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
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
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.
Running out of options
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
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.