Hello. Have you heard of the Hitman video games? You may have seen a trailer in which a well-dressed man murders sexy killers who are in the habit of dressing like nuns.
The trailer is surprising, because, Hitman games have always been about challenging players to commit stealthy murder and are a shade more sedate -- and less fetish oriented -- than that trailer. Oh, but the nuns are so distracting, distracting from a key message that the people behind Hitman: Absolution want you to know: "Hey, gamer, we were doing this stuff before Assassin's Creed."
That's a made-up quote... this is not a made-up still from the trailer:
Now don't you tell me I'm jumping to conclusions, because I played a new level of this November 2012 game just a couple of weeks ago at a Square-Enix-Eidos showcase in Santa Monica and, well, look:
It's even more pronounced when you see this level, set in Chinatown, in action.
The scene is flooded with civilians, lowlife thugs, your assassination target and you, the assassin known as Agent 47. The developers say they can get up to 500 characters in the scene. (Can you think of any other video game series that puts hundreds of characters in a scene designed for assassinations?)
Not only is the scene stuffed with people, but in a twist for the series, you can hide in plain sight. In previous Hitman games you'd have to infiltrate, say, a fancy party to kill a guy while worrying about being spotted. In this Chinatown level you can walk around without anyone bothering you. They might get suspicious if you start doing shady things like standing really close to cops or strangling cooks, but you can mill around without a worry. (Can you think of any other assassination-based gaming series that has a suspicion system like this, too?)
The set-up in Absolution is that Agent 47 has killed his handler. He's apparently gone rogue. Where this leads narratively, I don't know. But where this leads in terms of gameplay is through a series of missions that present what actually feels like a logical evolution of the game's murder system. The Hitman games always challenged players to find clever ways to assassinate their targets and rewarded you grandly if you could achieve the ultimate saunter-away-while-the-guy-dies-and-no-one-knows-you-did-it kind of assassination. That's hw the Chinatown level played, offering me a variety of obvious and not-obvious ways to kill a bad man.
- Track my target, wait for him to wander to a corner of the Chinatown map, grab a knife, stab him and then try to run away... but probably get shot in the process.
- Tamper with some sort of electrical box near a security guard to draw his attention, slip past him, find a drug dealer in a stairwell, kill him, put on his cheesy clothes (see outfit above!), grab some security tape that would have filmed the assassination, plant an explosive near a car, woo the target to the car and then blow it up.
- Lure the target below some suspended crates, shoot the cable above it and flatten him.
- Dress up like a chef and poison the target's food.
- Poison his coffee.
- I'm sure there's more...
You get more points for being more crafty. The score tallies in the corner of the screen, which can also display the best scores your friends have achieved, or the best scores in the country or in the world. As far as I can tell, Hitman Absolution isn't going multiplayer, but it is connecting gamers to each other in this way.
The fact that you can walk around Chinatown unbothered, Assassin's Creed-style (there, I said it), makes the game a little less tense than earlier Hitman games I've tried, but it doesn't turn this game into an action free-for-all either. Agent 47 is still relatively weak and easily overwhelmed if he starts bumbling and getting caught. (Caveat: a year ago we were told that going "Rambo" in Absolution will sometimes be an option.)
Suave murder amid a crowd is what the makers of Hitman Absolution wanted to show off this time. I don't know how far the game will get in posing as an Assassin's Creed alternative. This series' return after a six-year absence should be enough of an event. No other series does play quite like it, even as it now veers just a bit closer to some of the more popular games of the current day.