Hitman: Absolution Preview
Remember, information is the weapon!
It’s hard to believe that it’s been six years since Hitman: Blood Money hit the scene. It was released in that heady time around the launch of the “seventh generation” of consoles, when it was still common to see games come out for the Xbox and PlayStation 2 alongside the Xbox 360. As such, Blood Money wasn’t technically a seventh generation game; it was designed with the PCs and consoles of 2005 and upscaled to run on the 360. That was my introduction to the series, and even though the game came across as dated by the time I got to it in 2009 I was impressed with the sheer amount of options for completing objectives in every level.
Hitman is a series that was known for taking a methodical approach and spending a lot of time getting to understand the levels and how the AI works, but early looks at Hitman: Absolution were worrisome to me. It seemed like IO Interactive was trying to make a standard third person shooter instead of an intelligent stealth puzzle game. Now that I’ve seen more of the game my worries have abated; Hitman: Absolution looks to be a worthy successor to the series.
The operative word within the IO development team has been “information.” This is a mantra that permeates the game in a couple of very interesting ways. Previous Hitman games struggled a bit with informing the player when he or she had ventured into a place that’s out of bounds. Even though Hitman is very much about trial and error, some of the more frustrating moments would involve getting a disguise and not realizing that it may grant access to one area but be a red flag in another. In Hitman: Absolution the player is informed when Agent 47 is trespassing, making it clear that being seen in that area may lead to an alert phase. The game also informs you when you’re visibly armed or near a dead body—handy information when things start to get crazy.
Information is also communicated realistically to the NPCs in each level. One of the more annoying things in most stealth games is the fact that once a guard has been alerted, the entire area goes into pursuit mode. Playing around with the AI in the first Metal Gear Solid revealed that guards pop into existence to pursue Snake. This isn’t the case in Absolution. Getting spotted by a single guard isn’t cause for panic or reloading a previous save; if you can manage to silence him before anyone hears him or he can call for help, you’re back in the clear. Conversely, making a big scene (like, oh, blowing up a gas station) will draw pretty much every NPC in the area to that spot. Of course, sometimes causing a big scene is exactly what Agent 47 needs to do, and it’s nice to see the AI respond realistically.
Lastly, information is conveyed through the new Instinct ability. Basically, Agent 47 sees the world through the eyes of a highly trained killer. Years of doing this job allows him to predict where a person is walking to, highlight his intended targets, and call to attention sneaky ways of eliminating said targets. It’s a mode that seems very “gamey;” Agent 47 doesn’t have super powers but this ability borders on the supernatural. With that being said, Instinct is finite and considering it can also be used for a Splinter Cell Conviction-style “mark and execute” shooting mode it’s up to the player to decide how best to use it. If it sounds like Instinct makes the game too easy, fear not—you can adjust the level of information given to you in the options. If you want to play the game like older Hitman games with no assists you are free to do so.
Online modes are all the rage in single player focused games, but IO has attempted something different with their online features. Instead of making a crazy free-for-all mode like what's found in Uncharted, the Hitman Contracts mode remains a single player experience with a slight twist. Players create special conditions in the existing levels and upload these contracts for others to compete on. Instead of a cumbersome level editor that could lead to challenges that are broken or impossible to complete, players create contracts by playing through the levels themselves.
As they make their way through the environment, players can mark any NPC as a target. When they eliminate the target the game makes note of how the target was killed and what disguise Agent 47 was wearing at the time. Once the player has marked and eliminated their targets (up to three) it’s a race to exit the level. The goal of players that download the created contract is to take out the targets within the same manner while beating the completion time that the creator had. Like the core game, these targets can be snuffed out in any way the player likes, but sticking to the plan will net the most money for 47’s offshore account, used for buying weapons and upgrades.
Any worries I had about the next installment of the Hitman series have been addressed. Absolution looks like it will be every bit the methodical and intelligent stealth action game I was hoping for, but with plenty more options when things go sideways. I’m looking forward to November 20 intently now, and when other people are enjoying their Wii Us I hope to be enjoying some sneaky murder.