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Hitman Absolution preview: Brilliant ideas power smaller sandbox

Reduction in scale, but not ambition

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Certainly, if you only play a Hitman level once you're doing it wrong, and challenges attest to that. Skilful and varied play (i.e. not going around and smashing everyone with a lead pipe) gives a 5% bonus to your end of level score. 'Damn Good Coffee' is a level-specific award doled out for lacing a cup of joe with sleeping pills, while 'Suit Only' is more like a running gag across all chapters where players must maintain 47's stylishly conspicuous dress sense.

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Instinct mode transforms the game, allowing 47 to track enemies through walls...

The replayability these challenges offer is immense; the rewards they unlock (2% speed boost, slightly less recoil) not so much. They're more bragging rights than modification. Where they look to alter the game, Instinct transforms it, an alternate vision mode allowing 47 to track enemies through walls and identify interactive apparatus. Throughout development, Elverdam asked his team, "How can we open up the game to more people without changing complexity?" Purists worried this dilutes the difficulty are welcome to disable it, but it's damn near essential in separating tool from scenery.

Instinct serves a useful function, but it sometimes intrudes. Every enemy eyes you with intent whether you've got bloody hands or not, forcing you to keep a finger on the shoulder button as 47 hunches his shoulder and hides his face.

Half the time, you'll see the world through the eyes of the Terminator, guards rendered glowing yellow and covered in a digital haze, time slowing to make the effect more egregious. This echoes Rocksteady's Batman problem - augmented vision too functional for its own good.

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CONTRACT NEGOTIATION

It's less of an issue on Contracts, sister mode to Absolution's 12-hour-or-so campaign where players record high-score runs and share them online, given persistent suspicion doesn't follow you like a salty smell. It's basically a game of H.O.R.S.E. with snapped necks, a tad lightweight given you can't toggle spawns or weapon placements and it reuses story areas wholesale, but ideal for perfectionists who dismantled pre-order bonus Sniper Challenge. In Mansion's panoramic clifftop retreat, for instance, crush one guard with a two-story lawn ornament, bottle the second and chuck the third over a balcony and your mates will have to match it.

While our marathon session with the first third of the game calmed existing worries, it simultaneously stoked fresh ones. No, Hitman hasn't become an action game, and no, it's not completely linear, but levels are - owing to Glacier 2's extraordinary fidelity, truly pushing the consoles to their limits - sadly smaller as a result.

Inventive kills should be paramount, so it's worrying when levels aren't big enough to accommodate the devious machinations of creative killers. Don't get the wrong idea, though; the many assassinations available maintain IO's knack for making players wince and squeal. Poisoned broth, plunger strangulation and death-by-fireworks are highlights.

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While brilliant, Absolution is also a desperate cry for a new generation, one that does the franchise true justice. But don't get blindsided: despite its more bitty structure, Absolution remains one of the year's most stylish, accomplished, brutal and endlessly replayable games.

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