This article originally appeared in issue 246 of PC Gamer UK.
Hitman Absolution is a tease. Its first level guides the player through a well-defended compound toward Agent 47's assigned target, his ex-handler Diana. I snuck past guards, bundled others into convenient bins after applying pressure to their unsuspecting throats. I edged along ledges over jagged cliffs. I hid when I was meant to hide, moved when I was meant to move. And then, as I opened the door to my victim, the game took over, lurching me into a cutscene that ended the level.
It's a trick Absolution pulls a few times in its opening chapter. 47's next job takes him to the Terminus Hotel, and a target holed up in Room 899 on the eighth floor. Creeping through an air vent at the end of the level, I overheard my potential victim, his Texas drawl muffled through the metal. I crawled towards the sound, wiggling 47's suit-clad body around in the vent and planning my murder method. Halfway along, my screen faded to black and I was forced through another cutscene that not only saw my target escape, conspicuously un-murdered, but suffered 47 getting bonked on the head without any opportunity for player-led retaliation.
The five levels I've played are huge – much bigger than any of Hitman: Blood Money's lethal playgrounds. But where Blood Money plopped the player at a doorway, gave them a target, and let them have the run of the area, Absolution breaks its levels up into distinct stages. In making my way up to Room 899 in the Terminus Hotel, I had to sneak past a set of guards sat in the lobby by knocking out one of their outlying number and nabbing his threads. The elevator that carried me up to the target's floor marked the end of the section I was playing, with no way to descend back to the floor I'd just been creeping around on. After being framed for an innocent's murder and left in a burning building, I had to sneak my way across three wide-open rooms, avoiding a roving police squad. Once navigated successfully, the game gave me a check-up on my score – awarded for silent takedowns, hiding bodies, and clothes-napping, among other things – and locked the door behind me, pushing me into the next vignette.
This makes Hitman Absolution feel smaller in scope than Blood Money. It's also more manageable. There's no danger of being paralysed by choice when your only aim is to reach an anointed door, or escape a patrolling death squad. It also means mistakes you've made twenty minutes ago will be less likely to haunt you.
I took the direct route in the Terminus Hotel. Scoping out the edifice from the damp street the game deposits Agent 47 on, I spotted an entrance to the basement. I decided against using it, preferring to waltz in the front door – it's a hotel, right? They must be expecting guests. Apparently not. Through the door, I was treated to a triggered animation, a goon in a stetson telling one of the hotel's paying guests he wasn't allowed upstairs. More goons sat on the sofas in the lobby, scanning their eyes around the room. Yet more goons stood on the stairs, flanking the lift that the game had helpfully picked out.
The abundance of goonery made getting to my intended exit difficult, but Absolution has upgraded Agent 47, turning him from Blood Money's hulking, clumsy marionette man to a lithe assassin. Pressing Space flipped 47 into cover, his back to a cleaning trolley as one of the goons peeled off. Pressing Ctrl behind my hiding spot, I turned on 47's Instinct mode. Instinct turns the world black and grey, highlighting interesting areas – weapons to pocket, radios to turn on, light fittings to drop on unsuspecting heads – and potentially dangerous people. Activate Instinct while wearing a disguise, and 47 will cover his face surreptitiously as people wearing the same costume try to work out if they know you. Activate it as a goon walks past as I did and you'll be able to see their patrol path, picked out in a line of flame along the floor.
This goon was going to the bathroom. Disengaging myself from the trolley by pressing Space again, I followed him in, ducked in a crouch that kept me out of the vision of his empty-bladdered pals. A quick arm around the throat, while tapping A to apply pressure to his windpipe, and he was unconscious. Another tap, and I was wearing his clothes. One more tap and a quick drag, and his now underwear-clad body was jammed into a laundry bin in the bathroom. This process is quick in Absolution, quicker than it was in Blood Money. 47's new sleeper-hold ability knocks targets out, and unlike Blood Money's sedative syringe, can be used as many times as you fancy in a level.
Most weapons can be thrown, forcing enemies in earshot to walk over and investigate the sound. Careful assassins can put entire floors to sleep, clearing a path towards their target. I am not a careful assassin. Coming out of the bathroom, I decided to try out my new threads on the similarly dressed goons blocking the staircase. Evening, gents, I'm your pal who just went for a piss. Yes, I'm now bald. That bathroom changed me.
They immediately saw through my ruse. Suspicion in Absolution is denoted by a circle in the centre of the screen. When someone spots you doing something weird, the circle rises to a peak in their direction. Sauntering through the lobby, my screen showed five distinct spikes: five goons who'd spotted I wasn't one of their number. Must've been the shiny head that gave it away. I should've brought a wig.