November 30, 2012
Hitman: Absolution – Missing the Mark
IO Interactive’s Hitman series has had its shares of ups and downs over its four title lifetime, having both innovated and frustrated the stealth genre. Now it brings its newest title, Absolution, to the table, and while the game itself is undeniably a Hitman product, the parts it chose to borrow from its older brothers are highly questionable, embodying the “one step forward, two steps back” motto.
A brief history of the series saw players taking control of “47” in the first title, going around the world and killing targets for the mysterious Agency before discovering that 47 was actually an experiment to create a genetically superior assassin. The second game, Silent Assassin, introduced the ubiquitous rating system and started with 47 in a peaceful life of redemption before some jerks showed up and sent him on a globetrotting mission of revenge. The third title, Contracts, was mostly a series of flashbacks set in the mind of a heavily wounded 47, birthing new “old” contracts and revisiting some reimagined levels from the past games. Finally, 2006’s Blood Money gave players control over the most versatile 47 yet, and topped it off with huge levels featuring multiple ways to kill targets. Widely regarded as the best in the series, it set the bar exceedingly high for any potential follow up. It’s this nigh universal praise that makes Absolution’s regression to the previous titles’ mechanics all the more jarring and disappointing.
Departing from Blood Money’s mostly large and open levels where 47 has free reign to experiment and explore within the game’s allowances, Absolution returns to the Silent Assassin design where levels are dictated by a horrendous plot, taking them from the realm of freeform assassination puzzles to contrived, linear A-to-B slogs for the majority of the game. There are a handful of levels in the game that are akin to Blood Money, but they’re rare and marred by Absolution’s mechanics, letting them be only really good instead of utterly fantastic. Instead the whims of the inane plot force 47 into several straightforward jaunts from a level’s entrance to its exit, oftentimes without an assassination target, just scores of boring, generic enemies. Occasionally the game breaks itself up with the odd specialty level such as a shooting contest at a gun range or a tiny level dedicated to starting a massive bar brawl and pushing through the crowd, but these small story vignettes are bookended by long cutscenes, making the empty gameplay between them feel completely useless and like something that should have been left to watching rather than a brief minute of walking around and finding the trigger to end the level. A chief offender is a level where you walk into a small one-room shop, press the use button on a mannequin, and walk out, taking all of about twenty seconds. For as much gameplay as these levels lack, the “real” levels tend to be fairly empty as well.
As previously emphasized, most of the levels consist of getting from the starting point to an exit that transitions to the next level. Between these two points are literal armies of guards hostile to 47, making the process of getting to the exit an arduous challenge. To accomplish his trek across a level, 47 now acts like Sam Fisher, having gained the ability to move to and from cover behind chest-high walls instead of coyly slipping by in a disguise right in front of a watchful guard. This is mostly due to the fact that the disguise system is far closer to Silent Assassin’s than Blood Money’s, meaning that anyone in the same clothing as you can quickly see through the ruse, often making disguises useless. This equates to 47 rolling and diving between cover like an idiot, regardless of what he’s wearing, unless you utilize Absolution’s new “instinct” system, 47’s new super powers.
This new ability consists of holding down a button to burn through a meter of “instinct.” Supposed to represent 47’s engineered skill as an assassin, it allows you to view characters through walls, see the paths they’re on, and receive information about the environment and the characters and objects within. Each part of this can be toggled off at will or forced off on higher difficulties, allowing a much more natural playstyle similar to previous titles. In addition, instinct can be spent for “point shooting,” allowing the player to freeze time and designate shots before firing them all at once, much like Red Dead Redemption or Splinter Cell: Conviction. It’s incredibly useful for either taking out a room full of guards in an instant, or for cleaning up a mess you get yourself in to. Last, and most used but ironically least useful, instinct can be burnt to walk right by someone capable of seeing through your disguise without them growing suspicious. In theory it would be highly useful to defuse a volatile situation where 47’s in close proximity to multiple guards, but in practice the disguise mechanics negate the assistance it renders.
Previous Hitman games have been about taking disguises, either found lying about a level or, more commonly, by subduing or killing someone and taking their clothing. This acted as a sort of key ring system, with different sets of clothes allowed and forbidden into different areas of a level, done to greater effect in Blood Money than the prior releases. This created a highly entertaining game of hiding in plain sight, and often times opened several additional routes to taking out targets. Arguably the system in Blood Money was broken, as it was far too lenient, though in Absolution it’s now so oppressive it could just as easily be termed broken. Anyone wearing the same clothing as you can see through the disguise, often at a large distance and usually within a handful of seconds. This leads to it being far more effective to simply use the cover system and stick to being unseen, removing one of the most fun and unique aspects of the whole series. The way the AI only sees you if they’ve had you in their sight for long enough means that the AI can see you for a few seconds, whether in a disguise or not, and as long as you don’t trigger their suspicions you can quickly duck back out of their sight and it’s as if they never saw anyone at all. This can cause some bizarre situations where they very clearly saw a large bald man in a suit in a restricted zone, but because it was only for three seconds they dismissed it entirely. Seeing through disguises makes sense in the context of a small group, such as coworkers or a small police squad, but when a food peddler in a very crowded market is distracted by a dozen customers and can suddenly pick you out from 100 feet away it’s absurd. Grinding salt in the wound is the fact that anyone whose interest you pique will relentlessly follow you until you either dispatch them, they go into a full alert, or you can leave the ridiculously large radius they’ll hound you in. It’s even more painful when levels with guards wearing full masks and 47 either refuses to put a mask on, or when he does it does nothing to keep him hidden.
