A hitman hits men for a living, but Agent 47's enemies hit women. IO's most recent showing of their next Hitman game opens with a scene of masked men shooting an unarmed nun as she lies crawling, bleeding and screaming on the floor of an invaded orphanage. It's a nasty introduction to a game that's got meaner and darker since its previous outing. Blood Money had moments of bleak humour and silliness; Absolution has detailed slowmotion shots of Agent 47 slamming a fire axe into the side of someone's knee.
As well as bleaker, it also seems narrower. The two missions that developers IO have shown so far from the game feature wide corridors strung together. Where Absolution's predecessor dropped Agent 47 into a wide open space that necessitated backtracking and planning, the new game's library and orphanage come in bite sized chunks, each made up of spacious strips to be overcome before moving on to the next area. “We want a very cinematic experience,” says game director Tore Blystad. But Blood Money's joy was in freedom – the ability to go anywhere, and to inject a horrible poisonous mixture into any neck you chose.
That change is enough to get Blood Money fans across the world nervously clutching their Silverballers. Blystad is at pains to tell us not to worry: “The Hitman games have always been about choice, and very much so with Absolution. Everything is designed with choice in mind. We're not scripting things so you have to play through in a linear fashion.” The mission I saw reinforced this statement, with the man at Hitman's helm showing two very different ways to approach the same section of game. Both begin with the dead nun.
The first victim is a nun because Agent 47 is in an orphanage and dressed as a priest, for reasons developers IO don't properly explain. He's halfway through a mission in said orphanage, infiltrating the building to extract a girl rather than to hit hitmen. But depending on how you play Hitman: Absolution, that second action can happily be a by-product of the first.
The first approach is psychotic, and involves the fire axe. The scene opens with the nun murder in the orphanage. Agent 47 is relaxing on the roof of an unpowered lift, the nun spluttering her bloody last as the perpetrators waltz off into the main building to find the girl. Hoisting himself up from the lift shaft to the corridor, 47 overhears whimpering from the next room. There's a security guard being trussed up by stocking-headed thugs; he's shot in the knees for not knowing where the girl is. See? Bleaker.
As six-year-old kids and people who kill people for a living know, the only way to stop violence is with more violence: 47 grabs a fire axe from the wall and wades into plain sight. He swings the axe towards the chest of his first victim, the game immediately popping into a slow-motion mode. Agent 47 has lost his innate clumsiness in Absolution – the developers repeatedly refer to him as “a weapon” – and his attacks are graceful and QTE-like. The first man falls when the axe is driven horrifically into the side of his leg; the second goes down after he stumbles and gets it embedded into the top of his skull.
Still 47 pushes on, bullets ripping through his purloined priest outfit as the last torturer standing opens fire on him. He ducks behind a piano for a second – showcasing the game's new cover system – before popping out and twatting the guy in the chest with twelve inches of metal. The pop to cover feels natural for this approach: this is Hitman as darkly deranged thirdperson shooter. Captors offed, 47 speaks to the tied-up and bleeding security guard. Apparently he keeps a shotgun in the chapel downstairs. Guess where psycho-47 is going next?
The second approach is perfection. Starting in the same lift shaft with the same nun-ny death, the second Agent 47 creeps behind the murderers until he's under a bookshelf. The cover system hides 47's shiny pate behind convenient objects, and a standard crouch will put him at a similar height. Blystad mentions that players should feel comfortable moving around out of cover, knowing they're out of sight even when they're out of hard cover.
And when they are forced with their back to the wall, they're not constrained by invisible barriers: Absolution's bookshelves, sofas, and 3ft-high walls have 'soft' edges, letting 47 traverse their planes without stickiness, hopefully reducing the frustration of detection.
The sneaky version of 47 is either more callous or more sensible, depending on your viewpoint, leaving the orphanage's torture victim to his eventual fate. The poor bastard screams his last as 47 opens the door and sneaks out of the room, closing it behind him as the room's occupants are focused on their kill. He's out and through in total silence.
This Agent 47 is able to make limited use of his environment to aid his stealthy cause. Where his maniacal alter-ego nabbed an axe from the wall, sneaky 47 picks up a vase from a table. Blystad argues that “previous Hitmans were very predictable for the player, and there was a very strongly directed way the levels were designed”. He wants Absolution to feel more organic, with 47 able to get out of trouble by using whatever he's got to hand.
Now 47 is into the next area, semitrapped in cover. He's not under immediate threat from the level's guards, but their patrol routes have conspired to pin him in place. He can either wait for a fortuitous crossing of paths to create a convenient blind spot or, even better, heft the vase into a non-essential part of the room and scurry onwards while distracted guards investigate it. He does the latter, with the room's occupants immediately directing their attentions vase-wards.
