Murder. Morally repugnant, shocking and thanks to the Hitman series, deeply satisfying. We are of course talking about dispatching the targets in the game series and not the contents of the mysteriously locked cupboard at the GameGrin office. At gamescom this week we got the chance to test out the newly unveiled "Contracts" mode for the hotly anticipated Hitman: Absolution.
It has been some time since our last glimpse of IO Interactive's follow up to 2006's Hitman: Blood Money. While we were excited at the return of gaming's most famous assassin, Agent 47, we also had some reservations about the changes that had been introduced. Most of these revolved around the significant alterations to the structure and format of missions. Thankfully the developers have been keeping the "Contracts" element of the title under wraps which has been lovingly designed to ensure the survival of the classic Hitman gameplay.
Hitman: Absolution is split into two main areas: the story-focused "Absolution" that centres on Agent 47 and his involvement in a shadowy conspiracy and "Contracts" a pure mode where you focus on completing your hit and escaping. While we were told that the plot of the game will be more personal, gamescom was all about getting to grips with the latter mode: put simply, we loved it.
The Hitman community has always been incredibly important to IO Interactive and they've been constantly surprised by the ingenuity and persistence that fans have shown. With Hitman: Absolution this was an area they really wanted to develop and make it easier for the long-term players to get more from the game. The series is known for its difficulty and range of options available for successfully eliminating your target. For years fans have been challenging one another to beat specific missions with set parameters. These have included obtaining the Silent Assassin rank, completing the level in the shortest time possible, wearing a certain disguise (such as the infamous Mardi Gras chicken suit) or taking the target down with a specified weapon.
Answering the community demand, IO Interactive decided to build a separate mode where it would be simple for players to develop their own hits. In "Contracts" anyone in the game can become a target. Not only that but you can choose how quickly the kill must take place, whether or not there are any witnesses and so much more. There also appeared to be a big social element to this game mode, where you could download other players' challenges and try and beat their times before re-uploading your particular run.
Thankfully we got the chance to complete a level created by the developers which also meant we could see how the gameplay itself had altered. Our "Contract" took place in a bustling Chinatown market where we had to execute two separate targets: a police officer and a gang member under protection. The first thing we noticed was the vastly improved visuals with some impressive lighting effects giving the stalls a smoky, realistic vibe. The crowds of bustling shoppers and civilians were also dense and brought to mind the busiest locations from Hitman: Blood Money.
Moving slowly and carefully to case-out the surroundings and track down our soon-to-be victims we became aware of new changes to the amount of information you are given. One of the biggest frustrations of the previous Hitman titles was the lack of data given to you about how your actions were being perceived. Were you in danger of being detected? Could you safely move into an area without being shot to pieces? Which weapon could you hold while in a disguise? Thankfully the developers have addressed this and introduced some new on-screen displays that let you know when exactly how you currently appear to NPCs within the level.
This proved invaluable during this "Contract" as on several occasions we were warned by a small pop-up that we were trespassing or visible carrying an offensive weapon. It's a small addition that makes the game that little bit more accessible to newer players. However it wasn't simply on-screen messages that notified you but also other character's animations and dialogue. When trespassing NPCs would approach us and block our path while politely telling us not to come back and try our luck. It felt believable and more sensible than guards instantly drawing weapons and filling you full of holes. IO Interactive was keen to stress to us that the text information can be disabled for veterans of the Hitman series who want a more hardcore experience.
Another significant change has been a complete overhaul of NPC AI, a notorious flaw that has plagued each game in the franchise. Recognising the frustrations that inconsistent and confusing behaviour could cause among players, smoothing this was a major priority for the development team. While we weren't given the chance to test this claim as fully as we would have liked, there did seem to be notable improvements to characters' behaviour, particularly potential enemies.
Being relatively hardcore fans of the series we had chosen to enter into the contract equipped only with our trusty silenced Silverballer and our standard crisp suit with tie. Spying one of our targets lurking down an alleyway we approached to see whether we could slip in behind him. Sadly, there didn't seem to be an obvious route to avoid his vigilant gaze so we moved back into the market and scanned the surrounding buildings. A police officer sat in a chair absorbed in a television program while supposedly "guarding" a restricted area and we couldn't resist the lure of some healthy trespassing.
Getting past was remarkably easy and all we had to do was follow the cable of the officer's television to a fuse box and disable it. Clearly angry at having the latest episode of Desperate Housewives rudely interrupted he moved away from his post to investigate. Using the opportunity we snuck by and reached an office overlooking the square. A conveniently placed sniper rifle was hidden in a filing cabinet which seemed the perfect means with which to dispatch our first target: the policeman in the alleyway from earlier.
Equipping the weapon we gradually eased our way to the window to ensure nobody could see us, took careful aim and brought him down with a crisp and clean headshot. Before anyone could turn and spot us we had dropped the rifle and hidden in an alcove behind the doorway, while the crowds in the market panicked following the sound of the shot. It wasn't the most careful and professional assassination but it had certainly got the job done. The chaos successfully separated our second target from his police handlers and we spotted him dashing back to the same restricted area we were in; no doubt looking for greater protection.
Carefully drawing our Silverballer we waited for him to enter the room before executing him at close range in the manner of a professional. Dragging his body to a nearby cabinet we stashed it out of the way to ensure that nobody would stumble across our handiwork. Now we were faced with the classic Hitman dilemma of making it safely and quickly to the exit: A doorway on the other side of the market square. Silently creeping back out of the restricted area, avoiding several police officers on the way, we made it back to the bustling, terrified crowd. Slipping through the bedlam unnoticed proved remarkably straightforward and it was only a matter of seconds before we had completed the mission.
"Contracts" was an entertaining and unadulterated experience and felt like the most satisfying missions from the early games. The new additions of extra heads-up information didn't feel insulting to long-term players and the ability to remove this only shows how much IO Interactive cares for their hardcore fan base. Hitman: Absolution feels like an excellent balance between the old and the new: innovating but not removing what makes the experience.
With a lot of replay value and a huge degree of variety in this mode, it is difficult to see it becoming stale. There are so many different bonuses and tweaks available, ranging from scoring and ranking modes to having to eliminate targets in a predefined order. Similarly, there seemed to be some really hardcore options available in "Contracts". These included not being allowed to pick up any items within the level or to change out of your starting suit. These particular modifiers seem deliberately designed for the Hitman elite.
Hitman: Absolution has managed to allay our fears that by mixing up the standard gameplay formula the challenge and complexity of the series would have been negatively diluted. Instead IO Interactive appear to have broadened the appeal of the franchise while simultaneously providing the difficult and intricate options that long-term players have come to expect. Until the game's November release we'll be avoiding that mysterious office cupboard and planning our own custom hits with murderous anticipation.