The areas the game takes you to are interesting, but few are fun to play. There are a handful of levels where 47 is in among civilians without hostilities, but even the more open, Blood Money-esque levels are relatively small or featureless. The majority of the levels see 47 crossing 100% hostile territory, and with the easily ruptured disguises there’s little reason to change out of 47’s default suit. Having a hit in a giant arms factory would have been incredible if not for the hundreds of mercenaries 47 has to dance around in hit-less levels. Instead, the levels put you at one end of a corridor with countless chest-high walls and heavily armed guards en route to the door out. On the upside, if stealth should fail you, the shooting in Absolution is incredibly solid, the best in series history. I often found it many times more entertaining to simply play it as a sleeker Gears of War shooter than a boring cover-based stealth title, slaughtering every guard on a level between me and the exit. Unfortunately, when it’s more fun to go through a stealth game guns blazing it’s a sign that something behind the scenes has been handled poorly. Even worse is that shooting hundreds and hundreds of paramilitary goons isn’t very much fun in this either, it’s just a better alternative. In an utterly bizarre twist, on level transitions, regardless of how connected the levels are (for example, leaving the testing floor of said munitions factory and going into the research labs for it) 47 always loses his disguise and equipment on a larger level load. Picking up a stockpile of weapons or an interesting disguise serves no long-term purpose other than unlocking them for Contracts mode.
The story to which every other aspect of the game caters to slavishly is absolutely terrible, easily the worst part of the game, and the obvious source of the poison coursing through its veins. Prior titles have always had awful stories as well, but they’ve always taken a backseat to the rest of the game, the exception being Silent Assassin. Absolution sees The Agency reformed after closing in Blood Money, but in the tutorial level 47 goes rogue after finding out about their experiments on a teenage girl he happens across. After stealing her away, he starts attempting to outrun The Agency before losing her to a villain so shoehorned into the lowest common denominator of evil he’s little more than a good ol’ boy Snidely Whiplash. This leads to 47 sneaking his way through such puppy-kickingly evil places as a bloodstained orphanage or a rural town fair overrun by a PMC because the bad guys dictate it, not because it’s fun or interesting. This cascades bland levels into bland gameplay, leaving the overall package a tasteless mush. However, no taste is still better than a bad taste, and the largest redeeming quality to the story is that its aware of how stupid it is and embraces it, turning into an over the top grindhouse affair.
Separate from the main story is the game’s best feature, “Contracts mode.” In this mode players load up one of the many levels the game has to offer and create their own contracts, marking any character they want as a target for assassination. Players can choose up to three characters to kill, and can even set guidelines on what to kill them with, what to wear while doing it, and whether or not players are allowed to get caught or kill non-targets, all adding in to a total high score. All of this adds up to a highly interesting and entertaining mode much more similar to Blood Money than any other part of the game. The fact that any player can create one of these contracts and the fact that players who undertake them are competing for high scores, as well as the fact that overall combined score unlocks more items to use in the mode, lends itself to some very creative replayability for Absolution. Unfortunately a large amount of contracts being created are currently farming contracts where the targets are immediately within sight and the exit is within a few feet, but there are some legitimately fun contracts floating around, and the number will only increase over time.
One of the largest complaints lies mostly within pre-release marketing, and that’s the fabled “purist” mode. Alluded to as a return to Blood Money mechanics, many players expected it to remove the instinct system completely and allow them to play the game as their favorite Hitman title. Sadly, due mostly to the level design and the way disguises are handled, all purist mode does is ratchet up the difficulty to insane levels, and remove most of the instinct features. It’s extremely hard to justify being upset over an optional or bonus feature, but it was the last bastion of hope for anyone wanting Blood Money 2, and it’s a shame to find out that IOI never had an intention of making that game.
For all the gameplay flaws in has, Absolution performs exceedingly well when it comes to presentation. The game is easily one of the best looking titles currently out, and it shows. Unfortunately when it comes to audio, though IOI was able to reacquire long time 47 voice actor David Bateson, they could not get a hold of series composer Jesper Kyd, known for creating memorable soundtracks that readily spring to mind long after playing the game. As a consequence, I unfortunately can’t recall a single piece of music I heard throughout my play time, something I couldn’t even begin to say of Kyd’s work on past titles.
At the end of its long, hard, winding, stupid road, Hitman: Absolution is beyond a doubt a Hitman title. It’s not a sequel to Blood Money but instead it’s a sequel to Silent Assassin. It doesn’t play like an open sandbox of murder where you try to figure out the best way to kill your target, instead playing more like a cover-based stealth-shooter, and it does it to a decent degree of success. It does exactly what it sets out to do, even if a few of the systems it employs are a patch or two away from any real quality. If you’re looking for a game where you’re free to roam about levels and secretly plot to take out targets without anyone knowing, this isn’t a game you’ll enjoy. If you want a game that’s about not being spotted as you slink from cover to cover with some fairly solid shooting mechanics and incredibly long and tedious gameplay, this is most definitely a worthwhile purchase for you.