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.