Long before today's ADHD-addled kids indulged in a bit of shooting interspersed with pretty cutscenes, IO Interactive's Hitman series let determined gamers step into the shoes of a bald master assassin. Focusing on stealth, it followed the footsteps of the Thief and Metal Gear Solid franchises—they focussed on a slow, deliberate brand of gameplay that requires a great deal of patience as you transform into a ghost and take down foes unnoticed. Not one for those lacking discipline and discretion, the Hitman franchise has always embraced a style of gaming that rewards meticulous planning over twitch and gung-ho attitude. However, the real draw was the high of knowing that you're right at the top of the food chain—a silent assassin killing with surgical precision as he clears out a room full of baddies, one by one until there's nobody left.
Unlike your regular FPS fare though, games of Hitman's calibre aren't meant for everyone. They call for a greater degree of determination and commitment, and are a class apart from the simplified tripe that's being churned out to appease the larger casual audience. That's why I was rather apprehensive when I heard that Hitman: Absolution will be nerfed to accommodate everyone. The very idea of having countless tutorial prompts and obvious hints babying you around in a game as hardcore as Hitman is a travesty. And so, I fired up the preview copy with a heavy heart and braced myself for what I imagined would be Hitman on training wheels.
Someone's about to get a splitting headache
I didn't even have to hit the “Start Game” button to know that that wasn't to be the case. The Options menu shows difficulty settings cleaved into two columns—”Enhanced” for n00bs and “Professional” for those who seek the unadulterated Hitman experience. Each mode is further divided into various levels of difficulty that dictate enemy strength, numbers, hints provided, health and the number of save points. What's more, these settings can be tweaked individually—right in the middle of a game—to let you create your own customised level of difficulty by mixing and matching various parameters. IO has deftly managed to make Hitman accessible to everyone without diluting the experience for purists.
I fired up the preview in the Enhanced mode and a slick cutscene later I'm told that the mission involves killing your International Contract Agency handler Diana Burnwood. Wow, that escalated pretty quickly! Serving as a sort of prologue for the new storyline, this is one big tutorial level seamlessly integrated into a mission. You really need this large a tutorial because, like Blood Money, the scope of things Agent 47 can do will overwhelm most of us unless we learn it on the go. The level starts off at the gates of the Burnwood mansion, where you're taught the ropes of how to slink about and garrotte baddies unnoticed, hide their bodies and generally, how the stealth mechanics work.
There are plenty of ways to kill, but the idea is to strangle your enemies with your trusty piano wire and hide their bodies in dumpsters, refrigerators, closets and many other places of interest. Even if you screw up, you can hide along with the bodies and peek around till the coast is clear. Dragging and stashing bodies away from sight may seem laborious, but it's an essential task because the enemy AI will detect any anomalies and raise an alarm. Once that happens, it is bye-bye silent killer, because the only means of dealing with a large area swarming with goons is to whip out your automatic weapons and engage in some good old-fashioned cover-based combat.
However, choking enemies with a wire isn't the only means to kill silently. Even if you are detected, you can feign surrender, and a quick time-based hand-to-hand combat sequence later, you'll have the baddie as a hostage; you can then knock him out or use him as a human shield to take out his colleagues. The idea here is to avoid guns and bloody ways to kill altogether, because patrolling guards will notice blood stains and call for backup.
A good hitman keeps himself organised
For this reason, a killer of Agent 47's calibre can transform pretty much anything in the environment into a weapon. Use a knife to slit a guard's throat and then throw it bang into another guard's eye to prevent him from raising an alarm. Combat is a cleanly choreographed ballet of carnage if you know how to handle Agent 47. Even seemingly innocuous things lyring around, such as coffee mugs, hardcover books and vases can kill.
All of this is made easy with the new Instinct Mode that lets Agent 47 see enemies and objectives through walls, predict patrol paths and perform more cool stuff. In the lower difficulties, you either get unlimited instinct or it drains at a ridiculously slow rate. This made the proceedings far too easy in the Enhanced mode, but once I switched to the Professional mode right in the middle of the game, it took me to the last checkpoint, which brought about a profound change. The HUD was inconspicuous apart from a crosshair, while enemies were numerous and more alert. Although health and instinct meters emptied quickly, they didn't regenerate either. Of course, all of these parameters can be individually tweaked, but playing in the Professional mode forces you to watch enemy paths and soak in the environment to plan your attack. Any monkey business here is dealt with mercilessly. Just like old times, you see.
Yes, disguises are back in this instalment
Sneak melee attacks aren't always viable and there are times when you just have to reach out and touch your enemies. Precision shooting with pistols is cleverly achieved by using the initial travel of the analogue trigger to steady your aim, just like a two-step trigger that let you achieve focus in a camera. Squeeze the trigger and the goon's melon explodes in slow mo. Everyone screws up, so in the event that you have a room swarming with enemies, you can use your instinct to perform point shooting. This puts you in a quasi turn-based mode that freezes enemies even as your instinct bar depletes. Just like the VATS (Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System) mode from the Fallout games, you can target individual enemies and sit back as Agent 47 brings them all down quickly in a slick animated sequence.
