Is this the Hitman game fans wanted? We assess the E3 demo.
The last section of the demo heavily recalled the last act of Luc Besson's Leon (or The Professional, if you're a US reader). In a tense climax, the still-disguised 47 attempted to descend through a busy apartment building packed with patrolmen and SWAT officers. The Instinct mechanic raised its head again here, allowing 47 to perform an action that will help him to blend in with his surroundings - in this case, he raised the collar on his uniform. There's a nice tense slow-down effect in place when someone starts to look at you directly, your disguise gauge filling as you fall under detailed scrutiny. It also seems that you can use specific objects to help you hide in plain sight, loitering by a box of donuts left for the amassed troops, for example.
Even here it's not entirely clear how safe you'll be. While at the refreshments table one cop started showing a keen interest in Agent 47, mistaking him for an old colleague. The do-gooder started harping on at 47, who responded only with steely silence and the occasional non-verbal response. For a while discovery seemed imminent, but then our new friend abandoned his attempts at conversation. Is it possible to be rumbled here? It's not clear, but the moment certainly shows how the new chatty NPCs can be used to amplify tension.
The whole experience looks thoroughly impressive, and there's no doubt that Hitman Absolution will cause a big splash if the full game is as detailed and as carefully-produced as this demo. However, I also think that veteran fans of the series will be up in arms about some of the departures on display. While we've got to be careful about assuming too much on the basis of one presentation, it does seem that Absolution has shed much of the open nature and forward planning that distinguished the series in the past. There's no map, so it seems you're encouraged to be reactive rather than proactive, and in contrast to Agent 47's established MO, it didn't seem as if there was much punishment for killing innocents.
We're used to playing Hitman like professionals - going unnoticed, and making our hits look like accidents - but at times the Absolution demo felt worryingly close to The Bourne Identity. This was especially true during the "high octane" segment, leading up to the confrontation with the chopper. It seems hard to believe that you'll be able to skip such an orchestrated set-piece, and yet it's this kind of thing that will put the collective nose of fans out of joint. The name of the game is "Hitman" after all, not "Runaway Cop-Killer".
Still, IO Interactive has promised that it has stayed loyal to the spirit of the series, that Silent Assassin ratings will return and, most importantly, that you'll be free to find your own way through each level. In all fairness, this last element is the kind of thing that's very hard to show off in a 15-minute E3 demo; on the other hand, you can't blame people for having concerns about the apparent changes - or indeed for lamenting the absence of Jesper Kyd, whose excellent scores contributed greatly to the Agent 47's past outings.
Regardless, few would question the technical quality of the game we saw last week, and IO has certainly succeeded in grabbing everyone's attention. One thing's for sure: Hitman has changed, and from here there's no turning back.
Hitman Absolution is due for release on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC in 2012.