Preview: Hitman Absolution

My favourite thing about previews isn’t that I can check out games before release. No. That comes a close second. What really gets me going is trolling the PR supervising such events. With every publisher trying to be like a doting mother to their games, touting them to be unique and special like snow flakes, I take great pride in calling out what is similar to other titles. In other words, checking out a game in such a fashion allows me to be a complete scumbag.

Hitman: Absolution was the perfect target. It follows the adventures of the iconic Agent 47 as he goes rogue up against the very agency that trained him. Without spoiling much, it involves evading the police and journeying into the heart of a rather murky conspiracy. You’ll infiltrate buildings, indulge in the social stealth afforded by busy locations and bustling crowds, identify whose life you should cut short and go about doing so in the most painless way possible, using a variety of disguises, poison, guns, and even creating “accidents” such as fires or falling furniture.

This installment has features that were reminiscent of the Batman games as well as Splinter Cell: Conviction. Throw in the fact that it marks the return of a beloved franchise after six and a half years, which is in video game terms usually an entire generation of consoles and technological advances. This means that the developers have had enough time to see what games in the same genre are doing and incorporate them. Or so I thought.

I kept my troll-face at the ready, contemplating what zippy one-liners I’d feed my onlookers. This was going to be fun. Until I realised that the joke was going to be on me. Here’s why.

The first of the aforementioned features was Instinct. Think Arkham Asylum’s Detective Mode, and you’ll get the idea. In a click, the world is transformed into high contrast of colours, allowing you to see which enemies are behind walls as well as scope out areas of interest such as vents or items to sabotage such as gas tanks. Sounds like a carbon copy of what the Dark Knight can do, right? Well, not so. Unlike the Caped Crusader, you can’t use Instinct indefinitely. It recharges when you complete mission objectives, and it’s way more useful to avoid being spotted by enemies when you’re in disguise rather than simply peering through walls. The best part? You can play without being dependent on it simply because the levels are designed in such a way that clues and hints can be spotted without it, allowing you to enjoy the gorgeous Glacier 2 engine in all its glory.

Instinct also ties in with the second gameplay element – Point Shooting. It works in a manner similar to Splinter Cell: Conviction’s Mark and Execute, wherein you can tag enemies for a cinematic slo-mo kill.  Also, Point Shooting drains Instinct so you can’t use it as an instant win button and abuse it in any given situation. In fact, outside the game’s tutorial, I never felt the need to, even though for a lark I did it in a level where I was cornered by policemen. You have to aim for the head; miss by even an inch and you’ll have to deal with some rather irate opposition as I did. Pissed off cops are tougher to kill, it seems, and I had to restart the level very shortly.

Along the way, you’ll find yourself figuring out the best way to silently end your target. You see, rather than let there be a single linear solution to a mission, there are multiple ways to go about your business of execution. Though melee combat is a sequence of QTEs, the core gameplay remains unchanged from its predecessors. Needless to say, if you’re an old-timer fraught with rage over the action filled trailers, fret not. A few minutes into the game’s well designed tutorial level will confirm that the integral elements of stealth, disguise and silent kills are all there as they should. The presence of Instinct and Point Shooting just make it easier for newbies to get into it.

There’s a system in place so you stay inline with being an outstanding hitman. How you go about your business of murder determines your score, loot and skills you acquire at the end of each level. Discretion and a low body count is rewarded over going completely postal. In fact, doing the latter would have you dying very, very soon.  At the end of a mission, you’re greeted with a screen showing your final score as well as the items and skills you’ve acquired. There are so many weapons and disguises to obtain that you’ll find yourself replaying levels to do so.

Speaking of levels, they’re extremely varied. Ranging from crowded marketplaces, decrepit hotels or palatial mansions, a lot of detail has gone into making them, and it shows. Be it alternate points of entry to chattering crowds, it feels vibrant to the point of having a life of its own and you being its barcoded intruder. The environments are as important to the plot as the characters themselves.

On the topic of characters, they’re brilliantly voiced.  There’s the sleazy antagonist, Blake Dexter, your seedy informant, Birdie, and a host of targets for you to eliminate. They all add a sense of realism and grittiness that such a game deserves. While usual composer Jesper Kyd sat out of this game, the duo of Peter Kyed and Peter Peter do more than enough to ensure that his presence is not missed. Combined that with the killer graphics churned out by IO’s proprietary Glacier 2 engine and you have a deadly combination. A game that looks as good as it sounds. This was on the PS3, mind you, which leads me to speculate that the PC version would end up being a notch or two better in the eye candy department.

As it stands, Hitman: Absolution appears to be the most accessible entry into the series, all while making sure long time fans haven’t been isolated. The additions like Point Shooting and Instinct add variety to the gameplay, but aren’t crutches that you’ll find yourself forced to use at every given turn. And more importantly for this writer, they aren’t as similar to other games as my agenda to troll would have hoped. I left without saying much, but was pleasantly surprised. Before this preview, I was following Absolution with a wavering eye, but as it stands, 20th November cannot come soon enough.

Hitman: Absolution is in stores on 20th November for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC.

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