Preparing to be presented with Hitman: Absolution at Square Enix’s PAX demonstration was one of the more intense experiences of the convention. I was ushered into a dark hotel room and seated in a chair. The curtains were closed. The doors were locked. The only light came from the glowing screen of the television, flanked on either side by a pair of stony-faced developers. I was sweating. Was this it? Had all of my jokes about Squeenix finally caught up with me? Were they taking me out once and for all?
Luckily for me, I was safe, though the same couldn’t be said for those who stood in the way of Agent 47. As the demonstration of the latest game in the beloved Hitman series unfolded, the reason for the strange treatment became clear. This is a game with a fine attention to detail, and any distractions from its immersive visuals and incredible audio design would be doing it a disservice.
In order to show off the dynamic style of gameplay offered by Absolution, the developers played through the same mission twice, each time significantly mixing up their play style. The first demonstration was a pure stealth-based experience. Agent 47 remained out of sight through the entire mission, which revolved around rescuing a girl from a church orphanage that had been ransacked by a gang of armed thugs.
In order to stealthily make his way through the level, Agent 47 had a surprising number of tools at his disposal. Many objects and props in the environment could be picked up and used as improvised tools or weapons. For instance, in order to slip through a room early on, the demonstrator picked up a child’s squeaky toy and tossed it into an adjacent room. Curious, but not suspecting anything, the guard casually sauntered over to check it out, providing an opening.
Agent 47 had access to a resource bar called his “instinct.” This mechanic serves as both a replacement for a minimap and a way to activate a slew of new moves. The amount of instinct available varies based on the chosen difficulty level, though players can replenish it by performing true to the “Hitman” style of play – disposing of bodies, blending in in plain sight, and so forth. By activating insight, the bodies of hostile forces will gain a wavering outline, letting the player get a better feel for his surroundings. It also displays an enemy’s predicted path of travel along the ground, letting those that are quick enough react appropriately.
The most striking thing about Absolution is the audio experience. Sound effects, speech, and music are all incredibly well done, creating an immersive environment that actually serves the gameplay. Even in this small demo, there was a staggering amount of recorded voice work, with guards and goons have tons of back and forth dialogue that gave the game plenty of personality. But these discussions could also be used to help mask Agent 47’s own noise, and walking while characters were talking loudly would prevent even his footsteps from being heard. Similarly, the musical score is wonderfully context sensitive, remaining quiet and atmospheric, but swelling up excitingly as enemies draw near.
All the moves you’ve come to expect from a Hitman title were on display. At one point, Agent 47 donned the disguise of a downed thug in order to move through them undetected, and if someone got curious, the demonstrator would have to act natural to try and avoid suspicion. NPC’s seemed to react intelligently and realistically to the situation they were presented with – they weren’t drawing guns and firing at the slightest hint of trouble, but they weren’t completely oblivious either.
With a successful stealth-based run completed, it was time to do things a bit less subtly. This time around, the demonstrator was a lot more brutal, showing off just how much of the game changed and adapted based on your own playstyle. Right off the bat, he pushed 47 through with murderous intent, performing brutally visceral and stylish kills with all manner of improvised weaponry (including a particularly nasty crucifix blow to the back of the head).
The change this had on the game was immediately evident. The music shifted to a more high-energy tone, abandoning the subtle atmosphere of before to better suit the more action-oriented approach. But the most surprising effect was on the NPCs themselves. Having heard the sounds of gunfire early in the mission, guards were no longer casually conversing and wandering around. There was a heightened sense of tension, and enemies acted jittery and on-edge, realizing that there was an immediate threat to them somewhere. The effect was really impressive, and it’s great to see that sort of level of detail in making NPCs react to situations so realistically.
This playthrough concluded with a bloody standoff between 47 and an entire room of bad guys. Here, another implementation of instinct came into play. The player can burn instinct to temporarily freeze time, letting you assess the situation. Then, by spending more of your meter, you can tag targets in order to launch a cinematic volley of gunfire. Our demonstrator quickly marked several goons for execution, a couple of propane tanks to incinerate the rest of them, and a final shot aimed at a thug’s crotch for good measure. This prompted a slick animation of 47 coolly and professionally firing a series of well-aimed shots, and the room was clear within seconds.
Of course, both of these examples were two very huge extremes on the spectrum of potential gameplay – most people will probably fall somewhere in between. The nice thing is that the game seems to be designed in such a way that there isn’t necessary a “right” way to play it. For instance, at one point in the mission, 47 comes across a security guard being tortured by a pair of enemies. In the stealth run, he ended up being killed as the demonstrator avoided the confrontation. But in the action run, both of the goons were killed, saving the guard who revealed the location of a hidden weapons cache. It seems like Io is aiming for a sort of risk-reward approach to deciding how to approach each situation, and the result could be a refreshing change for the stealth genre.
Unfortunately, the game wasn’t available for anyone to play for themselves. However, the Io developers assured us that there would be much more coming out for the game at this year’s E3. This includes the reveal of Hitman’s sandbox-style elements, which the demonstrator was insistent were still very much present in the final game.
Those worried about the direction Hitman: Absolution looked to be taking can rest easy, as the title is looking incredibly sharp. It’s smooth, immersive, and incredibly visceral, and the way in which it supports and rewards multiple playstyles is incredibly refreshing. The game is slated to be released sometime this year, and we’ll hopefully have more for you when E3 rolls around.