The biggest problem facing Hitman: Absolution has nothing to do with the game itself, but rather its timing. November is typically a battleground for some of the year’s biggest games, but with the release of the Wii U coming just two days before Absolution hits the streets, there is a very real possibility that this game will be overlooked. At the very least, the game is facing a slightly diminished audience as some fans that may have bought this game instead spent their money on the Wii U. And that’s a shame.
Hitman: Absolution is the best Hitman yet, and one of the best games of the year. It isn’t going to appeal to everyone, especially those that don’t enjoy the patience of stealth games and are prohibitively frustrated by constant reloads to the previous checkpoint if you want to score well, but it does what it intends for the audience it is trying to reach, and does it with style.
Return of the Inconspicuous Bald Man with a Barcode on the Back of His Head
As with the previous Hitman outings, Absolution has a story that doesn’t rely on understanding the full mythology of the protagonist, Agent 47. It helps at a few moments, but unfamiliarity with the previous games is not a real detriment. All you really need to know going in is that Agent 47 is a hitman, and his primary handler has been Diana Burnwood. Both of these facts are reaffirmed in the first few moments anyway.
The game begins after Diana has gotten herself on the wrong side of her agency, and Agent 47 is dispatched to eliminate her. Things aren’t what they seem, of course, and 47 makes a promise to defend the mysterious teenage girl, Victoria. This proves to be an unpopular decision, and sets off a chain of events that has the police looking for 47, as well as numerous thugs on the payroll of the game’s antagonist, Blake Dexter (voiced with creepy excellence by Keith Carradine).
The plot is actually secondary to the action and the various scenarios, and most of the time you are doing things that are forced into the story to flesh out the game. More than once you’ll find yourself facing the oh-so common “I’ll help you, but I need you to do something for me first” scenarios. The story is there to service and expand the gameplay the majority of the time.
When it does return to the driving story arc, it is a solid yarn, populated by people that deserved a good killing at the hands of Agent 47. He is an anti-hero by trade, but when you pit him against nefarious people that the world would be better off without, you can overlook his morally ambiguous demeanor and focus on finding the best way to assassinate them in your way. Moody and atmospheric designs, paired with solid voice acting and impressively detailed graphics help to paint an almost Grindhouse setting of blood and murder.
One Goal, Multiple Avenues
When you receive a new goal, the way you reach or execute that goal is mostly up to you. Upon entering each new area you can enter the “Instinct” mode, a gimmick similar to detective mode from the Batman Arkham games, as well as several others. Besides showing you the location of enemies that may be obscured by walls, it will also highlight items of interest. These items are variable by the mission, and you won’t know for sure what you are seeing until you are close enough to interact with it.
It may be a vent that allows you to move undetected through an area, other times it triggers something that will set a trap or kill someone walking by. It may be a weapon for you to use, or food that you can poison. It is worth exploring each new area to see what some of your options are, as they not only change, they may trigger events you won’t see unless you are in a particular situation.
For example, in one mission you are tasked with eliminating a target in a strip club. There are several ways to do this, but the most interesting is to find a keycard that is one of the highlighted icons, sneak into a hidden room, and watch as your prey receives a lap dance. If you are in position, he will dismiss the girl and answer a phone call, giving you time to act. If, however, you didn’t find the keycard you’d need to get into the hidden room, the lap dance ends and the call never comes through. The target then leaves and moves on to the bathroom where you can take him out, or you can wait for him to move to yet another location and set off a trap to make it look like an accident.
This, of course, requires a fair amount of patience from the gamer. You always have the option of simply drawing your weapon and hoping for the best in the ensuing shootout, and that is a perfectly acceptable, albeit unremarkable way to play. The shooting mechanics mix well with the cover, and the AI will make your life appropriately difficult to give you a fun challenge. In fact, this is a good approach to consider on a subsequent playthrough, but if you rely on this the game becomes a fairly typical shooter without much to make it stand out. That’s not what this game is about. Shootouts should be reserved for desperate situations or replays.
As in previous Hitman offerings, Agent 47 can collect disguises from fallen enemies, or take clothing bundles left lying around. Once in disguise, you can generally move freely (as long as the level allows free movement), but the disguises will only work on people not wearing the same clothes – so if you are dressed like a gardener and pass another gardener, they will recognize that you don’t belong, but passing a guard in that guise is fine.
