The stealth kill icon Agent 47 is on the comeback trail, and is looking better than ever in a live gameplay demo I saw behind closed doors at the Square Enix E3 booth. While it might not have had the pre-E3 hype of games like Mass Effect 3 or BioShock: Infinite, based on what I saw, Hitman: Absolution is quickly moving up my list of most anticipated games.

The demo opened with a shot of the Chicago skyline, with rain streaking on a window. Suddenly, Agent 47 crashes through the window with the police hot on his heals. Unarmed, he's going to have a hard time dispatching the hordes of cops searching for him. The setting is an abandoned library, a perfect location for stealth. As the cops spread out through the library, Agent 47 begins to stalk his prey, silently assessing the situation. In many ways, it's reminscent of a setup in Batman: Arkham Asylum -- a comparison that came to mind a few times during the demo. Moving in and out of cover appeared very smooth -- a simple tap of the X button (the demo was done on PS3) takes you in and out of cover and quickly between gaps in cover.

Thanks to a new ability called "Instinct," 47 is able to see through bookshelves and walls to see the position of enemies (there's also a conventional radar HUD in the bottom corner of the screen). They are shown in ghostly, night vision green -- again, this is very close to Arkham Asylum's detective vision. One nice twist on the concept shown were light trails on the ground that appear while using Instinct. This allows you to see the exact path the enemy is treading, making them easier to avoid. Much of the game proceeds like classic Hitman, with 47 using visual distractions to separate enemies from the pack. By pulling a fuse, the flickering lights send a hapless police officer back to fix it -- which quickly ends his life.

During this extended stealth sequence, I got a good look at how the basic character movement has improved from past games in the series. Much like in the new Tomb Raider or the Uncharted series, 47 is agile and able to easily climb up and down ledges to avoid detection and get the drop on a target. As the demo started with 47 unarmed, he used various items in the environment like a power cord and a marble bust. At one point, he even jumped up, hung from a ledge and pulled an enemy over the balcony ledge to his doom like in Assassin's Creed or Splinter Cell. Some of the more close quarter kills were violent, like quickly tapping the circle button to choke the life out of a cop.

After picking off the isolated, weaker members of the pack, 47 realizes that there are too many police officers to take down individually. At this point, he springs into action, taking a gun purloined from a fallen officer and grabbing another cop as a human shield. As he holds off a horde of police with guns drawn, slowing climbing a staircase, 47 makes his move, knocking out his human shield and bounding off with the police in chase. Climbing and running up a series of balconys, he shoots a chain and sends a chandelier crashing to the floor below. At the top, 47 bust through a fire door and we see the Chicago skyline.

I honestly thought the demo was going to end, but there was a lot of action to come. Agent 47 jumped to a nearby building, now with helicopter equipped with a spotlights and machine guns tracking his progress through the top floor of the building. It was extremely cinematic, and brought to mind a similar sequence in Uncharted 2. He survives this onslaught and makes it to the next building. Unfortunately, the helicopter is blocking his path across the roof. Opportunity knocks in the form of another patrolling officer.

Now it's time for a classic Hitman tactic: a disguise. Agent 47 takes the downed officer's coat and hat, and is now able to stroll right past the helicopter and its spotlight. The next building he enters is a hippie den, complete with marijuana plants, psychedelic posters, and blaring acid rock. The hippies are alerted that the police have surrounded the building and begin to try to flush the pot down the toilet. Two police officers enter the room and question the disguised 47 about his identity -- he responds by grabbing a nearby glass bong and braining the inquisitive cop with it.

Agent 47 starts to play it cool, relying on is disguise. As he walks through the building, now literally teeming with police, he slowly strolls by his pursuers. Here, we see another use of his Instinct abilities. Certain police officers he passes take notice of him, prompting a brief second of slow motion. In these instances, 47 reacts by pulling down the brim of his hat or pretending to talk into his clip on walkie talkie to avoid detection. At one point he even blends in by grabbing a quick donut.The demo ended with 47, still in disguise, riding the building's eleveator down. Cutting between 47 and the police waiting for him downstairs, tension builds. I was half expecting a shootout to happen when the doors opened, but 47 breezed past the remain police with calm precision. Walking out on a Chicago street scene crawling with hundreds of fully animated NPCs, the camera panned up...Agent 47 was gone, lost in the city.

All in all an impressive demo. The controls looked very smooth and -- even more importantly -- the dodgy enemy AI that has plagued the franchise seemed to be much better. The game runs on IO Interactive's new Glacier engine, which performed admirably. Finally, Hitman seems to have state-of-the-art tech that can stand beside any in the industry. I've always liked this franchise, but often it seemed like an amazing concept plagued by spotty execution.

Hopefully, Absolution can establish Hitman as a true triple-A franchise. While it's important not to read too much in to a good demo (let's not forget I/O's struggles with the Kane & Lynch franchise in recent years), but so far Hitman: Absolution seems to be coming along nicely.