The Hitman series has lain dormant for some time, since the last entry into the series five years ago. Rather like its dark protagonist, Agent 47, the latest entry seems to have been carefully biding its time and waiting for the right moment to strike. That moment seems to have been at this year’s E3 convention and it went straight for the jugular.
After IO Interactive’s controversial Kane & Lynch series was met with a lukewarm response from critics, it is nice to see the developer on more familiar ground with their genre-defining assassin simulator. After the heights reached by Hitman: Blood Money and Agent 47’s five year absence there is a great deal of pressure for Hitman: Absolution to deliver. From our E3 demonstration, IO Interactive was both brave and confident that this latest chapter will live up to fan expectations and deliver another quality slice of stealth-based murder.
Very little has been detailed about Hitman: Absolution’s plot aside from Agent 47 finding himself in the centre of a “dark conspiracy” after being betrayed by the people he trusted. It has been hinted at by the developers that long-term character Diana from the mysterious agency that Agent 47 works for will again feature in the game. Interestingly the long term composer for the Hitman series, Jesper Kyd does not appear to be returning. This seems like a bold move considering his previous award winning work on the franchise, but the music featured in the demonstration felt comfortingly familiar.
The developers were very keen to stress that the mission that they were showcasing was not one of the more traditional “hits”, where Agent 47 had to stalk and dispatch a target. Instead it was more story-based and involved a number of set-pieces which would showcase the new innovations in the series. The level took place in Chicago that was experiencing a torrential rain storm, where Agent 47 was hiding out in an abandoned library building. However the entire city’s police force seemed to have been informed of his location and promptly surrounded the building. Our preview began with the police entering the main atrium and beginning their manhunt for everyone’s favourite bald contract killer.
As the camera panned up, Agent 47 was revealed to be hiding on an upper walkway and soon began to stealthily work his way along the balcony using the low railing for cover. Switching from cover-to-cover is something more familiar from third-person shooters than stealth titles but seemed to work well here. Evading the patrolling guards’ lines-of-sight looked challenging and it wasn’t long before Agent 47 had dropped to a ground floor and taken cover in a small secluded area well in the darkness. Before he could move forward, a cop was ordered to investigate the shadowy corner, prompting Agent 47 to activate one of Hitman: Absolution’s new features: “Instinct”.
This addition is a form of “assassin vision” that is the product of the contract killer’s years of experience and knowledge. It creates a coloured view of the environment that highlights enemies through the walls and visualises their eye-lines and patrol routes. This mode cannot be activated infinitely and must be earned by performing well such as by evading and incapacitating opponents. At first, this seemed like a radical simplification of the classic, complex gameplay but as the demonstration progressed it appeared much less so.
“Instinct” allowed Agent 47 to the inquisitive police officer by hiding outside his vision before continuing to work his way forward through the patrols. Pausing to disable the library’s lights, he gradually worked forward across the crowded atrium making good use of several low check-in counters. Along the way he made use of several improvised weapons including a power chord that was used to strangle an unfortunate officer. Not long afterwards he used a marble bust to cave in the skull of another cop, before pausing next to a large drop through a broken floor. Climbing upwards he waited for a patrolling policeman to walk past before leaping up and grabbing him sending him to the bottom of the drop with a sickening snapping noise.
Agent 47’s death-dealing abilities certainly haven’t been compromised in this instalment and his kills were as brutal as ever. However, as he made his way around the upper section a number of pigeons were startled prompting an additional officer to be dispatched to investigate the disturbance. This led to Agent 47 clambering on top of a ledge above a doorway, just as they entered through it. There were a few tense moments as Agent 47 stood silent, while the officer glanced around before heading back down the stairs. Without pausing, Agent 47 pursued and took the poor individual hostage using him as a human shield in between the exit and the crowds of police.
This led to a tense stand-off as the assassin began to edge slowly backward as the Chicago Police Force followed. As he neared the doorway the officers abandoned their principals and promptly opened fire on their helpless colleague. Forced to improvise, Agent 47 made a break for the stairs and made it up several flights before pausing and picking off a few pursuers with a handgun. Using this brief lull in the action, he fired upon an old chandelier which crashed down the stairs cutting off the flow of officers.
Making his way out onto the roof a helicopter had joined in the search, alerted by the radio messages of the trapped police. Using cover to sneak through several abandoned buildings he stumbled across a single officer who was clearly highly vulnerable. Waiting for him to move, Agent 47 incapacitated him and took his uniform. While in disguise he walked out in plain sight of the chopper and was promptly hailed by its pilot using a loudspeaker. When asked whether he had seen the suspect, he remained motionless fooling them into thinking nothing was amiss. Unaware that anything was wrong the pilots promptly flew elsewhere to resume their search.
In Hitman: Absolution acting is an essential part of disguising and hiding in plain sight is particularly important. The enemy AI has also been overhauled to try and reduce the “trial and error” approach that was needed in some of the early titles. Enemies will now have more stages of suspicion and their reactions will be more nuanced, not simply flipping between “normal” and “alert”. In order to avoid suspicion IO Interactive claim it will be necessary to “surf on the ‘fringes’ of being discovered”. This system sounds suspiciously over-elaborate but the evidence from the preview did seem to boast improved AI from Hitman: Blood Money.
After avoiding the attentions of the police helicopter led Agent 47 into a stoner apartment that was littered with marijuana plants. Here his disguise as a member of the law would count for nothing forcing him to slowly sneak and bide his time. After waiting for the growers to become distracted and start attempting to flush their stock down the toilet, he made a move and worked his way into the main living room. A seated junkie was too baked to even really notice Agent 47 take down an investigating police officer, mumbling contentedly to himself about “police on police brutality, cool”.
This final chapter was especially tense as the contract killer began to make his way out of the apartment complex in the midst of the huge manhunt. Making his way down the stairs past several inquisitive officers was intimidating especially when they began to turn and focus their attention on him. Activating Instinct, Agent 47 drew his police cap down over his face and looked away, fooling most of the officers who commented he had probably been allowed to leave.
However, before he could get out of the front door a S.W.A.T. team blocked his way forcing him to think quickly. Moving to one side of the corridor he spotted a box of donuts and busied himself with eating one as the special weapons team made their way behind him. Heading through the doorway he made it out into a bustling crowd which had gathered to observe the police operation. Blending into the throng of people he disappeared into the rainy Chicago night.
Hitman: Absolution was definitely worth the lengthy wait for its appearance and as the developers noted, it feels similar but different. The sense of still being a powerful hunter in the midst of prey is definitely still present and Agent 47’s chilling professionalism also returns. The new Instinct mode feels like a good inclusion and doesn’t seem to dumb-down the complex gameplay.
However, the biggest issue we had with this demo was the amount of freedom on display. Freedom is being touted as the main theme of Hitman: Absolution but there was little of this evident in the preview. While this would admittedly have been difficult to showcase in a brief playthrough there didn’t really seem to be multiple routes or options available. When challenged on this issue IO Interactive were understandably defensive and promised that there were lots more features that they were desperate to show off in the coming months. We are very excited about returning to the shadowy world of professional, clinical killing. Knowing the developer’s reputation for variety Hitman: Absolution looks set to be another satisfying stealth experience.