PREVIEW: Hitman Absolution

It's impossible to talk about Hitman Absolution without touching on the controversy Square Enix stirred up thanks to its choice of trailers. Attention is never a bad thing, they tell us, and nuns with guns is a surefire way of getting plenty of attention. The problem isn't for new fans to the series. If they're the sort of gamer to get excited over ladies in revealing costumes with oversized firearms, they'll get excited over the glimpses we've had of Hitman Absolution. The problem is for long-term fans, for people who love Agent 47 for his stealth, his creativity and his trademark style. We've been bombarded with dramatic trailers, carefully-chosen screenshots and all sorts of fuss, but nobody's taken the time to point out that the more some things change, the more they stay the same.

It's been a while between drinks - six years since Blood Money hit our shelves - and even the series' most long-time fans weren't sure if IO could bring the magic once again.

Further cause for concern - and the reason behind the marketing direction: IO Interactive and Square Enix have admitted they're opening up Absolution, aiming the new game at a wider audience. Early trailers for the game showed a sort of action hero Agent 47, sure to delight newcomers and terrify old-school fans. Happily, we can report that the addition of these skills does not mean the end of Hitman's signature stealth - it just means you don't have to use it all the time.

Unlike earlier titles, if you're the sort of person who wants to rush in, all guns blazing, shooting first and asking questions later, go for it. Otherwise, feel free to take your time, observe your target, check wind direction and velocity, and then move like a shadow in the night. Either option's fine by us, and Agent 47 handles both admirably, rewarding both creativity and bloodshed (but remember, Agent 47 is not invincible, and if you go in firing blind, chances are you'll cop a bullet or two and cut your mission uncomfortably short).

Creativity, by the way, isn't just a buzzword. In one mission included in the press demo, gamers were able to dispatch their opponent by poisoning his drugs, setting off explosives or accidentally pushing him down a manhole, all before reaching for the sniper rifle.

But the choices aren't all yours. For the first time in the franchise (Absolution is 47's fifth outing), IO Interactive has introduced a new "instinct system" (right bumper). Consider it a type of XP, or perhaps an in-game currency. Play well (in whichever form that takes), you'll earn more instinct points. Gather enough of them, and work out what you'd like to do with your earnings. Prepare to suspend disbelief: Your instinct points can be spent on a number of perks - including the ability to paint-target your enemies, see through walls and even slow down time. If your disbelief is not the sort to be easily suspended, don't worry, you can turn off the instinct system and play the game in a more simple, old-school style.

Hitman Absolution

Hitman Absolution

The new Hitman looks simply stunning. Expect plenty of lens flare throughout your missions, but if you can ignore that quirk, IO's proprietary Glacier 2 engine makes the rest of the market pale in comparison. Hands-down, this is the best Agent 47 has ever looked, and the best environment he's appeared in.

We're thrown directly into all the noise and chaos of Chinatown (complete with hustling street merchants, sizzling woks and hungry crowds). If IO could work out a way to add the scent of burned onions, fish sauce and spices, it'd be the next best thing to being there. Alas, we're stuck on the other side of the screen, with Agent 47 the one treading the pavement, cheesewire in hand - and the silver lining? It actually feels like Agent 47. Hitman is back, and what we've seen so far is remarkably reassuring.

Still, "what we've seen so far" is but a tiny snippet of the overall game, but we're seeing a glimmer of hope for Absolution. If IO can keep it up, stealth fans are in for a treat.

Hitman Absolution is due out from November 20th, for PC, Xbox 360, PS3 and OnLive, and we're anticipating plenty more from Agent 47 in the leadup to that.

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