E3 2011 — Hitman: Absolution Demo Shows Player Choice, Detail in NPCs

It has been five years since the last time we got a chance to garrote unsuspecting victims while controlling Agent 47′s hands, and in that time IO Interactive has been busy. Busy adding new features to 47′s next offering, namely, and busy creating a whole new engine to power it.

Betrayed, on the run and hunted as well as doing the hunting, I got a chance to see Hitman: Absolution in action at E3 this year, and boy, does it look cool. We caught up with Agent 47 in Chicago, on the run from the cops as a manhunt swept the city for him. Just a step ahead of the authorities, 47 found his way into the upper level of an old derelict library. Weaponless and with cops actively searching for him on the lower floor, IO Interactive put Agent 47 through his paces in a highly cinematic demo that’ll have fans excited. It was a bit like this trailer.

Hiding behind a low railing on the upper floor of the library, 47 listened to the cops below debating about how to best proceed through the darkened, powerless library. Most impressive about the entire demo were those cops and the amount of character invested in them, especially because we know from the outset that those guys down there are going to make up a substantial amount of 47′s body count before he escapes this situation.

The cops fan out below, their chief berating one especially inept rookie as he is dispatched to go find a fuse box and deal with the lights. All the Chicago cops sound highly authentic, with some great voice acting filling them out. On the upper floor, 47 doesn’t quite have to deal with them yet, and just how he will go about it is up to the player. Choice in how to deal with situations is paramount in Absolution, IO Interactive Gameplay Director Christian Elverdam told us before the demo. What we’re about to see is just one way that 47 could deal with all these cops, and unarmed as he is, it’s going to take some great care to get out of this situation alive.

The demo has 47 working his way down to the lower floor carefully as the cops continue their discussions about him. Dropping down into a side-room near the fuse box, he listens in as the picked-on cop complains about his lot and how he’s treated by the others. Things aren’t helped by his struggle to fix the fuse, which flickers momentarily before showering the library’s large main room in light.

The Power of Instinct

During this time, we get a look at one of 47′s new abilities: Instinct. An “umbrella” feature, as Elverdam put it, Instinct affects just about all of 47′s abilities and gives the player an idea of the way a highly trained super-assassin sees the world. Switching on Instinct highlights enemies and lets 47 see through walls to an extent when he sees enemies pass behind them, and it also creates a flaming line along the ground that highlights those enemies’ apparent paths of movement. In this way, 47 can anticipate actions and patrols and hide; after he watches the cops depart, he sneaks around a nearby shelf and sabotages the fuse, knocking out the lights a second time.

The whipping-boy cop gets some more verbal battery for the fuse issue and he and another officer double back to the fuse box as 47 slips out of sight around another shelf. They’re both confused, discussing the disaster that has become the fuse box and how everybody’s favorite man on the force is about to get an earful over it. Their conversation feels real, as do their reactions, and as they slip around the corner, 47 moves into position, tailing them quietly.

As interesting as it is standing around listening to the NPCs go about their work, 47 has work to do, too, and quickly finds a cop on his own to choke out as he moves into the main section of the library. This room is filled with shelves, both taller than a man and chest high, and they make for plenty of good cover for 47 to stick to as he moves about the room carefully. Along the way he finds a power cord off some unnamed device — an improvised garrote that he’ll put to work almost immediately.

Mostly steeped in shadow, the cops go about searching, discussing the possible moves of 47. They’ve got men in other places and have set up checkpoints — they firmly believe 47 will be coming this way. The irony of those statements is apparent as 47 literally slips right by them, dodging patrolling officers and using Instinct to see where they’re headed. He uses some highly intuitive quick-turns to dodge from one cover position to another, and before long he has crossed the room, just in time for a cop to start making his way over toward 47′s position. Using Instinct, the hitman discovers a climbable ledge just above him and hops up, standing above a blasted door frame as the officer looks fruitlessly beneath it.

From here, 47 can reach back up to the upper level of the library. He takes out one cop giving overwatch of the area, snapping his neck with a quick pull of the garrote; and suddenly, 47 is armed with a police sidearm. Meanwhile, beneath him, another group of police arrives to support the Chicago PD. The local chief lays into them — they’re suburban cops from a neighboring town and there’s clearly no love lost between the two groups. As they stand in the foyer of the library discussing what to do about finding 47, the agent drops down, grabs one of the cops from behind (our poor friend from the fuse box — this is just not his day) and starts a hostage situation.

