He was new and fresh, developed on an original Glacier 2 engine which took all this time to be fleshed out. And yet the waves of excitement spreading across the HitmanForum have hit the shore and what remained of them became simply a muddy sand.
The fans were not keen to the approach presented by the title. Yes, it was dark and mysterious, akin to my beloved Contracts but maybe a bit too gritty for some, as 47’s facial expression brought a particular cat meme to mind. The Inception-inspired sound cue and what we’ve seen from the 90-second excerpt of the Run For Your Life presentation, paired with killing the character of Diana Burnwood and getting rid of David Bateson as 47’s voice actor (a “reason” given by the Lead Producer Hakan Abrak being the studio “creatively moving into another direction”) meant bad things for the series. Some wanted to justify the changes, others were enraged by them. Petitions were created to have Mr. Bateson back on board and were successful at that. Diana’s voice actress though – Vivienne McKee – was still gone. The credits were instead filled with “better known” names such as previously mentioned Keith Carradine, Marsha Thomason, Steven Bauer, Vivica A. Fox, Powers Boothe, Shannyn Sossamon, Jon Gries and others. Bad news also came for the Hitman soundtrack enthusiasts as it was confirmed Jesper Kyd will not return for Absolution.
A big concern was the freedom of choice, as the presented level was quite linear in its structure. Learning that Absolution will take place around the United States was a letdown. One of the important hooks of the Hitman franchise was that it featured multiple cultures and settings, giving out a feeling of traveling the world. The new gameplay features also seemed aimed at a very different target audience than the core Hitman fans. The Instinct especially was criticized for being an easy mode (or “noob gamer features” dubbed by some meaner fans), showing the players enemy paths and silhouettes akin to Batman Arkham’s Detective Mode. In truth, it was a substitute for the classic map screen, as the devs were of mind players need a good tool to deal with the AI advancements. The stealth aspect of the series seemed pushed to the side, as all of the materials presented a lot more action this time around and the developers cemented it in interviews. There were many mentions of how the player might feel overwhelmed and discouraged from the title if they cannot break that initial wall of learning the locations and game mechanics, so a lot of focus was put on creating a feeling of empowerment. The player needed to be able to get out of a troublesome situation, instead of having to restart the mission. In turn, the artificial intelligence got a huge boost, allowing non-playable characters to communicate between each other and react accordingly. Once the player enters combat, the enemy will try to flank them and do their best to contain the situation. The pressure has been put on improvised weapons as well, as tools and items are now scattered around the levels in more quantity than in previous installments. 47 can also take out NPCs with his bare hands, completely nullifying the need of weaponry. The comparisons to the 2010’s Splinter Cell Conviction were more than plentiful, as the fans drew conclusions based on the limited amount of content they were presented with. They also blamed Square Enix for this change in direction as this was the first Hitman title after the acquisition of Eidos and, in turn – Io-Interactive.
“That was only a small section of the game, showing this ‘hunter being hunted’ scenario that we’ve never done before. Throughout the game, things will turn into the more classic Hitman scenarios you remember from the past.”,
Tore Blystad said in his interview for Spong.com. Every time an action section was shown, it was immediately tried to be brushed under a rug with words of assurance. Some slipped through the cracks however:
“One of the things we are very focused on is to make the game even more hardcore in certain areas… but we believe that we have something for everyone – our spectrum is much broader than before.”
“This time it’s not hard to be a good assassin. Instead, it’s hard to keep the situation under control, and hold yourself back from going berserk. We’d rather try to tempt the stealthy players to go into a more action-oriented direction. “
Going onwards, the marketing for the game was all over the place. I specifically remember waiting for each and every Friday, as 2PM brought a new video onto the Hitman YouTube channel. This was part of Io-Interactive’s plan. A new community site was launched, called The Barcode Society, which featured a media vault and a developer blog. Unfortunately, as the fanbase already had an established outlet, the site was closed down and is often forgotten. Marketing practices were many, some more controversial than others, like the highly offensive Facebook app allowing people to tag their friends for an imaginary hit because of reasons such as “hairy legs” or “small tits”. The app did not even last a day before it got pulled.
