Hitman: Absolution shows you can't just be a good new game with a revered old name

The fans of these old games are older now too, and they expect to find something of what they liked about the franchise in the first place.

That Hitman: Absolution managed to step on almost every rake on its way to release is hardly surprising. When a game series often considered cerebral and refined re-emerges onto the scene with a trailer showing the hero brutally murdering a gang of kinky nuns and later trailers have our hero rescuing damsels in distress and toting shotguns it’s hard not to think that something stupid this way comes. Few games scream their failure to understand their audience from the rooftops in this manner.

As first impressions go Hitman really couldn’t have done worse if our hero had shambled drunkenly onto the scene with his fly open. But trailers can be misleading, as can memories of old games, and in the case of Hitman: Absolution we are not so much seeing an old series dragged up from the grave and defiled so much as we are seeing an old series being remade in a very modern way.

One thing that it is important to remember about the Hitman series is that this was always a series of brutally, often comically, violent games, often with plenty of combat. You could complete most of Blood Money, the best of the series, with a series of nasty accidents, but even then it ended with one of the most feeble and incongruous shootouts in gaming history. Just because you could rely on accidents and precision didn’t mean you had to and the early games featured shotguns, sniper rifles and remotely detonated mines aplenty. Hitman games have always allowed the player to smash into the missions like The Terminator into a police station if so desired. The titillation isn’t so much new for Hitman: Absolution, rather it is more obvious, the earlier games had it too though the more limited graphics made it harder to express. The story is poor in Absolution, but this is a recurring theme to a series which has always been more about the mission than the narrative.

In practice Hitman: Absolution is not so far removed from the series at heart, but what we see with the game is a thoroughly modern work and this is what has managed to so deftly antagonise some die-hard fans. Some elements of gaming have fallen by the wayside over the years and others have appeared. In the same way that we no longer approach a game with three lives and three continues Hitman: Absolution eschews elements of old games and brings in new established tropes.

Such tropes include health that regenerates once you’ve stopped getting shot. Also new is a cover system where you stick to walls and low obstacles in order to remain hidden. The ability to slow down time in order to more accurately shoot whole groups of people in the face as pioneered by Max Payne appears. Saving the game based on checkpoints and shorter, more linear level design are also par for the course. These features are game-changing but their inclusion is often almost arbitrary in modern games.

Modern remakes of classics can often risk upsetting fans. Syndicate was remade as a generic science fiction first person shooter, a capable one at that, but it wasn’t Syndicate, it was barely anything. XCOM: Enemy Unknown took a chainsaw to its namesake, dozens of features and layers of strategy were brutally stripped away, but this was seen as a more positive change because the game that was left at the heart of this ruthless reduction was a much more tense and engaging affair than the original. It’s rare to find somebody who played the original UFO: Enemy Unknown and didn’t love it, but the games had always been mired in busywork and a depth of micromanagement that wouldn’t be out of place if you were sending your team off to their first day at primary school. Building extra bases and taking a mechanised platoon to an alien crash site instead of four troops was great, but not so great was ensuring everybody was carrying ammo, everybody had the right trousers on and that you’d built enough storage space or living quarters. In new XCOM you can lose everything with a bad move, with UFO you could blithely administrate yourself into a terminal situation without ever really knowing how.

Something that Hitman: Absolution has demonstrated is that it is not always enough to be a good new game with a revered old name. The fans of these old games are older now too, grown up men and women with a suitably grown up disdain for the new and the trendy. If developers want to win back fans when they revisit established franchises maybe they should look to what made those games popular in the first place and by doing so maybe they’d avoid stepping on a rake or two.

A still from Hitman: Absolution.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser