What is this I’m feeling? Is it pleasure? Pain? Hitman: Absolution leaves mixed emotions after the series’ long break.
There was a time, some ten years ago, when Hitman was one of the staples of my gaming diet. Alongside Max Payne and Sam Fisher, Agent 47 completes a triumvirate that form the heart of my gaming heritage. Recently each have seen long absences ended by a reinvention that goes beyond mere makeover; Hitman: Absolution marks the end of some six years of change at IO Interactive. This time hasn’t all been spent on 47’s comeback, though, with the graft of creating the new Glacier 2 Engine being fuelled by a Mini Ninja sandwich on Kane & Lynch bread.
And visually it’s been time well spent. To say that Hitman: Absolution looks great would be an understatement. It makes the dirty, grimy locales inhabited by the underworlds of Chicago and Hope feel as dirty and grimy as they should. The light blooms and filters typified by Kane & Lynch are present in Absolution, but they never drove me to distraction as they sometimes can. Environments feel suitably distinct, despite a degree of repetition in item pick-ups and incidental ‘set dressing’ such as crates or cars. Creating distinct, but consistent environments is something that the Hitman games have always done well, and Absolution continues the trend. Even when revisiting a particular location later there are enough changes to perspective, context and accessible rooms to make it feel fresh.
Sleeping Dogs was a Square Enix game noted for it’s visuals, particularly on PC, and IO have continued the trend with Absolution. The welcome in-game benchmark test allows for a bit of experimentation to find the right set-up. Like Sleeping Dogs, though, a few of the animations fall short of what you’d expect from (for instance) a Rockstar game. Drawing your weapon results in Agent 47’s hands moving into the ready position before his trademark Silverballers suddenly appear out of thin air. That’s not a problem, but some of the animations do interfere with gameplay. If you’re spotted dumping a body you’ll be caught – as you should be – but entering a ventilation shaft will allow 47 to escape watching eyes, even when they’re looking directly at him. It’s probable that this is an intentional concession to avoid in-shaft combat similar to last year’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution, but it stands out nonetheless.
This actually hints at quite a problem with the changes IO have made to Hitman. The structure has been entirely reworked to put more focus on story. To do that, cut scenes literally lead from one mission into the next, telling a continuing story over a defined period of time. It might sound strange, but this hasn’t been done in a Hitman game before. Usually a series of largely unconnected missions are punctuated almost incidentally with scenes that tie only a handful of the missions together. More keen storytelling must be good, right? Actually, no; like the ventilation shaft invisibility mechanic (above), entering one mission should reflect what’s just happened in the last, but it doesn’t. When I massacre an entire squad of guards in a test facility – to complete a Challenge, you understand (more on those later) – it’s a little odd to go through an exit door into a corridor containing two scientists and a guard casually strolling away from me not five yards beyond the door as if having just sauntered out from the scene of my heinous crime.
In Blood Money, Agent 47’s last outing (not including the “film”), one mission would be made more difficult based upon an admittedly daft notoriety scale. The effect, however, was to sublimely incentivise consistent play. In Absolution a scoring system is used to provide this player impetus, but without the very real effect on Agent 47’s ability to complete the next mission, it all feels a little like the game is on tutorial mode – the consequences of player action have to be felt more sharply to be meaningful.
The main change to the mission structure comes in the form of the checkpoint system and sub-levels. Hitman used to use a save-anywhere system, which was limited only by the (difficulty-dependent) number of saves per mission in Blood Money. This offered a degree of freedom that is simply not necessary in Absolution due to the way the missions are divided into as many as five subsections. Each such subsection is bookended by checkpoints and a score reset. Within each mission are additional player-activated checkpoints that save current mission state (these are disabled on the hardest, Purist, difficulty). This facilitates the cinematic aspirations of the story well, providing fixed points within missions, but makes for shorter, segmented missions that feel smaller and more linear as a result.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and the story is definitely helped because of it, but ask a fan of Hitman: Blood Money what they remember about the game and odds are good they’ll mention the creativity of testing solutions in a sandbox-like environment. IO have been keen to highlight the various options for dispatching targets, twelve in the King of Chinatown level they say, and they’ve done a good job. Instead of resorting to guides or videos to see what’s possible, the Challenge system gives hints as to some of the more interesting ways to complete a mission. Challenges are also an excellent delivery system for some of the trademark irony of the Hitman series. Dress up in a chipmunk outfit and kill your marks with a katana? Shoot out the glass floor beneath an egomaniac to turf him into a pit of pigs? ‘Yes’, and ‘yes’. Throw in some fitting cameo appearances and a wrestling match and you’ve got a mix of dark humour fitting to the series’ legacy. Rewards for testing such alternative playstyles and completing the challenges come from a permanent score multiplier applied to subsequent playthroughs of that level. The result of this was that I would play a mission on Hard difficulty to get a feel for it, replay it several times to unlock all the challenges and then do a final play on Purist difficulty to maximise my score – the replayability this offers is frightening and would take, in my estimation, some 50+ hours to complete fully.
The ranking system remains intact, but unlike in previous games, it’s a little hard to know whether it’s score or playstyle that affect ranking. In truth it’s probably both, but killing a non-target NPC, even silently, is a pretty big no-no in the Hitman series where Silent Assassin ratings are concerned; in Absolution that is a zero sum action in terms of score, suggesting that it’s permissible. The points awarded or deducted for certain actions are very specific, meaning that there is a score ceiling for each mission. Already the leaderboards are topped by many people who have the same (maximum) score that will never be beaten, dulling the otherwise excellent intention to formalise competition between players.
The other big addition in aid of competition is Contracts mode. This is not Hitman: Contracts (2004), but Hitman: Contracts (2012), you understand. The conceit is simple enough, enter a location from the story missions and instead of a pre-prescribed target, the player can choose their target and the method of dispatch. Complete the hit and the game will record parameters such as disguises used, method and whether the kill was silent. These will be uploaded, with a difficulty-related bounty, to a database of such Contracts for you and your friends to compete over. Can you complete the hit as intended? Can you do it quicker? IO have provided some excellent contracts to seed the database. Time will tell if Contracts mode will flourish, but I had a great few hours tearing my hair out trying to work out how to kill Sergeant Meyer, with the fibre wire, in the Library.
It’s not all change in Agent 47’s world, you’ll still need your suit, a wardrobe full of disguises, your trusty Silverballers and a fibre wire wrapped around your hand. The core tenets remain, and they are as satisfying as ever. The fact that the missions exist as part of an overall narrative, and not solely as contracts doled out by the Agency, does mean that there’s more variety to be found from one mission to the next. Sometimes there are targets to be taken out, but equally as often the objective is slightly different, perhaps you’ll have to traverse the environment unseen, or walk into a room and pull a trigger in slow motion (seriously, that’s a mission).
When 47 does have to remain unseen, disguises become vital, but there’s new to be found here too. Instead of disguises simply admitting access to restricted areas, they are also vulnerable to detection by when those wearing the same outfit. This makes sense, a police officer would likely know their colleagues and be wary of a stranger in police uniform, but wouldn’t be wary of a stranger in a janitor’s uniform. It makes for a frustrating time in missions populated almost exclusively by NPCs in one type of uniform though, and this is where Agent 47’s Instinct comes in. With a tilt of his head 47 can now convince those around him to ignore his presence as long as his Instinct metre isn’t empty. If this sounds silly, it’s because it is. IO claimed they couldn’t get through some of the levels until they introduced the Instinct mechanic, but for those missions requiring simple unseen movement from A to B I’d suggest that fixing the iffy AI detection should have been the solution of choice. It’s really difficult to know when you’ll be spotted and how much exposure (in and out of disguise) is permissible; Instinct is no more than papering over those cracks. Some missions become a frustrating exercise in trial and error, exacerbated by the fact that NPC movement patterns are now triggered by Agent 47 crossing some invisible line – rendering patrol surveillance almost impossible in certain missions.
If I sound negative then I refer you to the opening paragraphs of this review. My feelings are mixed, and the standards to which I hold Hitman games is incredibly high. Certainly, I respect the need for the changes IO made to their flagship series, and I understand why they were made. Hitman: Absolution is a cinematic game that reminded me of Max Payne 3 in many ways and, given Rockstar’s incredibly high production values and attention to world building, that is no small compliment. IO have gone to great lengths to back up the visual flair and slo-motion cinematics with powerhouse voice acting from the likes of Powers Boothe, Keith Carradine and Vivica A. Fox. Whilst some of the casting doesn’t pay off, or is at least unnoticeable, Boothe and Carradine are excellent at capturing the somewhat pantomime, scenery-chewing bad guys against David Bateman’s calm menace as Agent 47. It’s notable that for the first time there are tangible antagonists in a Hitman game, and this gives Agent 47 purpose beyond a simple series of contracts. The downside is that Absolution feels like it should be a third-person action game, not a Hitman game. The absence of contracts for 47 to fulfill leaves the missions as vignettes, strung together by a series of eminently unlikable characters.
I fear it’s telling that I’ve not mentioned the score, largely by Thomas Bärtschi, which is good and evokes the right flavour, especially in the South Dakota locales, but lacks the excellent touches that Jesper Kyd previously brought to the series. Equally muted are the now infamous nuns, who make their appearance sans the overt sexualisation seen in the trailer. This rather invites one to question why they are dressed the way they are dressed at all, if IO wanted to avoid the sort of reaction that greeted the trailer a few months back. The most damning indictment of all is that without that trailer to announce their arrival they would be almost inconsequential in the game.
Hitman: Absolution hits the mark when it’s most like the previous games. The open, large environments of Chinatown, the Terminus Hotel or the Streets Of Hope give the player time, space and, most importantly, options to explore. Such heady heights leave too many of the other missions feeling closed, small and linear by comparison and whilst that may be the direction in which Hitman will go following IO Interactive’s Kane & Lynch games, it’s not the Hitman I remember and it’s not one I can cherish alongside the likes of the series’ peaks, Silent Assassin and Blood Money.
The PC version was reviewed (purchased via Steam). Hitman: Absolution is also available on Sony PlayStation 3 and Microsoft Xbox 360.