Not all of the pre-release marketing was bad, though. Pre-order bonuses were, are and most likely always will be seen as damaging for the consumers and Absolution featured those as well in form of additional virtual firearms for 47 to play with. The good side of the coin was Sniper Challenge – a standalone semi-arcade title featuring a classic sniping hit on top of a huge skyscraper. A benchmark worthy of the fresh Glacier 2 engine. The game was graphically impressive, had solid gameplay and featured multiple objectives and easter eggs which unlocked content to use in Absolution. It also brought us my favorite of Mr. 47’s outfits but that is maybe a bit less important… I particularly enjoyed the Absolution companion mobile app as well, mostly for its lore content. Unfortunately, the lore vault was never completed and the app was discontinued.
Trailers continued to feature high action scenes and the bar was raised to the extreme once a set of new characters were introduced. Attack of The Saints was the classic Hitman fan’s biggest nightmare. It borrowed from flicks directed by Quentin Tarantino. Beautiful women dressed in skimpy nun outfits and carrying heavy weaponry wasn’t what the series was known for. Curiously, almost half a year before said trailer was released, Tore Blystad was asked this question during an interview with Rock Paper Shotgun:
RPS: Trailers. How hard is it to do a stealth trailer without making it really boring?
Tore Blystad: (laughs) It’s very hard. We have in-house group of people doing trailers and ideas, and it’s getting out to the PRs; “more action, you have to have these big set pieces.”
If Attack of The Saints proves anything is that they never figured out how to come out of this problematic situation. It wasn’t just the fans, either. After having spread to media outlets, they accused Io-Interactive of playing on controversies akin to how Rockstar does it with their Grand Theft Auto series. The marketing materials for Hitman Absolution were showing a massacre happening in an orphanage ran by nuns as well as oversexualized women dressed in tight outfits and yet the latter “wasn’t supposed to be a sexist trailer.” Apparently, the level the trailer was based on was later modified following the media outcry (albeit, a tiny bit too extreme in some cases). Whether that was the case or not, we may never know but the changes were obvious and many, as we will discuss later on.
“If we knew it would get such a negative reaction we would have done it in a different way.”
Let’s keep this quote in mind as we go forward and look at what Absolution ended up as.
Absolution released on November 11th, 2012 and I fondly remember the day when I had to call the post office for them to bring me that huge Professional Deluxe edition box as the courier “did not feel like it” that day. (If there’s anything good that came out of Absolution [disregarding Sniper Challenge, as even though it’s a great game, it was a pre-order bonus…] it would be the statue included in the Collector’s Edition.) It appears that the fans weren’t necessarily in the wrong in their assessment of the pre-release material. The title was definitely a step in another direction. It switched the core mechanics from, what has been previously dubbed as, social stealth – i.e. using disguises to gradually uncover more and more of the location – to a typical third-person cover stealth gameplay. There was no more of the sandbox-style design which was in its prime in Blood Money. Instead, the levels were shorter and a lot more linear. This might have been due to technical limitations of the seventh console generation. In addition, most of them did not have a target to eliminate. The goal was merely to get from point A to point B either without getting seen or after a terrible bloodbath as, yes, action was a viable option this time around.
Even though optional, using Instinct was encouraged as being stealthy rewarded the player with filling up the magical glowing meter which was a part of a huge Heads-On Display plastered on the screen. The only way to turn off those UI elements (without the use of mods) is to play on the highest “Purist” difficulty. This gets rid of every visual player feedback, such as ammo counters and suspicion meters. It also disables the tutorial at the beginning of the game even though the Purist difficulty is available from the start, leading more ambitious players (*cough* such as myself *cough*) to not have major gameplay mechanics explained to them until they released how much they needed them… having already played twenty hours of the game. Coming back to Instinct – it was quite unclear as of how much of it was “noob gamer features”, as it also offered interesting stealth mechanics. Our main hero could briefly hide his face to avoid being seen which I personally thought was quite clever and it is a shame it wasn’t reused in the 2016’s HITMAN. As obvious as it would be for 47 to cover himself facing situations he ended up in and how much I think it’s absolutely adorable, it is still a case of a panic button – something hardcore players disapprove of in fear that the franchise will turn to the more “casual” crowd of video game enthusiasts. It streamlined the gameplay, by allowing players to fix their mistakes. I personally think there is nothing wrong with giving different people different options, but maybe not if those options hold back the enjoyment of the franchise’s main fanbase.
