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.