- Developer: IO Interactive
- Publisher: Square Enix
- Platform: Xbox 360, PS3, PC
- Release Date: 20 November
- Price: TBC
For the first time at Eurogamer 2012, I'm pleased to see a queue. I'm at the Hitman: Absolution stand, and there are at least 30 people waiting to play, and maybe another 30 already embroiled in 47's latest outing.
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I didn't expect such a generous turn out: After some bad press earlier this year (the omni-sexist "Attack of the Saints" trailer did serious damage to the Absolution PR campaign) I thought the IO Interactive team might have had a hard time wrangling customers.
Thankfully not. Hitman's been away for away for awhile, but it's still one of the smartest, funniest series of the last console generation. This 360/PS3 instalment hits shelves on 20 November, but it only takes a half-hour wait before I've got my hands on it.
And again, I'm relieved. In the build-up to Absolution - the trailers, the interviews, the screenshots - there was a lot of noise made about new features and improved combat. Great for any other game, sure; wrong for Hitman.
Agent 47 has always been ungainly when it comes to shootouts, but I liked that. His cackhanded un-skills with firearms forced me to find a sneakier, cleverer path through levels. Make him into an able gunman, and a lot of players - myself included - are liable to throw their hands up at more difficult levels and just start shooting.
That's what I was worried about, but after five minutes with the demo, it's clear IO has got the balance just right.
Agent 47 has a lot of new tricks, such as Instinct - an on-the-fly kind of radar system that highlights enemies and their movements - and Point Shooting, which lets you pull off flawless, automatic headshots so long as you've racked up enough points.
But they don't spoil the game, they just make it quicker. What Absolution is, and what previous Hitman games painfully were not, is streamlined: Instead of having to dip in and out of your map to check where baddies are going, Instinct shows you without breaking your flow.
Rather than painstakingly shuffling 47 into a hiding place, you just tap a button to make him hug the wall, hide in a dumpster, get behind cover and so on. You still need to be smart about it - very smart if you want the best rankings - but IO has taken the frustration away. Hitman has always been a puzzle game; now it's more fun to solve than ever.
My target was a local gangster, who called himself the King of Chinatown. Hanging out on a pagoda in the middle of a food market, guarded by corrupt cops, he seemed impossible to get to. Shooting him from afar wasn't an option: I'm excruciatingly precise when it comes to Hitman, and with a queue of onlookers breathing down my neck, I'd be damned if this guy wasn't flawlessly executed.
So I took my time, and wandered around the typically gorgeous, classically Hitman level for a while. Colourful, varied and lively, IO still has it when it comes to building environments.
It reminded me of the Mardi Gras level, from Hitman: Blood Money - the hustle and bustle of a packed, civilian crowd made for a perfect hiding place, but also meant a lot of score-lowering bloodshed if things got out-of-hand. I had to be careful.
Eventually, amid the crowd, I spotted a shifty looking gangster-type in shades and tracksuit. Trailing him through the alleys and the food stalls, I spied him chatting with the King about setting up a drug deal later that day. The dealer had to make a few calls; the King wanted him back in five minutes.
This was my chance. Shadowing the crook back behind a shop, I wrestled him into a headlock, choked him unconscious and pinched his clothes.
Chucking him into a dumpster, I casually strolled back to my target-proper and let him know the deal was on, follow me. Back in the same alleyway, it was simply a case of picking 47's trademark garrote wire out the inventory, and then finding another dumpster.
Slipping back into my suit, I sauntered out the level the same way I'd come in. Everyone watching was very impressed, I'm sure.
First impressions? Very good. The new gameplay mechanics don't suffocate the old Hitman style the way I thought they would; instead, they let it breathe more clearly than ever. I doubt the level I played will be much more than a tutorial in the game itself (even for a Hitman novice, pah, that was pretty easy) but nevertheless, it felt suitably new and reassuringly old at the same time.
But that wasn't all the Absolution on show at Eurogamer. Later in the day, Torben Ellert, Hitman's lead designer, and Christian Elverdam, gameplay director, gave a presentation on the new 'Contracts' mode, a brand new feature which Ellert calls "highly innovative social gaming."
Contracts lets players create their own levels, but not from scratch. Using the single-player missions as a template, they can pick up to three targets, and set parameters like weapon restrictions, number of alarms raised; right down to what clothing 47 must wear. And it's all done while playing. While Ellert helmed the control-pad, Elverdam talked us through Contracts:
"Our fans said they had started looking at the old games, and picking their own targets and daring their friends to kill them in a certain way. We thought this would a great new feature for a Hitman game: The fundamental question is, what happens if you walk around the Hitman world and any NPC [non-player character] could be a target?
"What we wanted to do was actually step back from a level editor idea, which is what we had originally, and actually allow players to be able to create while playing. If you play, and make the Contract at the same time, you get immediate feedback from what you're doing.
"We describe Contracts mode as like a reverse murder mystery, in the sense that as you're walking around the game world, instead of trying to solve a murder you're trying to commit a murder, but in a way that lets you get away with it all."
You build your level as you play; if you start a new Contract, pick three policeman as your targets, kill them without being seen and all the while you're wearing a pizza boy outfit, then other players who try your Contract can earn more points by doing the same. Levels aren't built by you per-se, but the better your knowledge of the existing environments, the tougher you can make your Contract. Elverdam had more:
"One of the beautiful things about Contracts is that you end up playing against yourself...When I play, I find I'm always pushing myself to the limit of what I am able to do.
"The better you know a level, the more specific ways you can find to build your Contract...the targets you're selecting, are they entertaining targets? Are they hard targets? It's about what conditions you want to set. The more free you make it, the more you allow people to do what they want."
Of all the multiplayer modes on show at Eurogamer, Contracts is the most intriguing. Like the Instinct and Point Shooting abilities in Hitman: Absolution's single-player, Contracts seems to be about looking at a great idea, in this case custom level editors, and yanking all the laboriousness out of it.
New ideas often struggle to catch on with game fans, especially in an institutional series like Hitman, but Contracts mode is smart, and different; if the single-player stuff is good enough to hook 60 punters at a time, it will definitely be able to convince people to give Contracts a try.
After a long wait and a rocky six months, Hitman is finally back from the dead; Absolution looks killer.
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