Point Shooting – another feature of Instinct – was a big leap into the action-oriented gameplay as it allowed the player to freeze time for a brief moment, tag enemies and then watch how Mr. 47 eliminates them in a truly cinematic fashion. The game still featured highly scripted scenes such as the “Run For Your Life” helicopter setpiece even though it was promised that those would not be the case if a player chooses another approach. The tone wasn’t right to begin with. The atmosphere felt gritty and angry, akin to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. It was also filled with stereotypical crude characters. None of them were likable and there was no-one to really root for as the main damsel in distress was uninteresting and quite annoying. None of the characters were developed in any fashion and the title ends on the same note it starts meaning the entire adventure was meaningless. Every character in this game is simply flat. Even Travis and Dexter could be actually great characters if they had proper development. If characters are stuck in one place, it takes the story with it. Travis starts and ends in the same point. Dexter does that too. Victoria gets a small action scene, yet then goes back to being a vulnerable child. 47 never develops either. He never grows out of the “I killed Diana” phase. The game focused on the storyline – an idea that’s not bad on its own. The thing is, Absolution sacrificed the core design philosophies of Hitman and built its gameplay structure to compliment the story which was pretty simplistic and non-enjoyable to begin with.
The cast of characters lacked motivation and backstory – another aspect which was promised and not delivered in the final product. The entire storyline was based on one simple concept stretched to its limits. It featured obvious holes as some segments ended in an abrupt way. It had a ton of potential to be a truly thought-provoking plot about a protagonist having to cut ties to the only thing he truly had in life. It was supposed to be a personal story filled with regret, empathy and harsh decisions only to be ruined by stereotypes and juvenile humor. It missed its mark trying to present 47 as a man wounded both physically and mentally. The worst part is that the franchise has already managed to do this successfully in Contracts. A good example would be to compare the scene happening right before Terminus to any cutscene in Contracts.
Contracts was all about showing us 47’s mind. He was hurt, he was vulnerable at the time. He was having fever dreams and horrifying nightmares. But was it ever shocking? No, it used the environment as a storytelling device. It understood how flashbacks “work” and pictured the protagonist’s mental struggles in a respectful fashion. Contracts has managed to stay classy. Absolution went all out to shock players. It was an over the top action flick in a series known for its subtlety. Most importantly, it diminished the value of the previous installments in the franchise by immediate dropping everything that linked the protagonist to his past. The story did not take its time to properly introduce or establish any characters and killed off Diana Burnwood way too quickly for it to have any effect on the plot. It feels as if it was supposed to be a truly powerful moment in the franchise yet it is completely disregarded at the end of the adventure and means nothing in the long run. If you need a more in-depth retelling and analysis of the Absolution storyline, these are the two links you should probably follow.
All of the characters are used only as tools to further up the mindless gameplay. It never feels as if there’s anything important going on in the background. The already mentioned damsel in distress trope overstays its welcome. The new sidekick character ends up being just a mild inconvenience throughout the story. Yes, he does push it forward by leaking more and more intel yet this seems like the easiest, most laziest solution the writers could think of. It’s a case of “you have to go there now, cause you are a main hero in this video game” kind of a story and an enormous amount of potential that has, unfortunately, gone to waste. Imagine if this sidekick character (Birdie) was used throughout the adventure to contrast the relationship 47 had with his longtime handler Diana to the one he develops with Birdie himself. Imagine if the damsel in distress (Victoria) decided to not trust the protagonist after he clearly barely cares about her and dumps her in the orphanage. He is only protecting her because of Diana’s last wish and some vague relation to his own past anyways. What if she ended up blaming 47 for Diana’s death for the entirety of the game and this was why he is having such hard time with coping? Instead, we are left with characters that never develop and a frustrated writer who is lamenting about this for the third time in their pieces…
So let’s go back to the gameplay side of things. Although there is not much more to talk about as Absolution is a basic cover-based stealth title. The linearity and small scope of the levels mean there isn’t much freedom left for the player. The game does feature some missions akin to the traditional Hitman design philosophies and those are probably the highlights of this installments. Unfortunately, there are few and far between meaning most of the time, the player will simply traverse the grounds in his quest to defeat the hardest end boss!… and by that I mean, open the door leading to the next cutscene or chunk of the location…
The game featured collectibles in form of meaningless intel, as well as disguises, weapons and unlockables. These were not available in the main adventure however, instead having their role in the (seemingly as important as the campaign, as we’ve discussed previously) online component of Hitman Absolution: Contracts Mode. It was developed as an homage to the fanbase by letting them create their own hits inside the main story locations and challenge each other online. To compliment said mode, a scoring system was devised instead of the traditional rank-based rating used previously. This gave Absolution a more of an arcade feeling although it only ends up being confusing to the majority of the players.
