Hakan Abrak, lead producer of Hitman: Absolution, held a developer session at the Eurogamer Expo this weekend and I was there to see the game in action. The version we were shown was a pre-alpha build running on PS3 and only covered a single level but, notepad in hand, I managed to scribble down enough impressions to share the bits that made me excited and the other bits that made me raise an eyebrow in a quizzical fashion. Now I'm trying to work out if I'm any closer to understanding the game than I was before the session.
The level on show took place in Chicago during a storm, with 47 hiding out in a derelict library. The vast majority of the Chicago Police Department seem to be chasing him down and Hakan stated that the game will show barcode-bonce as both hunter and hunted. I was slightly concerned that with him being on the run, 47 wouldn’t actually be killing anyone and the level would show nothing but evasion. I was wrong and wince-inducing neck-snapping soon occurred, teaching me a very valuable lesson: never hunt a hitman.
The first part of the demonstration had Hakan guiding 47 through the library, avoiding flashlights casting beams in his direction and waiting for cops to clear out of his way. It looks good, with flashes of lightning illuminating the room and rain streaming down through decayed sections of the roof. Hakan mentioned beforehand that the AI would be much more nuanced than in previous titles, although I’d be hard-pressed to point out anywhere that was particularly evident.
There’s a lot more dialogue between the people populating the world, with potential victims being ordered to search areas of the room rather than just wandering around, but my impression was that speech and movement mostly triggered at set points, not out of any more complicated reaction to player-driven events. Likewise, when disguised as a cop, 47 finds a point in the environment at which he can hide his face by pretending to eat a doughnut. Cue a dramatic scene in which it seems like the disguise is going to be found out, but the doughnut box seems to essentially work as a safe spot, somewhat like an Assassin's Creed bench, and everything works out fine.
Some conversations that dragged on a little while 47 squatted behind nearby shelving units, waiting for the police to stop yapping so that they would part company and leave an open route. 47 is helped by his new instinct abilities, some of which were shown. I immediately wrote down “Instinct = Arkham Asylum Detective Mode” and then realised that everyone who has ever seen the game in action writes exactly the same thing, perhaps even a millisecond sooner.
It was only after a good few minutes of waiting, creeping, listening, creeping, watching and waiting that the actual hitting of men began. They were hit with busts, batons, bullets and bongs. More than in any other Hitman game, I actually felt a bit queasy about the cops being murdered, wanting to leap out of my seat and shout out, “They’re only doing their job, why not incapacitate them instead?” Then I thought a non-fatal takedown was taking place only to see the victim’s neck crack, leaving his head at an altogether unnatural angle. One strikingly unlucky officer was taken as a human shield, pleading for his life and repeatedly stating that he didn’t want to die. His requests were brutally denied.
I realised at this point that though I love the best of what Hitman offers, I am definitely still more of a Garrett man, bopping taffers with my blackjack and leaving them to slumber in a dark corner. There may well be non-lethal options but the emphasis here was on ultraviolence and it was crowd-pleasing stuff.
Hakan emphasised that freedom of choice was the foundation of the series and at the end of the level he assured us that his solution was not the only solution. It was a very cinematic solution though, with a helicopter strafing the building, a great deal of context-sensitive voicework and a final escape that used disguise and dense crowds in an admittedly thrilling fashion.
Maybe it’s because the whole experience was so cinematic, but I found it hard to see where the demonstration could have branched off. I’m sure the police could spot the player at an earlier point, leading to an action experience rather than the stealth approach we saw, but given the number of cops in the building, it’s hard to see how that would end in anything but defeat. Of all the dialogue we heard, a small proportion seems responsive to non-scripted events and the helicopter sequence had at least one short cutscene, briefly taking control away from the player.
All of that's probably due to the nature of the level shown. Performing a hit is very different to escaping from a building swarming with cops after all, giving no time to work out an approach and execute a plan. Given the early stage the game is at, this may be the only level ready to show and that may be precisely because it's more linear and therefore easier to test.
So I don’t mean to complain or cast unnecessary doubts but I do want to give a stronger impression than the quote: “The foundation of the Hitman franchise is freedom of choice.” That’s what we were told and Absolution may well provide that freedom, but I haven’t seen the evidence of it yet. Yes, I'd be able to choose whether to strangle or bludgeon some of those people, but I'm hoping freedom extends to ways of traversing an area as well as methods of eliminating the people in it. What we were shown was a visually impressive stealth sequence with some brutal kills and a shooty interlude in the middle. In places it was spectacular but it doesn't look like the Hitman game I'm waiting for. Not yet.