Hitman Absolution finally shows what fans have been waiting for
Try, if you can, to put aside the killer bondage nuns and their subsequent slo-mo murder. If you're a long-time Hitman fan, or simply someone who disapproves of fetishised violence against women, there's a good chance we feel the same way right now. And you're right – it leaves a decidedly unpleasant taste in the mouth. IO and Square Enix clearly wanted to make a big impression ahead of E3, but I suspect they were anticipating a slightly different reaction... although that in itself says quite a lot.
Poor taste aside, the irony of the situation is that this trailer will reinforce fears that Hitman: Absolution is an unwelcome departure for the series – mere days before Square Enix unveils a demo that seeks to prove the opposite case. Because for all intents and purposes, Agent 47's latest showing is exactly the kind of offering that fans have been calling for: an open-ended mission in a miniature sandbox environment, replete with civilian NPCs, disguises, and numerous ways to snuff out the target.
The mission is titled The King of Chinatown, and finds Agent 47 doing a favour for a nefarious chap called Birdie. As his name suggests, Birdie likes to squat in dark places, surrounded by pigeon coops; what 47 wants from him isn't immediately clear, but I suspect the answer involves something a lot more sinister than a bag of trill. At any rate, Birdie needs Baldie to whack the aforementioned King – a local businessman of questionable repute – in any way he sees fit.
It's immediately clear why this mission was selected for the E3 showcase: the Chinatown map may be small, but it's packed with detail. As soon as 47 shoves open the double doors that lead into the main square, we're swamped with bustling crowds of NPC – most of them jostling for position around several food stalls. The civilians themselves are reminiscent of the party-goers in Blood Money's Mardi Gras level – i.e. they're walking scenery objects, more or less there to decorate the map. That said, they're extremely well animated, and while you can't knock them out to nick their clothes, they're most certainly mortal. Should the mission descend into an all-out gunfight – not a recommended tactic, but a viable one – then they'll fall to your bullets. More impressively, the survivors will scream and flee en masse, swarming away in a highly effective depiction of digitised panic. Their simulated terror is really quite perturbing, and adds to the sense that you've really cocked up the subtle approach.
While interaction with the crowds is limited, there's certainly no shortage of NPCs who can be subdued and defrocked – including street chefs, drug dealers, beat cops and SWAT officers. In the centre of the courtyard, flanked by his bodyguards, is the King himself – a snivelling wretch of a ne'er-do-well, hanging around what looks to be a pagoda-like gazebo. In contrast with the victims of old, who rarely had much to say, the King is quite a wordy chap. If you patiently hang around and watch his movements, as a good assassin should, you can eavesdrop as he chats to his drug dealer, who looks a bit like Bono. If you like, you can throttle this underling to death, pack his naked body into a bin, and them swank about in his clothes. In fact, I recommended that you do: he looks like Bono, after all.
Acquiring the dealer's costume, in keeping with past Hitman titles, allows you to access his nearby flat. Here you'll find a bag of coke that can be tampered with, as well as a sniper rifle. It's a tad convenient that that the dealer's flat has both the rifle and a window overlooking the target, but this is an E3 demo, so I can forgive that.
Elsewhere there's a (un)healthy number of homicidal options to explore. Find the King's sports car and give it a bump, and the alarm will go off – at which point the man himself will rush over. Plant a block of C4 in advance, and Bob's your charred lump of uncle. Alternatively, you could poison his lunch with a toxic fish, or push him down a service hatch. Hell, dress up as the dealer and he'll happily follow you down a dark alley, allowing you to stab his face off in private. The only major difference to the old way of things is that you're more limited in the number of objects you can carry at any one time – forcing you to choose between explosives or, say, a kitchen knife.
It's telling, perhaps, that I found myself barely using Agent 47's newer abilities. The Instinct-based tracker is quite useful but you can certainly get by without it, while the Point Shooting skill feels like it belongs in a different game entirely. Perhaps I'll turn out to be wrong and eat my words, but for now I'm happier to see Hitman: Absolution taking a direction that, for perhaps the first time, genuinely reminds me of its predecessors.
For a detailed look at Hitman: Absolution's end-of-level scoring system, head here.
Hitman: Absolution will be released on November 20 for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.