MediaStinger went into E3 this year watering at the mouth in anticipation of a sizeable lineup of upcoming blockbusters, but one game that’s been relatively under the radar that ultimately knocked our socks off was IO Interactive’s Hitman: Absolution. Not featured in any of the pre-E3 media events, the fifth installment of the series has gotten little press until now, as publisher Square Enix held private gameplay demonstrations behind closed doors this week. We were fortuitous to gain access to one such presentation on the third and final day of E3.
I’ve only casually played a couple of the previous Hitman games before the POS movie adaptation absolutely killed any lingering interest for me, so my expectations coming in were virtually nonexistent. Furthermore, we were merely minutes out of an impressive Tomb Raider (preview here) session, but Hitman: Absolution would quickly overshadow Lara Croft.
Hakan Bent Abrak, a producer at IO Interactive, briefly introduced the game to us before saying that he wouldn’t talk at all during the demonstration of the gameplay. Unlike all of the other screenings we attended behind closed doors this year at E3, not a single word from the developers was uttered during the gameplay. He didn’t have to because the beautiful game spoke for itself more than amply. Even titular character Agent 47 was mute nearly the entire time, taking a page out of Kurt Russell’s book in the movie Soldier. But it works perfectly because “like a predator stalking its prey, Agent 47 typically enjoys observing people, listening to the personal stories of richly detailed characters before making the hit.” This expertly refined storytelling element was a major factor that contributed to the Hitman: Absolution demo being one of the best cinematic experiences at E3 (it would’ve clearly been the best if not for BioShock: Infinite).
Before proceeding to detail what we witnessed, I need to give a spoiling warning here, so don’t read on if you want to explore Agent 47′s various path possibilities on your own. The demo started with a squad of police officers searching for Agent 47 in what looked like an abandoned, dilapidated library. From the beginning, Absolution gives the player vast freedom of choice in terms of how to tackle the situation. Like in previous Hitman games, Agent 47 can adopt a strategy of calculated stealth or can go Rambo at any time he pleases. Our demo employed the former to showcase an entertaining array of new and staple features of the series.
To help with sneaking through the maze of tall bookshelves, Absolution gives the player a brand-new, metered feature called Instinct. Designed to reflect Agent 47′s training, Instinct lets you “see the world through the eyes of Agent 47″ by highlighting key objects or areas of interest (think Splinter Cell: Conviction meets The Bourne Identity). To maneuver past policemen in the library, the player can use Instinct to even see predicted patrol paths. Our Agent 47 used this feature to avoid cops methodically; the ones he decided not to spare were dispatched with different objects that the player found. After choking out a cop with his bare hands, he used a power cord to choke another one, then a marble bust to bash the next one’s skull, and then a baton from one of the previous cops to choke out yet another one.
Throughout this entire sequence, it was a real pleasure to listen to these NPCs talk to one another. Their in-depth conversations helped drive the plot and was relevant to the onscreen action. IO Interactive really nailed it with this rewarding aspect. Once Agent 47 reached the other end of the library, the player used a rookie cop as a hostage to negotiate his way closer towards a staircase. As the rest of the cops closed in and demanded Agent 47 to release the apologetic and blubbering human shield, the player decided to execute him before fleeing up the stairs.
At the top of the stairs, Instinct revealed a weak spot in a structure that came crashing down onto the pursuing cops once the player shot it. Instinct then helped him find an escape route, and the player managed to get to an adjacent roof. However, a helicopter’s gunfire forced the player to take shelter in a rooftop building. Another cop scanning the area was taken down by Agent 47, and this is when the player decided to use the officer’s clothes as a disguise to safely to get to the next building despite the chopper’s presence.
The top floor of this building turned out to be a marijuana growhouse and home to a group of hippie stoners, who reacted to the commotion outside in different ways. One guy, thinking that the cops had finally found him, frantically tried to flush a plant down the toilet. A second guy quipped that maybe the cops just wanted to hang out. Another guy was totally in his own world and smoking on the couch. When the real cops busted through the door, the player directed Agent 47 to grab a bong and break it over the first cop’s face before shooting the next ones.
As he calmly walked down the hallway outside with the demo coming to an end, the player (still in cop clothes) used Instinct when real cops were nearby to prevent detection. This manifested as Agent 47 pretending to talk into his shoulder-mounted radio. Hakan explained that these actions are dependent on the current disguise; if Agent 47 was in a doctor’s white coat, he would’ve pretended to write on a prescription pad or read a patient’s file. Hakan also explained that the possibilities to get through the level are endless. For example, the player could have donned a policeman disguise early in the library. But instead, he ninja’ed his way through most of that area and crept up on most of the cops, similar to how Hitman: Absolution seemed to come out of nowhere to become our Biggest Surprise of E3 2011.
The trailer ended with a teaser showing Agent 47 walking into a fully populated city and disappearing into the crowd. I didn’t want this demo to end, and I wasn’t even playing it. I would have been content to watch the entire thing like a movie, so I’ll definitely be picking up Hitman: Absolution when it comes out sometime in 2012.