Agent of Change: Hitman Absolution Preview

Killer instinct. 

Here's the scene; an orphanage, on a dark and typically stormy night. Blood runs through the corridors, and fresh corpses pile up by the walls. In the nursery, under bright birthday bunting, there's a lullaby of screams as a guard strapped to a wooden chair is slowly tortured.

Meanwhile, a silent killer picks off his prey one-by-one. At one moment in this violent game of hide and seek, a brightly coloured beach ball rolls silently past - at another, with one more victim dispatched, the body's hidden in a nearby ball-pool. It's an orphanage, but with the body count tick-tick-ticking ever upwards it may as well be an orphan factory.

For all the concerns about Hitman: Absolution's grittier, more action-led take on Danish developer IO Interactive's bloodthirsty mascot, it's most definitely retained its line in jet-black humour. "We tried to take it out of Absolution in the beginning," says game director Tore Blystad, a man that, despite being in charge of one of the medium's most notorious killers, can't hold back the widest and most infectious of grins, "we wanted it to be more serious, so this humour had to go. But then it crept back in, so we had to embrace it. It's one of the fundamental pillars of the game."

That it is, and the grim slapstick that has lent previous Hitman games such morbid charm is present and correct. Indeed it's writ large throughout the orphanage level that hosts the first serious look at Hitman Absolution since last June's E3 - a reveal that was met with a somewhat muted reaction, with Agent 47 returning after a five year hiatus to a cold shoulder from much of the series' faithful.

Absolution sees Agent 47 tasked with executing Diana Burnwood, his previous mentor.

"It kind of took us by surprise how positive it was," says Tore of the initial response to Absolution, although he's not completely oblivious to some of the less positive feedback. "There was a lot of concern as well, but that was to be expected. We knew what we were showing, and we knew what we weren't showing - and because of the stuff we didn't show, it raised a lot of concerns for people. So this is very much a natural step."

And that brings us here, to a rundown orphanage stalked by an Agent 47 that - for reasons that aren't entirely clear - is dressed up as a vicar. The level on show is run through twice, once with stealth and a second time with brute force (a dichotomy that was further explored later at the event, where attendees were able to queue to see either a dominatrix or a masseur - a choice I decided to opt out of myself), both of them highlighting the options available to the player in Hitman: Absolution.

It's the first that will be of most interest to Agents of old, but while there's more stealth on show it's still some way removed from the elaborate clockwork killings of the four previous Hitman games. Agent 47 crawls from cover to cover, snapping necks as he works his way from one enemy-infested room to another. Fleet-footed and brutal, he's more lethal than before, and more like a bald-headed Bruce Wayne than the calculated contract killer of yore.

There's some light puzzling as each separate group is dispatched of, with nearby objects coming in to play. As in Zelda it's the tool that's been recently gifted that often proves the most useful, though in Hitman's case it's a long and thick syringe rather than a boomerang that's offered up; just the thing for driving into an isolated enemy's neck.

Elsewhere, and in another example of IO's flair for black comedy, a discarded toy modeled after a police officer can be picked up from a nursery floor and tossed to one side as its crackly cry of "come quietly or there'll be trouble" distracts the patrolling guards.

Underpinning the silent approach is Instinct, a new mechanic that's going to prove as useful as it will divisive. Strongly inspired by the Detective Mode of the two Arkham games, it reveals enemy locations as well as setting out blazing trails that reveal their paths. Instinct's fuelled by player actions - be that kills or successful sneaking - but without getting to tinker with it ourselves it's hard to judge how effective the economy behind it is. Regardless, it's a welcome guiding hand, and one that promises to open up the often obtuse world of videogame stealth.

"It's not about selling out, or trying to make a casual game or anything like that," explains Tore of Absolution's new mechanics, "It's about making a game that's catering for an audience that likes this type of game. The fantasy for the game is more widely popular than what the older games have given people. Other people would have played the older games and will have been pummeled within minutes."

IO's new engine, Glacier 2, works well with the dim light that Absolution basks in.

If such new toys upset fans of the older Hitman model, then the second, more action-oriented playthrough could well leave them aghast. Subtlety's thrown out the window, and in its place are shotguns, fireaxes and the blunt end of a crucifix, all used to conjure scenes of impressive chaos.

There's another mechanic borrowed from a stealth contemporary, with Splinter Cell: Conviction's Mark & Execute emerging here as the similarly minded Point Shooting, enabling whole rooms to be downed in a flurry of bullet-time. It's a definite departure in tone, but IO's spell experimenting with the more overtly aggressive Kane & Lynch series doesn't seem to have been wasted here, lending Hitman: Absolution's louder moments a certain finesse.

While that's hardly going to ease the fears of those who expressed dismay at the original reveal, there's still the promise of a more traditional Hitman that's yet to be revealed - one that's free of the corridors that confine even then quieter moments of what's been seen of Absolution thus far. "There's more stuff coming that will ease people's concerns," Blystad says when asked about the absence of the large, free-form play of older Hitman games, "It's easier for us to show off this kind of choice in corridors, because you can remember what you've seen before and now you can see it played out in a different playstyle. It's a more fine-grained message this time around. It's about 47 and his abilities, and your choices as a player."

It's frustrating, as ever, to be only given a glimpse of what those choices will be, and for the prolonged drip-feed of information to seemingly obscure the finer points of Hitman's return. When - and if - those choices all fall into place, IO Interactive could still have the last laugh.

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Martin Robinson

Martin Robinson

Deputy Editor

Martin is Eurogamer's features and reviews editor. He has a Gradius 2 arcade board and likes to play racing games with special boots and gloves on.


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