Hitman: Absolution, the latest entry in IO Interactive’s stealth assassination series, has been the subject of a great deal of debate – whether it will stay true to its predecessors, or streamline and simplify its gameplay in order to appeal to a wide audience of newcomers accustomed to high-action, third-person shooters. IO has repeatedly promised it would be making no sacrifices in delivering an experience consistent with previous Hitman titles. The playable demo at E3 earlier this month was the first opportunity for Hitman: Absolution to prove that the significance of player choice was still present, so I made sure not to pass it up.
Before the demo began, I was instructed to choose either “Standard” or “Professional” mode. Professional mode sets the player loose to do what they please with no guidance or assistance, and although I probably would have done fine had I chosen it, I opted with Standard mode as I do with every new game I play.
A short cutscene informed me that my objective was to kill the so-called King of Chinatown, a powerful individual involved in drug trafficking, and who is protected by corrupt police officers. I immediately made my way into the crowded Chinatown marketplace to establish a visual on my target. Not more than a few seconds in, a button prompt appeared on screen, letting me know that I can bring up a hint if I’d like. I choose to ignore it and continue playing. I spotted the King, and he’s now permanently marked on my mini-map. As I followed him around, another hint prompt appeared on the heads-up display. No thanks.
My target returned to his well-protected safe zone at the center of town, and another character entered the scene. This was an oddly dressed man who appeared to be one of the King’s drug suppliers. He promised to lead the King to his supply as soon as he returned, and proceeded to exit down an isolated staircase. I followed, and when the coast was clear, I proceeded to choke him to death.
I’d already planned out what I intended to do to carry out the kill: disguise myself as the supplier, lead the King into a quiet area, and whack ‘em. The game seemed to think otherwise and continued to offer hints. It’s at this point that I realize I’ve made a mistake in not choosing Professional mode. I know instinct mode is available but I hadn’t even bothered to check which button activates it, and I’d ignored every instructional hint offered to me. Anything less than Professional is clearly meant as a hand-holding device, something that was never offered in previous Hitman games.
I proceed to do exactly as I intended, ending the King’s life with another silent choking kill and finally disposing of the body in a dumpster. I exited the playable area completely unnoticed, and not a single person in the crowd was startled. At the end I’m shown a score and rating, and I notice that although I didn’t choose Professional mode, my rating had been upgraded to Professional Silent Kill due to how I played. I appreciate that the game was able to take notice of my gameplay style and rewarded me for ignoring its offers to guide me.
I decided to stick around for a while to see how other people were faring, and I wasn’t surprised by much of what I saw. The majority of players I saw had opted for a run-and-gun approach. When the objective is to kill and there’s a firearm in the inventory, it seems to have become almost instinctive to the majority of players unfamiliar with the series to walk up to the target and blast him in the face. In previous Hitman games, stealth was integral to surviving the mission. Agent 47 was by no means a one-man army capable of surviving an onslaught of police officers or other assassins. Yet this seems to have changed.
Although Hitman: Absolution gives players all the tools and options to turn the scenario into a perfectly executed assassination, there are no gameplay-based consequences that are actively pushing players toward a more stealthly approach. A lower number at the end of the mission isn’t compelling enough to encourage players to choose something other than the path of least resistance, especially if they consider shooting their way to the finish a more entertaining alternative.
Does allowing for players to gun down everyone in their way without tangible consequences cause Absolution to lose its legitimacy as a Hitman game, or it is merely a way to expand the experience to a wider audience while still allowing stealth players to do what they do best? Perhaps we’ll find out when the full game releases for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC on November 20, 2012.