Good news: this is a Hitman game. A proper Hitman game. From Agent 47's opportune costume changes, to the large and complex levels he can freely stalk, to his deadly talent at murdering bad men in the most inventive way possible - everything you love about Hitman is back.
We sneaked, shot and stabbed through a full level at a recent London event, killing fears this is a dumber, simple sequel for dumber, simpler people. Remember last E3's linear walkthrough set in a police-packed Chicago library? It hindered more than helped. Think back farther, though, to the opener of 2006's Blood Money, IO Interactive's last 'red-tie event'. It was just as straightforward, the fairground-cum-cocaine-factory merely an excuse to teach the basics whilst funnelling you from human-shield-tutorials to lessons in sniper rifle assembly. Absolution, like Blood Money, is a real treat once school's out.
Act II: The King of Chinatown. We start in a back alley with a rough voice in our earpiece. It's not handler Diana - 47 assassinated her in the 'Personal Contract' trailer - but Birdie, who's your new contract-giver. You'll later meet him face-to-face, but for now: controls. Experimenting reveals you can take cover (more for corner-peeking, presumably, than full-blown shootouts), and knock on walls to lure foes in. Weapons now sit on the D-pad rather than an awkward virtual carousel, and pressing down sheaves whatever's in your grasp - after all, walking into a crowd waving a pistol is going to cause a little bit of panic.
You could conceal weapons in previous games, of course, but you've never been able to turn your vision all Predator. RB/R2 triggers Instinct Mode, which paints mission-critical people and objects in glowing red, and less important ones - cops and security guards, for instance - in yellow. It sounds cheap, especially given it's inexhaustible, but it's not. Rather, it saves the pain of constantly tapping the 'use' button at bits of scenery in the hopes it can be picked up and wielded, and makes map-squinting a thing of the past.
CHINA IN YOUR HANDS
Once the controls are sorted, we fling open the gates to Chinatown. The scene is breathtaking, even on six-year old console hardware less and less capable of impressing. Five hundred shoppers pack a market square, chatting and shopping and ordering from steamy food stalls. There's a chef flipping noodles in a hot pan, and a man on a mobile in a hurry. We've seen large crowds in games before - hell, even Xbox 360 launch game Kameo packed in the NPC's - but this is different. There are almost no repeating models, for one, and they've all got routines. Unlike in previous instalments they don't share a hive mind. Each individual can see and hear, and if you contain an incident in a room there's no reason every person in the level should suddenly sniff you out.
Simply, they're not empty polygons. Thanks to the frosty new Glacier 2 engine, a truly impressive bit of wizardry, characters here have complex AI and self-preservation, as demonstrated by what happens next. We whip out our twin Silverballers and go to (China)town. Half a thousand bodies scatter in half a thousand different directions, fleeing for their virtual lives without impacting the framerate a jolt. Some run, some hide, some cover their loved ones, some trip over them to get away. Security returns fire, then the police swarm in, then the SWAT. Quit, restart.