It took the Hitman series a long time to get it right. 2006's Blood Money was an apex: by far the best game about silently murdering a man and then sliding away into the mist. In LA, I'm about to see if the follow-up - Hitman: Absolution - can do better.
The demo begins in a Chicago library. It is clearly a new, high-tech game. Agent 47 - more pumped than I remember him - is hiding behind a bookcase. It's a gorgeous slice of grotty dilapidation; dusty, old, ruined, but still beautiful. 47's been chased to the abandoned building by the local police. He's got to escape. Simple mission. Simple objectives. Hard problem.
But stealth has changed in the time since Hitman: Blood Money. Splinter Cell: Conviction showed that you didn't have to feel fragile if you kept to the shadows, Batman: Arkham Asylum showed that being fragile doesn't mean feeling vulnerable. And both those games showed the importance of slick, instinctive control systems that fluidly understand what you want to do and help you achieve it, rather than twisting your fingers into spaghetti as you crouch, aim and hide.
Absolution's first solution is going to be controversial: a cover system. Agent 47 hides behind the bookshelves, ducking between each slice of protection as the cops move around. It's the same style cover system we've seen in Gears of War, in Splinter Cell: Conviction. The second; a system for showing when and how the guards move called 'instinct' – when turned on, you can see a glowing orange path that shows where they're going. It's about helping players visualize the space and allowing them to plan ahead.
The next few minutes are spent with Agent 47 ducking and weaving between bookshelves trying to get closer to the roof. He clambers up, and then shuffles along a balustrade, dodges a patrol by hanging from a ledge, and eventually ducks right past two guards as they chat.
Meanwhile, the guards talk. And they really, really talk. One officer is sniping at another, a rookie, teasing him about how he doesn't really know anything about being a cop. The dialogue is sharp and funny, a real step above gaming's usual idle chatter. A side-plot is already forming – one in which Hitman can clearly intervene.
He does, brutally. First, he shuts down the power to the library by sabotaging a fuse box. Fat sergeant and rookie wander over. “I know nothing about this,” says the Sergeant. You're on your own, buddy.“
He then wanders off. 47 picks up an abandoned piece of cabling and sneaks up behind the sergeant. Then stabs him with the sharp end, right in the neck. It's a gruesome take-down, and in performing it, 47 alerts other cops.
There's a shoot-out, and during it, Hitman takes a hostage, using a cop as a human shield. 47 ducks back out of a door, and dashes up the stairs, under heavy fire. He finally manages to shake his pursuers by shooting at a chandelier, which falls through the stairwell, smashes at the bottom, and scatters the police. Agent 47 dives through the door to his freedom.
This first section of the demo showcases combat and technology. But it could be any stealth shooter. It's slick, clearly fun, but doesn't necessarily have that unique blend of silliness and sadism we expect from Hitman. That's to come.
Before we get to that, though, we're given a demo of why Hitman's action and stealth sequences should be at least as well put together as any competitor's: the tools and tech the team at IO are using to create them are built from scratch to help their designers rapidly iterate.
Martin Amor, IO's technology director pauses the demo and starts moving the camera around – shifting giant purple waypoints around as he sees fit. He restarts the action, and the patrols of the guards are instantly changed. For the better, hopefully.
The point is that the developers can play and play and play, forever polishing their work until it feels right, until the levels work, and that players can plan ahead, execute and understand a strategy and still have fun when it all goes wrong.
Back to the demo. Hitman is being chased across the rooftops of Chicago by a helicopter. A machine gun is ripping through the attic in which he's hiding, spraying bullets with no regard for the pigeons that roost in there. At one point, 47 leaps between two roofs, and the action slows down for a brief moment. In that moment, I swear I see two pigeons explode into a mist of feathers and blood.
It's then that 47's next move becomes clear. A solitary police officer is wandering the roofs, torch in hand. He's quietly knocked unconscious, stripped, and 47 walks away in police uniform. Over a bullhorn, the pilot of the helicopter yells “Any sign of him?” 47 doesn't respond.
Then, it gets weird.
Part of the new emphasis within Absolution is giving in-game, non-hostile characters a range of reactions. 47 walks into a top-floor flat. It's full of stoners, draped with psychedelic posters saying “Fuck the Police”. This should be fun.
The local hippies are all gathered at a window. They're looking at the police below, clearly terrified. One panics, grabs his prized cannabis plant and runs to the toilet, flushing it down the sink. Out of sight, 47 simply watches, dodging their movements. On a sofa, one of the hippies is completely off his face, entirely unmoved by the bald, terrifying, fake policeman watching. 47 takes his bong, and walks over to the hippies. And then smashes them both over the head with it.
Drugs are bad, mmkay?
47 leaves, as police rush up the stairs, and start going door-to-door. Some glance over at 47, ask each other “isn't he going the wrong way?” But most ignore him. When they do get slightly suspicious, time slows for a brief moment, and 47 ducks his head. It's a very cool, very cinematic touch.
Finally, we're at the lobby, and it's a clear homage to the final scenes of Leon. 47 is dressed as a cop, but there's a wall of police ahead of him, all dressed in full riot gear. He's not getting through. 47 spies a box of doughnuts. A solution presents itself. 47 grabs a doughnut, and starts munching away.
“Hey, I know you,” shouts one of the bored beat cops. 47 barely gives him the time of day. Instead, he's watching the riot police, who start running up the stairs. The escape route is clear. He leaves.
He walks down the street, and turns right, onto a train platform. There are hundreds of people waiting in the rain, all milling about – far more people than we're used to seeing in a game. 47 walks straight into the mass, blending into the crowd, and the demo ends.
Hitman: Absolution won me over. At first, the stealth combat, with its freshly grown cover system, reminded me too much of Splinter Cell. In Hitman games I'm used to wandering around a mansion - or the White House, or a cruise boat, or a bayou wedding chapel - mostly unchallenged, figuring out the clockwork of a level and the vulnerabilities of our target before striking. In this demo, Hitman didn't assassinate anyone; he simply fled.
However, the second section, with its bizarre bong kills, and phenomenally tense escape through hordes of police, was spectacular. It wasn't just a cool stealth game; it was a step above what we'd expect from Hitman. After the trailer , and this demo, I can't wait to play it.