The most interesting thing about Hitman Absolution isn't its new disguises or ways of killing people with a bit of cord. It's not the decision to open the historically stealthy game up to a bit of action gameplay. It's the insight the game's mechanics are meant to give us into a character we've long controlled but known little about.
While previous games have given us information about his creation, his upbringing, his attempts at leaving his life as an assassin, no game has really delved into Agent 47's psyche, until now.
A key element of Hitman Absolution gameplay is the ability to tap into Agent 47's "Instinct." With a button push players are able to see the world through the eyes of Agent 47, the developers tell us. In this mode the world is darkened, contrasted by flaming lines that highlight escape routes, weapons, shortcuts and even the path that Agent 47 thinks an enemy is going to walk. These lines of flame spill out across a room, charting the course someone is walking. The lines look almost like occasionally leaping up at points like an audio waveform in a sound visualizer. In this mode the audio too is muted accept for the subtle hiss of a record that's come to the end of its songs.
I asked Tore Blystad, IO Interactive's game director on Hitman Absolution, about the design choices behind the look and sound of the Instinct mode.
"Under that perfect shell there is a man who has gone through countless horrible scenarios throughout his life," Blystad says. "This is supposed to show the contradiction between the fire and perfection of the ultimate assassin.
"This is how his mind would look."
Blystad said the design team decided that they wanted Absolution to give players a chance to glimpse a bit of how Agent 47's mind works.
"Everyone knows about this mechanical person," he said of Agent 47's demeanor. "Dipping into his personality to show to gamers has been really hard."
Christian Elverdam, Absolution gameplay director, adds that it's a subtle thing, this new insight into Agent 47.
"We don't tell you a lot about 47, but we hint at it," he said. "It's not like you're hacking into his mind."
While interesting from a design perspective, Instinct is just a small piece of the changes coming to Hitman based on what I saw of Absolution over the past few weeks.
Blystad said that the team worked to make the game feel more organic, to give gamers the choice not only to do what they want in the confines of slipping up on a target and killing them, but also how they approach the entire game.
"The hitman fantasy doesn't have to always be stealthy," he said. "It you want to go Rambo the game will provide a good fight for you. If you can flank your enemies and take them from the back, they will dynamically adapt to the situation. But action is only a little part of the game."
"It's a bigger game a more diverse game," he said. "It has a storyline that is more tied into the game levels itself. It's kind of a personal story for 47. What ever he experiences through the game is much closer to the player."
I watched a press demo of the game twice, and played it once, only when I forced the situation did it become something more akin to a shooter. While Absolution still feels like a classic Hitman title, a game more about approach and planning then running and gunning, it also feels like a smarter one.
As Blystad said, the choices you make and the consequences of those choices feel more natural, opening up a setting to many more choices.
The demo takes place in Chicago. There's a citywide manhunt for Agent 47. The gameplay opens after we see 47 jump through a window in a gothic library and police come charging in on the hunt for him. Ageny 47 begins the level unarmed, but that's rarely an issue.
Blystad tells us that enemies have been developed to be not just smarter, but more complex in the way they approach a situation. "They have an intelligence spectrum to give them more emotions and sense," he says.
Agent 47 is crouched behind a second floor railing, on the floor below him cops spread out searching for him. They're talking to each other about the search, but also about other things.
"That's it boys, I want this fucking place turned upside down," the cop in charge shouts. "Find the lights, someone get me blueprints."
Using Instinct mode I can see that there's a nearby break in the railing, a place that will allow me to drop down to the maze of bookcases below. I guide Agent 47 to the drop and fall to the floor, making a noise.
One of the cops notice, on the screen a semi circle appears with a subtle arrow poking out of it, showing me that someone in that direction is noticing me. It grows longer the more visible or obvious I become.
This attention meter, the tell us, allows Agent 47 to "surf on the fringes of being discovered." It's a neat way to avoid the black and white of early Hitman games that often led to a lot of trail and error replays in a level.
I pull back, and the meter drops away. Pressing a button I can push Agent 47 into cover, once locked in, he stays in cover as you move unless you pull him away from his hiding spot. This makes traversing cover in big areas and moving from cover to cover much easier.
As I make my way toward the center of the room I'm in the lights flicker and come on. The cops have discovered the fuse box and restored power. I don't have to do anything about it, but taking out the fuse box is an option. I can take out the nearby cops too or simply work around them.
There's a lot of back and forth between the cops looking for me, not just checking in, but talking to each other, like they're buddies.