With all the basics covered, I headed deeper into the mansion, which required falling back on the disguise system. It works just like the previous games—you can fool everyone but the same class of enemies that you've “borrowed” the disguise from. For example, dress up like a gardener and you'll be ignored by the security guards, but another gardener will see right through you. Even then, using Instinct mode will allow you to blend in and fool these types of enemies as well. Doing that needs careful planning in the higher difficulties, because Instinct is precious and needs to be used judiciously.
Dr Kevorkian sends his regards
Preview code isn't necessarily polished, but Hitman: Absolution impressed with its slick visuals and detailed sound design. The level of ambient detail in both scenery and sound gave the impression of a well-done, finished product and not an unfinished preview copy. The frame rates were at a solid 60 fps at all times and my only gripe is its use of an annoying colour filter, just like the one used in Max Payne 3 and Dirt 3. Can we please have the full colour palette for a change?
The attention to detail is evident in other elements such as the chatter between guards. This is strongly reminiscent of the clever implementation in the No One Lives Forever (NOLF) games. For example, in one segment the only way into the mansion is through a lone window guarded by a single henchman. I couldn't help but overhear him talking on the phone about how he beat cancer, which makes it all the more ironic when you are forced to enter by yanking him out of the window to his death. There are plenty of moments such as these that make you go from a chuckle to seriously contemplating if you're killing just a bunch of polygons or a poor, loving husband and a father to someone. Like I said, this is very NOLF-esque, which is always a good thing.
12 gauge birth control
The next level effectively showed what the Glacier 2 engine is capable of. You're supposed to score a hit right in the middle of a busy market in China Town, in the midst of hundreds of pedestrians crowding the square. The only time I have seen so many NPCs rendered on-screen was in the Dead Rising games. Not only can the engine handle such complexity without compromising on textures and object detail, the framerate surprisingly never dropped below 60 despite all this. The crowd AI is done up well; draw a weapon and everyone keeps their distance, thereby exposing you like a neon-lit pinata. Take a baddie down in the middle of the crowd and the crowd cover immediately disperses, thus opening you to enemy fire. However, that's not always a bad thing as it lets you blend in and escape prying eyes, in addition to making diversions easier.
That's Dr 47 performing bypass surgery
The main draw of that level lies in the number of ways the game lets you achieve the objective. You can create a diversion and draw his security cover elsewhere to make your job easier. If you want to be more discreet, you can take him down in a drug dealer's apartment. Not into drugs? Well, why not booby-trap his beloved car with some trusty C4? There is a delirious amount of diversity in the number of ways you can complete your objectives. There's a lot of time that can be spent stalking enemies and clearing out a large room, but keeping your ears and eyes open can let you do the job quicker, for instance, by sneaking into the kitchen and drugging the food meant for the guards when the chef isn't looking. I spent well over an hour in the China Town mission trying out various permutations and combinations of achieving the same objective, and I stumbled upon a new way to complete the same level every single time.
At the heart of the gameplay lies a binary distinction between clean missions and the times when you mess up and are forced to go Rambo. Even then, the excellent cover mechanics and precise localised damage let you take on multiple foes in a desperate fire fight. In fact, if your careless actions end up drawing enemy reinforcements, the game penalises you by forcing you to kill every single hostile “witness” before you can exit the area. Your track record is also calculated by a points system that rewards stealth kills and penalises sloppiness. These points in turn unlock Assassin Techniques that permanently boost Agent 47's attributes or let him master deadly skills and moves. Overall, the game tolerates incompetence to an extent, but it penalises you in terms of lower rewards and the headache of dealing with a large number of foes.
You thought you'd get away with posting crap in the comments section, did you?
Each of the five-odd missions I played had its own signature feel in terms of visuals, level design, and gameplay approach. There are times when the game generates tension by placing you in a crowded railway station, as you desperately try to dodge the pursuers while waiting for the train to arrive. At the same time, there are moments of hilarity, like when you inadvertently lead a pursuing SWAT right into the middle of hippy weed farmers, which creates enough of a diversion for you to sneak past a maze of indoor weed plantations and hydroponics. The hotel level, for example, has its own network of air vents for you to traverse through undetected. In a nutshell, I never found the same gameplay element repeated too often between levels, which speaks volumes about the level of effort that has gone into this game.
With a premise this interesting and a smorgasbord of homicidal options on offer, this game seems poised to offer an experience that will prove to be exhilarating not only on the first play through, but when you return to try the same challenges on a harder difficulty too. I won't reveal any of what I sampled in terms of the plot, but Agent 47 will face what seems to be shaping up into a deep and engaging experience that shows shades of Luc Besson's masterpiece—Leon: The Professional. With a perfect combination of graphics, gameplay and narrative, Hitman: Absolution has every chance of ending up as the big hit of this year.
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