On a cold, wet morning back in May Pocket-Lint descended on a top secret London location. The target: to get our mitts on the latest Hitman title. Needless to say we didn’t have the stealthy grace of Hitman's barcoded assassin hero, Agent 47, but we did land a full gameplay session with the pre-beta version of Hitman: Absolution.
It’s been some six years since Hitman: Blood Money, the game’s predecessor, graced the previous generation of consoles, and some five years since the Hollywood movie adaptation hit the big screen. So what’s with the hiatus and has the wait been worth it?
Brand new engine
Episode two, "The King Of Chinatown", opens with a smooth cut scene that sets the tone. Your goal, unsurprisingly: to kill the king of Chinatown. Information is fed down the phone in a gritty voice that gives clues as to how to take out your target, and then it’s hands to controllers and off we go.
So far, so normal.
But boy does it look good. From the get go it’s clear to see how much detail there is in this game. A few paces in and the gates of Chinatown fling open, prompting the camera to crane upwards, as in a movie. Flames flicker from a street food chef’s pan, people – dozens, if not hundreds of them – fill the streets, each moving and interacting in their own way, and subtle lighting casts colours on the surrounding buildings.
Graphically Hitman: Absolution has been built from the ground up – the engine has been made to accommodate all the quirks of the game, and both the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions we played showed no sign of slowdown. There is a draw distance where detail diminishes and characters’ faces are made up of fewer polygons, but otherwise this title is a looker.
Chatting to Luke Valentine, Producer at IO Interactive, it was clear how proud he was of the game’s engine. “It’s something we’ve built from scratch. It’s nothing that we’ve licensed. Every aspect of it we’ve developed.”
But it's not just the graphics that are on point. From the Inception-esque "daaa daaa" soundtrack to the voice acting, it's delivered in a fluid package. There's detail to be found here too: pause for a moment and muse in the irrelevant whitterings of a passer-by, which helps to expand the realism of this virtual world.
Stealth: a return to form?
That’s the graphics box well and truly ticked then. The other thing that strikes us is the game’s pace. This isn’t a fast game; it’s all about being inconspicuous, something that stealth genre fans will be all too familiar with.
There’s no GTA-style "tap to run" button or (if you play it right) violence without consequence to be found here - you need to think before you act otherwise it’s doggie doodoo land for you.
After a recent swathe of stealth genre game releases, some good, some bad, some just dire, we have to ask what makes Hitman special. Valentine tells us that it’s, "the character, for sure. The world of Hitman is pretty special," adding, "It’s 'stealthy' but also contemporary [which] enables us to create a certain amount of freedom that other game series don’t have."
All we know is that stealth fans will be keen on the game’s pace, but also its diversity of free choice.
The free world
There’s more than one way to skin a cat, or so the saying goes. Hitman: Absolution’s world offers a similar choice, albeit without any harm to our feline friends.
Within Chinatown a little exploration reveals all manner of characters and devices.
First things first, the sharp suit makes Agent 47 stick out like a sore thumb. Dispatching someone in a back alley can take care of that, but it’s not essential to complete any one scenario. Characters don different clothes - whether uniform, suit, casual or other distinctive, and, to the point useful, attire. Each has its own special quality that can be used to advance through the game.
Throughout our play session we killed the king by sniper bullet to the brain, by splicing his fish supper with excessive amounts of illegal-looking white powder, and by blowing him to smithereens beside his prized European car. There are plenty of other ways to take the main man out too, but we don’t want to spoil all the surprises.
The way you choose to dispatch the target will provoke reactions based on the surroundings. In Chinatown, for example, the crowd might whip up into a frenzy and flee, running for their lives. It’s a realistic feeling world where actions have consequences.
And just to make things that bit harder you might also find a SWAT team called or various private guards on your case. How you react and what you do next will dictate whether you continue in the game or exit the level unnoticed and advance to the next stage.
All of this happens at the same, slow, inconspicuous pace – but it’ll set your mind racing. It’s a thinking man’s game, not a "plough through and cross yer fingers" smashathon.
As well as the variety of choice, the "normal" difficulty setting we played is complemented by easy, hard, expert and purist difficulties. Normal has its own challenges, and although other difficulties were not available to play in the preview, we suspect that Absolution will keep even the most hardened of gamers challenged.
It looks like there’s a lot of life to be had, although there’s no specific nod - at least as yet - as to how long this game will be. "We haven’t announced 'this is a game that is x hours long', but suffice to say that it’s a game that takes place over several acts. And it is big," Valentine asserts.
But the very mention of multiplayer and it seems we hit the information wall: "We’re not discussing any online modes right now," he continues.
A similar response is met when queried as to why the game has been out of the public eye for so long. "It’s something we’re not actually discussing. But it’s no secret that Hitman: Blood Money came out in 2006 … so it’s already six years plus. There’s no particular reason."
Whatever the reason, we’re sure there’ll still be fans eager to play this slice of stealth pie. Not least on account of its bloody, adult content.
Although the game is not yet rated, we're sure it’ll come stickered with a big "18" rating in the UK.
This isn’t a sugar-coated affair. The opening trailer - which depicts nun assassins in leather catsuits murdered, some by rosary bead strangulation - is all about making a big, graphic impression.
"It wouldn’t please my granny," Valentine confesses.
"But we don’t sit in meetings working out how to upset people. We understand that with this kind of content that we might. But that’s not our motivation. We want to make something that’s entertaining and fun."
Sometimes a little controversy can spark an interest. Even if there’s no “reason” for the long wait, it’s got us hooked, though we doubt that this will be a title for everyone.
Hitman: Absolution is expected to be launched this September.
More Hitman: Absolution content will be available come this year’s E3 Expo in Los Angeles. Pocket-Lint will be there to bring up to the minute info. What do you make of the game so far? Is the stealth genre dead, or will Absolution bring a fresh approach?