Being methodical in your approach is key as a, let's face it, not-so-inconspicuous murderer. Though a master at his craft, Agent 47 has to contend with one hell of a simple, accurate suspect description: a scowling bald guy with a bar code tattooed to the back of his head and a proclivity for black suits and red ties.
Because of that, and despite initial worries that Hitman: Absolution would bring more of an action tilt to the series, Agent 47 works best when striking from the shadows.
In our last preview of Hitman: Absolution, contributing editor Mike Schramm detailed six ways he executed a target. This mission, which is the game's second, asks players to kill a single, guarded man in a bustling Chinatown market. Six ways to kill the man is already an impressive number, but the actual limit to your options is daunting: there are twelve.
With a preview build featuring the first half of the game, I found myself continuously going back to try for every possible kill across each of the game's five difficulty settings. Each kill method tied to challenges within the game; executing them helps to unlock more skills for 47 and begs for multiple playthroughs.
As a fan of the Hitman series – with Blood Money being one of the first games I earned all one thousand Achievement points in – my primary concern was whether or not Absolution would only offer clear-cut choices. "Is there only one real way in each level to be a Silent Assassin?" I wondered.
But that's not how things work here. For the most part, there are multiple ways to attack, some disregarding the 'Silent Assassin' rank, and some allowing you to walk away unseen. This is important because it doesn't make levels feel like trial and error scenarios. There's no taking "the stealth path" and doing something "wrong" that prompts perfectionists to restart – save for being seen, that is. In the preview, if I missed one opportunity I often found new ones to help me keep my anonymity. This is the most exciting revelation I've had with Hitman: Absolution.
'If I missed one opportunity I often found new ones to help me keep my anonymity. This is the most exciting revelation I've had with Hitman: Absolution.'
Hitman: Absolution does suffer from the same problem as other stealth-based games: the A.I. lacks spontaneity. Having played the first half of the game countless times across all difficulties, it's clear that all targets and enemies follow the same paths. There's no surprise once you've played a level for the tenth or twentieth time; you know exactly where they are and where they will go. By playing with the world, though, things can get dynamic: make some noise near a guard and he'll investigate, for example. But often missions will begin with a few minutes of you watching the same movements where interactivity could threaten your position and rank.
In one mission a guard and cook have a mild argument. Every time it's the same dialog, with the same movements and the same post-shouting match separation. After seeing this for the tenth time you just want to bust out your dual silverballers and shut them up already. My hope is that things will be a little more dynamic initially by the time the final version of the game is released in November.
Dynamic situations are not as much of an issue in Absolution's multiplayer-focused "Contracts" mode. Using any level a player has unlocked, contract creators can select their targets and dictate exactly how those targets must be killed for the highest bonus scores. To create a contract, you must play through it and safely exit. What weapon you use, clothes you wear, what you do with the body (hide it or not) and a number of other things that happen while the contract maker is crafting the challenge creates a series of criteria for anyone that takes on your contract.
You can select targets from the single-player mission – which will follow that same path you memorized from the campaign – or choose someone else in the world. Making that choice introduces players to a new way of approaching levels. But the mode isn't simply a matter of ghosting exactly what your challenger has done. You can opt to ignore bonus rewards and go for the biggest, quickest kills for the highest score. This is important because once the challenger kills a target (between 1 and 3) the bonus rewards begin to count down. Take too long and those bonuses will drop to zero.
As you become a more apt killer, you can create more devious contracts. It's all based on how well the creator understands the game's systems. In one of my more devious contracts, I played as puppet master and set up a situation where one NPC murdered another after an argument.
Hours melted away while I played Contracts mode, both in trying to craft perfect scenarios and achieving top marks in other hitmen/women's challenges. It's a mode I hope fans foster and help grow.
There's still an entire other half of the game I need to play through and a number of bugs that need to be ironed out throughout the game – which Square Enix says it is aware of and is working on – but things are looking good for Agent 47's return. I'd like some more surprises in the single-player campaign, but that may be a balancing act. How possible is it to offer twelve ways to kill one person without programming the target's idle behavior in a very specific way?
Until we get our hands on the final version of the game, I won't know how much of an impact that design decision will make. But I'm looking forward to piling up the bodies and walking away unseen.
Hitman: Absolution launches for the PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on November 20.