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.
I activated 47's Instinct, and he quickly brought his hand to his hat, covering his face. Too late. The goons on the sofa stood up, yelling at me to stop. The goons at the top of the stairs, alerted, swaggered over. If 47 is spotted doing something obviously dodgy – stashing a body, shooting someone between the eyes, downloading a Robbie Williams song, that kind of thing – then guards will immediately flip to a hostile state, emptying their guns in his general direction. But if he's just being mightily suspicious, as I was, they'll try to force him to surrender. Press Q and you'll pretend to give up, affecting a hands-up stance as your accusers come closer. Once they're within range, the game launches an automatic animation that disarms the closest enemy, takes his gun, and pulls him into a headlock. If you're off in a secluded spot, this is a great way to dispose of a single enemy. If you're standing on top of a set of stairs, being watched by more than ten pairs of eyes, it's less effective.
I tried to activate the lift with my arm around a human shield, his pilfered gun pointing over his shoulder towards his angry friends. They saw my intentions and opened fire as one, killing my shield and turning my vision red with injury. Using a spare second to call the lift, I ducked into cover and waited for it to arrive. Once it did, I hopped in and rode it to a higher floor, the second of the hotel's stages. Fortunately for me, everyone up there hadn't been in contact with their partners-in-goonery downstairs, and seemed happy to let me wander around, provided I didn't stray within intense suspicion range.
Where the Teminus Hotel is broken up into stages, preceding level Chinatown is more open. It consists of a square with a central pagoda, its streets filled with people: crooked cops, drug dealers and innocents. Absolution's story mode visits the location twice, first asking 47 to murder one target – mob boss the King of Chinatown – then sending him back to kill three others later in the day.
I went back a third time in the game's Contracts mode. Contracts is Hitman's take on score attack mode, gifting Agent 47 points for offing targets quickly, in specific ways, using chosen weapons and wearing the proper clothes. Other players create contracts by playing through the game's levels as normal, marking targets along the way for other players to shoot, stab, or smother. Completing a kill as requested awards points that can be compared against your homicidal friends' scores. There's a filter of social integration that sits a bit wonkily with the series, and Hitman's joy has always been madcap freedom in your murder method rather than the chase of obsessive perfection.
But Contracts isn't a bungled job: it gives a fresh eye on levels you've already played. I chose to play one of the missions set up by developers IO themselves, set again in Chinatown. Instead of the storyline's mob boss, I found myself gunning for two targets: one a cop, one a flat-cap wearing gangster. The cop was an easy kill. Veering straight off to the left on entering the level, I found him stood next to a sportscar parked in an alley. I locked eyes with him for a second, before he turned on his heels and pottered down the road to inspect some fascinating boxes, conveniently out of sight of the hundred-plus NPCs in the central square. I dropped into a crouch and followed him. En route, I had options to complicate the kill: I could pound on the car's window, bringing the cop over to peer into the windows and check on the contents. I could pick up some discarded plastic explosives, left by some forgetful bomb-maker, and blow my target up. Or I could take the easy option, ready my garotting wire, and wrap it around his neck at the end of the alley.
First one down, I strolled back through the crowds of people. My next target was visible via 47's Instinct mode: he was standing up in an office overlooking the level's central pagoda. I remembered the office as the one I found a stashed sniper rifle in during my first visit to Chinatown. Another crooked cop was guarding the staircase that led up to said office, but I'd distracted him before by fiddling with the contents of a nearby fusebox. I did the same again, luring the copper from his seat and slipping past him as he cursed the busted electronics. Still crouching, I started to climb the staircase, and shuffled face-first into a descending crotch.
My target had moved, and I wasn't ready for it. I mashed the keyboard and 47 launched into a quicktime event of a fight, punching with letter keys. The cop, returning from fixing the fusebox, was treated to the sight of me slamming another man's head into a wall. He immediately drew his gun, just as I put a bullet through my now-unconscious target's skull, and I sprinted back upstairs and climbed into a cupboard.
It was no good: the cop had a good look at me, and I was stuck without clothes to change into. Languishing in the cupboard was only delaying the inevitable. I cycled through my inventory items, alighting on the remotely detonated plastic explosive I'd picked up earlier. I climbed out of the cupboard and poked my head out of the window, only to be met by a hail of bullets. In return, I lobbed the explosive charge towards the ground and fired a few times to flush backup cops out of cover. I blew the charge as they rearranged themselves, clearing something of a path for myself. Back down the stairs, I aimed a silenced silverballer pistol shot at the fusebox cop, and changed quickly into his clothes. Numbers at the top of the screen were ticking down – I'd lost points for being spotted, the time taken between kills, and the huge amount of people, innocent and otherwise, that I'd eviscerated with my impromptu bombing – but I still had a positive number.
Cops streamed past as I exited the fusebox alley; I covered my face using Instinct and walked purposefully for the exit. It wasn't pretty, but I came out of the contract with my two targets dead: not enough to trouble a high-score table, but a victory in Absolution's book. And in mine. Absolution gave me the option to be robotic or reactionary, chase perfection or make the best of a bad situation. It's a tighter, less freeform experience than Blood Money, but fortunately it still offers the kind of lethal invention that made that game great.