Prior to Hitman: Absolution, the last time we saw Agent 47 on a console was back in 2006 with Hitman: Blood Money. The cloned assassin was, at one point, a huge hit with gamers and a major motion picture based on the character was on the big screens a half-decade ago. Now, Square Enix and IO Interactive are attempting to resurrect the franchise with this newest release.
I am not convinced they should have bothered. It may be cliché to say that the world of gaming has changed over the course of the past six years, but it has, and to me Absolution feels more like a product of 2006 than 2012. There are definitely good things about it, but all too often the game’s failures shine through more clearly than its successes.
One of the reasons that videogames exist is to offer players a chance to experience a different sort of life, a life that they would never ever have in reality – one that they wouldn’t even want to have. Playing a game as a hitman is the perfect example of this – to be clear, my issues with the game in no way relate to the character’s occupation nor the seedy areas he inhabits. Hitman and Tenchu are two franchises I look back upon with great fondness. Absolution just isn’t done very well.
First, let’s take the story. I will, as is my rule, not delve into what takes place, but the truth is that you won’t really know what’s going on after the annoying introductory bit that plays every single time you turn the game on (it can be cut short, but it would have been far better had it only played upon actually starting a campaign, not every time you turn the game on). The story here is irrelevant – at the beginning of a section you are given a task which you go and complete. The story—or what there is of it—takes place entirely during cutscenes following you accomplishing your objective.
What you are required to do on each mission is, more or less, the same thing. To put it briefly, generally you find yourself having to infiltrate a location, kill/save/question someone, and then escape (various interim objectives exist as well). I am not sure how to add a sense of agency to such a storyline, but I can say that none exists here; you just go and do your thing. Consequently, with the repetitiveness of the levels in the game, the lack of agency is something of a problem.
The attempt Absolution offers to give you some sort of control is by providing you with a myriad of ways to kill your target (as in past games in the franchise). That’s great, I love having the choice of sniper rifle from the roof, close-quarters garroting, messing with the target’s car until he appears, and about a dozen other choices (all on the same mission). However, the game makes a fatal flaw of happily promoting the notion that you can kill baddies any way you want and then it deducts points if you don’t do things the way it wants you to. Worse than that, if a dozen cops are shooting at you and you decide that knifing the one who can’t see you but is desperately attempting to kill you, you lose points for that too.
Okay, so the game is promoting stealth. But it isn’t just promoting regular old stealth because killing someone stealthily, even baddies if their not the main target, still deducts points (often these can be earned back—at least in part—by stashing the body), you should only be killing the target.
I understand where that comes from, there’s something to be said for a hitman who only goes after the one target and not people who get in the way. The downside of it is that the monotony of the game is only enhanced by needing to go through each and every level without killing people so as to maximize your points. Additionally, some of the levels are organized so that a stealthy approach and kill takes an incredibly long time to—forgive the term—execute. At some point, sitting there for 10 minutes waiting for a hole in the security to appear is just not fun. Mess up the level and have to do it all again, and it’s even less fun.
Worse, going through the game in that manner, however, doesn’t help you unlock all the cool beans bonuses, awards, etc. No, to unlock everything you need to not only play the game through multiple times offing the target in multiple ways, but to also kill other enemies, who will lower your score for killing them, in multiple ways, too. It is completely counter-intuitive to want people to play the game in one way to get unlocks and to play in a wholly opposite to maximize points. Worse than that, you’re not going to want to play some of these levels over and over and over again in order to get all those unlocks, no matter how much you want them.
The game’s internal logic is also frustrating. If someone sees you whip out a knife they’re liable to raise hell and alert not only the authorities but every villain everywhere. However, as an example, kill a bad guy who owns a gentleman’s club in front of one of the women who works for him and she says absolutely nothing – nothing congratulatory and nothing negative. In fact, she acts as though you’re not even there, and as stealthy as we may have been there, there’s no way she didn’t see us. We even found a couple of bad guys who were looking for us with guns drawn, stared right at us, and then walked away as if we were the ghost we so ought to have been.
Also on the negative side, level design generally isn’t fun, and it’s hampered by a very dark screen. In order to raise the brightness to a level suggested by the game, we had to not only adjust the brightness in-game, but we actually had to adjust the TV settings as well (something we’ve never had to do for any other game). But, specifically in terms of design, while locations are varied, they’re a mess. You have a radar at the bottom of the screen that will tell you where people are, but it won’t tell where walls are or provide a map, even one of streets (which presumably are public knowledge even if building layouts aren’t). More than once we entered a building and turned in the wrong direction simply because it was just impossible to have any idea of where you were supposed to go.
Okay, that bit about not knowing which way to go is not entirely true and this may be a good moment to back up and talk more about the gameplay fundamentals. Gameplay is, in large part, organized around this thing called “Instinct.” Do good things (like hide a dead body or change clothes) and you get more Instinct. Depending on difficulty, Instinct is used in different ways. On lower difficulty settings, accumulated Instinct is only spent when you’re actively trying to pass a nearby guard without them seeing you (if you’re dressed appropriately, don’t stop, and don’t pull a weapon). It also operates in a passive manner to help you see where things are, including objectives and bad guys. Think of the passive version of Instinct like Detective Mode in Arkham Asylum. And, like Detective Mode in Arkham Asylum, some people are just going to play the whole game without ever turning it off (this doesn’t look as good though, so people will miss less). One of the by-products of turning of the game’s difficulty is, in fact, causing your Instinct level to drop every time you turn it on. Instinct, it seems, is a crutch and a disservice to gamers. Unfortunately, without maps and with terrible levels structure, without Instinct the game would be even more confusing.
Outside of that, the rules of it all are pretty simple – go forward, kill or don’t, and be merry.
Now that I’ve given you that entire spiel, let me take nearly every word of it back. If you are able to ignore the level design and the point scheme and the cutscenes and instead just focus on the kills you personally—not the game—want to make, you can have yourself a grand time. At least you can for a while, eventually it becomes just too hard to ignore all the various alarms that go off when you do things the way you want and not the way the game wants.
Hitman: Absolution also allows players to create contracts for others to attempt. We were unable to test this during our review as codes to access it were not yet available.
Beyond all the above, Hitman: Absolution features good graphics and bad voiceover work. In short, it it’s a decent affair, but not the stunning return of Agent 47 for which we were hoping. The game is far more enjoyable in fits and spurts than in prolonged sessions, as the longer you play the more obvious the flaws are (a lack of variation on how bad guys look/dress within a level, invisible walls marking the end of a map, flashlights shining through walls with Instinct on, the list goes on), but shorter sessions wind up with player wanting more, not less. On the plus side though, it is, as expected, violent and crude and bloody.
There is fun to be had with Absolution, you just have to be exceptionally careful about how you try to have it. Like with 47 himself, the best route is probably to sneak up cautiously and garrote it from behind.
Hitman: Absolution is rated M (Mature) by the ESRB for Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Partial Nudity, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Use of Drugs. This game can also be found on: PC and XBox 360.