The art of quietly skulking in the shadows, treading softly and waiting in the wings for a stealthy kill has become incredibly loud over the past few years. Since 2006's Hitman: Blood Money, Arkham Asylum lent the stalk 'em-up genre the gravitas of an icon as well as a handful of new ideas. Meanwhile, last year's Splinter Cell: Conviction turned Sam Fisher into a primitive, snarling action hero.
You'd probably expect Hitman: Absolution to have caught up with the times. And it has, to a point. After five years away, IO Interactive marks the return of Agent 47 by landing him in territory which comes perilously close to that previously explored by Ubisoft Montreal in Conviction. At first sight, Absolution is a game that's just as happy to put a pistol in its player's hands as some piano wire.
The game is set in a rain-lashed Chicago whose grim, oppressive look defines the tone of what's to follow. Agent 47 is introduced in an abandoned library. Flashes of lightning crash through tall, gothic windows, sporadically illuminating discarded volumes and bookshelves draped in tarpaulin. Bumbling cops wander around while up above, in the darkness, Agent 47 presses himself against the balustrade.
One by one the cops are picked off. The methods and the pace feel a step removed from the previous games; this is stealth that's quick to climax, fast and direct in its action. Moving from cover to cover has a rhythm as well as a muscular grace, while the way our hero shimmies across ledges and leaps across gaps suggests the clumsy marionette stylings of past Hitman games are no more.
Stay still and the influence of another stealth game begins to seep through in bright, phosphorous yellow. Agent 47 now has access to Instinct, a feature that IO Interactive insists is an offshoot of his genetically enhanced, near supernatural abilities. Enemies across the map are highlighted in glowing yellow, and in a manifestation of 47's foresight their paths are laid out as a flaming trail.
In an effort to sidestep the problems encountered by Batman: Arkham Asylum (in which players would rely wholly on the comparable Detective Mode), there will be limitations in place. How exactly these will be implemented remains a mystery. The trail will, traditionalists will be pleased to learn, be optional, with harder difficulties removing it all together.
There's more to appease the hardcore too. The improvisational element of the past returns with a visceral twist. Takedowns are savage and brutal, with Agent 47 taking whatever's to hand and transforming it into an instrument of death. A power cord gets wrapped violently around someone's throat, a marble bust comes thundering down on someone else's head and a baton is used to audibly snap a neck.
Environments are susceptible to player tinkering, and through all the bustle and noise of this new brand Hitman the old sensation of being given a murderous toy box returns. A fuse box can be sabotaged, used to coax one cop out while plummeting the others into darkness, raising the morbid question: who to kill first?
In the action that ensues, the most brilliant addition to this toy box emerges. Agent 47's targets are now much more than binary automatons; they're well-defined characters who respond to whatever obstacle you put in their way believably. Playing with the hunted before swallowing them whole looks to be that much more delightful than before.
Thanks to IO Interactive's Glacier 2 engine – one built bespoke for this new Hitman, and one which has had the demands of a stealth game hard-coded into it – there's a rich depth to the AI. Enemies will react smartly to their environments and work as a unit; if one hears a gunshot and another sees a dropped gun while a third sees you hot-tailing it into the distance, they'll pool their knowledge and hunt you down.
What really sets them apart, though, is their character. The cops of Hitman: Absolution are a lumbering, clumsy bunch, humanised by countless snippets of dialogue. They'll berate each other for their stupidity, or gently mock one another should one be touched by fear, and, most effectively, plead for mercy if Agent 47 gets them in his grasp.
One moment sees Agent 47 take a cop as a human shield, sparking off frenzied cries from the victim's colleagues as they call out to him by name. By making the prey so very human IO Interactive has made Agent 47 that much more of a monster, sharpening his dark, sinister edge.
It's a facet that's played on well as the game moves away from the dark, dank library and Absolution switches Agent 47 from the hunter to the hunted. Escaping his pursuers in a cinematic rooftop chase, he draws the attention of a helicopter before disappearing into a dark enclave.
A cop tentatively follows in pursuit, inevitably succumbing to a violent choke from the waiting Agent 47 who then dons the police uniform as a disguise before walking out into the glare of the police chopper's floodlights. He draws his collar close to avoid detection, a motion that's mapped to a button and one that will work in differing ways depending on the outfit.
A brilliant switch of pace kicks in and there's a glimpse of the kind of varied palette IO Interactive will be drawing from. Dressed head to toe in police garb, Agent 47 calmly strolls into a house which, through smoke-stained walls and psychedelic posters, soon reveals itself to be a pot den.
Inside the blitzed inhabitants gawk through the window, marvelling at the police presence while one of their number desperately tries to dispose of the stash. The police soon come crashing in and Agent 47 sees off a cop with the only blunt object to hand – a bong. It's a cold, dark humour, and it's of the very same brand that distinguished the earlier games.
It's these flashbacks which lend Absolution a spark, and which help steer it out of the wake of Splinter Cell Conviction and Batman: Arkham Asylum. As the demo ends a disguised Agent 47 works his way through a swarm of police, before exiting to a hundred-strong swarm milling around in the gloomy Chicago night.
Technically it's awe-inspiring, and it proves that IO Interactive has been successful in creating a living, breathing Chicago. Here's a city which, given space, could rival Agent 47 himself as one of the game's strongest characters.
But for all the marvel, there's a nagging concern that IO Interactive may have diluted identity of the Hitman games in pursuit of a bolder, more direct game. There are at least enough glimpses to suggest IO hasn't forgotten just what made the series so popular in the first place. In the end, Absolution's success will depend on whether that identity emerges fully from the shadows.