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Stealth games have obviously changed a lot since Hitman: Blood Money hit in 2006. They have become faster, more aggressive and more forgiving. in part thanks to Splinter Cell’s Conviction reboot and Rocksteady’s Arkham games. But games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, BioShock and the Elder Scrolls series have shown that games which nurture thoughtful player creativity can still be critical and commercial successes. That latter group have cultivated an environment in which a current-gen evolution of Hitman’s core strengths could flourish. But in terms of modern influences, Absolution seems at the moment to be squarely aiming at Bruce and Sam.
How tight is its aim? Absolution’s two biggest new gameplay features are Instinct and Point Shoot, Hitman’s versions of Batman’s Detective Vision and Splinter Cell’s Mark-and-Execute, respectively. Both are earned in the same way as SC: C’s multi-targeting auto-kill function, charged up by performing actions such as stealth-kills or headshots. Instinct allows 47 to see enemies through walls and view their projected patrol paths sketched out on the ground ahead of them in order to allow him to take evasive action while staying ahead of the curve.
Point Shoot stops time – for a good while it seems, given how long our demoer took over picking his targets – allowing 47 to flag up multiple prey or explosive bits of scenery for automatically executed gunfire. Trigger the process and you’re treated to multiple slow-motion camera angles of some seriously cinematic murderising. It’s far more visually affecting than Splinter Cell’s version of the idea, but the end result is the same. A room full of dead folk to step over as you walk away untroubled.
Realistically, Instinct mode need not be seen as a great deviation from Hitman’s traditional gameplay. In practice it essentially performs the same function as the radar, just painting the information over the surrounding environment rather than limiting it to a small box in the corner of the screen. Combined with Point Shoot though, it does seen rather indicative of the tone IO is taking with this new Hitman. Both are visually striking, stylised cinematic additions which both aid aggression and actively enourage it through the way they are unlocked for use. And cinematic aggression at the moment seems to be very much what Hitman: Absolution is all about.
But I’m not locking down my opinion on Hitman: Absolution yet. You see there’s still a chance that it isn’t simply a glossy, linear, stealth-tinged kill-em-up. Obviously I can only go off what IO and Square-Enix have chosen to show, and since the game’s E3 reveal we’ve seen nothing but examples of the above. And the repeated verbal references to 47’s awesome killing power – as opposed to the creativity or cunning for which he used to be best known – during yesterday’s demo did nothing to push my assumptions in any other direction. But I still hold out hope that there’s more to this game.
You see I talked to Christian Elverdam, Hitman: Absolution’s Gameplay Director yesterday. And obviously I pressed him on the game’s linearity. And he said a few things which make me think that there’s a small chance IO are still holding out on us. He mentioned that the AI is much more complex this time around, surely unnecessary in a straight linear sneaking game. He said that it’s still early days, and that IO is only showing a bit of the game at a time. He said that they want to demo areas that can easily be shown off via radically different gameplay approaches. He made conspicuous reference to an area of the game we haven’t seen yet, a mysterious new town called Hope, which is very much the focus of the lasts shots of a new trailer we saw yesterday.
Of course, there’s a good chance that all of the above is simply PR bluster, a way to deflect the obviously one-track questionings of a journo who has noticed that a much-loved series seems to have lost its identity amongst a sea of current-gen safe-bet design. And after all, how often does a game radically change its gameplay identity seven months after reveal? But maybe, just maybe, the Hitman demos so far have just been a way to get the less thinking-friendly players onboard with the franchise. Maybe a big bait-and-switch is coming, which will reveal that the linear bits we’ve seen so far are just an extended training period for more complex, non-linear gameplay to come. Maybe the game – the real game – will start when 47 arrives in Hope.
I really hope so anyway. Because from what I’ve seen so far, while Hitman is now undoubtedly a slick and artistically affecting take on Splinter Cell’s hide-and-kill schtick - and will no doubt provide a good old, satisfyingly murdery time when played on its own terms - it’s just not half as interesting as it used to be.
Fingers, toes and eyes crossed.