Forget everything you know about Agent 47, the bald-headed, bar-coded contract killer of IO Interactive's Hitman franchise. He does not don disguises, creep in the shadows, or deliver death with surgical precision. He is not a professional. Well, at least he doesn't have to be.
You see, while hardcore fans have endured-enjoyed, even-the sometimes punishing nature of previous entries in the stealth-action series, the developer understands they've probably alienated some of their potential audience by forcing them to walk the frustrating trial-and-error treadmill. So for their next entry, Hitman: Absolution, they're crafting a killer who'll still please the patient player who enjoys snapping necks like peanut brittle, but will also satisfy those with much twitchier trigger fingers. Similar to Sam Fisher's action-oriented transformation in Splinter Cell: Conviction, this new anti-hero is as comfortable engaging in ammo clip-emptying firefights as he is skulking in the shadows.
During a recent demo, IO drove this point home like a hollow point to the head by completing the same level twice, but utilizing vastly different play styles each time. The first go-round would've felt comfortably familiar to any fan who's ever reveled in seeing 47's fingers swell under a length of taught piano wire. Unfolding in an orphanage, where he's tracking a young girl named Victoria, 47 adopts a professional approach to deal with a group of masked thugs who are also after the girl, albeit with far more sinister intentions.
Sporting the black suit and white collar of a priest, the titular life-siphoner stealthily navigates the environment, avoiding conflict and detection whenever possible. Even when complete discretion isn't and option though, he still follows the assassins' code, silently choking-out targets and hiding their unconscious bodies in closets, freezers, and even a ball-pit located in the orphanage's play room. He also tosses a child's toy to distract a trio of goons, evades detection by crawling through a vent, and introduces an evil-doer to the pointy end of a syringe-Dexter-style-before donning his victim's clothes and carnival mask.
Before restarting the same level, lead producer Hakan Abrak states that 47 will now "go slightly more violent." In addition to being a skilled developer, it soon becomes clear Mr. Abrak is also a master in the art of understatement. Still dressed like a man of the cloth, 47 approaches the men he'd previously distracted with the toy; rather than throwing the plaything to distract them and avoid their detection though, he uses it to directly draw their attention. Of course, this isn't a problem because he's now armed with a fire-axe, which he promptly plants into the first two enemies' chests before driving it through the skull of the third clueless mark. A security guard held hostage by the men informs 47 of a shotgun hidden in the orphanage's chapel; this NPC interaction-entirely avoided in the stealthier play-through-sets in motion a series of events that could make Jason Bourne blush.
His hunger for blunt force trauma to the head apparently not satiated, 47 grabs a large crucifix on his way to retrieve the hand-cannon; after effortlessly dropping two thugs with his signature pair of shiny pistols, he uses the sacred religious symbol to shatter a meatbag's skull. Bypassing the air duct he'd hidden in during the previous demo, he arms himself with the shotgun and begins indiscriminately filling foes full of buckshot. With the double-barreled death-dealer's ammo depleted, he falls back on his dual handguns to finish the job; a few well-placed slugs later and a nearby gas-filled kitchen is serving up barbequed baddies for lunch. With all hell officially broken loose, he enters a final room-one he'd previously navigated quietly in disguise-teeming with well-armed scumbags. Triggering "Instinct" mode, which was strategically used in the first playthrough to peer through walls and predict AI patrol paths, the demoer activates Point Shooting-a mechanic much like Splinter Cell: Conviction's Mark and Execute mode-to clear the room in a stunning cinematic display of slo-mo bullets, blood, and flying bodies.
Concluding the demo, Abrak explains that he wants players, whether playing stealthily, guns-blazing, or somewhere in between, to feel like an "unstoppable force of nature" when donning 47's trademark black suit. While my demo was eyes-only, it's so far looking like his team could potentially make good on that promise. I look forward to getting my hands on the game-and the fragile windpipes of its antagonists-later this year.
A full-time freelance journalist for over seven years, Matt Cabral covers the videogame industry for a variety of mainstream and enthusiast outlets. Find him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @gamegoat.