IO Interactive has stated all along that with Hitman: Absolution it intends to cater both to the specific tastes of its long-serving fans and to tickle the fancy of a broader market. However, this hasn’t always been clear from the trailers and gameplay footage it has chosen to release as part of its pre-launch marketing campaign, which have often depicted Agent 47 in slow-motion, mass shoot-outs or exhibiting the uncanny ability to see through walls and sense the intended paths of enemies.
No, the original silent assassin has been sounding decidedly cacophonous of late and whilst newcomers might have revelled in this route-one approach, series fans have been left to wonder aloud at where it all went wrong for the sharply-dressed gentleman assassin.
But a recent hands-on did much to allay concerns that Hitman’s professional subtlety hasn’t exchanged for a Saints Row level of lunacy. Not because of a single stealth-based level; nor because an IO team member whispered sweet nothings into my microphone, but because of more over-arching structural details that say much about the myriad approaches to assignments and of the focus on 47’s stealthy ethos.
Let’s start with the fundamental concepts of Hitman: Absolution that have been so far introduced and that established Hitman fans have been alarmed by. First up is difficulty level, on starting the latest preview code I’m presented with two: Easy and Normal. The latter is the only one available for this preview level and is accompanied by a bulleted description, “Many instinct hints, forgiving enemies, progressive save points and simple patrol patterns.”
Seasoned Hitman fans will be rolling their eyes at this definition of Normal, but that’s why, just next to the Normal and Easy levels, there’s a Hard difficulty option; and another for Expert; and yet another titled Purist. That’s five difficulty levels in total and although their descriptions aren’t included in this build, you can judge from the factors mentioned by the description for Normal difficulty the kinds of things that will be affected.
“Let’s say that it’s more than simply making the AI harder to kill,” IO Interactive producer Luke Valentine hedges when I question him on it later. “It’s also about whether there are on-screen hints, how many enemies will show-up if back-up is called and how the save points work, for example.”
Pick ‘n’ mix
IOI may be content to let its fans sweat on the finer details, but there’s more to be found by looking at what’s in front of us. Delving into the in-game menu reveals some interesting tidbits – not least that Hitman: Absolution comes complete with a left-handed control scheme – there’s also the option to customise individual elements of Absolutions divisive Instinct mode, specifically those that highlight enemies, show their intended patrol paths and allow for slow-motion Point Shooting.
So, it’s possible to play on Normal difficulty but with some or all of these options switched off, thus customising your Hitman experience. This should come as a huge relief to those that have fretted over IOI’s apparent desire to stuff 47’s toolbox with overpowered parlour tricks and, honestly, I’m not sure I’ve ever been more relieved or excited by the potential revealed by a couple of menu screens.
However, we can’t spend all day dallying with myriad on/off switches and so it’s time to take a wander around the level. China Town is a bustling melting pot of people who exhibit a mix of behaviours, ranging from those that stride around with a purpose to those that ape the behaviour of Saturday morning shoppers that pull up short right front of you.
Saying too much about the approaches 47 can take to terminate his mark on this level would be to spoil that joyous feeling of surprise as you start to discover just how many items of seemingly innocuous environmental furniture can be pressed into action as a means to kill a man. Suffice to say, I try multiple play-throughs that range from an entirely silent and unnoticed kill that has me fighting the urge not to run away whooping at my own ingenuity, to the most direct route which involves shooting the target point blank in the face and dying in the ensuing firefight as local police give way to an armed SWAT team.
Certainly, the successful attempts that involve clean, quiet kills award higher scores – which are tracked on separate friends, national and world leaderboards – than those that end in a shootout, regardless of how handy you are with firearms.
“I think if you’re going for score and it matters to you, then regardless of how many headshots you score, you’ll come out worse for the wanton damage; it’s just not as professional and it’s easier to do,” posits Valentine.
À la carte
Perusing yet another menu – Help! I’m obsessed – reveals a number of level-specific challenges that give big clues as to the varied approaches that can be taken to eliminate the target; Valentine is unsure whether these challenges will be described in the same detail in the final game as they are here, which give a very clear guide to what must be done to complete each one, but the number of them suggests great potential for repeat play, “For completionists, there’s a lot there and if you do want to do everything you’ll be playing the game for a long time,” Valentine confirms.
The final concern that’s addressed by this preview build is that of AI. In previous Hitman games the AI belonged to a hive mind, which Valentine concedes was far from ideal, “Now, if a situation gets messy it can be contained,” he says. “So, if you’re intending to play stealthy but mess up and get spotted, it might affect your score and rating but it’s not going to spoil the level, as such. If the same thing happened in previous Hitman games you might want to restart, because there was pretty much no way out.”
This is illustrated when a botched attempt to sabotage a fuse box is noticed by a guard who comes to investigate. As he approaches 47 he draws his gun and a button prompt suggests the option to mock surrender, when implemented it draws the guard within arm’s reach where he can be pacified before he alerts his comrades outside.
Hitman: Absolution has been making a lot of noise in recent months but it appears that the silent assassin has been right there all along, waiting for the right time to reveal himself. Most encouraging is that the biggest rewards are reserved not for those that are quickest on the draw but for those that stalk their prey and strike unnoticed, and that’s exactly as it should be.