It makes sense logically, but it also has a few flaws. If others see you and grow suspicious you can always use the instinct feature and casually obscure your face, or just duck and those watching you may just give up. The AI is usually smart, but this highlights some of its more notable blindspots and predictable behaviors. It’s a fairly minor gripe though, and the five adjustable difficulties give you as much or as little challenge as you want.
The variety of each mission is remarkable, and you can play through the same section several ways, each time handling it completely differently. On one walkthrough you may snipe a target, while another you might find a way to set up the kill and make it look like they overdosed. To escape you can kill someone and take their clothes as a disguise in order to blend into the crowd, or you can lay a trap and be gone before it is even sprung. Regardless of how you proceed, pulling off a perfect kill and escaping unseen is fulfilling. You’ll walk off feeling like a true bad ass.
Now You Know the Score
For each section you receive a score. These scores are then judged against your country and the world (and of course your friends). If you choose to subdue a person, that will cost you – but not as much as if you kill them. Hiding the body adds points back, so there are certain things you can tradeoff. The scores favor playing through like a ghost, but you also receive credit for using the environment and generally being clever. It’s easy to get caught up in the score, but it’s best to ignore it for the first playthough. It does help add to the replay value significantly though.
The game strays from the franchise’s former convention, and instead of one massive level, each of the 20 levels is broken into multiple sections, each of which features its own score and challenges. This is an excellent change that allows you to feel refreshed after each short, but potentially time consuming section.
There are also several challenges in each level, which not only increase your point total, but give you some guidance on what you can do and how – it will take multiple playthroughs to hit them all though, as some of them are contradictory and may have you killing a target one way for a challenge, and another for a separate one for example.
To try for the best scores, you will need to be patient and learn the patterns of the section. This does point out one other design choice that many will not like – the absence of quick save in favor of checkpoints that you physically need to interact with to trigger.
This is likely to keep the scoring system fair and relevant (it would be too easy to get perfect marks if you could save every few feet), but it can get old, especially in the later levels if you are trying to get through unseen but are constantly being forced to play the same difficult section over and over.
Along with the lengthy campaign that could take anywhere from 8-20+ hours depending entirely on your play style, Absolution features an intriguing online offering known as Contracts.
Contracts allows you to select a section from the game and then replay it in a very specific way of your choosing, setting specific goals as you do. Once you complete the section, you can then upload the level online and let others compete for the high score based on your guidelines. If you want to have people kill the target with an explosive while you are in a police disguise, you can. If you want to set the conditions so you have to change into three different disguises during the section and then kill the target with a brick, you can set that too. The player can stray from these guidelines, but the points are set up by the design of the creator.
It’s addictive, and allows you to stretch your imagination. Absolution is all about the complete execution of a mission, so changing the variables makes a huge difference, and you can play through the same section a dozen times and still not have exhausted every possibility. A slightly more robust level editor might have been nice, but that may be getting greedy.
You have to give credit to IO Interactive for finding a balance between the single player campaign and including an online section that is not just more of the same tired online deathmatch we’ve come to expect from games that are forced to have an online offering, despite being a single player specific game. It would be easy to have made this a standard competitive multiplayer since the third-person combat mechanics are there, but that would have robbed the game of some of its identity. Contracts not only opens the game up to the potential of nearly endless replay online, it does so in a way that stays true to the game.
Hitman: Absolution offers one of the best stealth experiences of the year, hands down. The campaign is full of incredible variety, while the Contracts mode is a fitting online inclusion that feels like a proper addition to the uniquely single player gameplay style. There are a few things, like the disguises that highlight some of the failings of the AI, the lack of quick save, and the need to memorize the patterns that will require patience that not everyone will be keen to indulge in, but the flaws are generally minor.
If you enjoy stealth-based games, and are fine with spending time stalking your prey instead of just running in screaming with guns drawn Leroy Jenkins-style, then Hitman: Absolution is for you. Hopefully the glare of the Wii U and the other big November releases won’t prevent others from giving it a try too.
(This game was reviewed on the PS3 using a copy supplied by the publisher)