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Hitman: Absolution preview – more choices and better results

Submitted by on Wednesday, 28 September 2011One Comment

The Hitman: Absolution demo at Eurogamer Expo has a smashing start, literally. It begins with Agent 47 — the bald, genetically modified assassin from all Hitman games — smashing headfirst through a window. The act is voluntary, of course; he is trying to find a quiet place to hide from the cops.

That quiet place is an old abandoned building that’s clearly been rotting for a while. Books are scattered everywhere and the floors are giving way. This, and the fact the building has several floors and mezzanines, means Agent 47 has plenty of places to hide. This is a good thing because the cops have now come flowing through the front door, all carrying torchlights and asking where he’s gone.

We eagerly wait to see how Hakan Abrak plans to tackle the situation. The IO Interactive producer, who is playing the demo on PS3, is keen to stress that “freedom of choice” is the absolute foundation of Hitman: Absolution. The studio has built its new Glacier 2 engine from the ground up to make this possible.

The textures look slightly murky, most likely down to the early stage of development, but the water and lighting effects are spot on. The areas are also rich with detail, so we’re confident the finished product will look great. Graphics are not necessarily Glacier 2’s main selling point though. That’s not an excuse, because it really does look great, but the engine has many other, more exciting, strengths.

The cover system appeared to be smooth and reliable

At the top of the list is its amazing AI. The studio wants to create a “rich breathing world”, according to Abrak, and the way to achieve this is to get the “AI up to another level”, and Glacier 2 makes this possible. We can instantly recognise complex AI patterns from the way the characters move and how they react to situations. They appear thoughtful as they scan the area and shine their torchlights.

IO also adds extra layers to their character by making them riff off each other. One shouts to another “check over there”, to which another replies “I got it”, in a confident tone. We watch as one rookie cop gets frustrated about the way another is treating him. The rookie heads over to air his grievances to another senior cop, creating space for Agent 47 to move into.

In this short space of time, we’re already picking up more interesting details about the enemies in this than we do from playing many games in their entirety. Remember, these are essentially disposable guys — they won’t live — but they’re clearly no less important for the studio than the game’s key characters.

While the conflict was occurring, we watched Agent 47 jump from the first floor towards a pillar. He grabbed its ledge and dangled like Nathan Drake before dropping down to the bottom floor, where the cops are gathered, searching for the assassin. There are too many to count, and it’s hard to see how he will make it out alive.

Abrak decides to take the stealth route. The two talking cops vacate to a room to discuss the tiff, and this leaves another cop exposed. There are other cops around, but none of them have a decent view of this end of the room.

Agent 47 takes full advantage of the opportunity. He drops into cover (press X) and hugs the desks and walls as he works his way slowly forward until he reaches a power box. He opens its door and pulls the chord, cutting the electricity. “Not again” shouts one of the cops. The two talking come out of the office to see what’s happening, but after some wise cracking, they decide that they stand no chance of fixing it.

In the meantime, Agent 47 is using this distraction to sneak up behind another cop, who he will strangle the life out of with his bare hands. Solid Snake would be proud.

There was a minor struggle, but our man is a pro; the cop didn’t stand a chance. He did it in complete silence without alerting anyone. That is, it was silent except for the music. Up until now, we had noticed that the music was moody and tense; the kind you hear in a thriller when a cop has entered a dangerous situation. You can tell that danger is afoot but it’s not quite there yet.

"If you have issues with my happy face, wait until you see my angry face."

The next thing we notice is that the music doesn’t stay silent. As Agent 47 sneaks up to the next cop, power chord in hand, the music gets louder and more dramatic. It continues get louder as Agent 47 wraps the chord around the officer’s neck; the cop struggles, but he soon goes limp, causing the music to return to the sparse sounds of before.

Agent 47’s next move is reminiscent of Batman’s detective vision, albeit less intense. In this mode, the cops are highlighted and more visible, but the world remains largely the same. We can see that the cops have flooded the main hallway making the situation much harder for Agent 47.

He moves round to the side where another cop is standing and smashes a plaster cast head over his, erm, head. The pace now starts to pick up, as the hitman runs over to the mezzanine. He jumps up to the ledge and shimmies around until he’s underneath another cop. He pulls this one off the balcony, giving him a painful landing.

We’ve only been watching for about five minutes but already we’re losing track of the different ways Agent 47 can kill in Absolution. It gets better; just as we think this, Agent 47 sneaks up behind another cop and uses his own truncheon to strangle him. He then grabs a gun from the body.

So far, we’ve seen Agent 47 take out half the police squad using only stealth. Any Metal Gear Solid fan will be familiar with this concept and the gameplay has been largely similar so far. It starts to take off in more interesting ways from here though.

Now that he has a gun, he can play more aggressively. The next thing he does is grab a cop and use him as a human shield. He’s out of cover and the other cops are alerted, but they won’t shoot while he has a hostage. Agent 47 drags him towards the exit and the other cops follow. They shout threats, but they think they’re in control.

