I felt a pang of disappointment shoot through me at the end of the Hitman: Absolution demo. I think we'd been spoiled by Deus Ex: HR's showing at Gamescom, you see; the one that demoed the same level three times just to show three completely different paths one could potentially take. It was therefore, having seen Agent 47 make a fair bit of noise in an old library, part of me absolutely needed to see it done again with a Silent Assassin rating just for piece of mind. Sadly the madcap timetable of frenzied appointments and booth bookings that is E3 did not allow for such luxuries and thus I felt a little disappointed leaving this particular preview session.
But only a little. IO Interactive have brought back everyone's favourite barcode-branded, bald angel of death, and he's pretty angry.
Mind you, you'd be fairly miffed if you were on the lam too, which is where we catch up with Codename 47. The police have tracked our Savile Row assassin to a closed library in the dead of night. The wind is howling around the building, torrential rain battering at the windows, and the boys in blue (and their flashlights) are everywhere.
There are differences from the start, the first of which are to do with Agent 47 himself. He no longer seems to handles like a cardboard cut-out, instead appearing sleek and lithe, sticking to cover much like the protagonist of a third person cover shooter might. (Warning bell number one!) It's absolutely flawless, and deathly quiet, and he glides like a phantom from hiding place to hiding place smoothly and fluidly. There's none of the lag that accompanied some of the previous games here; our man slinks like a cat.
The objective, obviously, is to guide Codename 47 past the guards and make an escape and we're warned that this will be no easy task - possibly a throwback to the difficulty levels of previous games. The AI has been significantly improved, we're told, and enemies will behave far less predictably than before. Indeed, it was good to see at least that this is a game where the player will often need to take their time to avoid raising the alarm. With baldylocks on the run, he starts without any of his deadly supplies, those trademark pistols and garrotting wire notably absent, as was the reassuring tinny burble of Diana in our earpiece.
Not that it matters, 47's a resourceful chap and it's not long before he's taken out a couple of guards with some strikingly brutal chokeholds - and a neck-snap I seem to recall - and nabbed himself a gun or two. A quick tug on the fuse box and the lights go down, our silent assassin picking up a length of wire in the process before going hunting for more throats to strangle. The takedown animations, triggered at the push of a button much like they are in Batman: Arkham Asylum, are swift, crunchy and satisfyingly powerful. Agent 47 has a bit of heft on him these days.
The more the demo goes on, the more it becomes apparent that 47's new adventure shares much in common with that of the Dark Knight. There's another 'alternative perspective mode' that once again echoes the Eagle Vision of Ezio or the Detective Mode of Bruce Wayne. This time, though, it's just called 'Instincts' and you can see the paths that guards will take, observe silhouettes through walls and so on - the usual plethora of features to help you get the jump on your adversaries. It was actually nice to see some stealthy shenanigans, options of moving and dragging bodies and disguise features hinting that it might well be possible to cannily waltz through the level without being seen. Our demonstrator decides not to do this, however, and starts shooting up the place before making a break for the fire escape.
Here we got to see a few of the options open to you if your cover is blown. Human shields, for example, are back - both victim and onlookers nervously pleading as you'd expect them too in such a situation. As you make it up closer to the rafters, you can take out a large group of fuzz with a hastily dispatched chandelier before quitting the premises.
Here we ran into something unseen before in a Hitman game: a mid level cinematic sequence involving a helicopter. Some, I am sure will be thrilled by such an encounter, and it did play very nicely into the sense of a city wide search being undertaken for just one man. But as the Inception-esque blares reverberated around the room (sadly no Jesper Kyd for this one) I lost the unmistakeable feeling I had before. It was impressive, no doubt, but it could have been in any other third person shooter. Shiny cinematic setpieces are ten a penny today. To me, what had come before had been far more thrilling - pitting human wits against stacks of AI and experimenting with the mini-sandbox given to the player. To me that is what makes a Hitman game. This was shiny and loud, well done and implemented, but it took me out of the game rather than sucking me further in.
Thankfully, it's over relatively quickly, and Agent 47 proceeds on to the next building where he promptly takes out a lone guard and steals his clothes. The flat next door is home to a little hippy commune and your disguise provokes some rather humorous havoc, which sees one stoner attempting flush an entire marijuana plant down the toilet. Another wasted individual grunts 'Yeah, police brutality!' somewhat approvingly when an actual officer enters the room and 47 smacks his lights out.
As before, 47's disguises haven't always held up at close range and then final part of the demo allowed us to see how Instinct might be used to help determine when someone's dangerously close to revealing your true identity. As the thin white line that represented the detection meter turned into a pronounced arrow, 47 was able to turn his face away or sidle over to a box of doughnuts and pretend to be snacking. The alarm a false one, he slips through the library's door and out onto the rainy Chicago streets, slipping into the channels of crowded pedestrians as the camera pulls away and those plagiarised blares set in again.
It looks absolutely stunning. The great thing about the five year wait and the use of the Glacier 2 engine meaning that 47 is able to take full advantage of all of the developmental discoveries made along the way of this console generation. Textures, lighting, character models, they all fantastic and Codename 47 moves about like never before, finally getting the silky smooth animation a man in his line of work deserves.
But the talk of 'accessibility' worried me before the expo, and it hasn't gone away really as a result of seeing this demo. Objectively, it's looking like it has all of the markings of a fine game indeed, and there is a lot of player choice in there. The developers told us that there were around fifteen different ways they'd found of making it through just that specific level. But there are still one or two things that worry me. Hitman was always a game that rewarded intelligent gameplay and multiple playthroughs, a game that set the player down in miniature sandboxes with all of the tools for the job - and a myriad of different opportunities and methods - contained within those spaces. I cannot say I saw that. What I saw seemed much more like a broad, scripted third person shooter rather than an open stealth title with emergent gameplay.
I could be wrong. I'm desperately hoping that I'm wrong, and I know for a fact that the majority of my peers sat in that demo walked out with unequivocal excitement written on their faces. Objectively it looks great and it's great to have Agent 47 back. Placed in context, though, it has me ever so slightly worried.