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Hitman Absolution preview: The age old question, the garrote or the gun?

After spending several hours tooling around with a preview build of Hitman: Absolution, out November 20, 2012 for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Windows, I’m very pleased to let fans know that the spirit of the series is very much intact. As slick as the game’s ad campaign has been — sexy hit-nuns and all — worries over too much of an action focus have dogged Absolution every step of the way. While there certainly is an expanded set of less-than-stealthy tools for Agent 47 to work with, there are still hefty score penalties for going loud. Absolution has all the promise of being the best Hitman game we’ve seen yet, doing everything that the series has always done well, along with many things that you’ve always wanted the series to do.

Hitman: Absolution begins with a very difficult assignment for 47 to tackle. Diana Burnwood, his longtime handler at the Agency, has gone rogue and disappeared from sight along with a young girl of some importance. The story opens with Diana and her young charge, Victoria, having been tracked down. 47 is dispatched to remove his former colleague from the equation and return Victoria to his higher-ups unharmed. 

This early mission serves as the game’s tutorial, teaching players the basics of stealth, taking cover, disguises, combat, and more as 47 works his way into Diana’s picturesque suburban hideaway. The influence of Glacier 2, the long-in-development engine that powers Hitman: Absolution, is immediately apparent. It’s more than just the high level of environmental detail; there’s also a lot more for you to do to interact with the world. Random objects can be picked up and wielded, as you’ve surely seen by now in various trailers.

The most dramatic change, however, is the addition of Instinct. This new feature allows players to call up an overlay that amounts to a visual manifestation of 47’s natural instincts as a trained assassin. It’s similar in a lot of ways to Batman: Arkham City‘s Detective mode, with enemies and important objects being highlighted by a yellow glow, remaining visible through walls and other obstacles. You can also use Instinct to walk right past people who present a risk of blowing your cover when you’re wearing a disguise, though this drains the associated meter rapidly and must be used sparingly.

I made full use of the Instinct feature as I worked my way through a backyard garden into Diana’s heavily guarded safehouse. Nearly every one of your actions is tracked in some way by the game. As has always been the case in the Hitman series, the biggest rewards come from remaining completely concealed and restricting your violence. Absolution adds some new tricks to the equation, however, with Challenges.

Replay has always been an important part of Hitman. It’s virtually impossible to go full stealth on your first time through a particular mission — there’s a process of learning the layouts and figuring out the best routes to follow. Challenges add yet another wrinkle to up replay value. In any given mission, you’ve got a list of tasks to complete that, in many cases, conflict in such a way that you’re basically forced to run through the mission multiple times if you want to get them all finished.

There’s one, for example, that requires you to complete the assigned task without ever trading your suit for a disguise, while another calls for you to use every available disguise in a given mission. Completing these challenges unlock small boosts to your various skills, so getting them done is all part of your pursuit to become a more perfect assassin. It’s a neat dangling carrot sort of feature that promises to keep players coming back for more.

Needless to say, when 47 finally gets to Diana, we learn that the situation is not quite as clear-cut as ICA boss Benjamin Travis (voiced by the immediately recognizable Powers Boothe) initially made it seem. Diana appears to have had good reasons for going rogue and they all revolve around Victoria. Diana manages to convince Agent 47 to protect Victoria from Travis and anyone else who would harm her, which sets the scene for the rest of the game. 

This serves to set up an interesting new dynamic for the story. In previous Hitman games, the goal is pretty straightforward: kill your targets, be quick and silent about it. Absolution seems to be pushing for more of a varied take on the core gameplay. 47 isn’t just pursuing a list of targets; he’s after information too. An early mission sees him breaking into a hotel where a sadistic industrialist named Blake Dexter — our primary antagonist — is staying. The sneaking in this case is in the service of information gathering. I can’t speak for every player, but for me, that small change to the mission focus made it that much more difficult to wantonly strangle the guards that stood in my way.

The next mission raises a similar situation. 47 is framed for murder and left unconscious in a hotel room as a fire chews it to pieces. You wake up in time to escape, of course, but the sequence that follows is a literal run from the cops, over rooftops, through a library, and on into an apartment building. Again I felt a mental block against taking a more lethal approach — partially because it’s never fun to see your score fall into the negative, but mostly because of the nature of the situation. 47 isn’t after a target here; he’s protecting a target.

I really enjoyed playing through Hitman: Absolution‘s opening hours. It’s clearly a preview build, with work still to be done on tuning the difficulty and making everything generally just run more smoothly. The improved quality of this Hitman experience over previous entries in the series is nonetheless evident from the outset. There’s plenty more game and story to be revealed of course. and I didn’t even go near the online-centered Contracts mode, but it looks like fans of the series have plenty to look forward to in Hitman: Absolution.

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