After the awful Kane and Lynch: Dead Men and its forgettable sequel, it’s safe to say that IO Interactive have managed to redeem themselves. When Absolution puts its best foot forward, it is a force to be reckoned with: the game looks absolutely stunning, dripping with atmosphere and offering huge amounts of player choice. Unfortunately, these triumphs are somewhat undercut by poor storytelling and multiple linear, or simply limiting, sections that are in no way as satisfying or interesting as the open-ended assassinations the series is known for. It’s another great Hitman game, and it makes some clever improvements on the formula, but in the end, Absolution ends up taking one step forward and two steps back.
Sometimes collateral damage can be rather tempting.
Absolution demonstrates a new take on the franchise in regards to story. The game starts out with Agent 47 on a mission to kill ex-agent Diana Burnwood and retrieve a young girl named Victoria. This opening level serves as a great showcase for Hitman: Absolution, presenting you with small-scale examples of where its strengths lie and where potential flaws could be. Assassinating a security guard to get to your eventual target indicates the kind of pleasures to come. In other words, the open-ended level design lets you complete your goal in a variety of ways. This is just one side of Absolution, though. The actual assassination of Diana remains as simple as walking into a cutscene that does the killing for you, and forces you to take Victoria (who Diana claims to have saved from ‘the doctors’) with you on your missions against the Agency. It’s an odd story moment that doesn't quite work, signifying later disappointments that manifest themselves in poor storytelling and levels that prohibit the kind of choice you expect. It’s a game of two sides, and one is inherently superior to the other.
Absolution's major problems all stem from this original premise. You no longer work for the Agency, so the mission structure of contract after contract has been removed. This makes for a different feeling Hitman game, complete with story focused missions that tie levels together and further the plot. Although these objectives produce quite a spectacle, I'd rather be assassinating somebody like the Hitmans of old. The setup also means that Agent 47 is now the hunted as often as he is the hunter, and this has a negative gameplay consequence. Missions where you have to escape from pursuers, or are actively being searched for by an opposing faction, play out like generic stealth missions instead of Hitman missions. Solid covert mechanics make these missions at least decent, but they are rather pedestrian and don’t show off the main appeal of Hitman. It seems like an obvious point, but in taking the job of Hitman away from Agent 47, IO have ended up making something that does not always feel like a Hitman game.
When judged on its own merits, Absolution holds up very well.
In general, Absolution seems more like a conventional stealth game than ever before, and this is for a number of reasons. Even in the missions more reminiscent of previous releases, the player must take a subtler approach than normal based on how disguises work. There is less joy hiding in plain sight and being able to explore your surroundings in a relatively carefree manner, but a lot of the fun of Hitman comes from experimenting with your environment; the levels are playgrounds of destruction where you need to sample all the lethal treats before you pick which one is right for you. To a certain extent, this is still possible in Absolution, and it’s still an incredibly satisfying experience at times. When considered on its own, Absolution should be highly praised for offering the player a superb sandbox that provokes personal choice and creative interaction with the surroundings, but when you analyze it next to a game like Hitman: Blood Money, it’s evident that this freedom could have been handled better.
Take the changes in the disguise system for example, which adds a certain degree of realism but makes for a rather different experience. In Blood Money, using an appropriate disguise would allow Agent 47 to traverse the levels with relative security, if you didn't act suspiciously. The same is not true in Absolution. Donning a disguise may grant you access to certain areas, but it does not give you the same range of flexibility as before. Suspicious behavior will still alert those around you, and so will your presence in general. If you are dressed up as a guard while walking past another, he will be instantly leery of you. This holds true for every disguise, so you have to be more careful with your movement. For many players, this may be a plus point. Although it certainly makes more realistic sense, the freedom can feel very limiting.
In some levels, the new disguise system works well due to other mechanics that void the damages a more limited approach can create. Absolution applies a greater focus to picking the right clothes for the right situation than ever before, which adds another layer of tactics and strategy to the experience. A guard's outfit may allow you to remain in the area, but that scientist costume may arouse less suspicion. When you find a costume that gets you through without causing alarm, it’s an undeniable thrill in these moments where the gameplay shines. Other systems help you out too, particularly a novel mechanic called Instinct. Instinct works like Arkham Asylum’s detective vision, outlining color-coded NPCs through walls and tracking their movements, but Instinct also highlights interactive objects in the environment. These options are always available, and pulling off impressive feats will build the meter used to blend in or target enemies in a slow motion mode.
