Gaming’s favourite frowny faced Assassin is back! Six years after the release of Hitman: Blood Money, agent 47 returns with (arguably) his first proper appearance on the current generation. With a certain other Assassin getting all the attention just now, it’s time for Hitman: Absolution to step up and prove it’s got what it takes to compete.
The story starts with 47 being tasked with killing his former handler from the previous games, Diana, who has fled the agency, taking a young girl named Victoria with her. Once Diana has been “dealt with”, 47 takes it upon himself to look after Victoria and protect her from the agency who desperately want her back for some unknown reason. Further spanners are thrown in the works as Blake Dexter, a business tycoon, also plans to kidnap her and sell her to the highest bidder. 47 must do what he can to protect Victoria while also running from the agency and trying to find out more information about this mysterious young girl.
The game is much more story driven than the other entries in the Hitman series and despite key characters disappearing for the majority of the game, it works to begin with. It’s hardly a gripping tale and it does bare quite a few similarities to the Hitman film (which no-one needs) but seeing 47’s maternal side take over works a lot better than you’d think; a level where you carry Victoria to safety while comforting her is a highlight. As the game goes on however, the story becomes less and less interesting.
Things do come off as a little tonally unsure. At times it seems determined to tell a serious, personal story, at others it indulges in a strange, campy, silly tone, be that the bizarre OTT acting in cutscenes, the 50’s style greasers you have to kill in one level and of course, the infamous Saints (more camp and silly than sexist). Some of the dialogue you hear while sneaking about the missions can be genuinely funny but as a whole the content is merely there, not bad enough to be a distraction but not good enough to be a motivator. It’s the gameplay we’re here for.
Controlling the Hitman himself is fine. The cover system allows you to turn corners with ease (much more useful than it sounds) and 47 still retains his fiber-wire and Twin Silverballers. What is new, however, is instinct. Pushing the right bumper allows you to pinpoint enemies, determine where they are walking and find out where key items/weapons in the environment are. While purists may feel it’s cheating, it is useful as finding items without it becomes a needless chore at times.
There is also a limited instinct meter for more advanced actions. If you are caught in the same disguise as a guard, you can hide your face for long enough to escape, plus, in heated gunfights you can pinpoint targets in slow-motion (like in Red Dead Redemption or Splinter Cell:Conviction). It’s a decent idea which adds more depth, not to mention some tension, to stealth. Though it is hard to shake the feeling that using instinct is something of a last resort and even then, it’s hard not to feel that you’ve done something wrong. Such as it is, you get the strange feeling that you’re not really supposed to use it.
A much touted feature which doesn’t fare very well is “hiding in plain sight” which mostly helps show off the moronic enemy AI, as one minute they chase after you demanding answers, but the second you “hide” in context sensitive areas (Policemen = Donuts, Janitor = Mop) they’ll suddenly lose interest and walk away.
Speaking of enemy AI, as a whole it’s rather lackluster and fairly easy to manipulate. Need a distraction? No worries, simply throw a brick to the other side of the alley. It doesn’t matter if it narrowly misses the guards face, they’ll barely notice. People also seem fine watching a judge enter his quarters, only to emerge with a completely different face and voice a few minutes later.
A staple of the Hitman series has always been the ability to disguise yourself, though in this game it can be an annoying chore. If you dress as a policeman, every other policeman will immediately become suspicious of you the second they see you. If you stay in their line of sight for too long, they’ll demand to speak with you. You can be standing face to face with them yet they’ll scream “Don’t turn your back to me”. It can be infuriating, and it happens often. While this has been a part of previous games, I don’t remember it being quite this frustrating. It can be useful if used right, though disguising has still become more of a chore this time around. Sometimes, as if to taunt you, 47 will wear a mask around his neck instead of his face, a solution which would solve everything!
People who are dressed the same as you being able to see your disguise is an understandable aspect, though if it was catered to each level instead of performing the same way every-time, it would help bring more variety and thought to the game. It would also make a heck of a lot more sense (Every Chicago Cop seems to be on a first name basis, as the very sight of someone they’ve never met arouses suspicion).
There are typically two types of level in Absolution. The classic levels where the player is dumped into an arena, given a target to kill, then allowed to go about the job any way they see fit. Absolution also includes much more linear sequences which feel more Splinter Cell than Hitman. I’m all for a change of pace every so often and some of the levels are great, but it is a little too simplistic, just a simple point A to point B affair. There’s rarely a clever way of sneaking about, it’s just all kept simple.
While these segments are by no means bad as the stealth mechanics are still sound, they don’t hold a candle to the classic approach, of which there are too few. The most fun that is had with this game is when you are allowed to take your time, survey a level, find out where the key areas are, then make your hit. The thrill when your plan comes together is hard to match.
Unfortunately, there is a degree of hand-holding. In the olden days, Hitman levels where huge, sprawling environments. Though now, perhaps to cater to those that might find the old style too difficult, some levels are broken up into segments. Regardless to how much you screw up a run, even if every guard in the area is after you, you can simply walk through the magic doors to the next area and suddenly all is forgiven (similar to the Metal Gear Solid series). While it does provide more manageable chunks to big levels it does ruin the immersion somewhat.
The game also comes with a contract mode, which lets players design their own contracts based on levels from the game. While it may seem like the answer to all Hitman fans’ prayers, it’s mostly just retreads of levels from the game. If you do enjoy the game you’d probably get more from actually playing through levels again, trying to better your score and complete the challenges the game sets you.
There’s nothing much that’s remarkable about the way the game looks. It’s got a high polygon count I’m sure but there isn’t much going on to make it stand out, though the pre-rendered cutscenes do look eerily real. Speaking of, they do have a tendency to take you out of the action; you can be in the middle of a mission, disguised as a guard, then walk into a pre-rendered sequence where you’re suddenly back in your suit and tie get up. Voice acting is fine, even if the performances are a little eccentric (back to that matter of tone again). Music fits the surroundings mostly fine, picking up with the action when it needs to. Though don’t be surprised if you find yourself singing “Black Bandana” in the shower. There is a nice touch hidden within the game though; keep your eyes peeled for a certain pair of anti-heroes form IO Interactive’s other franchise.
The classic Hitman gameplay is still intact and fun, but between the mix of old and new ideas, it’s starting to show signs of ware and tear and it’s also clear that the fangs have been dulled a little. The game is littered with good intentions though it is hard to point at a single new idea and say it is an unqualified success. The best things about Absolution are the things that have always been there; the scoping, the planning, the executing. It’s just a shame that these things have a tendency to be put on the back seat in favour of more linear gameplay. It will be very interesting to see what the next outing from old Frowny McFrowny face brings to the table.