I have to give credit where credit is due, though. The art style and graphical fidelity are fantastic, especially at the beginning of the game. The entire Chicago portion feels to me like what I’d love a modern rendition of Contracts to look like. Once the story moves forward to Hope, the country vibe and Texas inspirations can be noticed and the title can also be atmospheric when it wants to. The Death Factory is the greatest example. And it doesn’t just look well. It plays well. It is definitely a great product on its own but not a Hitman title in the slightest. It lacks important elements established in the Hitman franchise and effectively renders the previous installments meaningless because of that. It fails as a game structured on its story by delivering a plot with so many holes and cuts it is difficult to keep track of it. It doesn’t have a satisfying conclusion, instead blatantly setting up a sequel. It starts and ends its acts in an abrupt fashion and uses shock factor to create seemingly memorable moments instead of taking liberty to develop them. But at least it is a better product than Splinter Cell Conviction…
You thought we were done talking about Absolution’s promotional materials? There are still a few bits and pieces left but they relate to the cut content we are about to discuss. As the game was meant to be focused heavily on the main protagonist’s personal story, an “official prequel” was released in form of a novel. The piece was written by Raymond Benson of James Bond novelizations fame and Metal Gear Solid novelization infamy. You can read about it in detail in my Part 6 of the original Storyline of Hitman write-up as I don’t recommend digging into the novel itself. It is worth mentioning however that it was supposed to be a link between Blood Money and Absolution. An explanation to the events that followed Blood Money’s ending was a hot topic back in the day and Hitman Damnation was supposed to answer all of our questions. It also had a goal of introducing new characters – Benjamin Travis, Jade Nguyen and Birdie – as well as provide a backstory to Diana’s supposed betrayal of the International Contract Agency. As you might expect – the book does a horrible job at any of these tasks, constantly breaking characters and ending up as something I’d call being worse than some of the worst fanfiction I’ve ever read. And that’s mostly because it seems like the author had no idea about the Hitman franchise and instead, tried to fit 47 as an international spy instead… why does that sound familiar?…
The second piece of marketing material we skipped was another alternative reality game. This time focusing on the character of Cosmo Faulkner – a police detective determined to catch “The Hitman”. His only lead at the moment is a mysterious “Birdie” person and he needs to find his location ASAP. Unfortunately, the IT team hasn’t been successful in the search and sources have been drying fast. He’s been stuck in his old ways for far too long. Something even his boss is telling him to change. To help with that, Faulkner starts up a digital journal using the power of social media. This allows him to document everything he’s found so far and get help from other people. Looking at his Google+ profile can reveal how this relationship between the detective and Birdie could link into the game itself. Instead, Birdie’s involvement with the police case is barely mentioned and only used at the end of the story to set up a followup. It’s interesting how one of the most prominently featured characters in the pre-release materials only appeared in a few scenes in the final product. As most of the first act takes places around Terminus and we know Cosmo Faulkner has specifically mentioned taking interest in the hotel, there was more to the connection than what we’ve ended up with.
Focusing your title on its story may lead to difficult choices. Building a universe is important and it was a big part of Absolution’s marketing as well. A huge chunk of the trailers came in form of “the ICA files” to establish major characters of the plot. Interestingly enough, a bunch of info featured in said videos are not even mentioned in the final game and some details can clue us into what the storyline could have been. Most notably, in the trailer featuring Benjamin Travis, we can clearly see 47 shooting through his hand – a reason as to why it has been replaced by a mechanical one and then never mentioned in the game itself. This has been confirmed in the Hitman Absolution Full Disclosure app. Originally, the entire scene of getting Victoria out was meant to end at the last confrontation with Benjamin Travis, leading 47 to shoot him as his last “no” to the Agency.
