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Hitman Absolution preview: Brilliant ideas power smaller sandbox

Reduction in scale, but not ambition

When thick-armed CIA men (the postie) arrived at CVG Towers (the corner of an office) to deploy Absolution code (throw it in our faces), we sought answers to niggling questions raised by recent showings.

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Is Absolution all action? Does Instinct make it easy? Does it actually have nuns in it? Respectively, no, no and yes - but while some worries were put to bed, fresh ones replaced them.

The most obvious: where are the big levels? Perhaps they're hiding past the first third that formed our preview build. More likely: a hamstrung IO Interactive being forced by creaking console tech into shrinking environments and chopping them into chapters.

FRUIT AND FIBER WIRE

The sandboxes of previous entries have been replaced by smaller - though no less intricate levels - each lasting around 15 minutes and accessed through an extraction point that can only be used when the coast is clear to save bumbling hitmen simply running past everyone. Several segments form a larger chapter.

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While unfair to mark Absolution linear, levels are never as open as the best of Blood Money and the result is a bittier, more segmented experience. Think the Hitman you love transplanted onto Splinter Cell: Conviction's scrawnier frame.

This, as we already know, isn't IO's fault. Every corner of Absolution is packed with memory-hogging effects courtesy of Glacier 2, a next-gen-ready engine developed alongside the game (hence the half-decade wait) allowing, among other things, realtime level editing.

Gameplay director Christian Elverdam told us, "It used to take 10-15 minutes to move a piece of furniture. Now it takes one. There's a dramatic difference." Glacier 2 also serves a key aesthetic purpose. When asked if the current generation was holding Hitman back, Elverdam responded, "We're combing every last ounce of performance out of the cycle, and we'll be the first to get the best performance from the next cycle".

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Levels are smaller but they're saturated with props and people and effects, choreographed with hidden precision and laced with incidental detail easy to miss.

Bluster through and you'll bypass entire conversations - some comical, like a pompous chef slamming the unrefined palette of a bemused goon, and some colouring the world, like a young stripper confessing to a dressing room confidant what the manager made her do in the backroom.

Incidental detail is Hitman in a nutshell, doing more for realism than all the world's one-shot kills...

Animation is quietly more impressive. When Agent 47 sneaks into a hippy clan's high-rise weed farm, a frantic stoner stashes a pot under arm and flushes it in one seamless motion, a dedicated routine repeated nowhere else. This brings Absolution to life and does more for realism than all the world's stamina meters and one-shot kill shooters. Incidental detail is Hitman in a nutshell. Take the Chinese New Year level, where 500+ revelers pack a market square illuminated at intervals by streaming fireworks (crowds, by the way, aren't "hive minds" or "level dressing" like in Blood Money, but think and react independently. "They don't just have two states," says Elverdam. "If you throw a bottle near a man, he won't instantly start attacking."

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During the stage, three men have a price on their head and 47 must eliminate them all. Tail one to a basement meeting with a corrupt cop and you can give both a bullet without raising the alarm. Get there before them though and you can arm a mine, hide in a laundry trolley and detonate it when they arrive, possibly walking away with your back to the explosion like a badass.

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