Blending in helps Agent 47 avoid the limits of the disguise meter too, as holding the Instinct button causes you to stop being suspicious to people in the same clothes and allows you to freely pass through otherwise difficult areas. The visual effect usually entails something like pulling a cap down or just looking busy, but blending in also generates random dialogue where foes speak about how they must know you from somewhere. This deception feels rather silly, detracting from the realism that the base system creates, yet Instinct leads to new possibilities in the better designed missions (of which Absolution offers a decent number). You can’t roam as freely as before, but you can study AI behaviors, monitor your target, and tinker with the environment. This makes the assassinations a joy to partake in, even if Absolution feels more streamlined than past Hitman games.
You have to admire Absolution's use of button prompts.
Absolution’s problems eventually surface in other areas. The cutscenes sport breathtaking graphics and create an enticing atmosphere, but they don’t tell a decent story. The production values are top notch, including the superb textures, impressive lighting effects, uniform sound design, and convincing voice work. Unfortunately, not all aspects are equally impressive. In strict parallel to the game's beauty, Absolution remains a dark and thematically ugly game filled with disgusting characters. Building a strong, evocative world like this can be a huge positive, but in the case of Absolution, the developers waste the potential. Although the occasional bit of equally dark humor and tone can be very compelling, the end result tries too hard to be edgy. Absolution is dark for the sake of it rather than doing something interesting with a gritty and violent setting like this year’s Max Payne 3.
The story has issues beyond tone also. The storytelling itself is simply lackluster, for example. Several plot points just don’t make sense, and the narrative feels quite cheap in the way it reveals certain elements. The player is not privy to everything that makes Agent 47 who he is, and this means that his motivations are unclear for much of the game. Although everything almost makes sense by the end, it’s too little too late. In some regards, the poor storytelling is not an issue. When the game throws you into a sandbox assassination, the quality of these excellent missions pushes such issues to the back of your mind while you enjoy an otherwise fantastic game. However, the story drives the action and determines the structure of multiple linear and scripted sections that plague Absolution. These segments may be fun to play through the first time, but they do not live up to the standards set by the rest of the game. Ultimately, there are too few missions where the game does what it does best.
One area where the game does impress, however, is in its answer to multiplayer, a mode called Contracts (not to be confused with the game Hitman: Contracts), in which you can make your own assassinations and take part in those built by other players. It’s an asynchronous multiplayer offering, but the amount of scoring, stat tracking, and the ability to create competitions between friends makes Contracts a mode which will keep you playing the game alongside others for some time. You pick a level from a list of specially selected campaign levels and play it as you would normally, bar having any mission to complete. However, your objective requires you to create an assassination as you would perform one. You mark your own target, and then how you take them down cements the criteria for others. You can pick up to three targets, and the weapon used to kill them as well as what you're wearing will be listed.
On top of this, other factors are taken into account, such as your accuracy, eliminating anybody else, being spotted, and managing to hide the body or not. The more accurately that people who take on your contract ape your assassination, the more points they score. Bonuses are handed out along the same lines as they are in the main game, too (things like lack of collateral damage and not changing your suit). It might be fun to make contracts, but the tools are not all there. Each level was obviously built with a certain objective in mind, and that means any attempts to set a different one are either difficult or make for some uninteresting scenarios, seeing as certain enemies just don’t open themselves up for creative executions.
Nothing says silent assassin like dodging helicopter gunfire.
But bottom line, Hitman: Absolution is still a one of the better stealth games out there. The sandbox missions are well crafted, offer a large amount of choice, and encourage replays. Some changes may not agree with the series' fans, but there are enough mechanics that interact well with each other to keep the gameplay compelling and satisfying, even if it is inferior to a game like Blood Money. There’s a lot to love here, as the well-executed stealth and solid combat open many viable paths while avoiding frustrations better than most games in the genre. It’s also nice to see that Hitman: Absolution branches out in a new direction rather than delivering more of the same, but it’s just a shame that Agent 47 does not offer enough of what he does so well. Hitman: Absolution is still worth playing, but in the end you could get more out of playing Blood Money or picking up Dishonored instead.
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: IO Interactive
Release Date: November 20, 2012
Number of Players: 1
Platforms: PC (Reviewed), Xbox 360 , PlayStation 3