Hitman Absolution: Agent 47 hasn't been repackaged, he's evolved
11th Jan 2012 | 12:51
Here's a point to ponder: did the stealth genre reach the pinnacle of its prowess somewhere around four years ago?
We only ask this because it seems, in retrospect, that was the last time gamers could take it for granted the genre's heaviest hitters - your MGSs, your Splinter Cells, your Hitman(s) - would offer a pure and refined stealth experience. This purity has been curdled in recent years by developers widening their stealth game experience to include aspects one would more expect to find in straightforward third-person-shooters.
It's tempting to blame Rocksteady Studios for this. While Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City didn't exactly set out to break the stealth genre, they did prove it was possible to widen its experience to include mechanics that didn't involve having to stick to the shadows completely. Stealth game developers took note and made an attempt to cater for tastes beyond their core audiences. This may explain why Sam Fisher returned as preternaturally agile thug with a penchant for making multiple headshots in Splinter Cell: Conviction, and Raiden isn't even going to bother being stealthy at all in MGS: Revengeance.
The action bug seems to have bitten the Hitman franchise too. For at least half of its London demo, the forthcoming Hitman: Absolution looked nothing like its stoic open-ended predecessor, Blood Money. In fact, it looked almost nothing like a Hitman game at all, its bald, bar-coded protagonist notwithstanding. As we watched Agent 47 move from room to room in a darkly lit orphanage in search of his female quarry, we saw him dispatch one collection of thugs after another.
Three, who were torturing a security guard, were bludgeoned to death with a fire-axe. Around ten or so were put down with a volley of gunfire as they tried to flank a table he'd taken cover behind. The level ended as Agent 47 used a mark and kill mechanic to take out a roomful of opponents; after targeting a series of noggins and explosive devices, the screen filled with cinematic slow motion swirl as thugs collapsed to the ground and detonated gas canisters belched fire into the air. John Woo would've been proud.
At this stage, if you're part of the shooter faithful, Hitman: Absolution probably looked as though it'll tick all of your boxes and them some. If you're a long-time fan of the Hitman series, however, you may be about to close this browser window in disgust. For those players, we beg your indulgence. Hold on, for just a moment. Things aren't as bad as you think.
The action-packed playthrough was only half of the demo - the second half, as it happens. During the first half, IO Interactive demonstrated a playing style they dubbed the 'Pro Play' method of tackling Absolution. Here, the classic Hitman gameplay was in full effect; all of the tactics and abilities that series veterans would expect from Agent 47 were used to complete the same series of rooms. We watched as the titular protagonist glided through his spooky surroundings, silently taking down the odd thug, swapping clothes and stashing the odd unconscious body in a nearby cupboard or chest freezer.
Players, it seems, have something of a choice in the way they decide to play Hitman: Absolution. But whether they opt for the stealthy or the more direct approach, both styles of play are augmented by a new game mechanic that IO have called 'Instinct'. In order to deploy 'Instinct' abilities, players need to engage in at least some stealthy behaviour; silent takedowns (both lethal and non-lethal), switching outfits, hiding bodies and avoiding detection all serve to fill an Instinct meter located on the right side of the HUD.
Once filled, players can use their Instinct points on range of abilities. They can see the paths of patrolling guards, which are indicated by a trail of fire. They can see through walls and note the number of antagonists in their environment. They can fool enemies into believing that they're comrades (once they've swapped clothes with someone) by making gestures. All of these mechanics prove invaluable when approaching the game in a stealthy manner - although purists don't have to bother with Instinct at all, if they so choose.
For those players who have no patience for sneaking about, Instinct can also be used in combative situations. Instinct is needed to power the aforementioned mark-and-kill mechanic (prosaically dubbed "Point/Shoot" by IO). Point/Shoot seems to work the same way as the 'Dead-Eye' gunplay mechanic did in Rockstar's fantastic Wild West adventure, Red Dead Redemption. Once the player activates it, they have a brief window of time in which they can tag opponents or items in their environment. With that done, Agent 47 then opens fire and the results look like something out of a Wachowski Brothers film; fire erupts, bullets smack into flesh, bodies somersault in the air and the soundtrack is filled with gunshots and explosions.
So Agent 47 has some rather sparkly new abilities and players are able to use him as a silent, creeping death-dealer or gun-toting action hero. IO's other reveal at the demo dealt mainly with the plot that drives Absolution, which essentially makes their new game sound even more like it's a break with the franchise's past.
The story begins with Agent 47 being dispatched by the International Contract Agency to kill his former handler, Diana Burnwood. It seems Burnwood has had an attack of conscience and gone rogue, and the ICA now considers her a bona fide threat. Burnwood implores him to protect a woman named Victoria, who resides at a rundown orphanage in Chicago. He obliges, although, once he arrives in the Windy City, it becomes apparent that Burnwood wasn't the only person with an interest in his quarry. When 47 gets to the orphanage, he finds it's in the process of being turned over by a group of thugs, who have already massacred the nuns who oversaw the place, and who are torturing any survivors for information about Victoria.
Aside from showcasing the numerous ways in which Agent 47 could tackle this scenario, the demo also served to show off the game's gorgeous presentation. Hitman has never looked better; the environments were atmospheric and fastidiously detailed and Agent 47's movements looked utterly realistic.
IO Interactive are casting their net wide with Hitman: Absolution, but to the developer's credit they aren't trying to attract new audience members by junking what made their game a hit to begin with. Agent 47 hasn't been repackaged, he's been evolved, and while we can't say for sure whether this makes Absolution a superior game to its predecessor, we're looking forward to finding out.
"No one dares to take a step completely purely towards stealth anymore. It's something we've talked about internally. We come from the stealth genre; we've created stealth games, played them and we love them. But it seems, that in general, stealth is having to widen up its gameplay to cater for different play styles."
Hitman: Absolution game director Tor Blystad smiles ruefully.