The next installment in the Hitman series is being developed by a new studio at Square Enix Montreal. It's a trade-off that Absolution director Tore Blystad likens to the one between Call of Duty's major studios. “It’s like with Treyarch and Infinity Ward,” Blystad told OPM. “You have an IP that has been developed. They will feed off each other, as well as somethings that stand out. I think with these big franchises it takes a long time to develop just one game. If you can, work a little bit in parallel at least and help each other out”.
Blystad implies that there's a trick to allowing a new studio to bring their own flavour to a series, without mangling its signature mechanics. "We’ve been talking about these similarities to some of the big movie franchise like Aliens, where everyone’s doing it their own way," he explained. "Every time someone gets their hands on a franchise they do something different. So rather than doing the same thing again you get another take on the character from a fresh perspective.
“There’s a lot of these problems you encounter with these sort of productions, some of them are really fundamental problems, or they have a big effect on the game – like how you do a mechanic for instance. If you change a mechanic too much then the whole gameplay will be modified”.
IO are staying in touch with Square Enix Montreal to stop the series going too far astray. “There are talks between us and of course it has to be somewhat in sync but it’s the first time you could say Hitman has gone out of the house,” Blystad added. “Luckily it’s with someone we know. Some of the key developers came from IO and have been working on previous games so it’s not like it’s in completely new hands."
It could be said that Hitman has already gone astray with introduction of Absolution, which takes a step away from the big sandbox missions that made the series great. Find out how in our Hitman: Absolution review.
A note from Tom: At the time I reviewed it for the print edition of PC Gamer, the PC version of Hitman: Absolution suffered from serious performance problems. These have since been fixed, and I've had the chance to verify that on our own machines. Since it's still not out, there doesn't seem much point in dinging it for a problem you won't have. So in this online version, I've amended the bit that was no longer accurate.
To give you an idea, on a 2.8 GHz quad core with a Radeon HD 4800, it now runs at about 30-40 FPS on medium settings. It used to be 15 even on minimum.
The previously awful performance contributed to it feeling like a shonky PC port to me, and I took it into account in the score. Now that it runs decently, the game feels approximately 4% less shonky, and I've adjusted the score accordingly. This is about as scientific as the initial scoring process.
If you’re ever sad about how many games these days are sequels, go back and play Hitman: Blood Money again. The assassin-sim series struggled for three games to understand its own strengths, and Blood Money found them all.
Almost every mission was an absurdly rich playground of deadly possibilities. You were usually free to roam them undisguised, watching patrol routes, tracking targets, studying the environment, and planning the perfect murder. The plot was sidelined in order to avoid interfering with the business of killing, the levels were large, and your tools were versatile and intricately customisable. The fans adored it, and it’s one of my favourite games of all time.
Hitman: Absolution goes... in a different direction.
‘Disaster’ is a strong word, which is good because we need one. Absolution is a disaster. It’s almost the polar opposite of Blood Money: instead of sidelining the story to focus on big, open-ended assassination missions, it sidelines assassination to focus on telling a long, linear, and embarrassingly bad story. In game terms, that means most of its levels task you with reaching and opening a particular door. If it was called Doorman: Absolution, it would be much less disappointing.
There's an old hitman saying: wear a samurai suit and stare at their groin.
That’s not even its biggest problem. Its biggest problem is that it doesn’t have a save function, so every screw-up or glitch of game logic costs you a galling amount of pointless repetition. Very rarely there are mid-mission checkpoints, but even if you can find them, they don’t save vital aspects of your progress. Guards that you’ve killed respawn. Bodies vanish. Disguises and items you’ve left disappear. It’s suspiciously as if the developers just never figured out how to store all the relevant information.
The reason this hurts the game so deeply is that two of Hitman’s core appeals are experimentation and perfectionism. It’s still a game with a lot of items and systems to play around with, but doing so is madness when 15 minutes of perfectly stealthy progress are at stake. And when your ghost-like performance is blown at the last minute by the unpredictable rules of the guard’s detection logic, it’s hard to muster the will to repeat the whole level in the hope that it won’t happen again. Particularly when the stealthy approach involves waiting for achingly long conversations to finish before guards go their separate ways.
I think you think I care about that guy a lot more than I do.
When I first started playing, three different tutorial tips advised me to press the left mouse button ‘gently’ to aim more accurately, or chided me for ‘squeezing’ it too hard. Those have been corrected in a patch, but aiming is still a needlessly clumsy emulation of a console controller’s analogue input: you have to hold two different aim buttons to be accurate.
It also appears to have been rendered through a Vaseline lens, causing anything as bright as a flesh tone to burn with the bloom of a thousand suns. When it catches the light, your bald head glints so dazzlingly that beams of pink lens flare erupt from it in four directions.
It’s a shame, because beneath that some of the locations are beautiful. They’re just a bit small. Each mission is split into a series of short levels, connected by a single door that you can’t go back through. And you can’t open these doors if any guards on the level are alert. When the objective of some levels is to escape captivity or attackers, being locked in until your opponents stop looking for you starts to feel a little perverse.
