Io Interactive came to E3 2012 on a mission: to demonstrate that Hitman Absolution will be infinitely more than a straightforward action game. Up until now, the marketing campaign and developer walkthroughs focused on visceral combat and action that admittedly made for some sensational trailers, but left series fans confused about whether the anticipated title would live up to their expectations in terms of stealth, tactics and creative sandbox fun. The 'Saints' E3 trailer compounded the problem further, adding sexy killer nuns into the already convoluted equation.
Fear not, Hitman fans. Under the slightly disingenuous advertising lies a true Hitman game, one that hinges on player choice while rewarding us for using stealth, opportunism and creativity in orchestrating the perfect silent kill. Having experienced a developer walkthrough and copious amounts of hands-on contact time, I'm in the position to inform you that imagination - not assault rifle and shotguns - is going to be the most powerful weapon in your arsenal of assassination.
The hands-on build threw us into a bustling town square, wherein we were tasked with assassinating the self-styled 'King' of Chinatown (in reality, a well-connected lowlife). After sauntering through the dense crowds, some stopping to enjoy street entertainment or sample cooking from streetside vendors, I tracked my target down using the new Instinct Mode. Much like Assassin's Creed's Eagle Vision, this vision mode allows Agent 47 to pick out threats and targets against a dark blue background, even seeing through walls in order to better understand the lay of the land.
Finding the 'King' in a gazebo at the centre of the Chinatown market square, I decided to get into the spirit of the advertising campaign by adopting a full-on gonzo approach. Queuing up a devastating opening salvo is child's play thanks to the new Point Shooting system, which lets 47 queue up and simultaneously execute multiple unaware targets much like Splinter Cell Conviction. My trusted AMT Hardballers made short work of the 'King' and his henchmen, but the police and hired thugs quickly descended on my position, harrying me out of cover and forcing me to flee the area with my tail between my legs (and no shred of decorum left intact). Enemies will quickly kill 47 in open ground, making pitched combat a last resort that's best avoided as strenuously as possible.
My indelicate approach also highlighted another interesting feature that will come as a soothing balm to hardcore Hitman fans. Absolution continually rewards you for killing targets with a persistent high score, which is multiplied when using stealth or finding creative ways to mask hits as accidents. On the flip-side, however, points are liberally deducted for killing civilians, subduing or killing non-essential enemies and even being seen, thus giving players a powerful extra incentive to stay hidden and keep their Ballers firmly out of sight. Dynamic leaderboards will keep us striving for stealthier and more exciting kills with each playthrough, with the aim being to kill or subdue no-one save your single target.
For my next attempt, I opted to do my homework. Following the 'King' through the bustling streets, I noted that he stopped for lunch at a streetside vendor (and remembered it for later), and then stalked him into an alleyway while he urinated in a street corner. The empty alley would have potentially given me a window to garotte him unawares or brutalise him with a scenery item such as a discarded pipe, carving knife or brick, but the context-sensitive hint system suggested that a tragic accident might be a more appropriate way of dealing with the freely-pissing criminal. Noticing that he was standing under a collection of boxes suspended by a rickety winch, I took cover at the side of the alley and shot the pulley with the silenced Hardballer. The King was crushed under the falling debris, allowing me to merrily saunter out of Chinatown as the cops rushed to investigate the tragic 'accident.'
Making assassinations look like accidents will be a key part of the gameplay, with the developer walkthrough highlighting a section where a target was stunned, dragged to a petrol pump and summarily incinerated via a timed C4 explosion, which masked 47's nefarious intent while also luring guards away from previously-impenetrable areas to investigate. A little imagination can go a long way, and the enormous crowds explode into panic and chaos to further hide your exfiltration.
Another attempt, another solution. Remembering that the 'King' had a penchant for street food, I sneaked past some chefs (distracting them by picking up a knife and throwing it across the room, which they summarily investigated) and secured a poisonous un-filleted Fugu fish. Sneaking it into the meal was a simple task, hence killing my target several minutes later when he stopped to eat, and disguising 47 as a chef gave me the perfect cover to stroll away undetected. NPCs can be distracted with thrown objects, silenced bullet impacts, radios, car alarms and numerous level-specific features; there are plenty of ways to evade and sidestep engagements rather than murdering everyone who stands in our way.
The disguise system has been significantly re-worked from earlier games, which previously allowed Agent 47 to fool similarly-clad NPCs by wearing a corresponding costume. IO Interactive realised that this doesn't actually make any sense, after all, a cop would notice a hulking, bald unknown quantity wearing their friend's uniform whereas other civilians would only see the cap and badge, not the person wearing them. To this end, Absolution tasks players with finding appropriate disguises for the area you want to access, while ensuring that you don't get too close to members of the same faction who can see through your costume. For example, dressing as a mechanic in a backwoods garage let 47 stroll past police officers and gang members without attracting suspicion, but required him to sneak past other technicians to avoid being thoroughly rumbled - and eventually crushed his unsuspecting target under a car jack. When confronted by a similar faction member, 47 can use certain environmental objects to 'hide in plain sight,' such as the doughnut stand in the Run For Your Life trailer.
Further attempts provided yet more potential strategies. A shadowy arms dealer parted with a sniper rifle for a favour, a perfect way deliver some long-range destruction after climbing into a second floor window. Disguising myself as a drug dealer let me lure the 'King' into an alley on the promise of a shady transaction, with the result being a swift takedown or even poisoning his stash with the aforementioned Fugu fish. I could have attached C4 to his car and blown him sky high (incurring stiff penalties for collateral damage, mind). There's no limit to the number of clever ways players can dispatch their targets, and with some levels featuring multiple objectives (the walkthrough level featured no less than five assassination targets in the same map), Absolution should provide a compulsive replay factor that may even put previous games in the series to shame.
So, dear reader, you can rest easy. Hitman Absolution definitely will allow you to shoot, crowbar and garotte your way through your targets, but only ever as a last resort or a cathartic end to a tough day. Being a perfect Silent Assassin is the order of the day, and by providing proper murder sandboxes packed with exciting new ways to commit and cover up your hits, IO Interactive's latest title is set to be the worthy successor we've all been waiting for these past seven years. We'll find out for sure come November.