Hitman: Absolution Preview -- The Spice of Life...and DeathBy Jake Gaskill - Posted Jan 11, 2012
As the scene opens, a nun runs screaming towards the camera. A gunshot rings out, and the woman falls to the ground revealing two goons standing in a dimly lit, infirmary-esque hallway lined with overturned hospital beds, medical equipment, and pastel colored balloons. The bloodied nun whimpers as she crawls towards the camera, desperate to get away. Just as one of the thugs nervously starts to wonder what the hell led to the carnage around them, the other puts two more slugs in the poor nun who flops lifelessly in the doorway of an open elevator. We pan down from the woman to reveal Agent 47 standing just below the open door, just out of the line of sight of the two killers. The hunt…is…on.
The last time we saw our favorite bald assassin in IO Interactive's forthcoming Hitman: Absolution, way back at E3 2011, he was maneuvering his way through a policeman-infested library and outrunning a turret-mounted helicopter. For our latest look, we find Agent 47 infiltrating an orphanage in the hopes of tracking down a woman named Victoria for reasons unknown; you might recognize the scenario if you’ve seen the most recent gameplay trailer. Agent 47’s plan takes an unexpected and deadly twist when he arrives on the scene to find countless armed gangsters have shot the orphanage to hell and already snatched up Victoria.
Turns out the hired guns are acting on the orders of Absolution’s main baddie Blake Dexter. How Dexter’s own devilish deeds tie into Agent 47’s overarching goal of assassinating his former handler Diana Burnwood remains a mystery, and I’m guessing it will remain so until the game ships later this year. For now though, the most important thing is that there are a lot of people standing between Agent 47 and his escape route, and you better believe things are about to get messy.
So with two clear targets in his sights, 47 climbs up into the doorway and crouches behind a nearby bed as the two nun killers move back down the corridor. The lighting and depth of field effects are particularly striking in these opening moments, especially when 47 brings down the first baddie who foolishly lingered too far behind his pal. The fluidity of 47’s strike and takedown animations makes them all the more impactful, something that became even more apparent as the demo rolled on.
For our first playthrough, the IO Interactive developers on hand went the classic, stealth route; the second playthrough was pure action. So when 47 reached the end of the hallway, and he found two more hooligans beating and torturing a cop, he refrained from grabbing a nearby axe and hacking the legs out from under the closest fool and then burying said axe in said fool’s skull. Instead, he snatched a toy robot, turned it on, and tossed it down an adjacent hallway, attracting the attention of the nearest enemy and pulling him out of position long enough for 47 to quietly sneak into the next area.
Creeping onwards, we could still hear the Reservoir Dogs-ish scene playing out behind 47. In addition to teaching players why it sucks to be tied to a chair, beaten, and then shot in the leg point blank, this brief encounter drives home one of the key elements at play in Absolution: the living, breathing world that now surrounds Agent 47’s every action. IO’s new Glacier 2 engine allows for all manner of audio and visual trickery, but it also gives the developers the ability to create far more complicated and dynamic AI systems to drive the game’s NPCs, ensuring that no two playthroughs will be exactly the same. Similar to the Assassin’s Creed series, it’s the variety of options at your disposal at any given time that makes a Hitman game so rewarding and enjoyable, and the AI will now play a much larger part in bringing this about.
Speaking of NPCs, IO has also devoted an inordinate amount of attention--the game features over 2,000 pages of NPC dialogue alone--towards to giving them unique personalities and backstories, so much so that players will actually want to let conversations between two enemies play out to their conclusions before deciding to interfere with a swift neck snap. Sometimes, though, the only way to receive certain information is to take action. For instance, in the cop torturing scenario, if you kill the two baddies, as 47 did in the subsequent action-style playthrough, the cop will tell you where you can find a nearby shotgun, info you would have had to ascertain on your own through high-intensity exploration had you decided to simply avoid the encounter altogether.
As 47 moves through the gorgeously designed, and dead nun-strewn orphanage, several of Absolution’s new features play themselves out. One of the big advantages players have this time around is 47’s instinct mode, which lets you see a fiery outline of nearby enemies, some even through walls. It also lets you see where an NPC is headed via a nifty line on the ground.
Similar to Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Conviction, players can fill up 47’s instinct meter by performing successful actions like silent takedowns or capping baddies. Once the meter is filled, just like Sam Fisher or Red Dead Redemption’s John Marston, you can trigger a super slow-mo sequence where you can tag enemies and/or flammable objects and then unleash a series of shots with perfect accuracy. Some might say these tactics are cheap, but, as the IO devs explained to us, 47 is the world’s greatest assassin, and these abilities are simply a way to translate those nearly superhuman skills into gameplay.
Another major presentation element that IO is particularly proud of is the game’s use of dynamic music. Instead of cueing scene-specific music to trigger at predetermined times, the music in Absolution, whether it be high pitched vibrato violins accompanied by a soft heartbeat or a fully orchestrated action theme, is determined by the player’s actions. As you’d expect, the score for our silent playthrough was entirely different than the score that played out during our action playthrough, and yet they both felt perfectly suited to what we were watching play out on screen. It’s just another of the countless ways IO is ensuring that players are able to have a wholly unique experience from one beat to the next.
The rest of the level played out in classic Hitman fashion. We watched as 47 slyly moved from cover to cover, knocking a guy out with a crucifix to the head here, choking a dude out and then stashing his body in a kid’s plastic ball pit there. The level ended with 47 donning the outfit of a freshly murdered thug, and doing his trademark hiding in plain sight routine.
Moving into a room filled with enemies, 47 approached a stand filled with anti-violent videogame pamphlets and pretended to read them as a way to stay in cover until a patrolling goon had safely passed by. Having avoided raising suspicion, 47 was then able to locate a nearby elevator and exit the orphanage undetected. Despite his impressive disappearing act, the IO dev running the demo didn’t earn the coveted Silent Assassin distinction, as it requires specific actions be taken during a mission (i.e. removing evidence, kill only targets, etc.), and our demo time was limited.
Unsurprisingly, running through the same level with guns blazing resulted in several key differences to the overall situation. For one, it gave us a chance to see some of 47’s gorgeous and brutal combat animations (the running up behind a dude and quickly putting two bullets into his back and catching him before he hits the ground was a personal favorite). There were points where the gunplay looked a bit stiff, especially when the shotgun was equipped, but that could easily be a polishing issue. For the most part, the action played out with a striking crispness that made the shootouts look and sound particularly intense. I would imagine most Hitman fans will favor the silent approach, but it appears there will be plenty of enjoyable benefits to letting the lead fly as well.
Having witnessed just a fraction of what lies in store for Agent 47 in his latest and most dangerous mission yet, it’s clear that IO Interactive is pulling out all the stops and aiming to make Hitman: Absolution one of 2012’s standout titles, not an enviable task given the crop of games in the pipeline. But if what we’ve seen thus far is any indication, Absolution could very well strike from the shadows with serious force when it finally emerges later this year.