Along with their potent list of new properties, Square Enix was more than willing to flex their deep library of established franchises, as illustrated by their latest foray into the Hitman saga, Hitman: Absolution. For this title, we were again treated to a demo featuring actual gameplay, this time conducted by their PR lead and Art Director.
The Demo began with an introductory video, recapping some of the key characters and elements of the series. It focused on the ICA file of Diana, the handler of the game’s protagonist, 47. If you don’t know who Diana, the ICA, or 47 are… probably you should play some of the earlier games first. I’ll spare you the details for spoiler reasons, but we’ll just say that the events of the intro lead to 47 venturing into the gameplay demo with the task of reactivating the elevator in an orphanage in order to find a girl before the group of criminals raiding the place do.
To fully explore the game’s features, and the new tools available to 47, they played through this same level twice. The first was dedicated to a “professional” approach. (Not to be confused with the silent assassin rating, which still exists in the game as it did in previous entries, and maintains the same strict requirements.) After watching some cut scenes and enjoying excellent voice work and gruesome visuals (including gangsters killing nuns, just in case you were worried the series was losing its edge), we take control of 47. Since we’re trying to be professional here, the goal is minimum detection and confrontation. Thus, when confronted with a room with three thugs, 47 opted to pick up a toy robot and toss it as a distraction, then pick off the thug who stayed behind. The two options are “snap neck” and “pacify”, which differ mainly in how brutal you feel like being. Once he sent the thug to dreamland, 47 had to hide him, which was done in a nearby closet. The sound of an approaching patrol, though, sent him climbing into the closet as well, the knocked out baddie right there next to him. This was also a great opportunity to showcase 47’s “instincts.” These are typically clever visual representations of the sort of info that might be available to someone who has been downright programmed with the senses, training, and focus of the perfect assassin. You can hold still and listen, eventually revealing the positions of enemies. This makes its presence felt in gameplay as the ability to see through walls – or closet doors as the case may be. You can also visualize projected patrol paths, which show up as burning lines on the ground. It is remarkable what a thing like that can add to the gameplay. Suddenly taking cover isn’t just about finding an out of the way place, but finding the sequence of hiding spots that keeps you ahead of or gets you behind an approaching threat.
Speaking of those approaching threats, by the way, the NPCs aren’t just robotically wandering around waiting for a bald guy with a bar code to creatively dispatch them. They honestly feel like people. There are personalities, from the high strung task master to the guy who clearly engaged in an unrecommended quantity of recreational pharmaceuticals right before the mission. As they patrol their paths, they don’t just wander over to a certain point, stand there for a predetermined time, and then wander away. They actually do things. Maybe one of them picks the pocket of a dead nun. Maybe another one takes a leak in the corner. (Hey, I said they were bad guys.) They even have anecdotes to fill the time during lulls. Impressive depth.
The depth continues as you venture into the faithful elements of 47s arsenal, like disguises. Enemies spotting you will attempt to engage you, often remarking about how quiet you are. If you want to remain undetected, you need to wait out such interactions before doing something even remotely suspicious. Likewise, “hiding” while in disguise isn’t just ducking behind cover, it could be something as subtle as reading a poster or checking out some pamphlets. I love the concept of essentially having a “look busy” button.
After enough pacified thugs were stuffed in freezers or dumped into ball pits, the mission was complete and the time had come to see the more… direct approach.
Remember back when I mentioned grabbing a toy robot as a distraction? You know what’s more distracting than that? A fire ax. Grabbing it off the ground and engaging in a little chop-chop-toss sure was faster than sneaking around. By the way, just in case you needed to be told this, the animation of executing a man with an ax to a face was suitably savage. The savagery can be inflicted with a staggering variety of environmental items, from the standard (exploding gas can) to the blasphemous (crucifix).
The aforementioned NPC depth changes appropriately if you’ve been tearing up their comrades. Tales of last night’s bedroom conquest are replaced with nervous stories about the last time a given mook had seen something this gruesome. The tension among the bad guys ratchets up with the violence that has been afoot, and their heightened state of alert makes further confrontations more likely. Which is just fine, because 47 is more than capable of dealing with crowds, now that he’s got spot aiming and dual pistols.
Spot aiming is akin to dead-eye mode in Red Dead Redemption. You que up a series of shots while a room is in super slow-mo, then watch them cinematically unfold. One of the most entertain parts is that the queued up shots clearly indicate when you’ve done enough damage. Pump one in each knee, then queue up a few in the crotch until the skull and crossbones appears.
Hitman: Absolution seems to be exactly what a new installment in a classic series ought to be. An evolutionary improvement across the board while still maintaining the elements that made the series a classic to behind with.