In just over a month, the tortuous six-year wait for a new Hitman will be over. Fans have begged IO Interactive for the return of Agent 47 throughout this entire console generation (when not asking for Freedom Fighters 2, of course), and after the various disappointments of two Kane & Lynch games, it looks like the Danish devs premier franchise is set to make one hell of an impressive comeback in the form of Hitman: Absolution.
Its been a long hard road, paved with hope, disappointment, and multiple (ultimately unfounded) fears that 47 had lost sight of his strategic sandbox roots. But now we know the truth. Hitmans meticulously-planned murderising is about to make a grand return, in possibly the series most accomplished entry yet. Here's what's exciting us in particular.
It's open-world assassination on an unprecedented scale
This is Hitman on a scale youve never seen before. While the series has always revelled in the emergent, Machiavellian murder opportunities afforded by its miniature open-worlds, everything is dialled up in Absolution. In terms of size, opportunity, variety and freedom, the new game looks positively decadent. If you need a worked example, check out the video playthrough of the Streets of Hope level. Where before 47 did his killing in mansions and opera houses, here he has an entire chunk of town to play with.
Any of the sub-locations in the Streets of Hope map would almost have been big enough to carry a whole level in a previous Hitman game. Chained together though, they not only allow for a much greater and more coherent sense of place, they also provide a vastly increased number of options and gameplay beats within a single levels emergent narrative. Hitman now looks to demand a much cleverer mastery of action and consequence, with way more inter-linking situations to play with and way more potential repercussions to manage.
Instinct mode makes you a truly professional predator
Hitman is about being a shark. Not literally, obviously. A gun-toting land-fish would be easy to see coming. But in essence, thats what Agent 47 is. A powerful, silent hunter. A huge slab of invisible death cutting a path through his surroundings with the utmost capability. And its hard to balance that sort of empowerment in a genre thats inherently about evasion.
Absolutions Instinct ability though, looks to have that balance nailed. Feeding information about NPC positions, predicted paths of movement, and useful environmental features directly to 47s eyes via a nice flaming X-ray effect, its a smart and effective way of allowing him to remain pro-active rather than reactive. Instinct gives him enough of an upper hand to avoid the panicked surprises and embarrassing bouts of running away suffered by so many video game stealth professionals, but crucially doesnt dumb the game down. Being a rationed ability, there s no chance of players using it all the way through the game, as happened with Arkham Asylums Detective visor. Youll be able to stay one step ahead, but only one.
It's another visual landmark for this generation
What is it with Scandinavian developers and beautiful, winter-themed game engines? First DICE blows everyone away with Frostbite 2, and now IO are running Hitman on the painfully pretty Glacier 2 engine. Hitman: Absolution is one of those rare games that looks so good in motion that youd claim you were looking at a flick-book made out of artificially touched-up promotional art if you didnt know better. And whats more, Glacier 2seems versatile enough to create images worthy of framing in any sort of level conditions.
Whether its the rich, dense, inky black shadows of the early library level, the vibrant, hazy, sun-bleached streets of small-town America, or simply the shimmering rain pouring down the sides of Agent 47s highly polished head, Hitman: Absolution looks to represent a hell of an exciting visual leap forward. And at this stage of the current console generation thats no small achievement.
Infiltration is about being cocky, calm and clever
Agent 47s ability to change outfits in exactly no seconds flat has been instrumental to many a creative killing solution over the years, particularly when deep infiltration has been a prerequisite. But despite being a standard Hitman trope, disguises have never been balanced quite right. In Hitman 2 for instance, they barely worked. And in Blood Money, disguises could almost be too effective.
This time though, things are more cleverly implemented. The right outfit will help you blend in, but get too close to those youre imitating and theyll recognise you as an impostor. To blend in at close range, youll need to act the part as well as look it. 47 can obscure his face with a police hat. He can fool a guard by pretending to talk into a radio. He can even engage in environment-specific activities like using a doughnut-scoffing exchange to fool a quizzical cop. Effective disguises now need to be maintained and augmented with intelligent, nuanced interaction, which is exactly what really smart infiltration is all about.
Even the linear levels bring immense creative opportunity
Hitman: Absolutions early, linear, kill-heavy demos saw many fans fear that the series had strayed from its free-form roots. They neednt have worried. Even when levels demand forward momentum, the games design remains open enough to allow 47 to play with the world however he likes along the way.