You can win a shooting contest to get your guns back. Or: this.
Three-quarters of these levels are purely about traversal: you’re just trying to get from A to B to move the story forwards, and if you’re given anyone to kill at all, it happens in a cutscene or scripted slow-mo event. The other quarter do give you a target to kill, and a choice of how to do so, but that segmentation means you’re operating in a space that isn’t as rich or complex as a typical Hitman: Blood Money mission.
The other thing that really hurts Absolution’s few actual assassinations is the new equipment system. There isn’t one. You give away all of your trademark kit at the start of the game, and start most missions with one bad, loud pistol. You never get to buy or choose your weapons in the campaign, so you’re stuck with whatever you find lying around. The ones you pick up will carry over to the next segment of the mission, but are lost again when you complete it.
Can you snipe this target from afar? Depends if the level designer left a sniper rifle somewhere. If they did, they probably put it in the ideal sniping spot to save you the mental effort of choosing one for yourself. Can you set explosives and detonate them when your target walks by? Depends if the level designer left any inexplicably strewn around, and if you find their illogical location. Even then, you can no longer throw them, put them inside containers, or stick them to surfaces.
Jesus, close your mouth when you're... you.
So much that used to be universal, versatile systems is now left to the level designer’s whim. Hitman’s greatest pleasure was coming up with your own solutions, but even at its best, Absolution makes it feel like you’re choosing between the ones the designers provided for you.
Its most promising addition is a new way of handling disguises. As in real life, you can dress up in the clothes of almost anyone you kill or subdue. And as in previous Hitman games, wearing the right clothes makes it easier to walk into restricted areas undetected. The twist this time is that people wearing the same clothes you’ve dressed up in will find you suspicious, whereas everyone else will leave you alone.
It makes sense – cops might be suspicious of a cop they don’t recognise, but not a janitor. And it could be the basis for an extra layer of strategy: dress as a janitor to get past the police, then take out a cop and put on his uniform to get in everywhere else. But it’s undermined by two things.
The first is, yet again, the level design. You spend the vast, vast majority of every mission trying to get past the same type of guard, and they almost never permit a disguise other than their own. Gangsters shooting up an orphanage full of nuns – an actual thing that happens in this videogame – will open fire on anyone but their gangmates. Cops at a crime scene are similarly strict. So you spend almost all of your time dressed as the people you’re avoiding.
Who's the psycho now? Still... still both of us.
That leads you into the other problem: suspicion is viciously over-reactive, and to all the wrong things. Guards rumble you in a split second if you stray close to them, and in pretty short order even at extremely long range. That changes it from a disguise game to a stealth game: your only challenge is to break line of sight, so you stick to sneak mode, hug cover, and do commando rolls between anything that blocks their vision. This – unlike walking normally – they have absolutely no problem with.
On lower difficulties, you can hold down a key to allay their suspicions by putting your hand over your face. I can’t think of a way to mock this that would make it sound any more absurd than that, so I won’t try. It’s a crutch to mitigate the stifling effect of a bad mechanic. And the fact that it’s useful is actually a bad thing: it uses a resource called Instinct, which you can recharge by killing guards. So there’s now a material reward for the gratuitous murder the series has always tried to gently discourage.
Both suspicion and regular stealth glitch out regularly: I’ve been spotted through two solid walls on several occasions, and at other times supposedly silent actions brought guards running. Irritating in any game, disastrous in one with no save function.
On second thoughts, maybe I don't want this chef's outfit now.
With or without Instinct, the new disguise system removes the single best thing Blood Money brought to the series: the ability to walk freely around almost every level, planning your approach without having to conceal your presence. It reduces Absolution to a more ordinary stealth game – and for me, Hitman was always better than that.
I keep coming back to the failings of the level design, and most of them stem from its determination to tell a story. It’s a tedious farce of pantomime villains, voiced by Hollywood actors utterly wasted on this adolescent, exploitative trash. And I'm fine with that. Every Hitman game has had a terrible story, but until now it has rarely mattered.
The problem with Absolution is that they actually decided to focus on it this time. In an attempt to paint you as some kind of misunderstood hero, Absolution has you quitting your job to protect a teenage girl. This story frequently requires you to get from A to B, but rarely involves a legitimate reason for you to kill. And when it does, you don’t always get to do it.
Several of the actual kills happen in cutscenes, and sometimes all your hard stealth work in getting to the target is rewarded with a cinematic of your character screwing it up. It’s kind of mindboggling to imagine how anyone could stray so far from the point of a series whose entire concept is right there in the title.
Playing music causes the police to dance and smoke weed. This is a puzzle solution.