Detection is less binary than it was in previous Hitman games. Players are notified of guard suspicion by a circular splodge close to a shooter's hit notifier. AI characters piqued by the presence of a crouching baldy in their midst cause spikes in the circle – let that spike grow too large and you're busted. It feels more organic than Blood Money's unpredictable suspicion bar, more analogue. And psycho-47 doesn't care for it.
He's too busy popping shotgun cartridges into the stomachs of his foes. After making his way down to the bloodsmeared chapel, psycho-47 finds himself behind a glass door, eavesdropping on the invading thugs' leader's briefing. They're here to find the same girl as he is. IO wouldn't explain exactly why she is important, but it's likely to be something to do with Diana Burnwood.
Burnwood was Agent 47's handler for his earlier career, and one of Absolution's first targets – 47 doesn't let something petty like years of friendship get in the way of his kills. The thugs seem to have another leader outside the orphanage, and the man berating his colleagues behind the glass door doesn't seem to think he'll be happy with their efforts.
Those efforts are diminished further by 47, who springs from behind the door with his shotgun spraying. I didn't get to try out Absolution's shooting, but it looks understandably similar in feel to IO's Kane and Lynch series, the camera snapping to 47's shoulder as his shots tear through soft thugflesh. The boom of the shotgun draws enemies from around the contained area, and corpses pile up in doorways as they come to investigate the noise.
Back on the more sensible side of the tactical divide, a sneakier 47 has to be more careful with his bodies. He catches one behind a thick bookcase, snuffling him to sleep with an insistent “shhh!” before nabbing his clothes, taking him gently by the wrist, and pulling him into a freezer. This is Absolution at its most Blood Moneyesque. Like that game, 47 is free to put on the clothes of most people he subdues, giving him some level of immunity when wandering around in the open.
Previously, donning an outfit would give you near-invisibility, with the game conveniently ignoring the fact that your peers would notice when Santa' changes from a short fat man into a 6ft killing machine with a shiny head. Wander Absolution's hallways in someone else's clothes and people will squint at you, trying to work out if you're actually meant to be there.
To counterbalance this, the game is seeded with interactions that let you hide in plain sight. 47 saunters into one of the orphanage's larger rooms dressed in his new clothes. It's stuffed with enemies: most are busy with their own concerns, but one's wandering around. His eyes alight on 47's hairless head, a spike appearing on the suspicion notifier. In response, 47 ducks his head down, suddenly extraordinarily interested in a leaflet stand. The guard walks past, happy to believe the new guy loves leaflets.
But sneakier assassins won't always have leaflets to hand every time they need to avoid suspicion. Instead, they can dip in to 47's new 'Instinct' bar – this resource is earned by doing good things like avoiding patrols, performing silent takedowns, or getting headshots. Using Instinct in the face of guard suspicion lets 47 cover his face for a second, affecting a stifled yawn or a head rub. It's somewhat artificial, but it does offer a handful of escape opportunities to otherwise perfect players who've put a foot wrong. Harder difficulties shrink the amount of Instinct you gain, making such moves more difficult – especially when it can be used for other vital purposes.
For instance, 47 can use his spare Instinct to fuel a few seconds of Magic Vision, which lets him anticipate patrol routes, picked out on the floor in a line of flames. It's a mechanic that turns Agent 47 from the superhuman to the supernatural, but it fits in well with his suite of abilities. Blood Money forced dedicated players to watch and wait to learn patrol routes, wasting time to hardwire movements into their brain. Absolution still has the space to let players on harder difficulty settings use this manual method, but those with less time to burn can spend some of their Instinct to preternaturally anticipate routes and come up with a plan.
IO demonstrated another Instinct usage during 47's time in the orphanage – one that's better suited to a less cautious playthrough. With his signature Silverballer pistol in hand, 47 pops into an occupied room and stops time for a moment. During this pause, he starts to queue up headshots, pumping a few spare bullets into exposed gas canisters in convenient locations around the room. As the shots rattle off into faces and necks the camera follows, giving a gorily cinematic viewpoint of each messy kill. Once the dust settles and the blood has finished spraying the walls, the room is clear and 47's Instinct metre has been drained.
From what IO have shown so far, Absolution's level design is sniper riflefocused rather than machine gunexpansive. That will scare fans of the previous game, but Blystad argues that as the game gets closer to launch, IO will start to show the open environments and inventive murder tools that the series is known for. Blystad assures us that there's no need to worry, as he and his company know their audience: “Our hardcore fans, the first thing they do is turn around on the spot and go in the opposite direction to see if it's possible. We're trying our best to accommodate every conceivable way of playing the game.”
Even with such a tight play area, the range of choice open to the player's own Agent 47 – be he careful, psychotic or any of the shades of grey in between – make Absolution look like a comfortingly professional job.