The library level is a great example, Do you avoid the cops outright? Do you go crazy and turn the whole level into one big cover-shooter? Do you go Predator and spend half an hour creatively picking them off one by one? The ecosystem of environment and AI look to allow ample opportunity for homemade mini-sandbox situations every step of the journey. You need not even stick to one approach, either. With more nuanced layers of enemy alertness this time, along with much slicker transitions between stealth and 47s newly proficient all-out combat moves, Hitman no longer cuts the player loose to fend for themselves if they accidentally (or deliberately) unleash an all-out firefight. Hitmans linear levels may follow a script of sorts, but the player is very much the director.
Agent 47 is killing his way through a strikingly real place
Ironically for a game thats all about the killing, Hitman: Absolution looks to have one of the most living, breathing worlds weve seen in a video game in a long time. It all starts with the mission structure. Where before Agent 47 remained under strict guidelines for each job, this time around the internal story of each level is much more organically delivered. Without an external handler dishing out the orders, objectives can be added, developed and evolved in an instant based on 47s own first-hand discoveries throughout each mission.
The extra scale of Absolutions levels also affords much more scope for mini-narratives between the NPCs to be observed and manipulated. No longer simple walking action figures, even the most innocuous background characters now have personalities, relationships and individual motivations. The game is packed with (often darkly funny) incidental character moments at every turn, and characters with different roles and personalities will have completely different routines and reactions. Agent 47s meaty toys just got a whole lot more interesting.
You can escape arrest using the power of disco
Even hardened cops are powerless against the all-consuming force of a good bassline. During one particularly tricky evasive moment in a building over-run by a police search team, its entirely possible to make your escape undetected by simply powering up the owners party room.
Fire up the lights, crank up the music, and the cops guarding the front door will head over to check it out. But while theyll come for the investigation, theyll stay for the beats, nervously suggesting some impromptu downtime before kicking back and deciding to party. The cops cut a rug, and 47 is free to cut more throats, walking straight out of the building without the slightest interruption. Its a brilliantly human, cleverly emergent solution to a very serious problem, and thus a great indication of the direction Absolution is taking.
Contracts mode is a beautifully creative solution to online play
Traditional competitive multiplayer would have been a messy fit for a game centred around Machiavellian planning, so IO is wisely providing throw-downs of a different kind, by way of the asynchronous Contracts mode.
Players create custom hits within the main campaign maps, and then challenge each other to complete them while fulfilling stipulated criteria. Any NPC in the level can be a target; in fact you can demand up to three kills in any one Contract. But to ensure that the required marks and methods comprise a plausible challenge, however tricky, IO has done away with traditional level editor tools in favour of a design it by doing it system. You simply enter the map, explore it within real in-game conditions, plan your Contract, and execute. The game will record everything, right down to the disguises and weapons used, and then spit out your custom mission once youre done. The system should allow the creation of complex challenges without ever feeling like work, which in turn should lead to a really healthy output of community creations from the very start.
It's a love-letter to the Hitman community
Hitman: Absolution is undeniably a product of IOs respect for its loyal and long-standing fanbase. For starters, the studio has explicitly stated that Contracts mode was directly inspired by the countless fan playthrough videos that have hit YouTube over the years. The Hitman community has long plumbed the series depths in order to find increasingly clever and contrived ways of completing its challenges, and Contracts is intended as an interactive extension of that culture. Indeed, once the game is out, IO will be hand-picking community Contracts as weekly leaderboard challenges.
Similarly, when the dumbed-down Instinct mode led to many hardcore fans decrying the game as a simplified sell-out, IO countered by not only announcing an ultra-hard, Instinct-free, HUDless difficulty setting available from the start of the game, but by naming the dread beast Purist Mode as a mark of respect. Forget any fears. IO knows who Agent 47s fans are, and it knows how to look after them. And that can only bode for very exciting things as the game and its community inevitably evolve in the months following launch.
Looking like a hit to you?
So those are our reasons for being excited about Hitman: Absolution. But by nature of being a Hitman game, this is a huge multi-faceted beauty of a thing. Is there anything else you've seen in the game that has you dying to do some killing? Let us know in the comments.
We're just over halfway through this week-long celebration of late-2012's most exciting games. Why don't you catch up, by reading XCOM: Enemy Unknown - 9 reasons we're excited to tactically frag some aliens and Need for Speed: Most Wanted - 9 reasons we're ready for fresh cars (and carnage).