I guess the new Contracts mode is meant to be the antidote to this, and it is a nice idea. You can load up any level from the main game, choose your weapons (at last!) and mark up to three people as targets. The way you choose to kill them, and how stealthily you do so, become the objectives of a contract. Other players can then take on your contract and try to kill the same people, with the same weapons, just as stealthily. They get a score for all those things, and a bonus if they do it faster than you.
Creating these contracts is a little aimless: civilians and guards are pretty much interchangeable, so I don’t have any burning desire to pick out three particular targets who need to die. But playing other people’s contracts is fun: some are very straightforward, but already people are adding entertaining twists. The last one I played insisted that I run into a town dressed in full samurai armour and kill a particular cop with a sledgehammer. Players will probably come up with sillier contract concepts once the game is out.
It’s no substitute for the kind of freedom Hitman used to give you, though. When creating a contract, you have too much – it doesn’t matter who you kill, so who cares? And when playing one, you have too little: the contract specifies what to wear and which weapon to use, so you’re basically just following orders.
And guess what? DRM! Despite the fact that the contracts themselves must be tiny amounts of data, you can’t play any of them – even your own – offline. You have to be connected and logged in, and if their servers are down, you’re shut out. They've really done an impressive job of racking up all the different ways you can irritate PC gamers.
These are all the reasons I found Absolution crushingly disappointing. These are the reasons it’s a terrible Hitman game, and it’s worth saying that in the strongest possible terms, because Hitman is an important and brilliant series of games. But despite all of that, it isn’t a terrible game, and it doesn’t deserve a terrible score.
It's like, that man is the Hitman series, 47 is videogames, and the ocean symbolises misapplied metaphors.
Called something else (I’m still rooting for Doorman: Absolution), it’d be a decent sneak-em-up with some welcome Hitman influences. Creeping past people is inherently fun, even if you’re gaming some weird suspicion mechanic while you do it. So is knife-throwing. I will never be able to forgive the shitty checkpointing, but it’s certainly less of a problem once you get good. And on the rare occasion that you find a disguise that lets you roam freely, some of the levels have lots of different routes to try.
There’s one mission, right near the end, that’s genuinely very good. There’s one target, a decent sized area, a particular disguise that lets you roam anywhere, and three different ways to make the death look accidental. It’s still smaller and less interesting than any of Blood Money’s main missions, but it’s one I actually wanted to replay. Any game that can capture part of that thrill is worth playing.
Currently, though, Absolution is not worth buying. If they can somehow patch in a save function, and if players do interesting things with Contracts, it will be. Until then, I’d wait for a preposterous Steam sale.
That’s something I never thought I’d have to say about a Hitman game. I desperately hope the reaction to it is strong enough to convince the developers to change direction, because I couldn’t stand to watch the series die like this.
This article originally appeared in issue 246 of PC Gamer UK.
Hitman Absolution is a tease. Its first level guides the player through a well-defended compound toward Agent 47’s assigned target, his ex-handler Diana. I snuck past guards, bundled others into convenient bins after applying pressure to their unsuspecting throats. I edged along ledges over jagged cliffs. I hid when I was meant to hide, moved when I was meant to move. And then, as I opened the door to my victim, the game took over, lurching me into a cutscene that ended the level.
It’s a trick Absolution pulls a few times in its opening chapter. 47’s next job takes him to the Terminus Hotel, and a target holed up in Room 899 on the eighth floor. Creeping through an air vent at the end of the level, I overheard my potential victim, his Texas drawl muffled through the metal. I crawled towards the sound, wiggling 47’s suit-clad body around in the vent and planning my murder method. Halfway along, my screen faded to black and I was forced through another cutscene that not only saw my target escape, conspicuously un-murdered, but suffered 47 getting bonked on the head without any opportunity for player-led retaliation.
The five levels I’ve played are huge – much bigger than any of Hitman: Blood Money’s lethal playgrounds. But where Blood Money plopped the player at a doorway, gave them a target, and let them have the run of the area, Absolution breaks its levels up into distinct stages. In making my way up to Room 899 in the Terminus Hotel, I had to sneak past a set of guards sat in the lobby by knocking out one of their outlying number and nabbing his threads. The elevator that carried me up to the target’s floor marked the end of the section I was playing, with no way to descend back to the floor I’d just been creeping around on. After being framed for an innocent’s murder and left in a burning building, I had to sneak my way across three wide-open rooms, avoiding a roving police squad. Once navigated successfully, the game gave me a check-up on my score – awarded for silent takedowns, hiding bodies, and clothes-napping, among other things – and locked the door behind me, pushing me into the next vignette.
This makes Hitman Absolution feel smaller in scope than Blood Money. It’s also more manageable. There’s no danger of being paralysed by choice when your only aim is to reach an anointed door, or escape a patrolling death squad. It also means mistakes you’ve made twenty minutes ago will be less likely to haunt you.
