This week, after a long leave of absence, Hitman: Absolution reappeared before the press. The game's first showing at E3 won a truckload of plaudits and generated excited chatter from everyone apart from veteran fans of the series, many of whom lamented Agent 47's apparent rebirth as a psychotic cop-killer. In what may well have been a calculated move to address these concerns, yesterday's demo presented 47 as the very model of professionalism. Actually, that's only half the story: in keeping with the approach employed for Deus Ex: Human Revolution, IO and Square Enix opted to show the same level twice - first as a near-invisible agent of stealth, and then as a unstoppable force of precision violence.
I'll be exploring many of the new mechanical revelations in an upcoming feature, but for now the important thing to note is that it's perfectly viable to play the game in a manner that recalls the Agent 47 of old. I'd hesitate to call it a 'pacifist' approach, but you're certainly under no obligation to go all Robert Rodriguez on the local opposition. When played in a quieter method, progress seems to rely on old-school stealth staples like creeping and guard misdirection, combined with a disguise system that aims to be more realistic than the old setup, in which specific costumes almost acted like degradable passcodes to specific areas of the map.
The new sequence finds Agent 47 in an orphanage that's been infiltrated by murderous thugs working for Blake Dexter, the game's antagonist. As at E3, Absolution's violent tone is swiftly underlined, with the player bearing witness to the graphic murder of a nun. Such brutality is unlikely to sit well with those of you who bemoaned IO's newfound drive for grittiness, but a more encouraging sign for traditionalists arrives in the map design, which seems slightly more open than the previous Library setting. The orphanage seems to be a far cry from the vast playgrounds of Blood Money's Las Vegas or Mardi Gras maps (though it's worth stressing that the demo only covered a snippet of the level), but there's certainly some choice as to how you progress through the building.
Both demos ended with Agent 47 reaching a specific spot on the map, suggesting that your overall progress will be linear, to an extent. There are shades of Deus Ex here, in that the greatest degree of choice lies in how you decide to get from A to B, rather than in where you eventually end up. The orphanage is full of items that can be used to your advantage - as weapons, tools of misdirection, or as storage for enemies you kill or subdue. It seems that you can adopt the clothing of anyone who falls into the latter category, and once Agent 47 is dressed up the game reclaims much of the "hiding in plain sight" atmosphere that was so evident in past Hitman titles.
The main thing to note is that there aren't as many people around. Every character in the game, whether they're enemies or NPCs, has their own name, and as in the Library sequence, there's a lot of dialogue to absorb if you're not busy blowing everyone's head off. All in all, less-violent play feels like a hybrid of old-school stealth, select ingredients of the older games, and a renewed emphasis on narrative.
That still may not please fans who wanted another game in the old mould, but I suspect that quite a few critics will be appeased when they see the apparent flexibility on offer. You have access to tricks like the limited ability to project where a character is moving to, but most of the less homicidal skills seem to encourage thoughtful play and strategy on the fly, rather than being casual-friendly in-game cheats. IO has said that you'll be able to turn off these tricks altogether, and that there'll be an Achievement or Trophy for completing the game without using them. Silent Assassin rankings will also return, though it's not clear what the requirements for this will be.
On the flipside, the action-centric demo showed that there will be an abundance of options for creative murder, should you be less concerned with playing like a professional. One stand-out moment found Agent 47 despatching one foe with a fire axe - chop to the leg, followed by an overhead blow that embedded the blade in the victim's skull - before hurling his weapon across the room to take down a second threat. The first of these kills took the form of a cinematic takedown that appeared to drain Instinct (a resource that fuels 47's more potent moves) while the second seemed to be a more standard in-game attack.
Gunplay also received major emphasis in the second demo, with Agent 47 dual-wielding pistols and later wiping out an entire room's worth of enemies using a shotgun - although as the demonstrator was playing on God mode, it's hard to say how tricky this may be. From an action perspective, the real standout moment was the revelation of Point Shooting - an explosive Instinct trick that comes across as the bastard offspring of Bullet Time and Fallout 3's VATS mechanic. Time freezes, you cue up your shots, then trigger an elaborate sequence of high-calibre murder. Like the rest of the game, it's bloody and very slick on production values.
There's a lot more to talk about, so if you're interested in Hitman's new direction - and in particular, more detail on how the game compares with its forebears - stay tuned for the feature I mentioned earlier.