Agent 47 has always fashioned himself the ideal assassin.  He effectively does his job, setting up assassinations without his assailants ever knowing that he was there.  This was quite evident in his early games, including fan favorites Hitman 2 (Xbox, PlayStation 2 and GameCube) and the more recent Hitman: Blood Money (Xbox 360).

For 47's latest installment, Hitman: Absolution, developer IO Interactive is taking a slightly different turn.  You’ll still be able to play as Agent 47 and take down targets in only the most brutal ways you can think of, but this time you’ll be given a choice.  You can either be the smooth, suave killer that you’ve been playing all these years, or you can be the kind of assassin who could give a crap less about detection and just wants to kill every target he can think of.  Stealthy or aggressive?  You choose.

The story takes an interesting turn, too.  Rather than simply relying on the agency for work (Hitman: Blood Money guaranteed he was out of that anyway), Agent 47 is asked to "take care" of his former handler, Diana Burnwood.  But there’s a problem – he’s grown to trust her over the years, even after dealing with so many bad connections and having to hunt down the truth.  

Instead of simply chasing after her, he goes after contacts and tries to figure out how she ended up on his hit list to begin with – a task that isn’t quite as easy as it looks.  If anyone can make sense out of such nonsense using specialized weapons, it’s obviously Agent 47.

The demo we ran through with IO Interactive takes place in an institution of sorts, left abandoned save for a few people who are getting tortured by a group of malicious gunmen.  They’re hunting for a target who you need to get back alive as part of your investigation for Burnwood.  It’s up to you to work from point A to point B in only your best assassin manner.

Like we said, there are two ways to do this.  The first is classic stealth.  In this stage run through, IO showed us how you sneak around without enemies detecting you, occasionally using distractions like a wind-up robot to get past them.  You could also go about strangling someone silently and then disposing of their body so you won’t be detected.  

Another way to stay silent but deadly (excuse us) is using a special “Hitman sense” which shows how enemies would work in patterns ahead of you, so you can plan your movements and avoid getting caught.  This run through took a little longer than the more action-heavy approach, but followed the more traditional elements that the series has become known for – something fans are sure to love.

The second approach goes less for the sneakiness and more for the awesome kills.  It plays out like a traditional action stage where you get the jump on enemies and take part in some awesome shootouts, peeking around corners and getting in some nasty kills.  Some involve your weapons while others let you take advantage of items in the environment, such as a hatchet that’s quite useful for burying into a troublesome sap.  

In this action-oriented part of the game, we are introduced to a special “Hitman time” sort of attack.  With this attack you can line up several key shots while moving in slow-motion, executing them all at once and finish by watching the chaos fly as a result.  This includes hitting an explosive tank to throw off incoming enemies, then shooting a guy (headshot, natch) right in front of you.

No matter which route you take, Hitman: Absolution has playability to spare and it looks pretty fantastic.  The enemy animation is excellent, especially when they slump over depending how you shoot them.  Hitting someone in the head, for instance, will knock them for a loop so they collapse right on the ground – far different from cutting someone off at the legs with a barrage of bullets.

Next month at E3, Square Enix will have another showcase for Hitman: Absolution to show us, and if it was anything like this one we’re definitely in for a treat.  While traditional players won’t be too thrilled with the more aggressive style of play, that will attract new players while the classic stealth style will remain intact for the loyalists.  Not a bad idea, IO.

We’ll see how Hitman: Absolution finishes the job when it arrives later this year for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.