I took the direct route in the Terminus Hotel. Scoping out the edifice from the damp street the game deposits Agent 47 on, I spotted an entrance to the basement. I decided against using it, preferring to waltz in the front door – it’s a hotel, right? They must be expecting guests. Apparently not. Through the door, I was treated to a triggered animation, a goon in a stetson telling one of the hotel’s paying guests he wasn’t allowed upstairs. More goons sat on the sofas in the lobby, scanning their eyes around the room. Yet more goons stood on the stairs, flanking the lift that the game had helpfully picked out.
The abundance of goonery made getting to my intended exit difficult, but Absolution has upgraded Agent 47, turning him from Blood Money’s hulking, clumsy marionette man to a lithe assassin. Pressing Space flipped 47 into cover, his back to a cleaning trolley as one of the goons peeled off. Pressing Ctrl behind my hiding spot, I turned on 47’s Instinct mode. Instinct turns the world black and grey, highlighting interesting areas – weapons to pocket, radios to turn on, light fittings to drop on unsuspecting heads – and potentially dangerous people. Activate Instinct while wearing a disguise, and 47 will cover his face surreptitiously as people wearing the same costume try to work out if they know you. Activate it as a goon walks past as I did and you’ll be able to see their patrol path, picked out in a line of flame along the floor.
This goon was going to the bathroom. Disengaging myself from the trolley by pressing Space again, I followed him in, ducked in a crouch that kept me out of the vision of his empty-bladdered pals. A quick arm around the throat, while tapping A to apply pressure to his windpipe, and he was unconscious. Another tap, and I was wearing his clothes. One more tap and a quick drag, and his now underwear-clad body was jammed into a laundry bin in the bathroom. This process is quick in Absolution, quicker than it was in Blood Money. 47’s new sleeper-hold ability knocks targets out, and unlike Blood Money’s sedative syringe, can be used as many times as you fancy in a level.
Most weapons can be thrown, forcing enemies in earshot to walk over and investigate the sound. Careful assassins can put entire floors to sleep, clearing a path towards their target. I am not a careful assassin. Coming out of the bathroom, I decided to try out my new threads on the similarly dressed goons blocking the staircase. Evening, gents, I’m your pal who just went for a piss. Yes, I’m now bald. That bathroom changed me.
They immediately saw through my ruse. Suspicion in Absolution is denoted by a circle in the centre of the screen. When someone spots you doing something weird, the circle rises to a peak in their direction. Sauntering through the lobby, my screen showed five distinct spikes: five goons who’d spotted I wasn’t one of their number. Must’ve been the shiny head that gave it away. I should’ve brought a wig.
I activated 47’s Instinct, and he quickly brought his hand to his hat, covering his face. Too late. The goons on the sofa stood up, yelling at me to stop. The goons at the top of the stairs, alerted, swaggered over. If 47 is spotted doing something obviously dodgy – stashing a body, shooting someone between the eyes, downloading a Robbie Williams song, that kind of thing – then guards will immediately flip to a hostile state, emptying their guns in his general direction. But if he’s just being mightily suspicious, as I was, they’ll try to force him to surrender. Press Q and you’ll pretend to give up, affecting a hands-up stance as your accusers come closer. Once they’re within range, the game launches an automatic animation that disarms the closest enemy, takes his gun, and pulls him into a headlock. If you’re off in a secluded spot, this is a great way to dispose of a single enemy. If you’re standing on top of a set of stairs, being watched by more than ten pairs of eyes, it’s less effective.
I tried to activate the lift with my arm around a human shield, his pilfered gun pointing over his shoulder towards his angry friends. They saw my intentions and opened fire as one, killing my shield and turning my vision red with injury. Using a spare second to call the lift, I ducked into cover and waited for it to arrive. Once it did, I hopped in and rode it to a higher floor, the second of the hotel’s stages. Fortunately for me, everyone up there hadn’t been in contact with their partners-in-goonery downstairs, and seemed happy to let me wander around, provided I didn’t stray within intense suspicion range.
Where the Teminus Hotel is broken up into stages, preceding level Chinatown is more open. It consists of a square with a central pagoda, its streets filled with people: crooked cops, drug dealers and innocents. Absolution’s story mode visits the location twice, first asking 47 to murder one target – mob boss the King of Chinatown – then sending him back to kill three others later in the day.
I went back a third time in the game’s Contracts mode. Contracts is Hitman’s take on score attack mode, gifting Agent 47 points for offing targets quickly, in specific ways, using chosen weapons and wearing the proper clothes. Other players create contracts by playing through the game’s levels as normal, marking targets along the way for other players to shoot, stab, or smother. Completing a kill as requested awards points that can be compared against your homicidal friends’ scores. There’s a filter of social integration that sits a bit wonkily with the series, and Hitman’s joy has always been madcap freedom in your murder method rather than the chase of obsessive perfection.
