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Why Hitman Absolution may not be the Hitman game you want. Or a Hitman game at all

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.

Objectively different

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.

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 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.

Going loud

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. 

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29 comments

  • codenamed - January 29, 2014 3:57 a.m.

    Hitman ended with Blood Money. Any game made under Square Enix flag isn't Hitman. Period.
  • HeavyTank - January 19, 2012 6:55 a.m.

    Oh come ooooonn!Meters?Pausing time?Are we still talking about a STEALTH game? Hitman games have always been about stealth...the originality came from the fact that you couldn't go run n' gun, but had to use your brain and not your reflexes to finish every level. Why would they have "room cleared" messages?That's just stupid..guards have intercoms, you can't just make the other guards forget about you.Having different levels of alertness is fine, but when everyone goes back to "basic guard mode" after you shoot everyone inside a room is just silly. I get it, everyone swarming on me after I was exposed annoyed me a lot too, I admit it.But this is not the way to deal with it. Dammit.And I was looking forward to this
  • Mar27w - January 19, 2012 3:45 a.m.

    great article,good to see a journo who has the balls to say what every loyal longterm Hitman fan has been thinking,the more cinematic story focused comments certainly has me worried,the game has always been about large expansive sandbox areas where story was left on the backburner and the player was just dropped into one of these realistic enviroments and left to his own devices deciding on his own navigation and when and where to take out the target,from what ive seen this has all been dumped in favour of an A to B system,the game has never been designed for hand holding casual gamers and thats the main reason it has gained such a loyal fanbase,if this turns out to be the case its most likely going to alienate the fans and end up one dead duck
  • Reaperman64 - January 16, 2012 12:03 p.m.

    I really cant stand the hitman games, but theyve always been pretty damn unique... I hope they dont become another SHMUP...
  • Larry Legdrop - January 13, 2012 10:36 a.m.

    Although absolution stands for forgiveness,I will not absolve them if they change the whole game completely from what it used to be.In my opinion,that would be dumber THAN MEEEEE!! (runs away wiping tears from my cheeks,hugging myself.)
  • sleepyMexican45 - January 12, 2012 10:51 a.m.

    Thanks Dave. Thanks a lot. Thanks or forcing me to choose a different game that I'm 'most looking forward to into 2012'. Great article. I too loved the intelligent, giant, and detailed sandbox levels of the old game that had multiple solutions and were incredibly difficult. They relied soley on either massive trial and error. Or a guide. If you wanted to play it right, you had to be good. And perfection was everything. When you finished a level earning the "silent assassin" ranking, it was totally worth the soul-destroying hours of gameplay you'd put into. Hitman 2 was fucking hard! If this game is a reskinned SC:C, it won't be bad, and I will get it, it'll just mean I'll have to by Blood Money again too! :p
  • el.waxa - January 12, 2012 3:44 a.m.

    Here's some food for thought, The way I see it the two scenarios that have been shown both have a "Get to X before Y happens" theme which implies a sense of ugency to acheive the goal. Streamlining and having a level that is more linear is probably better for Gameplay as well as Narrative, look at 'Contracts finale as a great example of what I mean. Rummaging around, exploring and following endless patterns of AI patrols would brake the Urgency feeling. Furthermore I read that they have gotten rid of the game map so I'd say in given scenario it needs to be clear to the player where to reach the objective. I honestly dont think that all of the levels are going to be this way because the idea of needing to do each level under an implied time limit would burn out.
  • mothbanquet - January 12, 2012 7:31 a.m.

    I just know that 'more flash, less substance' is ok for the short term but in the long run it won't keep people coming back or have them singing the game's praises for years to come (Mass Effect and Dragon Age spring to mind...).
  • GR_DavidHoughton - January 13, 2012 1:39 a.m.

    There was no time limit in the level. And I'm pretty sure I saw a map in the corner as well.
  • el.waxa - January 13, 2012 6 a.m.

    My bad on the map part I'm just trying to speculate the creative thought process based on the little information I know.
  • TheZigMan - January 11, 2012 3:21 p.m.

    If they ruin Hitman...Im gonna punch a baby
  • profile0000 - January 11, 2012 2:14 p.m.

    Uh oh. Now I'm a bit worried... Still excited, but concerned.
  • martez87 - January 11, 2012 1:34 p.m.

    I don't usually get like this about games; I usually give the developers the benefit of the doubt and see change as a good thing. But, please god no! Why fuck with a good thing? The thing that we all love about Hitman is its openness and the freedom it gives us to tackle a mission. Why remove the things that make the series unique and loved? It’s madness! Without these features the game loses its unique appeal and becomes just another generic action game. Who exactly are they making this game for? Certainly not fans of Hitman. Surely Hitman fans desire open levels, with multiple, varied ways to complete the objective. All of these things we would like to see because that is what drew us to the Hitman series in the first place. Of course, I am only basing my opinions on the couple of previews that I have read, so I will reserve judgement for when I see the game for myself. My only hope is that these linear missions are only a small part of the game, but as of right now I am extremely worried for the future of the Hitman series. :(
  • DICEs - January 11, 2012 1:06 p.m.

    The first mission in Blood Money was a linear level, so there may just be a few near the start to introduce new players into the game so they can get to grips with the controls and what it is possible to do before letting them loose on a more open level. Or they could just be adding some linear levels in to change the pace a little. I'm going to hold off on being upset until we have seen all the game has to offer
  • el.waxa - January 11, 2012 1:21 p.m.

    Good shout! P.s Has anyone else noticed the bandaid covering 47's barcode, This changes everything!
  • EngieIndeed - January 11, 2012 3:09 p.m.

    My thoughts exactly. That level in blood money showed off a bit of everything you could do: sniping/sneaking/gunning down everyone (with a shotgun, like this level). You pretty much killed everyone in almost every way possible in that level, which this level seems to be doing as well.
  • Meleedragon27 - January 11, 2012 3:17 p.m.

    I was actually going to say this same thing. Good to know I wasn't the only one who thought that. With that said, I don't think the demo should cause alarm just yet. Maybe what you played was only a tutorial level of sorts, Mr. Houghton?
  • GR_DavidHoughton - January 12, 2012 1:28 a.m.

    I totally get the similarities between this and Blood Money's opening level. But the thing that worries me is that IO have now done two separate demos using two separate levels, 6 months apart, and both have had this kind of linearity.
  • TheMasterJeef - January 11, 2012 12:43 p.m.

    R.I.P. stealth games as we know them. I really hope this isnt the way all stealth games will think of going in the future. I honestly cannot believe companies are altering stealth games for the impatient, instant action generation (impatience and stealth game now thats an oxymoron). I remember the days of the original Tenchu, and spending an hour on just one mission. Watching patrol routes, and staying silent and hidden, just so i could get the best possible rank. Or playing MGS on the PS1, lurking in lockers and boxes as guards marched past. If you want an action game play gears of war, or CoD. PLEASE dont butcher the stealth franchises out there.

Showing 1-20 of 29 comments

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