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ARTICLE

Hitman Absolution: Rules of Engagement

"What is it about you and nuns?"

The question's aired some three weeks ago. Nearly a month before the storm of opinion that's ruptured everywhere from the games industry to tabloid press over 47 taking down a group of leather-clad Nuns. We're in an interview room with Absolution producer Luke Valentine, having just witnessed it and played the King of Chinatown E3 demo.

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The question's asked partly in jest; one of those ice breakers to ease into the conversation. Valentine's nervous laugh answers. Silence. Then he responds with a question of his own.

"Can I ask directly: did that cause any personal offence? We probably are treading a thin line between what's entertaining and what people may think 'what the hell is that about?' Probably not with our audience I think. i think the people that'll consume the game won't be offended at all."

"But for the new audience?"

"Not for new or old. I don't think people will be bothered by it. But of course, if people were offended, that won't be cool either. We want to have fun. We're making a game, but we don't want to piss people off and alienate people."

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"You're worried about that?"

"We're not worried...if we are worried, it's not influencing what we're doing. But we do want to make sure we're released in all territories. so we're going to do what we can to...we don't now yet about low violence versions but we'd like to avoid doing that , but we may need to. For the like of Australia or Japan, or Germany, where there's more rigourous age-rating constraints in other countries."

"But that's not stopping you going forward what you want the game to be?"

"No."

Hitman: Absolution
The demo's opening is an impressive testament to the Glacier 2 engine's power.

Combating what the studio wants to do with what's expected is a central theme to today's chat. That Valentine makes repeated referral to previous comments by other journalists made that day suggests I'm not alone. But he seems more worried about reactions to the hands-on, to what IO is implementing in Absolution. Conversation runs through everything: check-list Challenges, online scoreboards, to a player's admission to clocking the demo in under a minute.

There's a lot of new mechanics to juggle here. So much that original target for audience's ire, the Instincts meter, now seems small fry.

As we see, IO's offered a solution, an answer it's unwilling to elaborate on. Multiple difficulty settings greet us after sitting down with the demo; most are locked, their descriptions and details blacked out. But it looks like those mechanics listed at best as handholding and at worst completely counter to the franchise foundations will be methodically strangled as you work your way up to the Purist class difficulty.

"Purism means austerity," explains Valentine. "And not much in terms of thrills - clearly that's for the hardcore. Its not for the causal player. Its not even for the good player. It's for the kind of player who completed Blood Money on Silent Assassin," Luke explains, the only detail he'll give on the subject. But clearly, Absolution caters for every skill set.

Hitman: AbsolutionHitman: Absolution
Cook and kill or shoot to thrill: two ways of taking out the King of Chinatown.

Into the game proper, and what follows is instantly impressive, Valentine mentioning post-play how happy the team is with the "door experience."

He refers to the reason this level's been hand-picked for play due in part to its eye-widening introduction. You step out from empty backstreets at the level's start into a bustling market square in Chinatown crammed - and we do mean crammed - with bodies. The place is noisy, crowded, alive. Drop the logo on screen, and you could have a quality game opening to prove the strength of the studio's returning Glacier 2 engine.

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Points of interest: a local criminal boss surrounded by bought cops in a pagoda in the square's middle. His sports car parked in an alley nearby. Stalls selling poisonous fish. Building materials hanging from a crane. A drug dealer holed up in an first floor apartment nearby.

Hitman: Absolution
Alternatively you can blow the sports car - and letting you hide in the rushing crowds to get to the level's exit unnoticed by the police of SWAT teams that come in.

As always, the idea is to connect the devious dots to off the boss without being spotted nor caught. But there's extra challenges to flavour the stage; off police disguised as the drug dealer. Kill the dealer dressed as police. Do either sans disguise. Avoid detection. Kill the boss from the apartment window, Oswald style. Poison his dinner. Push him down a basement hatch when no-one's looking.

Each is listed via a sub-menu Challenges screen. There's the argument here that the descriptive list takes away the need for exploration, for experimentation. But that's player choice to do so, to spoil. Online scoreboards may be another issue though.

Every action earns you points. Your rating dips or rises based on this as well. Both marked on the main screen HUD, and both uploaded to online leader-boards. Assassination for Score Attack. Valentine believes it'll earn its own dedicated player base. "If you start paying attention to the score, you start to care about your online score, how that compares with your friends, your country or globally. Of course you're going to start grinding and grinding and grinding to improve that."

Hitman: Absolution
Getting garbed doesn't give you a free ticket: you got to keep your actions free of suspicion and hide your face.

We're on the level for an hour. Multiple run throughs. One problem we never overcome is breaking the crane chain holding the building materials unseen, so they topple and crush the King while he's below them. A sniper rifle could do; but the one vantage point in the dealer's apartment lacks a clear line of sight. We puzzle over it for the rest of thee afternoon.

We try the one minute wonder - simply shooting the boss and shooting our way out. We barely make it due to a low health system, and its just unsatisfactory. IO likely think the same.

One. Fifteen. Sixty. The number of minutes you spend here or any level dictated by how much you want to invest exploring, tracking. Learning. Instincts blazes trails across the square to indicate where targets will walk next, but its easy to fathom harder difficulties will exclude it; preparation your only guide to achieve your goal.

The game's not due until later on this year. I ask Valentine whether the team will be watching the internet closely for the E3 reaction.

"This is a tough E3 for us. Last year was tough because we hadn't announced yet and we didn't know what the reaction would be. Would people yawn or would they be excited? Fortunately the response was tremendous, with a ton of nominations and awards. This is tough for us, because how do we follow up on last year's success? What's the response going to be like?"

The question's left hanging.

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