But Contracts isn’t a bungled job: it gives a fresh eye on levels you’ve already played. I chose to play one of the missions set up by developers IO themselves, set again in Chinatown. Instead of the storyline’s mob boss, I found myself gunning for two targets: one a cop, one a flat-cap wearing gangster. The cop was an easy kill. Veering straight off to the left on entering the level, I found him stood next to a sportscar parked in an alley. I locked eyes with him for a second, before he turned on his heels and pottered down the road to inspect some fascinating boxes, conveniently out of sight of the hundred-plus NPCs in the central square. I dropped into a crouch and followed him. En route, I had options to complicate the kill: I could pound on the car’s window, bringing the cop over to peer into the windows and check on the contents. I could pick up some discarded plastic explosives, left by some forgetful bomb-maker, and blow my target up. Or I could take the easy option, ready my garotting wire, and wrap it around his neck at the end of the alley.
First one down, I strolled back through the crowds of people. My next target was visible via 47’s Instinct mode: he was standing up in an office overlooking the level’s central pagoda. I remembered the office as the one I found a stashed sniper rifle in during my first visit to Chinatown. Another crooked cop was guarding the staircase that led up to said office, but I’d distracted him before by fiddling with the contents of a nearby fusebox. I did the same again, luring the copper from his seat and slipping past him as he cursed the busted electronics. Still crouching, I started to climb the staircase, and shuffled face-first into a descending crotch.
My target had moved, and I wasn’t ready for it. I mashed the keyboard and 47 launched into a quicktime event of a fight, punching with letter keys. The cop, returning from fixing the fusebox, was treated to the sight of me slamming another man’s head into a wall. He immediately drew his gun, just as I put a bullet through my now-unconscious target’s skull, and I sprinted back upstairs and climbed into a cupboard.
It was no good: the cop had a good look at me, and I was stuck without clothes to change into. Languishing in the cupboard was only delaying the inevitable. I cycled through my inventory items, alighting on the remotely detonated plastic explosive I’d picked up earlier. I climbed out of the cupboard and poked my head out of the window, only to be met by a hail of bullets. In return, I lobbed the explosive charge towards the ground and fired a few times to flush backup cops out of cover. I blew the charge as they rearranged themselves, clearing something of a path for myself. Back down the stairs, I aimed a silenced silverballer pistol shot at the fusebox cop, and changed quickly into his clothes. Numbers at the top of the screen were ticking down – I’d lost points for being spotted, the time taken between kills, and the huge amount of people, innocent and otherwise, that I’d eviscerated with my impromptu bombing – but I still had a positive number.
Cops streamed past as I exited the fusebox alley; I covered my face using Instinct and walked purposefully for the exit. It wasn’t pretty, but I came out of the contract with my two targets dead: not enough to trouble a high-score table, but a victory in Absolution’s book. And in mine. Absolution gave me the option to be robotic or reactionary, chase perfection or make the best of a bad situation. It’s a tighter, less freeform experience than Blood Money, but fortunately it still offers the kind of lethal invention that made that game great.
Square Enix have announced that Hitman: Blood Money will be free to play through their Core Online browser gaming service. You bank free game time by watching adverts, but once that's expired, you'll have to watch more if you want to keep going. Alternatively, you can buy individual levels or the entire game and play free of interruptions. Individual Blood Money levels cost 49c, the entire game costs $4.99.
Core Online is in beta at the moment and only supports Hitman: Blood Money and Mini Ninjas but Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is planned soon. Square Enix have put out a trailer showing how the whole thing works which contains an advert within an advert. If you really hate watching adverts, this might not be the service for you.
I've signed up to try it out, but it's hard to imagine the free to play version of Core Online not being incredibly annoying. Ad breaks are bad enough in TV shows, an interruption as you're sneaking up on a target would be even worse.
Still, perhaps it's possible to queue a few ads up and then make a cup of tea, earning a nice chunk of game time. In that case, this is a good way to check out Blood Money, the highlight of the Hitman series so far.
Lately all our console playing friends have been telling us about this 'Hitman Sniper Challenge' thing on the tellybox. We of course affected an air of practiced disdain at their preposterous claims that a game not on PC could be good. But now it's on PC. So it must be good. QED.
Sniper Challenge is a promotional game for Hitman Absolution, those who score highly at shooting men in the head will earn prizes. Not achievements you understand, real, physical prizes like iPads and Sennheiser headphones, which are being given away monthly to the top scorers.
But wait! There's more. Whoever eventually shoots best will be invited to the Golden Joysticks award ceremony, where they will be crowned 'The UK's Ultimate Assassin'. If I know my hollywood movies right, that coronation usually takes the form of an elaborate double cross in which hordes of disposable goons are sent to kill the assassin while they protect a small child/token love interest. So good fun all around. The winner will also appear in a future Hitman game. Letting you can brutally murder them in revenge for beating you to the goodies.
All the details can be found on the Hitman Sniper Challenge website. To enter, you'll first need to pre-order Hitman: Asbolution, then you'll get a code which you can enter into the website to download your headshot simulator. A whole extra game that gives away free prizes? That's the kind of pre-order bonus I can get behind.
If you ever get a chance to poison a fish, do it. I learnt that during my Hitman Absolution hands on. Poisoning fish is super effective.
