When Hitman: Absolution was revealed, its handlers at IO Interactive were big on proving the stealthy series could now be enjoyed by those who'd rather empty ammo clips than sneak in the shadows. Sure, they promised purists would still be able to play as they please, snapping necks like peanut brittle, donning disguises, hiding corpses, and stealthily eliminating high-value targets within sandbox-y settings. But faithful franchise fans grew hesitant when the game's last demo saw the contract killer turning an orphanage inside out from behind a shotgun. After a lengthy hands-on session, though, we're happy to report 47 is still the surgically precise professional he's always been.
Our demo begins with 47 - sporting his signature shorn scalp and sharp suit - entering a Chinatown square. The mission, titled “King of Chinatown,” tasks us with killing a mid-level mob thug. The only thing standing between us and the scumbag is 500 or so civilians and a few dozen dirty cops. With some help from an IO Interactive rep and Absolution's optional in-game hint system, we learn our first move should be to approach the dead man walking.
Entering the crowd, we're immediately taken by the NPCs detailed animations, dynamic actions, and diverse character models. Street vendors hock their wares, cooks hustle behind grills, and sightseers and shoppers move about with stunning realism. As we arrive at the pagoda, where our target's set up camp and surrounded himself with corrupt cops, we overhear a cellphone conversation; apparently needing a quick fix, he strongly suggests his drug dealer come down for a meet.
Having acquired this intel and assuming it'll be a bit before his non-prescription candy's delivered, we go for a walk. After passing a few food trucks and their hungry customers, we pick up a carving knife from an unsupervised prep station. This seems to attract some unwanted attention, though, so we allow the nearby crowd to swallow us up. Spying a cook on break in an isolated spot, we head over to him to say hello; and by that we mean we bury our recently acquired blade into his belly, toss him in a dumpster, and disguise ourselves in his cook's clothes, complete with white paper hat.
With our new duds we're able to get a bit closer to the food stations. A little curiosity leads us to discovering a rare poison, the apparent byproduct of a gutted fish being prepared for someone's dinner. While our disguise affords us some additional freedom to poke around, it's not a ticket to do whatever we please. A fellow food handler, who clearly doesn't recognize 47 - despite his appropriate attire - stares at him suspiciously; the nosy nuisance follows us, but we're able to lose her tail in the crowd.
Still dressed as someone more accustomed to handling a wok than a Glock and possessing poisonous fish innards, we head back to the pagoda, where it seems our target's just met with Dr. Feelgood. We stealthily follow the track-suited pill-pusher back to his apartment, quietly choke the life from him, take his clothes, hat, and sunglasses, then stuff him in a closet. A quick search of his room reveals his stash and a high-powered rifle (more on that in a sec.) We concoct a lethal cocktail with the drugs and poison, then go back to strike a deal with our soon-to-be-dead friend.
Dressed as the drug dealer, we enter the pagoda undetected and invite the target back to the apartment to seal the deal. Anxious to get the goods, he follows without hesitation. Once back in the apartment, our mark samples the tainted powder before collapsing like the sack of shit he is. Having earned the “Master Poisoner” achievement, we exit the apartment and stroll out of Chinatown like a tourist.
It's important to note that, while the details of our hit might sound smooth or even scripted, they're neither. Our successful run was only achieved after several previous attempts failed. A number of dumb moves, like killing the drug dealer in plain site, stealing the poison while someone was watching, or getting too close to the pagoda undisguised, resulted in us being chased away or, more often, unceremoniously killed.
More significant is the fact this same mission could have been completed in a number of different - and equally stealthy - ways. During additional playthroughs, we experimented with a number of sneak-and-slay strategies. In one scenario, we followed the target to an alley where he was relieving himself; hiding behind a crate, we fired a bullet into overhanging salvage, crushing him like a grape. Another instance saw us sabotaging his car with explosives, then banging on the vehicle to activate its alarm - you can guess what happened when he came over to silence the noise. Other widow-making options included sniping him from afar with the aforementioned rifle and poisoning a piece of food he sampled at one of the vendors.
Of course, all these potential strategies - not to mention the ones we didn't even think of - can be mixed and matched. A ton of dynamic and evolving factors, such as enemy patrol paths, civilian interactions, and elapsed time can change the course of any mission. For example, we were able to easily access the dealer's apartment because we were closely following him; however, infiltrating the building without the help of an unknowing participant requires the player to fiddle with a fuse box to distract the cop guarding the door.
While our time behind the bar-coded badass only hinted at Absolution's depth, it ensured armchair assassins needn’t worry about 47 trading his garroting skills for guns-blazing carelessness. It does feel slightly more forgiving than previous entries, and IO still promises more trigger-happy fans will have as much fun as purists, but our experience felt very much like the Hitman we've been siphoning lives with for years.