Hitman: Absolution preview: Stealth kills

The very first screen in the hands-off demo of Hitman: Absolution we saw at a pre-E3 event last month tells the story of what the fifth interation in this stealth assassin series is trying to be. The logo of the game appears over an extremely detailed window pane, with rain beating down on it from outside, and a blurry view of the Chicago skyline at night in the background.

The image could easily just be mistaken for a menu screen -- in high definition view, it looks just plain gorgeous, like a live action piece of art. But as soon as the player presses start, you discover that it's actually an in-game shot. A body flies through the window, shattering the glass, and the camera pans down to reveal Agent 47, inside what appears to be a library of some kind, hiding in the dark from Chicago police.

Those realistic graphics are courtesy of the new Glacier 2 engine, which the game's lead producer Hakan Arak says was developed specifically for what IO Interactive wants to do with Hitman: Absolution. "The old installments were done on the first Glacier engine," says Arak, "and we've developed a whole new technology called Glacier 2. That's why we had to have that in place before we could make the game that we wanted to for the fifth installment."

Agent 47's first task in the game is to escape the building, and he begins to do so in standard stealth game fashion, moving through the dusty bookshelves unseen. Glacier 2 looks terrific, with light streaming through dust all over the building, and both Hitman and the cops clearly at home in their environments. And the new engine allows for more than just realism as well.

"It's a part of the reason for implementing features like Instinct, so you can get more tools like premonition skills, like seeing the world through Agent 47's eyes," says Arak. As one of the officers moves towards Agent 47, the player presses a button, and suddenly the Hitman can see NPCs through the walls using some firey orange graphics. The paths of cops on patrol are even marked as a firey trail on the ground, so the player can know (as Hitman presumably does) where the cops are headed.

Arak also says Io is trying to blur that line between stealth and action a little bit. At one point in the demo, after 47 sabotages a fusebox to leave the area in nearly complete darkness, a cop spots him through the shadows anyway. Hitman grabs a bust off of the wall, and runs up to knock the cop out, as quietly as he can. Then it's back to the shadows, and you realize there's been a little melee action mixed in with the sneaking around. "It's enhancing that experience, making it a bit less binary, and a bit less analog, so you can play even more with it and have more options to solve things in different ways than before," says Arak. "That was really our main objective."

Later on, 47 uses the environment as well, at one point taking a cop's baton left on the ground after a kill, and even sneaking along a ledge to grab an officer and drop him quickly and silently a few stories down. Eventually there's nowhere to go but the well-guarded entrance, so 47 takes an officer hostage, and backs out of the building with his human shield holding off a crowd of guns trying to get a shot.

Outside, 47 escapes out onto a rooftop, where he's soon pursued by a helicopter. As the chopper opens fire, an interesting rock and roll riff joins the musical soundtrack, and shows off another new feature of Glacier 2: a dynamic music interface. "It's a very complex game with a lot of things going on, a lot of choice and different events happening, whatever you do," says Arak. "And to cater for every action situation, every stealth situation, every event and story and the voyeurism in the game, we created this new music system that would dynamically react to everything you're doing in the system."

The effect is very cinematic -- no sooner than the rock riff stars up, 47 fires a few shots at the chopper for cover, and then leaps out of a blown-out wall across to another building in slow motion, action star style. It's actually more awesome than cheesy, and with the Chicago skyline still in the background, the whole thing has a very cool Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" feel.

Hitman gets trapped by the chopper's spotlight, and during the last gameplay sequence, he grabs a roaming cop and steals his uniform to make his way to safety in plain sight. Exiting the rooftop, 47 ends up in a hippie loft, with stoners looking out the window at the action, and one pothead on the couch unfazed at the sight of a uniformed man walking through his living room. The music in this scene is goofy disco, and despite the difference from the rest of the game (or perhaps because of it), it also works.

"We will come a bit closer to Hitman, agent 47 this time around," says Arak about the game's plot. "It's a lot more personal story, so you'll get to know him a bit closer." Goofy NPCs like the stoner and the colorful cop characters fill out a cast anchored around the blank Hitman. "Hitman is a man of few words, and a lot of the play and story is played out with the NPCs, and you'll meet a whole lot of interesting people in there. Very serious ones, dangerous ones, but also the funny comedy thing, so it's always been about that."

The stoner in the apartment nonchalantly offers Hitman his bong, and 47 takes it, just in time to use it as an opportune weapon on the two cops that invade the apartment. After brushing his hands off, 47 then walks out into the rest of the police force waiting in the hallway, and in a scene more or less borrowed from the professional, walks out of the building in disguise, and eventually disappears into a nearby El station.

Hitman: Absolution looks terrific -- the Glacier 2 engine is a definite improvement, and all of the elements that made the first few games in the series so popular are still in there and polished to boot. Without playing it, we don't know if the game has landed that stealth game goal of making it clear just when you're hidden and when you're not (there were a few points in the demo where the developers clearly used out-of-game knowledge to beat the stealth system), but if Io can solve that particular problem, Hitman: Absolution should be quite a show to see.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.