Hitman: Absolution's five levels of difficulty don't just tinker with how hard it is to kill your way through the game, they also change the game substantially enough to make a shift in settings offer a level a completely new feel.
"The level set-up doesn't change, but the way it looks is different enough that you get some weird sense of deja vu when you play through it again," Christian Elverdam, game play director at IO Interactive. "You round a corner and you know what you're supposed to do, but then you see an extra patrol or characters."
Hitman: Absolution comes with five levels of difficulty, ranging from the hand-holding easy mode all the way up to the brutal, user-interface free purist mode.
Elverdam said early on when designing the game, the developers started talking about how they wanted to expand the reach of the game and make it more approachable to new fans. But they didn't want to lose the legions of fans who've been with the series since the first game hit back in 2000. The solution to include a number of substantially different difficulty modes.
"We had some sit-downs with the designers about what difficulty means, what constitutes difficulty levels," he said.
After sorting through the options they came up with a number of ideas.
Instinct mode, for instance, is present for most of the difficulty settings, but it becomes harder to use the higher the difficulty. In easy mode, players can essentially use the mode, which can predict enemy patrol routes, nearly endlessly. But in the higher settings, using instinct quickly runs through that resource, making it something that a player can use occasionally.
The most significant changes to difficulty, though, comes in the way the game populates levels.
"One of the things I'm most proud of with difficulty is that when you increase difficulty we add additional characters and add patrol paths, which means the game changes a bit," Elverdam said.
For example, he said, a level might have a single person standing in a spot blocking your path on the normal setting. He's isolated, so in the world of Hitman, the character is less of an obstacle and more of a resource. You can easily take him down, take his outfit as a disguise and stow his body.
On the hard setting the game might add a second guy standing with the first one, talking to him. Now you have to distract the buddy to take out the first guy.
On expert, the game might add a third person patrolling between the two guys you spotted first, and another two further through the mission. Because this new character is walking back and forth between the two sets of people, you have to be more careful with your take-downs, making sure that he doesn't spot you and that he doesn't see any signs of your kills when he returns, like pools of blood.
"The game adds these layers of complexity as you go up in difficulty," Elverdam said.
The end result is a game that when played a second time on a higher difficulty can feel like a completely new experience because you're having to look out for new enemies, new patrol paths, and new interactions.
Building a game with so many changes between difficulty settings did add a wrinkle to the development, Elverdam said, the quality assurance team had to check every level at every difficulty setting to make sure characters and the new characters were showing up where and when they were supposed to and that they all interacted with one another the right way.
The final difficulty, purist, is a little bit special, Elverdam said.
It's a level that strips away the user interface and almost all interaction prompts. All you have Agent 47 and his crosshairs.
"I think purist is there because we thought it was fun to create an additional, extra crazy challenge," he said.
Elverdam hopes that the game-morphing difficulty settings will encourage players to run through the game's campaign multiple times, starting, he suggests, with normal difficulty.
Another way the developers are encouraging players to pick through the intricacies of Hitman: Absolution is through the game's challenges.
These level-specific challenges were designed specifically to spark a gamer's interest in some of the hidden gems found throughout the game. In one level, for instance, there are a dozen different challenges, perhaps getting players to work their way through a level a dozen different times.
Some, but not all, of those challenges are detailed in Agent 47's notebooks, but Hakan Arbak, the game's lead producer, says that those are meant to just be teases.
"I think teasing is a key word," he said. "The challenges in the notebook don't tell you how to do them, it hints at it with a single line."