It's been five years since the last Hitman game, but it almost feels longer when you consider how much the killer-for-hire genre has grown in the interim, thanks to Ubisoft's wildly popular Assassin's Creed franchise. Clearly developer Io Interactive realizes it can't go back to the same old well for the upcoming Hitman Absolution because what we've seen of this game suggests a noticeably different look for the franchise. It's more cinematic, more stylish, and runs on technology that plays with light and shadows in a way that Hitman games never quite could previously. While we didn't get a chance to pick up a controller to see how it plays, we will say this: Absolution is certainly looking awfully nice.
Agent 47 is a man on the run in Hitman Absolution. The level we were shown took place in a dilapidated Chicago library, with 47 caught in the middle of what game director Tore Blystad calls a "citywide manhunt." Our bald antihero began looking down from a high balcony as a swarm of police officers chatted with one another about where the suspect (read: you) might be hiding and how to best sniff him out. The library felt like a condemned building, with a mess of books scattered about and substantial damage to the building interior. It was an eerie atmosphere that was made creepier by the fact that the entire library was enveloped in darkness, save for the occasional flickering of lightning and the flashlights of patrolling police officers.
In keeping with Hitman's penchant for stealth, 47 used that darkness to his advantage to sneak around the bottom floor of the library and methodically pick off one enemy at a time on his route toward some kind of improvised escape. The death toll was as grim as it was varied: One cop was strangled by a stray power cord, one was bludgeoned with a bust, one was sent tumbling down a series of collapsed floors, and another was choked with a nightstick until death arrived with a grisly "pop" sound. Throughout this killing streak, 47 was climbing around like a monkey, scaling ledges, dropping from balconies, and just generally dancing around the patrolling cops like a ballerina. Of course, he did have one very substantial advantage: a new tool called instinct, which functions a lot like detective vision in Batman: Arkham Asylum. It's an alternate vision mode that outlines enemies--very useful in this dark and ominous library level--and gives you a small visible pathway that your enemy is walking along.
It wasn't all pulling off clean kills and lurking in the darkness for 47, though. The jig was up once he grabbed a police officer and turned him into a hostage/human shield for the purpose of making a slow, backward ascent up a flight of stairs. As the cops swarmed around him with guns aimed squarely at his head, the music began to swell. Then, 47 reached the top of the stairs, and without warning, he broke the cop's neck to make a mad dash for the top floor of the library. He quickly stepped out onto a fire escape followed by a dramatic cutscene that revealed the bad news: All that was waiting for him outside was a torrential downpour and one angry police helicopter shining its searchlight directly on him. All of this was accompanied by music that, by this point, had grown into full-on industrial metal--a thunderous soundtrack to match the heightened action.
Then, 47 fled from the helicopter and its blinding light in a slick chase scene capped off by a slow-motion leap from one building to another. Things calmed down as he found an unfortunate Chicago cop wandering the rooftops by himself, who quickly became fodder for the chance to steal a policeman's outfit. Indeed, once again, you'll be able to borrow outfits from fallen foes to disguise yourself among your pursuers. What followed was a moment of relative comic relief, as 47 strolled from the roof into an apartment filled with potheads either scrambling to hide their drugs or too stoned to notice the man dressed as a cop who just walked into their hideout. But 47 had no issues with them, as he snuck out into the hallway where another bunch of cops were knocking on doors of other apartments in search of our bald hero.
Every time 47 passed by a group of cops, the scene seemed to slow down to half speed as he pulled his cap down low to avoid being caught. This all happened in a slick, stylish way that managed to feel less like a break in the pace and more like the subtle ebb and flow of dramatic tension. Soon enough, after another series of dramatic near encounters with police officers, 47 managed to sneak out of the building and out onto a crowded train platform. At this point, the camera pulled out, and 47 was little more than a speck in the darkened, rain-soaked crowd. Escape successful.
And that was our introductory look at Hitman Absolution. It's a game that seems to be aiming for more of a scripted, cinematic style than previous games in the series. We like how well executed the drama was and the way the game stylishly painted 47 as a lethal wrecking ball on the run. But at the same time, one of the greatest parts of previous games was the sandbox nature of level design--the way you were free to approach a given assignment with a relatively wide assortment of options and pathways. It will be interesting to see just how focused Absolution is on telling its story the way it wants to and how much choice the player has as a result. This level seemed to offer a little bit of both, as the first half in the library was a pretty wide-open sandbox for 47 to knock off enemies causing him trouble. But once he made it onto the roof, it seemed as though he was funneled into one specific path to focus on the scripted visual flourishes.
Other questions abound, as well. During this demo, it always seemed like there was an extremely useful weapon placed right before an enemy encounter, whether it was the aforementioned power cord or bust or the bong sitting right before the doorway of the pothead hideout that you could use to bludgeon a pair of police officers who stormed in looking for you. Blystad mentioned he wants Absolution to be less punishing than previous games, but we're hoping that doesn't simply mean every solution and every kill is spelled out for you in great big letters. After all, the payoff of experimentation has always been one of the hallmarks of the franchise. And beyond difficulty, there's also the question of how the game design will change with 47 being on the defensive rather than the offensive. Traditionally you've always been the man in control, sneaking into a target's stronghold and taking your sweet time studying the best way to assassinate him. Now, you're seemingly on the run from everyone--a la Jason Bourne--and that change is bound to have some consequences.
If nothing else, this demo certainly managed to pique our interest in the new stylish direction that Io Interactive is taking the Hitman series. While we didn't get a chance to pick up a controller, it's clear from looking at Absolution that it is being developed with an attention to detail and visual artistry that you don't see very often. Now we're eager to grab that controller to find out how much of what we've seen is just a fancy new visual wrapping and how much is a core shift in the traditional Hitman gameplay formula. Stay tuned.
Editor's Note: The original version of this story was mistakenly published with placeholder text where the editor intended to include the name of game director Tore Blystad. GameSpot regrets the error.