Chinatown is swarming with punters and washed with red lighting. As Agent 47, I’m squeezing through the crowd - suit and red tie intact - on the way to kill the king of Chinatown. He’s about to die, but there's two questions: whether I’ll make it out alive, and how I'll kill him.
Instinct mode is helping with my infiltration, making my target glow red and points of interest glow yellow, including the path of enemy NPCs. It’s a filter I can toggle, just like the one Batman uses in his most recent games. But, according to executive producer Luke Valentine, that isn’t IO's main point of influence: “instinct for us wasn’t about those games at all. It was a response to the mini map in the previous Hitman games where you - well I - would spend about 50% of the game watching green triangles move around the map.” Whether players love or hate the assistance will probably relate to their experience of Hitman. Exactly how you’re restricted will depend on your difficulty setting of choice. I’m playing on normal, but it goes all the way to Purist. Io are keeping the subtitles quiet, for now.
To be honest, It’s a silly place for the King of Chinatown to hang out. The place he eats, a hole in the ground he could feasibly fall through, the apartment block overlooking a pagoda - they’re all glowing politely when viewed through Agent 47's eyes. I make a mental note of each one, then wander towards his pagoda for for a close-up. I disable infiltration mode after a few steps: it makes the world saturated, so detail is lost. It seems a shame to waste Agent 47’s infamous pate: it’s never looked this shiny and high-res.
En route I poison some fish at a nearby stall. Why? Because I can’t resist on-screen prompts. Also: I’ve checked this level’s list of challenges; it’s taught me the King of Chinatown eats fish, drinks coffee, and walks near manholes. It’s also hinted at possible firearms somewhere in the level. Possible intel that he enjoys pina coladas and walks in the rain are yet to be confirmed by IO.
After pacing through the crowds I end up near the entrance to an apartment, guarded by a lonely cop watching TV. He’s distracted, but not distracted enough to let me past unmolested. I sabotage a nearby fusebox then edge past as he fiddles with his TV. It’s a simple, obvious solution, but this is only Act 2, and I get the feeling that IO are easing me the mechanics. I hope so; the apartment is unlocked, and a sniper rifle sits on a desk next to a security tape. It almost feels too convenient: surely a famous drug lord would be a little more worried about his own safety? Still, I'm not one to turn down a free lunch, especially when that lunch involves killing people. Both Agent 47 and I love security tapes and guns, so I pocket them both.
In the apartment up above the King of Chinatown's central square, someone’s left a window open. I’ve got access to two of Absolution's new mechanics: a cover system and slow mo. The cover system feels nice and light, and fortunately not overly spongey. Get into a crouch and walk behind cover, and 47 will cleverly keep his body out of sight: you won't need to wedge yourself against a wall to avoid detection when room-hopping. Combined with the sniper’s zoom, my mark is going to be hard to miss.
But the king has moved from his pagoda. Even with instinct mode enabled, I’m struggling to spot my target. But I needn't panic; after a few seconds of looking down the scope, an on-screen prompt congratulates me on a clean murder. The silly chap wandered off, ate my poisoned fish, and collapsed amid the crowd. And I haven’t even fired a shot, but my work here is done. It’s time to leave. Man, I am good.
By this point, Chinatown is in chaos. Cops are searching for suspicious-looking men, and I look remarkably suspicious. I flick back into instinct mode to detect their future paths and keep my head down. Instinct mode highlights a rope. Following it up, I spy some fortuitously-placed sacks of corn suspended on a pallet above a gaggle of cops. Ignoring obvious questions - who puts these things here? - I shoot the rope, dropping the heavy bags on the heads of the hapless police. They are knocked out of action, and I get the hell out. Now, it's time to check my score, which might be a bigger deal than you think. For more on that aspect, click here.
A hitman hits men for a living, but Agent 47’s enemies hit women. IO’s most recent showing of their next Hitman game opens with a scene of masked men shooting an unarmed nun as she lies crawling, bleeding and screaming on the floor of an invaded orphanage. It’s a nasty introduction to a game that’s got meaner and darker since its previous outing. Blood Money had moments of bleak humour and silliness; Absolution has detailed slowmotion shots of Agent 47 slamming a fire axe into the side of someone’s knee.
As well as bleaker, it also seems narrower. The two missions that developers IO have shown so far from the game feature wide corridors strung together. Where Absolution’s predecessor dropped Agent 47 into a wide open space that necessitated backtracking and planning, the new game’s library and orphanage come in bite sized chunks, each made up of spacious strips to be overcome before moving on to the next area. “We want a very cinematic experience,” says game director Tore Blystad. But Blood Money’s joy was in freedom – the ability to go anywhere, and to inject a horrible poisonous mixture into any neck you chose.
