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Hitman Absolution Preview: Classic Hitman Returns

Get thee to a (sexy) nunnery?

For much of the build up to 47's return IO Interactive and Square Enix have blushed and hidden behind a marketing plan whenever awkward questions like "Is there actually any proper Hitman?" crop up. This has been a shame. Linear stealthing past roaming ultra-sweary gangsters in libraries and orphanages is fine and dandy, but it's not why we love Hitman. Neither, incidentally, are sequences in which 47 performs a series of full-frontal takedowns on a squad of bondage death-nuns.

Hitman is about taking the time out to watch who goes where, and who does what. It's working out how to get into buildings; who you steal clothes from, what you're carrying and where you've stashed your weaponry. It's about dressing as a clown and amusing yourself by pushing council workers into dump trucks. It's about best made plans going very wrong, and having to shove bodies into cupboards to cover your tracks at the very last minute.

Let's hold hands and offer a votive of thanks, then, that Square Enix has finally let us play something that's proper Hitman. This Chinatown execution isn't as playful or colourful as Hitman sandboxes gone by, but it still features a multitude of ways to off your target.

If you can keep your head when all about you, are losing theirs and blaming it on you: you'll be a Hitman my son…

The plot posits that Hitman has cut ties with the Agency in something of a bloody fashion. Exposed and in need of an ally, he's about to take down a corrupt politician who is currently campaigning from a husting in the middle of a busy Chinatown market. With him dead a character called Birdie (a villain so-called because he's permanently covered in bird shit) can expand his criminal empire, and 47 can gain vital trust and information. And so a-poisoning (or a-shooting or a-shoving or a-exploding) you will go.

The crowd technology first shown off in Blood Money is again vital. When you open the gates out onto Chinatown you're presented with street vendors hawking their wares, and a multitude of customers wandering hither and thither through the smoke of the outside kitchens. It's immediately absorbing, and for a while it's hard not to wander around listening to how much a grilled fish will cost, while at the same time perhaps noticing a chef defying health and safety regulations by turning her back on a poisonous-looking fish.

Central to the scene, meanwhile, is the self-appointed King of Chinatown - the mark you've been sent to rub out. Using 47's Instinct mode will render the pedestrians transparent - revealing the armed guards standing in the mix around the raised platform your target campaigns from, and faint trails that show their next movements should they be on patrol. A pulled gun or a wave of a purloined kitchen knife will cause chaos, resulting in alerted guards, scarpering punters and a vastly reduced level completion score. Just as well, then, that the naughty King of Chinatown has a bad habit for drugs.

The King of China Town often sneaks off for a light snack. Bring me the poison!

Roaming the level is a man who looks a bit like Bono wearing a flat-cap - he's your target's coke supplier, so it's in his garb that you'll get the best access to the man himself. This particular drug dealer has a habit of walking into the quieter spots on the map, so one quick and dirty garrote will let you play criminal dress-up. According to glorious Hitman logic, clothes maketh the man - so dressed as said flat-cap Bono you can beckon the King of Chinatown past armed guards and up to a shabby flat that overlooks the market. Alone, and with a convenient body-sized container, you can do what you will with him.

In terms of King-offing techniques, however, this is just one of many potential grisly demises. You can poison the cocaine in the flat with the scales of the dodgy fish - having distracted the guard below with a faulty fuse box. You can pick up a handy sniper rifle and point it out towards the husting. You can find the politician's sports car, slam the bonnet to set off its alarm, then trigger explosives as he runs to find out who's messing with his motor. Alternatively, you could push him down a man-hole when he's wandering over to find something to eat.

It's proper Hitman even if, as you might have noticed, the prelude to each kill is fairly one note. The systems and patterns you need to infiltrate in this mission aren't at all complex, while the presence of an easy-access sniper rifle in the dealer's flat (and it can now be carried on 47's person, rather than in a case) can make life a little too easy. This is, however, a mission designed for short-burst play on the E3 show floor - so perhaps we can cut IO a little slack in this regard.

Heston Blumenthal himself has been modelled as a Hitman Absolution policeman.

What is intriguing, however, is the way that your silence, your effectiveness and the 'challenges' you tick off as you take down your target all feed into a score that you can directly compare to your Hitman-playing friends and the assassin community at large. If you've played the (excellent) Sniper Challenge you receive once you pre-order the game, it's something you'll already recognise. The perceived shame you feel from your peers when you've chalked up the score of an extremely unprofessional killer certainly adds some extra enticement to nail a perfect playthrough.

Perhaps most important though, away from the slightly depressing bloodied nun videos, is that this genuinely does feel like Hitman. The tension you feel as you tip-toe behind someone with a cheesewire very much returns, as does the fear that someone will walk through the door at the exact moment you're doing something suspicious. All the right ingredients are here for a superb Hitman experience, but the worry remains that IO Interactive has strayed from the usual recipe. Most vitally, the usual tablespoon of playfulness seems to have been reduced to a pinch.

The Square Enix Absolution marketing campaign has done the Hitman fanbase a massive disservice. Nearly nude nuns with big guns might get social media stoked/riled up, but on top of that no-one has ever sat us down, tousled our hair and told us that everything's okay and that the real 47 would be back soon. The death of the King of Chinatown, however, shows that our favoured Hitman's job description is at least partially intact. It's still possible that 47 will hit the target, no matter how many idiot marketing executives are standing around him trying to put him off his aim...