The Danish development studio know how to render locations with enough gritty beauty and attention to detail that you're completely immersed alongside its protagonists.
An ability executed with finesse by the studio's Glacier 2 engine. While Kane & Lynch 2 had its faults, its slice of Shanghai life - back streets, noise pollution, dirt and grime - wasn't one of them.
In Absolution, the scale's pulled right back - for the purposes of the demo we're contained to the interior of an orphanage - but it's no less a convincing portrayal. With low-grade pixelation filters from the previous title scrubbed, Glacier 2 finally shines.
Appreciation of the location's design, from smart room layouts to the natural mess expected of a nursery, grows as the single level is played twice through.
First play is stealth, second excessive gunplay. Both to show different approaches but not, as game director Tore Blystad emphasises in a post-presentation chat, to suggest these are the only two ways to play.
47's tracking of a young girl has been stalled by thugs apparently on similar orders. Various groups of different sizes fill the two floors of the orphanage. The studio has worked hard on differentiating NPC actions, repeated attempts through the level promising slight variation and realistic reaction to your movements and attack patterns. We'll have to take Tore at his word for the moment: but for our dual ten minute runs, we have to concede that they're an expressive bunch.
From behind doorways and hidden in closets we watch various groups at work: working over a guard, looting corpses, relieving themselves in corners. Varied conversation a heavy factor in masquerading AI routines in a believability of the real. Multiple rooms throughout the orphanage become mini-soap operas to study, mini-challenges to strategise over.
Despite the overhaul of the game's mechanics, Hitman still edges close to a realistic world: the developer's confidence in pulling out of cover during an intense shoot-out due only to a health meter heavily and unnaturally augmented for the sake of the demo. Such action would be rash; better instead for your opponents to never know you were there.
The studio know this section intimately: as such its first run is dangerously confident and swift. It even provides moments that are pure cinematic, and that would make the first-time player likely panic.
Such a moment was a split-second dodge from behind a bookcase to avoid a suddenly appearing villain that leaves 47 exposed to the rest of the room's occupants. Luckily their backs are to the dapper assassin. The studio skirt back round the bookcase and grab the patrolling thug, silently rendering him unconscious rather than snapping his neck. Before dumping him in a refrigerator 47 assumes his disguise - the mask and clothing organically growing across his body with a subtle artistic flair.
The sequence highlights both the old and new of 47's repertoire. 47's assumption of one of the crew allows him to walk in plain sight, but needing to hide from closer scrutiny by partially disguising his face when passing nearby killers; either through swiping his hand across his brow, or dropping his head to study items on floor or desk.
These moments are highlighted by an on-screen button prompt. Initiating them cause two fluctuations. The first is a circular reticule that appears any time you can be spotted, slowly spiking as you near discovery. Second is the slow dissolve of your Instincts meter.
Instinct is what allows the studio, and you, to react ahead of the fact.
Enable it and nearby enemies are outlined through walls and floors, and those that'll intersect with your location are highlighted by a trail of flames mapping out from their feet along their projected route.
Behind the bookcase we see the flame spring from the floor beneath our feet, giving the studio but a second to switch positions and avoid being spotted.
The ability is likely one of the few bones of contention had with the game at this point; and likely only from players who have stuck with the series over the years.
Yet while IO admit it's rightly trying to gain a larger audience with Absolution, the decision isn't to dumb down the gameplay. Its inclusion is to keep players concentrated on the game world, to use eyes and ears to track layouts first hand. The studio found that previously players spent too long ruminating on 2D maps and planning within sub-menus before executing ideas.
While argument can be made that NPC outlines and path trails subtract a level of skill (timing and memorising), Instinct's range is heavily restricted to the immediate surroundings, while the audio signifiers of footsteps, idle talk and the slight sound of a cigarette burning that comes with the flame trails, digs you much deeper into the moment-to-moment threats.
We see 47 drag one body into a wardrobe only to climb in alongside it as a trail appears on the stairs behind us. As its walker treads up the steps and wanders within a few feet of our hiding spot, background audio and music fade out and are replaced with a heavy heartbeat. The studio representative is nestled somewhere in the back of the presentation room, but we know his joypad is vibrating in time with the beat. Smaller details like this guarantees tension in mechanics well worn over the years.
The sustained firefight that the orphanage crumbles into once 47 decides on direct contact shows the other side of Instincts.
The on-screen meter recharges through a range of successful assassin-friendly moves. Be it tossing a talking toy into a creche to create a distraction, or a syringe into a struggling victim's neck. Alternatively, in a decision that instigates the rapidly increasing body count, burying a fire axe into someone's body.
Instincts also grants 47 his own bullet time, similar in use to John Marston's Dead Eye in RDR - letting you pinpoint multiple targets with crosshair icons and let rip. IO targets a number of explosive caches and we watch broken bodies hammer walls and ceilings. It's pretty stuff, but given how easily the screen bleeds red even when locked to cover, we'll likely be going all Bruce Willis only to blow off steam if our sneaking falls afoul of prying eyes.
But even aggressive maneuverers can yield results: rescuing the heavily beaten guard by taking out his tormentors will point you in the direction of a hidden shotgun: great optional backup if you're forced into a close encounter.
The team is quick to pause the game at the same point on both walkthroughs: 47 yanking the power switch for the building. Second time is followed by a montage heavy with clues to where this latest adventure will take the killer.
The strength of the main story, villain, and objectives is on hold for the moment - we're given but the barest nods to the reasons behind all this, but honestly we're more interested to see how IO expands on the suited ninja approach in a variety of different levels.
The game's feature complete, with the team's new tech allowing them a more organic moulding of each location so to balance the game's difficulty as best they can, and continue polishing. It's a situation we're becoming familiar with for publishers' top-tier titles - and one we're happy once again to hear about.
Hitman: Absolution is due sometime later this year, and is looking like it'll make a killing.