PAX East: Hitman Absolution Preview

I had a chance to preview a new demo build for Hitman: Absolution in Square Enix’s swanky, media suite in the Westin Hotel next to the convention where PAX East was being held. Unfortunately, Square Enix was demoing the game for us and I didn’t get a chance to get a hands on with it. That doesn’t mean that they didn’t reveal some more 47 badassery.

Diana Burnwood, also known as Agent 47’s handler or “the British lady with the hot voice”, is an ICA traitor marked as a Class 1A threat for termination. And who better to carry out the assignment than 47 himself? Yes, Diana fans who have been fearing the worse since the latest Hitman: Absolution trailer that revealed Diana’s death, Diana is actually dead. Because of 47’s attachment to his handler, he’s willing to grant her dying request of protecting this girl who, for some reason or another, is being kidnapped by some bad folks.

The level that Square Enix showed off was the same one shown in the latest trailer. The developers played through the level twice, one showing off the “professional” stealth playthrough and then the “let’s go psycho” playthrough. However, according to the devs, the focus of this demo was about skill sets and gameplay.

47 starts off dressed as a priest in an elevator shaft. Goons have already invaded the Rosewood Orphanage, a religiously-run organization. The bad ‘uns haven’t hesitated in tearing the place apart to find Diana’s girl and the level begins with the camera panning over a dead nurse falling over into the elevator shaft. Well, folks, Hitman’s as dark and macabre as ever.

One of the first things I noticed through both playthroughs was that it was much more linear than the past Hitmans have been. However, I think Eidos and Square Enix have already gotten enough flak about the levels being too linear from fans. Today, Square Enix has made plenty of promises that more sandbox levels are to come, so I’ll wait for more demos before I pass judgment.

Just to clear the air, Hitman purists, you’ll probably be raging at the latest iteration of the series. However, Blood Money deviated plenty from the past few Hitmans, so I view a lot of the changes as natural evolution of the series.

Generally, a lot of the flaws from Blood Money have been improved and streamlined. In order to reflect the fact that 47 no longer has the agency’s resources at his disposal, the level maps have been eliminated. The map’s been replaced with a ‘Detective Mode’-like implementation called Instinct. Essentially, 47 can see enemies through walls and see the path that they’re walking on. However, unlike Detective Mode, which can be toggled on and off infinitely, Instinct can be used up as you use it to determine an enemy’s pathway or attempt to blend in. You’ll gain Instinct as reward for pulling off headshots or by hiding bodies. How much Instinct you gain or use up is dependent on difficulty level. As the difficulty ramps up, the harder it is to gain and easier it is to burn Instinct. I’m not sure if it was just the demo build or not, but I saw no evidence of an inventory. Whether or not this is because the inventory’s been completely eliminated, I can’t say for sure. However, the inventory has definitely been de-emphasized as there’s now a variety of props in the environment to interact with. Rather than being able to only pick up weapon-like items as in the past Hitmans, 47 is now able to pick up mundane things such as, in the case of the Rosewood Orphanage, bibles and crucifixes, to knock out enemies. I’m actually a fan of these changes since it reduces the stop-and-go aspect of the past few games, where you’d have to stop for a moment to check the map for enemies or switch around items via the inventory.

The shooting and cover system has been tweaked to be similar to the one seen in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. In order to improve sneaking, 47 can now stick to walls for cover and quickly shift from cover to cover. I had a moment of deja vu when I saw 47 approach a vent, open it up, and crawl in. Thankfully, the vent was fairly straightforward and just a crawl into the next room. If the vent system in Absolution was as extensive as the one that I saw in Human Revolution, I would’ve walked away. I’m playing Hitman to be 47, the barcoded assassin… not 47, bald creeper of AC vents.

The knockout/execution and body-hiding mechanics have been greatly improved. A huge point of contention for me for the first three Hitman games have been a lack of melee combat. Melee was introduced in Blood Money, but stealth knockouts from the back still relied on syringes. In Absolution, when taking down an enemy from behind, you have to option to have 47 execute said poor fellow with a quick snap of the neck, or to choke hold him until he’s knocked out. Body disposal in Blood Money was limited to garbage dumps and ice chests, but in Absolution, bodies can be thrown into closets… and you can be the creep who jumps in with the body to hide away from another curious enemy.

The alarm system hasn’t changed all too much, although the developers have definitely turned down its sensitivity. I remember one small misstep in Hitman 2 was enough to set off every guard on the premises running after you. There’s now a small curved blue bar in the UI at the bottom left of the screen next to the minimap that shows your enemies that shows whether or not you’ve been detected. The blue bar turns yellow when your enemies have become suspicious and you’ll be alerted by a giant warning across the screen, or if they’ve caught a glimpse of 47 passing by. Alerted enemies will be highlighted in red on the minimap. Otherwise, if they’re wandering about blissfully unaware of 47’s existence, then they’ll be highlighted in white. If you’ve managed to stay undetected for a bit, then everything reverts back to normal and the blue bar will restore itself. However, if you’ve decided to riddle up the place in bullets, then you’ll be alerted by another blare of lovely red text across the screen along with a swell of music. As has been done with the past few Hitmans, music cues are determined by your action. So if you’re running around blasting heads off, the music will be blasting with you.

That’s basically what’s shown in the gameplay demo, but Square Enix also answered some questions. When asked about loadouts, they couldn’t say much since things were still under negotiation and development, but they did mention that since 47 is on his own now for the first time, his resources are reduced. Therefore, props were going to be emphasized and made appropriate for each environment. What props are going to be available to play with (and their level of kid-friendliness) is still under negotiation, since there’s a “fine line between a crucifix and a dildo.”

Overall, they profusely promised that there was going to be plenty more for E3 2012, especially the sandbox elements. So definitely head to E3 2012, or tune in with TGF for E3 in order to see more about Absolution.

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