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E3 2011 Preview: Hitman Absolution

By Jeff Buckland, 6/17/2011

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Agent 47 is back, and we've seen him in action! At the Square Enix booth at E3, the developers at IO Interactive have returned to their more successful roots to show the press Hitman: Absolution, the fifth game in the series. With a new game engine built from the ground up for a stealth action game and a completely re-drawn, re-modeled, re-designed everything, this is going to be the biggest technology jump that 47 has made since the move to HD consoles in Blood Money.

We start in Chicago, and 47 has a bit of a problem on his hands. He's been betrayed by the people who gave him his life and his skills to assassinate people, and now he's on the run. After ducking into an old abandoned library, Chicago PD has followed him here, and he'll have to subvert and thwart their overwhelming numbers in order to get out cleanly. Casual Hitman players probably went through previous games with guns blazing, but true silent assassins finish their missions without leaving a trace, making their targets' deaths look like accidents. IO Interactive showed us a bit of both, first focusing on the truly stealthy way: by using the new instinct skill to see targets through walls and predict where they'll move, stop, and look. (This system may seem a bit like cheating, but it's a good time-saver that gives you information you were going to use trial and error to find out anyway. If they fill in that time I would have spent on watching movements with, say, more actual game, I see it as a win-win!)

After carefully dodging the boys in blue to sabotage the fusebox and make sure the lights in the old library aren't coming back on anytime soon, 47 works his way around to the exit and finds himself exposed and detected by the cops, leading to a chase along rooftops with a police helicopter firing at him (while some pretty loud heavy metal music laid down the hectic soundtrack). 47 finds refuge in an apartment building, and quietly takes out a cop so he can steal his uniform.

Yep, stealing uniforms and clothing to disguise yourself is back in Absolution, and they will be even more critical to how you take on targets than before, as you can now disguise yourself even as the targets you're about to hit. Anyway, 47 has disguised himself as a cop and now has to work his way downstairs and out of the apartment building, which is absolutely swarming with cops. A few of the officers give him sidelong glances and mistake him for some guy who recently left the force, and when he makes it near the door, 47 responds to one of them saying, "I never left". He strides out into a massive crowd of people, safe for now in the throng, sliding between people the way Altair and Ezio do in Assassin's Creed.

This action-packed, tense demo for Hitman: Absolution didn't really show us some of the technical stuff beyond the new renderer and visuals, but the developers explained how characters react to you in more natural, "analog"-seeming ways. Your actions don't just flip a switch in the AI's minds between alerted and hostile; your actions will bring about a wider range of scaling reactions that seem more appropriate, and the security and law enforcement you're trying to slip past won't draw their weapons until you meet several criteria in their minds. The idea behind all this is to more naturally simulate the notion that not everyone a guard comes across is a white-and-black version of "authorized person" versus "intruder that must be shot". Many stealth-based games since the last Hitman game, Blood Money, have built rudimentary versions of this idea into their design, mostly through heavy-handed level scripting, but it'll be exciting to see how far IO can take it as a dynamic system.

The level that IO Interactive chose to show probably doesn't represent what the rest of the game's structure is like; after all, being a wanted criminal and mounting a daring escape from the Chicago PD are not things that Agent 47 usually has to deal with. Usually, it's a wide-open area where the player has freedom to explore, figure out the best ways of infiltrating some location, whether it's partially or completely secure, and then take out his targets in ways that avoid suspicion. This demo showed none of that, but in my opinion, it's still a fitting re-introduction to a series that had its last entry over five years ago. Keeping in mind the notion that after releasing the two unpopular Kane & Lynch games, IO Interactive might want to go back to mostly familiar territory for this. I think it's safe to expect that Hitman: Absolution will deliver the more free-roaming stealth gameplay we all hoped for. They've just gotta show it to us, presumably at next year's E3.

Hitman: Absolution is set for release on PC, PS3, and 360 in 2012.



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