That change is enough to get Blood Money fans across the world nervously clutching their Silverballers. Blystad is at pains to tell us not to worry: “The Hitman games have always been about choice, and very much so with Absolution. Everything is designed with choice in mind. We’re not scripting things so you have to play through in a linear fashion.” The mission I saw reinforced this statement, with the man at Hitman’s helm showing two very different ways to approach the same section of game. Both begin with the dead nun.
The first victim is a nun because Agent 47 is in an orphanage and dressed as a priest, for reasons developers IO don’t properly explain. He’s halfway through a mission in said orphanage, infiltrating the building to extract a girl rather than to hit hitmen. But depending on how you play Hitman: Absolution, that second action can happily be a by-product of the first.
The first approach is psychotic, and involves the fire axe. The scene opens with the nun murder in the orphanage. Agent 47 is relaxing on the roof of an unpowered lift, the nun spluttering her bloody last as the perpetrators waltz off into the main building to find the girl. Hoisting himself up from the lift shaft to the corridor, 47 overhears whimpering from the next room. There’s a security guard being trussed up by stocking-headed thugs; he’s shot in the knees for not knowing where the girl is. See? Bleaker.
As six-year-old kids and people who kill people for a living know, the only way to stop violence is with more violence: 47 grabs a fire axe from the wall and wades into plain sight. He swings the axe towards the chest of his first victim, the game immediately popping into a slow-motion mode. Agent 47 has lost his innate clumsiness in Absolution – the developers repeatedly refer to him as “a weapon” – and his attacks are graceful and QTE-like. The first man falls when the axe is driven horrifically into the side of his leg; the second goes down after he stumbles and gets it embedded into the top of his skull.
Still 47 pushes on, bullets ripping through his purloined priest outfit as the last torturer standing opens fire on him. He ducks behind a piano for a second – showcasing the game’s new cover system – before popping out and twatting the guy in the chest with twelve inches of metal. The pop to cover feels natural for this approach: this is Hitman as darkly deranged thirdperson shooter. Captors offed, 47 speaks to the tied-up and bleeding security guard. Apparently he keeps a shotgun in the chapel downstairs. Guess where psycho-47 is going next?
The second approach is perfection. Starting in the same lift shaft with the same nun-ny death, the second Agent 47 creeps behind the murderers until he’s under a bookshelf. The cover system hides 47’s shiny pate behind convenient objects, and a standard crouch will put him at a similar height. Blystad mentions that players should feel comfortable moving around out of cover, knowing they’re out of sight even when they’re out of hard cover.
And when they are forced with their back to the wall, they’re not constrained by invisible barriers: Absolution’s bookshelves, sofas, and 3ft-high walls have ‘soft’ edges, letting 47 traverse their planes without stickiness, hopefully reducing the frustration of detection.
The sneaky version of 47 is either more callous or more sensible, depending on your viewpoint, leaving the orphanage’s torture victim to his eventual fate. The poor bastard screams his last as 47 opens the door and sneaks out of the room, closing it behind him as the room’s occupants are focused on their kill. He’s out and through in total silence.
This Agent 47 is able to make limited use of his environment to aid his stealthy cause. Where his maniacal alter-ego nabbed an axe from the wall, sneaky 47 picks up a vase from a table. Blystad argues that “previous Hitmans were very predictable for the player, and there was a very strongly directed way the levels were designed”. He wants Absolution to feel more organic, with 47 able to get out of trouble by using whatever he’s got to hand.
Now 47 is into the next area, semitrapped in cover. He’s not under immediate threat from the level’s guards, but their patrol routes have conspired to pin him in place. He can either wait for a fortuitous crossing of paths to create a convenient blind spot or, even better, heft the vase into a non-essential part of the room and scurry onwards while distracted guards investigate it. He does the latter, with the room’s occupants immediately directing their attentions vase-wards.
Detection is less binary than it was in previous Hitman games. Players are notified of guard suspicion by a circular splodge close to a shooter’s hit notifier. AI characters piqued by the presence of a crouching baldy in their midst cause spikes in the circle – let that spike grow too large and you’re busted. It feels more organic than Blood Money’s unpredictable suspicion bar, more analogue. And psycho-47 doesn’t care for it.
He’s too busy popping shotgun cartridges into the stomachs of his foes. After making his way down to the bloodsmeared chapel, psycho-47 finds himself behind a glass door, eavesdropping on the invading thugs’ leader’s briefing. They’re here to find the same girl as he is. IO wouldn’t explain exactly why she is important, but it’s likely to be something to do with Diana Burnwood.
Burnwood was Agent 47’s handler for his earlier career, and one of Absolution’s first targets – 47 doesn’t let something petty like years of friendship get in the way of his kills. The thugs seem to have another leader outside the orphanage, and the man berating his colleagues behind the glass door doesn’t seem to think he’ll be happy with their efforts.
Those efforts are diminished further by 47, who springs from behind the door with his shotgun spraying. I didn’t get to try out Absolution’s shooting, but it looks understandably similar in feel to IO’s Kane and Lynch series, the camera snapping to 47’s shoulder as his shots tear through soft thugflesh. The boom of the shotgun draws enemies from around the contained area, and corpses pile up in doorways as they come to investigate the noise.
