We were really impressed with what we saw of Hitman: Absolution at last year’s E3 demonstration, so we were eager to see more of Agent 47’s newest adventures.
At PAX East over the weekend. Global PR Manager of Square Enix, Sven Liebold, demonstrated the stealthy vs. direct play styles during the Orphanage level of Hitman: Absolution using the latest PS3 build while Art Director, Roberto Machesi, offered commentary on the action.
MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD
Starting things off, we were shown the following cutscene that discussed the contents of an International Contract Agency (ICA) file on Diana Burnwood, Agent 47’s handler. Because of her apparent snooping, ICA issues a kill order on Burnwood and assigns Agent 47 to do the deed. As a result, the first portion of the game requires the player to assassinate his handler, taking Agent 47 off of the leash for the very first time.
While we did not see how this assassination takes place, Machesi stated that Burnwood makes a last request of Agent 47, asking him to investigate a young girl named Victoria. She is the target of various factions, including a ruthless gang leader named Wade, for reasons that were not disclosed during the demonstration. Agent 47 attempts to locate Victoria at an orphanage but Wade’s men beat him to the punch, killing the innocent bystanders at the facility.
Fans of the Hitman series know to expect a lot of gruesome situations and dark humor, and based upon the Orphanage level alone, Absolution appears to deliver on this front. However, gamers who are offended easily by seeing excessive violence or the sight of nuns being shot in a cruel and sadistic fashion will probably want to stay clear of Hitman: Absolution.
Agent 47 starts this particular mission disguised as a priest while hiding in an elevator shaft. On the first playthrough, Liebold showed how Agent 47 can navigate a sea of enemies without detection. Using the new instinct ability, Agent 47 is able to see enemies through walls and can also see the future timeline of enemy movements, which is illustrated along the floor via a flame trail. By negotiating these movement patterns, players can stay one step ahead and can complete a level without ever being detected.
Environmental objects can also be used to cause distractions, potentially clearing a pathway for Agent 47. Liebold illustrated this by tossing a toy robot into a nearby room, causing an enemy blocking a doorway to leave his post to investigate. Such objects can also be used to lethal effect. When killing or incapacitating guards, Agent 47 needs to hide the bodies in order to avoid raising suspicion. This isn’t as simple as dragging a body around a corner. Instead, the player will be able to dump bodies in a variety of places (i.e. cabinet, ice box, laundry drop, and even a kiddy ball pit), giving the game a more realistic feel with more varied gameplay.
Since some gamers are not enamored with stealth gameplay, IO Interactive has also made it possible to pursue an ultraviolent solution. Agent 47 has become a more straightforward killing machine and can use either his guns or environmental items, such as an axe or a metal crucifix, to make short work of his foes. Agent 47 can also use a “tag and kill” ability to devastating effect. Using his Instinct ability, the player can shoot specific body parts including an individual’s, um, sensitive parts or explosive items. Once tagged, a slowed-down cinematic sequence shows the kills up close and personal.
One change in Absolution from its predecessors is that enemies are no longer linked via a hive mind, so that it is now possible to contain a situation where one enemy becomes alerted to Agent 47’s presence. Take out this one opponent and other guards will remain ignorant of the player. This change was made specifically to make the straight ahead approach more viable.
IO Interactive clearly wants to create a movie-like experience as the presentation of the action is heavily stylized. As Agent 47 takes down his opponents, the footage slows down and speeds back to normal as if it was directed by Zack Snyder. Similar to the demo showed at E3, the soundtrack and sound effects dynamically changed in relation to what was displayed onscreen. As an enemy was close to discovering Agent 47, we could hear his heartbeat becoming more rapid while the background music swelled dramatically. For many, Absolution will be an extremely tense affair.
Interestingly, NPC foes often carry on conversations about the current situation and never repeated their conversational banter. Whether this is just the product of an efficient playthough by Liebold was unclear. The enemy dialogue also appeared to dynamically change depending on Agent 47’s actions.
While the level shown was extremely linear, Machesi and Liebold promise that future demonstrations will show off Hitman: Absolution’s open world mechanic. Crowds will be a very important ingredient as up to 1200 NPCs may be onscreen at one time. These individuals will not be empty vessels but real NPCs with whom the player can interact.
The one concern with the footage we witnessed was that it was almost too perfectly choreographed. We watched the two play styles on two separate occasions (once at a press showing and again at the panel presentation) and there was no variation, so it’s possible that the enemy AI is not as impressive as it looked. Machesi also admitted that Agent 47’s life meter was tweaked to take a lot of damage for the purpose of the demonstration. Consequently, the direct approach may not be as viable as demonstrated.
Notwithstanding, if Hitman: Absolution can deliver on the promise of what was shown, fans of the series and newcomers both will want to keep a close eye on this one.
Hitman: Absolution is scheduled for a 2012 release on the PS3, Xbox 360, and PC.