As soon as the Square Enix PR person handed me the VIP sticker that gave me access to the host of Square Enix games available at its booth, I become giddy. I knew exactly where I would be going. Quantum Conundrum? No thanks, I’d already seen it all at PAX East. Maybe Tomb Raider, so popular that the game has a separate room for press to play? Nope, Jonathon can have a go at the new, improved and underage Lara Croft.
I have a date with one of the best dressed men in the industry… Mr. 47.
Previous Hitman previews had me sweating bullets. At E3 2011, Eidos and Square Enix gave us our first glimpse of 47’s return. At PAX East 2012, we saw 47 shooting up a nunnery to rescue a girl and fulfill former handler Diana Burnwood’s last request. Yet these levels all seemed so calculated… so linear (a dirty word when you’re talking about Hitman) that I was afraid the giant expansive maps and branching ways to finish off a mission had been shirked for a more old-school “Splinter Cell” approach.
As I began the demo, a quick CG sequence underscored with the same version of “Ave Maria” that ended Blood Money blared through the headsets hugging my ears. The sequence showed me 47’s target, the ‘in’ to the target and the level’s unfriendlies (security guards and cops) were. Little backstory or motive for the kill was provided. I suppose that either Eidos didn’t want to reveal too much of the story, or that it was a little out of the context of other previews show. I’m not surprised. As a hitman, as long as there is reward at the end of an “unfortunate accident,” I shouldn’t care about motive.
I begin the level in a manner that’s common to the Hitman series: in a sketchy alley behind the dump. As I guide 47 down the alleyway past the large metal trashcans, I see a pair of large red and gold brass doors guarded by two Chinese guardian lions. At this point, I think it’s safe to assume that I’m either in Chinatown or a tourist attraction spot in a popular part of China.
Usually, the first thing I do when I come to a new level in a Hitman game is to check the map and use it to track down the target’s location and find the ‘in’ to the target. Usually, the mission briefings detail some sort of security weakness or an individual close to the target that gets me an ‘in’ to bringing down the victim. It’s usually a good way to assassinate the target, or a jumping off point to figure out how to get to him/her. Good… but not the best. There’s always an optimum strategy to achieve the silent assassin rating.
However, since 47 has gone rogue, he no longer has any ties to the Agency. He’s lost the Agency as a resource. Gone are the blueprints and satellite feeds showing the entire map layout of the game and the locations of all your enemies (unless you’re hardcore and playing on Expert). 47 now has to rely on his “Instinct” to get through his missions. Toggling “Instinct” is, and I’ve made this analogy many times before, like toggling on “Detective Mode” in Arkham Asylum. You’re essentially turning on a different “vision” that highlights your targets in red and your enemies in orange so you can easily spot them in a crowd.
I knew that without the map, I’d have to change up my play style of this demo. In the case of some levels in Hitman: Contracts and Hitman: Blood Money, you’d be able to get away with vanilla runs of certain missions without screwing up too royally. If I wanted to achieve anything close to a silent assassin rating, I was going to have to go through multiple runs of the level.
As 47 approaches the two lions and the brass doors, I hear the sound of a crowd fading into my headphones. 47 pushes open the brass doors and a shock of new visual-audio cues hit me. The sound of the crowd, which was only a murmur moments before, turns into a roar. Ahead of me, flames jump up from a wok fire pit. I can almost smell it cooking.
As he steps into the crowd, sidling left and right to push through, I’m prompted to initiate “Instinct” to track down my target. It doesn’t take a lot of crowd searching—the bastard’s smack dab in the middle of the map at the biggest landmark in the area—the pagoda.
Since I don’t have a map, I don’t have much of a choice but to explore the area and maybe find a few hints on how to take down the target. As I explore the map, a few things are immediately obvious to me–the disguises I can take on are security guard, innocent passerby or one of the food service employees working at each of the stands. There are a few alleyways here and there with garbage cans that can be interacted with to hide bodies. The only problem is figuring out how exactly to get close enough to take him down, since he’s standing in the middle of a pagoda with hundreds of witnesses.
On the UI side, Absolution is as minimalist as the past Hitman games have been. There’s a menu to switch to different weapons, a health bar, a mini map and a detection bar. In the past, the detection bar’s been much less refined than it is now. Everyone’s either alerted to you or not. Blood Money took steps to resolve this issue by having different levels of “suspicion,” which really broke down to: 1. The people in your vicinity are suspicious of you 2. The people in your vicinity are shooting at you, but no one else is aware 3. Everyone hates you and wants your guts… RUN. Your detection status in Absolution is much less static, as only one person can be suspicious of you, which slightly chips away at your detection meter.
I decide that taking down a food service employee might not be the best option. A few of them are temptingly close to some sort of boxed container that doubles as a body dump, but there are too many onlookers to attempt to knock one out without looking suspicious.
After making a few more rounds in the square, I finally spot my ‘in’–an alleyway with a lone security guard lazily sitting in a chair. He’s guarding a set of stairs that lead up to something out of my line of sight. Unfortunately for him, I’m a very curious individual with an unhealthy obsession for dressing up like security guards. I peer down the alleyway, wondering how I’m going to get the security guard to turn his back away from me. Coincidentally, there just so happens to be an electrical box right at the mouth of the alley. And lucky for me, I also happen to be an individual with an unhealthy obsession for ripping out fuses without knowing that they do. I’m not a good person.
At the press of a button, 47 opens up the box and lets it rip, sending sparks everywhere for a brief second. He crouches and flattens himself against the wall. I also can’t help but notice that the “free” cover mechanic of the past has been replaced by something similar to Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s, where 47 becomes Spiderman and sticks to walls.