A lot of what ended up in the game was started in early concepts. From the very start, the title was supposed to explore a more emotion-driven side of 47 and feature him on a run. That has also led to changing the gameplay structure to compliment the main character cutting ties with the Agency. All of this is detailed in the previously mentioned Full Disclosure app so it you are curious, I’d recommend you take a peak. I’ll simply focus on the most important details.
It seems like all of the major setpieces and vistas were to show off the power of the new Glacier 2 technology. Many of the chase scenes presented in the concepts are still part of Hitman Absolution – the train station and hotel comes to mind – but thankfully, the game did not go fully Splinter Cell with a light/shadow mechanic. From the beginning, it was supposed to be a cinematic experience, often going as far as focus on the dreaded Point Shooting mechanic.
Showing 47 physically and emotionally drained was a big part of what the title was meant to be. This is something we can still see in the controversial Attack of The Saints trailer. It starts by giving us a good look at 47’s naked wounded and scarred body as he’s cleaning himself up. The CGI also focuses on the back of his head – the barcode has been slashed and the protagonist’s head is clearly bleeding. First, the idea was to set up Blake Dexter as an antagonist by making him cut 47’s barcode off the back of his head. Whether or not you think this is a better choice than the self-harm scene we ended up with, it is good to mention that originally, the cutscene happening before Terminus was quite different. A lot more aggressive and over the top. This has been toned down significantly in the final product, albeit I’d argue that some of the removed features were a better representation of 47’s state of mind. I talked about this in my character analysis if you are curious. The disconnect from the Agency was in a spotlight leading to more creative decisions being made. Instinct symbolized the main character having to rely on his own skills instead of the ICA support. Improvised weapons also showed how he now had to take care of himself. Not just 47 was meant to be given an emotional background. One of the bad guys of the game – Clive Skurky was to play a more significant role. His role in the story was to smother Victoria with a pillow which would lead to 47 following him to his home where we would learn about Skurky’s personal problems.
And now for a RARE-style character parade featuring all of the mentioned cut characters of Absolution: the crazy bum guy was supposed to be one of 47’s friends. Anna was a name of a girl 47 was emotionally invested in. After her death, he ends up getting a tattoo in memorial. Babble was a private eye related in some way to Diana. He was also to be a sidekick character for 47. All of this sounds as if the concept was later reworked to become Birdie himself. “Ma” or “The Nosy Neighbor” – a favorite of the development team was to appear in the Hope section of the game as a unique enemy type. Fei Zhu was to play a more significant role as one of Birdie’s people. Various witnesses of 47’s actions which would be explored in Cosmo Faulkner’s substory. We first see a glimpse of The Saints in an early concept, still inspired by Grindhouse and rock’n’roll culture. This is also where the snake comes from – an underdeveloped yet heavily marketed theme of Absolution. Originally, Victoria was meant to be a little girl instead of a teenager. Full Disclosure features a concept art showing us what the first meeting of 47 and Victoria could have looked like.
There is also a ton of cut locations such as an enormous warehouse, a hotsauce factory, a supermarket, a literal Burning Hope – the town was meant to be set in flames during the course of the storyline, the previously mentioned house of Clive Skurky, a bowling alley, Diana’s mansion being a cottage placed in a mountain setting, an antique radio shop, a high action airplane setpiece ending at a busy freeway, a bigger-scope train station, Ort-Meyer’s training grounds as part of 47’s flashbacks, open nature locations, a moving ship and probably more.
I wonder if you’ve made the connection between the two big titles featured in this post yourself. As I stated at the beginning, there is a reason as to why I decided to compare those, very different yet so similar games. Both are disappointing sequels, developed after a long period of silence and meant to bring new generations of video game enthusiasts to a respective universe. They both decide to focus on a wider target audience whilst trying to evolve the aspects that made the originals great. In both situations, it ends up doing them more harm than good as they attempt to fit it concepts which clearly do not work in their specific scenarios. They feature amazing art styles and are their chosen theme is a focal point. They decided to go for a storyline-heavy approach but multiple cuts and incompetent writing proved that it was not the right choice. They are also victims of marketing and a lesson to all of us – do not trust everything we see unless we are sure it comes from a neutral source. I’m sure you can find more pieces coming together as you explore the history and analyse both of those titles for yourself. If you wish – this is your homework for this time. I have done mine. After all, in Cosmo Faulkner’s own words:
“Evidence is everywhere if you know how to look for it.”
Thank you for my beloved Patreons for making this piece possible.