I decide to take out the fuse box and slip away undetected, leaving two cops to mess around with the box as I continue my way out of the library. In one of the demos I witnessed, Agent 47 slips up behind one of the cops and chokes him to death with a power cord he found on the floor.
"If you sneak up on someone to kill them from behind we're not going to fuck it up for you."
I move around to the center of the library, where a cop is looking down into a hole. I grab a nasty looking pair of scissors and approach him from behind. Then I decide it would be interesting to see what happens if I let him see me. When he turns around I wait until he alerts everyone around us before I kill him.
This kicks out a "major bug" but it also demonstrates that I can approach this mission however I'd like, quietly, aggressively, with giant scissors, or in the case of the demo I watched, armed with a marble bust.
In the demo, Agent 47 knocks the cop into the hole with a bust and then slips back into darkness. When a second cop comes to investigate what happened to his buddy, 47 pulls him off the second floor ledge and into the hole as well.
Agent 47 breaks another cop's neck with a dropped baton, and then grabs a cop as a human shield. Now everyone sees him. He backs away toward a staircase as the cop begs for his life. At the bottom of the screen a bunch of red arrows point to all of the cops now aiming weapons at him.
Agent 47 knocks the cop out and runs to the stairs and the rest of the police open fire. Agent 47 takes out two cops with a gun, using what I found to be relatively snappy aiming.
Elverdam tells me the team went to great lengths to fix what he called the "bit finicky" mechanics of the previous games.
"If you sneak up on someone to kill them from behind we're not going to fuck it up for you," he said, meaning that they hope gameplay mechanics won't get in the way. "Blood Money felt like too easy or too sloppy, on the other games we didn't support shooting as much as we wanted to.
"We always wanted it to feel like you could handle a gun like a trained assassin."
Back in the game, 47 runs up a set of stairs, gunfire chewing up the cover around him as he moves. On the third floor he walks across a beam as it is shredded by gunfire. Turning around he shoots a chain holding a chandelier, dropping it into the cops crowded on the floor below.
Bursting through a door, 47 finds himself on the roof of a building overlooking Chicago, a helicopter slips into the scene, its spotlight cutting across the ground in front of him.
He runs across the roof, the helicopter firing on him as he makes his way into a room filled with cages and pigeons. There'a a quick cinematic moment as Agent 47 runs and jumps between building, before players are returned to gameplay with the hitman taking out a cop and putting on his uniform as a disguise.
"With disguises we wanted to make it less binary," Elverdam says. "You are allowed to walk around more freely. It feels more organic."
This freedom of choice, Blystad says, is a key part of the Hitman experience.
"Disguises and impersonations are something that have always been a key feature in the game," he said. "That has been taken to a new level in this game."
Initially, that doesn't seem to be the case. Agent 47, dressed as a cop, walks into a room filled with potheads and weed growers. They seem not to really notice him, instead concentrating on the huge force of police outside, thinking it's for them.
""We're so busted dude," one says. "Fucking pigs."
People are running around with pot plants, hiding them, one person seems to be trying to flush an entire plant, still in its pot, down the toilet.
Finally, a guy laying back in a couch, his eyes at half-mast, noticed 47.
"Whoa, nice get up man," he says. "Very disco."
Agent 47 picks up a nearby bong and slams a cop in the face with it as he walks in the front door. The cop that walked in with the first is instantly on alert, but Agent 47 takes him out with a quick melee attack.
"In the old games it was very black and white," Blystad tells me. "When they saw through your disguise it was instantly blown.
"Now it is much more like ripples in water. If you alert someone it will gradually spread out to a level, but if you can retain it, you can keep the disguise."
You can also avoid detection with careful use of instinct mode.
Walking out the door and down a hallway, Agent 47 walks to an elevator as a bunch of cops start walking up the stairs. On the main floor the elevator opens to a lobby packed, packed, with cops and SWAT.
He walks directly toward them and then turns toward a table loaded with donuts and assault rifles. He has the option to pick up the assault rifle, but instead Agent 47 uses his instinct mode to try and avoid detection. This time with the button is pushed we don't see escape paths, enemies and weapons highlighted, instead Agent 47 quickly turns to the table and grabs a donut. Head down, he silently eats it, his back to the cops.
One of the cops takes an interest in Agent 47, calls out to him.
"Hey I know you. You're Foster. I thought you left the force years ago."
"I never left," Agent 47 says as he turns and walks out of the building and into the crowds of a downtown Chicago evening.
Hitman Absolution is due out next year on the PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.