Something is up here. Something is very much up. There are two distinct possibilities as to what that thing is. Firstly, IO and Square-Enix might be running the most misguided game promotion plan in a good while. They might be deliberately and repeatedly showing off sections of intentionally simplified gameplay elements in order to get fans of less cerebral gaming onboard with Hitman, while waiting until a later date before unveiling the true wonder the non-linear, meticulously layered, player-driven action that we’ve come to love the deviously clever series for.
The other option is that the Hitman series really has been simplified as heavily as it currently looks. That it really has lost the dizzying array of the cunning, logistically-demanding, open-ended Machiavellian gameplay. That the game is no longer about instingating 'accidental' death from the other side of a mini-sandbox before walking away without anyone knowing you were ever there. That Hitman: Absolution is a linear, hide-and-kill stealth-game-by-numbers. Because as slick and beautiful as it was, yesterday's demo was basically Splinter Cell Conviction: Bald Edition.
The mission we were shown was an early one, following on from the very important, very different hit which kicks off Hitman: Absolution’s story. Agent 47’s handler (and the closest thing he has to a friend) Diana has been flagged up as a traitor by the powers that be, and 47 himself has already been sent to kill her. He has, unsurprisingly, succeeded. But as a dying wish, Diana has asked 47 to go to an orphanage to find a girl she knows. The girl is in danger from Wade, the game’s main villain, and 47 has been asked to intervene.
So we find our slap-headed death-dispenser infiltrating said dumping ground for the de-parented, not to meticulously set up an elaborate series of quietly lethal events as usual, but to safely navigate a linear route full of hostiles on the way to an objective.
First up, we were given a demo of the level being played for a Professional rating, ie. very stealthily, but not quite up to the “I was never even there” standards of the series famed Silent Assassin rank. Many of the series’ iconic tropes were fully present and correct. We saw lethal and non-lethal takedowns. We saw 47 use random items of level furniture as improvisational melee weapons. We saw him drag and stash bodies in wardrobes. We saw him hide in said clothing receptacles and peek through cracks in their doors to observe patrolling guards.
We saw him change into the clothes of downed NPCs in order to walk past potential aggressors untroubled. We saw the welcome return of his iconic, crab-that’s-just-done-a-poo-in-its-pants sneaking animation. We saw a lovely slick new cover system, every bit as fluid and sticky as PVA glue, and looking at least on a par with the delightfully tactile wall-hugging antics of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. But something just wasn’t right.
The thing is, the reappearance of all of these warmly familiar sights served only to throw into stark contrast the utterly un-Hitman level design and gameplay-flow. Sandwiching all of these elements into a resolutely linear A-to-B structure felt very much like dropping Ryu into a side-scrolling Final Fight-style brawler and calling it Street Fighter V. The recognisable surface elements were there, but the wide-reaching, organic gameplay potential associated with them – indeed, which they were originally designed to facilitate - just wasn’t.
Agent 47 was no longer playing the long-game, quietly exploring a sandbox in order to discover deliciously contrived avenues through which to set up ‘accidents’, or studying and manipulating the behaviour of the area’s cast of players. Instead, he was sneaking along a largely linear, occasionally branching path, partaking in the same basic hide/wait/kill/move/repeat loop inherent to stealth games since Manhunt.
It was a slickly polished version of that gameplay loop, admittedly. IO’s new Glacier 2 engine is indeed a thing of beauty in motion, providing deep, rich colours and some of the most solid and affecting light and shadow effects I’ve seen on a console game this generation. But the fact remained that what I saw in the ‘quiet’ version of the demo exhibited nothing beyond the archetypal mechanics of a competent linear stealth game. And in these post-Arkham-City, post-Deus-Ex:HR days. that just isn’t enough to get truly excited over.
When the most player-driven action in a Hitman game is a choice as binary as deciding to sneak through a room full of guards or crawl through an air-vent instead, it’s clear that something fundamental has changed in the design philosophy.
But wait. There was another way to play Hitman: Absolution. And we were about to see it.
IO’s aim, they have told me, is to provide as much scope as ever for dedicated perfectionists to slink through this game like a ninja made of mist, but while also making the gameplay accommodating to those who are happy to screw things up without reloading their last save. The idea is that 47 now has the ability to repair a balls-up if he acts quickly enough. Exposure to the enemy no longer need result in the whole level turning against you and hunting you down like a swarm of starving locust.
To show us 47’s new versatility, we got a demo intended to exhibit his full toolbox. I hoped to see more varied, more creative ways of dealing with the problems ahead. I got half of that. A whole lot of people died in a whole lot of different ways, but none of it was truly creative. Not like dropping a wine cask on someone with a remotely triggered bomb, or switching a theatrical prop gun for a real one before walking away and waiting for the audience to start screaming.
47 choked people. 47 threw toy robots as distractions and then choked people as they investigated. 47 bludgeoned people to death and dumped their bodies in children’s ball pools and down laundry chutes. He shot up small groups of men using his trademark silenced Silverballer pistols. He shot up large groups of men using a shotgun (which he was directed to by a hostage, as a reward for rescuing said hostage from the previous small group of now-dead men). He found a syringe, a previous favourite tool with which to poison food for a sneaky time-delayed kill. But he used it to stab a man in the throat instead, essentially making it the same in function as the various bludgeons available elsewhere in the level.
This simpler, more blunt approach to 47’s abilities obviously made me a bit sad, but slightly more troubling was the perceived game balance. Now of course, this is unfinished code we’re talking about, and there’s probably a whole bunch of extra work to be done, but at the moment 47 seems a little too effective as an out-of-cover, balls-out killing machine.
The enemy AI didn’t look too comfortably equipped to deal with him in full-on Rambo mode, making detection so quickly, easily – and lethally - dealt with that sneaking barely seemed important at all. Especially once the frequent ‘area clear’ messages on-screen started to make it apparent that the level was modular and segmented as well as linear. Making 47 better at improvising can only be a good thing in terms of creating player-driven experiences, but IO are going to need to be careful not to lose the series’ sense of dealing with a living, connected, organic world.