Back on the more sensible side of the tactical divide, a sneakier 47 has to be more careful with his bodies. He catches one behind a thick bookcase, snuffling him to sleep with an insistent “shhh!” before nabbing his clothes, taking him gently by the wrist, and pulling him into a freezer. This is Absolution at its most Blood Moneyesque. Like that game, 47 is free to put on the clothes of most people he subdues, giving him some level of immunity when wandering around in the open.
Previously, donning an outfit would give you near-invisibility, with the game conveniently ignoring the fact that your peers would notice when Santa’ changes from a short fat man into a 6ft killing machine with a shiny head. Wander Absolution’s hallways in someone else’s clothes and people will squint at you, trying to work out if you’re actually meant to be there.
To counterbalance this, the game is seeded with interactions that let you hide in plain sight. 47 saunters into one of the orphanage’s larger rooms dressed in his new clothes. It’s stuffed with enemies: most are busy with their own concerns, but one’s wandering around. His eyes alight on 47’s hairless head, a spike appearing on the suspicion notifier. In response, 47 ducks his head down, suddenly extraordinarily interested in a leaflet stand. The guard walks past, happy to believe the new guy loves leaflets.
But sneakier assassins won’t always have leaflets to hand every time they need to avoid suspicion. Instead, they can dip in to 47’s new ‘Instinct’ bar – this resource is earned by doing good things like avoiding patrols, performing silent takedowns, or getting headshots. Using Instinct in the face of guard suspicion lets 47 cover his face for a second, affecting a stifled yawn or a head rub. It’s somewhat artificial, but it does offer a handful of escape opportunities to otherwise perfect players who’ve put a foot wrong. Harder difficulties shrink the amount of Instinct you gain, making such moves more difficult – especially when it can be used for other vital purposes.
For instance, 47 can use his spare Instinct to fuel a few seconds of Magic Vision, which lets him anticipate patrol routes, picked out on the floor in a line of flames. It’s a mechanic that turns Agent 47 from the superhuman to the supernatural, but it fits in well with his suite of abilities. Blood Money forced dedicated players to watch and wait to learn patrol routes, wasting time to hardwire movements into their brain. Absolution still has the space to let players on harder difficulty settings use this manual method, but those with less time to burn can spend some of their Instinct to preternaturally anticipate routes and come up with a plan.
IO demonstrated another Instinct usage during 47’s time in the orphanage – one that’s better suited to a less cautious playthrough. With his signature Silverballer pistol in hand, 47 pops into an occupied room and stops time for a moment. During this pause, he starts to queue up headshots, pumping a few spare bullets into exposed gas canisters in convenient locations around the room. As the shots rattle off into faces and necks the camera follows, giving a gorily cinematic viewpoint of each messy kill. Once the dust settles and the blood has finished spraying the walls, the room is clear and 47’s Instinct metre has been drained.
From what IO have shown so far, Absolution’s level design is sniper riflefocused rather than machine gunexpansive. That will scare fans of the previous game, but Blystad argues that as the game gets closer to launch, IO will start to show the open environments and inventive murder tools that the series is known for. Blystad assures us that there’s no need to worry, as he and his company know their audience: “Our hardcore fans, the first thing they do is turn around on the spot and go in the opposite direction to see if it’s possible. We’re trying our best to accommodate every conceivable way of playing the game.”
Even with such a tight play area, the range of choice open to the player’s own Agent 47 – be he careful, psychotic or any of the shades of grey in between – make Absolution look like a comfortingly professional job.
Agent 47's back! ...Again! Absolution's not even out yet, but Square Enix is already diving head-long into sequel territory. So said the publisher in a tweet announcing its brand new Montreal studio, which will apparently open up a whopping 150 jobs. Take that, the economy.
IO Interactive, meanwhile, will continue to meticulously craft sets of murder dominoes for Agent 47 to knock down, so this is beginning to sound a bit like the year-on-year model Call of Duty employs with Infinity Ward and Treyarch.
We've seen the sixteen minutes of Hitman Absolution footage above before, but not with an informative developer commentary layered over it. Their main focus is on the instinct system that powers Agent 47's guard-prediction and stealth abilities, and on all the different ways that they could proceed through the level differently. They reveal that it's possible to assassinate the sergeant directing your manhunt if you're skilled enough, and you can start a gunfight with the police force whenever you choose. As the fight continues, SWAT officers will start appearing to try and take you out.
The developers say that this is an early level, too, and it's worth remembering that Hitman: Blood Money opening mission was a completely linear turorial. After that, it opened up enormously. At the end of this video we also get a glimpse of the upgraded crowd tech that wowed us in the memorable Mardi Gras level in Blood Money. Combined with an impressive new engine, Absolution will hopefully be a worthy successor to the superb fourth game. Are you looking forward to Absolution?