Tense Negotiations

Here’s another place where the AI shines. The cops, who have been giving orders and milling about this whole time, suddenly change gears on a dime. All of them yank guns and fan out, giving 47 a wide berth. They’re unwilling to take him on with the hostage, but they also aren’t willing to let him go. It’s a tense standoff as 47 starts backing up a flight of stairs with his cargo squirming. More great dialog from the hostage: “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” he shouts to his comrades. The fear is palpable in his voice as he pleads with his friends and 47 for his life.

As 47 hits the top of the stairs, the cops get fed up — “Screw it! Take him out!” — and our poor Barney Fife cop gets his neck snapped. Hitting the deck, 47 fires back, then sprints to the top of the staircase that wraps around the narrowing room. At the top, he deals with a couple of cops with a few quick shots, and sees an advantage using Instinct: a hanging chandelier with a weak chain. Two quick shots and the chain gives away, dropping the chandelier all the way down and creating an obstacle for the cops to deal with below.

Through another door, the music swells as a helicopter catches sight of 47 and starts unloading machine gun ammo through the building’s windows. We’ve entered some kind of pigeon coop, a long and narrow room flanked by windows on one side, and 47 stays down, using cover-to-cover spins to keep out of the line of fire. They seem intuitive, with 47 knowing well enough to stay down and to stick to cover that’s not necessarily on a straight plane from position to position. He cuts closer to the wall and further away as the cover dictates, which seems like it’ll make navigation easy.

Successfully evading the chopper, 47 stops at an exit hallway that empties out onto an open rooftop. Outside, a waiting cop is receiving instructions to go check out the area where 47 was last spotted. Lying in wait, the agent sneaks up behind him, drops him, and steals his clothes as a disguise. In no time at all, he’s crossing the roof to an adjacent building under the blinding spotlight of the chopper, successfully impersonating a Chicago city cop and slipping into the next room.

The next room is an apartment, and immediately we’re hit over the head with a hippie theme from hanging beads in doorways and peace posters on the wall. Moving slowly into the living room, we catch site of three hippies staring out the windows at the police — convinced they’re there for them. One of the group is freaking out, while another tries to console him, saying, “Maybe they just wanna chill out.”

Moving into another room, 47 sees what the fuss is about and why the hippies are so upset. Standing in one room are several pots of…pot. Marijuana plants taller than Agent 47 reach toward the ceiling. In a nearby bathroom, one of the group’s number frantically tries to flush what he can.

Past those guys, 47 finds himself in a den near the front door, a surprised hippie sitting next to a large bong on the couch.

“Whoa. Hey,” the guy on the couch remarks amiably. 47 gets close and picks up the bong as the nearby front door opens and a cop enters.

“Who’re you?” Asks the cop, but the question is barely completed before 47 belts him in the face with the bong, knocking the man out or maybe killing him.

As he leaves the room, 47 hears the hippie behind him. “Whoa, police brutality.”

Down the apartment building stairs, 47 passes a few cops. Instinct allows him to shield his face, pulling down his cap at just the right moment, getting a sense of what the cops are thinking. At the bottom of the stairs, 47 sees the front door — but a full SWAT team stands in his way, preparing to deploy. Instead, Instinct guides him to a box of donuts, where he can blend in. The SWAT team departs, and 47 slips out the door, onto the street, and onto a crowded train platform, escaping onto Chicago’s metro line as the camera pans back and away, and the demo comes to a close.

Final Thoughts
Hitman: Absolution’s E3 demo was highly impressive and gave plenty of reasons to be excited about the game. IO’s Glacier 2 engine looks great, and it seems that enemies won’t just actively hunt for you — they’ll do a pretty great job of appearing to be alive while they’re at it.

But while IO is harping on player choice and kept reminding us that this demo was only one way players could work through the level, I doubt anyone could work through the library so successfully without a spot on the Absolution development team. Sure, there’s player choice in the game, but it seems highly doubtful that players would ever be able to make all the choices available in the demo. In fact, it seems like it might be close to impossible to even know all those choices exist.

Still, the demo shows off that this is going to be a highly cinematic game that has options, out of which players can get squeeze a whole lot of awesome. Absolution has a lot of promise, that’s for sure, and with IO Interactive’s new engine and the level of attention paid to its AI, the game should stir up a lot of optimism and excitement.

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