The hitman clearly thinks otherwise. He calmly drags his shield to the door and stops briefly before snapping his neck. The cop drops dead and the cops scream before opening fire. All hell breaks loose, the music gets loud again, and the bullets rain down on Agent 47. Our man runs for cover and fires a few shots back.

He then heads upstairs to the top floor, where he stops and analyses the situation. We expect him to head out to the roof, but he instead turns round and fires a bullet at the chandelier, snapping its chain. We see it drop from the ceiling down on to the cops. That’s some more out of the way.

Up on the roof

It gets even crazier from here. He steps on to the roof where a helicopter is circling and sneaks into a room where he can hide from the searchlight. He doesn’t stay out of its ray for long before he gets spotted though. The cops on the chopper then proceed to send heavy machine-gun fire  in his direction.

It’s causing damage everywhere and the papers in the room are being lifted by the wind from the propellers. The music then kicks in with heavy rock guitar music. It’s the loudest so far and it’s absolutely blaring out of the Earls Court sound system. It’s intense.

This continues for another ten or twenty seconds until Agent 47 manages to get out of sight again. But, just as we think he’s safe, another cop steps up on to the roof and walks past our man. Agent 47 sneaks up behind him and fires a bullet through the back of his head, killing him instantly. It’s cold and brutal.

He then steals the dead cop’s outfit, which is an act most Hitman fans will recognise. He uses it to walk across the rooftop without alerting the cops in the helicopter. They shine a light on him and ask if he’s seen anything, but Agent 47 continues to walk coolly in the pouring rain. If he’s worried, he doesn’t let on.

It would be an understatement to say that we’ve been impressed by what we’ve seen so far; however, we can’t help but wondering if the new cinematic style is appropriate for a Hitman game. The series is known for its quirky humour, and so far we’ve seen little of this. Thankfully, this next section instantly eases our minds.

There is a room at the top of the building ahead. Glowing orange lights illuminate the place and psychedelic music can be heard as we get closer. Inside we spot a group of hippies panicking because they think the cops are after them. Their home, you see, is essentially a cannabis factory.

Startled hippy

As Agent 47 walks through the room, the pot-heads scramble. A cop then walks around the corner and spots the hitman. He says, “Do I know you?” Clearly he’s seen through his disguise, but Agent 47 doesn’t give him enough time to fully grasp the situation. He aggressively takes him out, causing a hippy to scream “police brutality”. The hippy then follows this statement by simply saying “awesome”.

Agent 47 then steps into a lift where he runs into a local resident. He stands comically silent as the local eulogises about the police and how they’re doing a thankless task for the good of the community. It has us smiling from ear to ear.

For most games this would be the ending, but then again, we could have had several endings by now. The guys at IO have more ambition than that. They have Agent 47 step out of the lift and into a lobby packed with heavily armed police officers.

The atmosphere is tense and you could cut it with a knife, and the music is starting to build momentum again, making us think something bad is about to happen.

Agent 47 looks over to the reception desk and sees two machine guns standing up against it. He calmly walks over towards them, and we’re start to prepare ourselves for all hell breaking loose again. Can Agent 47 really take out every cop? That’s just one of the questions we’re thinking. Surely not, we thing, and the music agrees with us. It starts to build up towards a crescendo as Agent 47 gets closer to the guns.

But he doesn’t pick them up. He instead reaches out for the box of donuts on the desk. The music calms and we think everything’s going to be all right. Just at this moment though, a cop shouts over to Agent 47 and says: “I know you. You are Forster. You left the force years ago”. Does this statement point towards Agent 47’s past? But more important, is this the end of the road for him?

Don’t worry — our baldy murderous maniac hasn’t reached the end of the road just yet. He calmly says, “I never left”, before walking past the officer, out into the street. He then walks through the crowd and into the rain as the demo comes to its conclusion. We couldn’t have asked for a better session.

"I think I'll grab these guns before heading down."

We spoke to Abrek afterwards to tell him as much. We asked about some of the other options available in that demo and if taking out the helicopter was an option. “That might be an option”, said Abrek guardedly. You could also take a “non-violent” and “stealthy approach”. Other options are available.

We also wondered how long the game is likely to be. We find it hard to imagine this game lasting long if every section contained this much detail. Abrek couldn’t give a figure, but he did tell us that this “is the most ambitious project” the studio has ever worked on. He says it with an assured confidence, happy with the knowledge that they’re on to a great thing here.

As for that fascinating music system, Abrek calls it the “organic music system”. That’s not its official title, but it’s certainly appropriate. As much as the variety in the gameplay impressed, the music was the thing that really got us excited. It created the tension that sustained us throughout the demo. It went to another level when the guitar music came blaring out the sound system as Agent 47 ducked from bullet fire from above.

The tone of the game also impressed. “We’re definitely going for a more cinematic feel,” says Abrek, and there’s no doubting that. However, this definitely hasn’t lost any of the things that made Hitman so likeable. The hilarious final sections and the comical seriousness of Agent 47 throughout reassured us that Hitman hasn’t gone all po-faced on us.

The game oozes ambitions and quality and we can’t wait to find out more.