Objectives and level design
The old games: As a general rule, each mission in the past Hitman games takes the form of a miniature sandbox. Most levels find Agent 47 in a public location, swarming with NPCs. The player is given free reign as to how they approach their objectives – you could get up close and personal with a knife, snipe from a vantage point, or best of all, arrange for your target to die in a staged "accident". As most of your potential threats take the form of innocent policemen and security guards, you are discouraged from going on a kill-crazy rampage – although that's certainly an option.
Hitman Absolution: From what we've seen so far, Absolution's levels will adopt a more linear format. While there's certainly a degree of choice with regards to the path that Agent 47 takes through a level (not to mention his actions along the way), it appears that this freedom only extends to deviations from a broadly specified path. Again, we've only seen two maps, but it seems telling that in both instances so far Agent 47 has simply been trying to get from point A to point B – escaping the police in the first demo, and making his way through an occupied orphanage in the second. To this extent, level structure seems to owe more to the likes of Splinter Cell: Conviction than to the open-ended playgrounds of old.
It's also notable that both demos were set in comparatively closed situations, without many members of the public around. While IO may well reveal larger locations in the future, I suspect that the majority of levels will follow the template established in the current previews. Why? Because in everything we've seen so far, there's been a tonne of NPC dialogue – and when you've got chatty NPCs, you don't tend to use so many of them.
"Every NPC actually has their own name and role in the world," explains Blystad. "[The dialogue] is still in the works. We're still doing voice recordings and pick-ups. We just did a big recording before Christmas and we have another one. We'll see how much we can cram in, it'll basically come down to logistics and memory. We have a script of 2000 pages for the AI alone. It's huge."
One final note on level design: there's doesn't seem to be a map screen in Absolution. You'll have to keep track of enemies with your own senses.
Stealth and disguises
The old games: While Agent 47 has certainly spent his fair share of time sneaking past guards, more often than not he prefers to hide in plain sight, using a pilfered disguise. Standard procedure would see you take out a guard or civilian, either killing them or using some form of anaesthetic, then you take their clothes and hide the body. Specific disguises usually grant access to private areas of the map; to an extent, they act like keycards that you wear. Inappropriate behaviour encourages guards to see through your disguise, and this is indicated by an on-screen gauge.
Hitman Absolution: This mechanic hasn't changed as much as many other aspects of the core Hitman design. You can still take down everyone you see, and you can still pinch their threads. Grabbing an NPC from behind offers up two choices, indicated via a Heavy Rain-style floating prompt. You can snap your victim's neck, or you can put them in a sleeper hold, which necessitates a Metal Gear Solid-style button tap. At one point in the recent demo, the player combined the two - pacifying a guard until his colleague walked out of earshot and then performing the neck-break. This may suggest that the neck-snap routine makes an audible noise.
Once Agent 47 is dressed up, he'll be able to wander about freely. There's no indicator for how well your act is holding up, however – in general, the presentation eschews a HUD except where it's absolutely demanded. NPCs will notice your presence and may attempt to talk to you, which seems to place "strain" on your disguise. Slow motion seems to indicate moments where you're at risk of discovery, and Agent 47 can use some of his Instinct reserves to perform naturalistic actions which deflect attention – pulling his collar up, or scratching his head to casually cover his face.
47 also has more options with regards to standard sneaking. In addition to being more nimble these days, with swifter climbing skills and cover-to-cover moves more in line with the standard for third-person shooters, he also has a limited ability to see through walls, and to project the path that a moving NPC is about to take. In the second preview, this didn't appear to cost anything in terms of Instinct – though that may have been a cheat for demonstration purposes.
If you're detected by guards and then escape, your enemies will eventually settle down, but they will be left in what Blystad calls an "angry ambient" mode:
"They have some kind of memory within the world. Also, another very important thing is the way news spreads throughout the level. In the past, everyone instantly knew [if you were spotted]. You were the bad guy, and they were coming to get you. Now it's much more about who is a witness, who they tell, and how fast they communicate. If you can contain a situation before it spreads, you can stop it."
There's a similar mechanic in place for disguises: "If someone sees your disguise it's blown to that guy – and if he tells his friends, you'll have to find something else. But if you kill him, or dispose of him in some other way, then you're reinstated – because no-one else knows. It's more logical."