Welcome back, 47
Six years seems like a long time to have to wait for a new Hitman installment, but I/O Interactive certainly kept themselves busy during that time. With a powerful engine under the hood (in the form of Glacier2), the baldest assassin of all-time is stepping out with a taut, exciting adventure that doesn't skimp on its depth of exploration.
Is Absolution the best Hitman yet? Maybe not, but it's definitely a contender.
Hitman Absolution (PC, PS3, Xbox 360 [reviewed])
Agent 47's former handler at the International Contract Agency, Diana Burnwood, has gone rogue. Exposing the Agency and cutting its lines of communication as a distraction, she has gone into hiding with a valuable Agency asset, a young girl named Victoria. In the prologue of Hitman: Absolution, the Agency is closing in on Burnwood and has dispatched 47 to eliminate her and recover the asset.
The acquisition of Victoria by 47 and his continued protection of her in defiance of the Agency makes up the basis of Absolution's plot, which winds up being a surprisingly straightforward affair. No grand scheme is played out, no conspiracies are unearthed nor mysteries revealed; just a bunch of disgusting people without respect for human life being murdered one after another by another largely amoral (but not necessarily evil) guy in a nice suit. The fact that the story doesn't attempt to be epic in scope is actually a mark in its favor, as it makes for a more grounded and enjoyable tale.
The repugnance of the Hitman world and the characters who reside in it is almost overwhelming at times. The main antagonist of Absolution, a weapons manufacturer named Blake Dexter, is a sadistic, slobbering pig and his underlings are all in pretty close competition to be his runner-up in terms of sleaziness. There are only around four likable characters and 47 shoots one of them in the tutorial mission. That's just the kind of setting we're dealing with and it works wonderfully for making the player feel like they've actually done the world a service by violently removing these people from it.
And the presentation of that setting is quite exceptional, to boot. Visually, Absolution is gorgeous and I/O's new Glacier2 engine impresses with its lighting effects, animations and ability to render more than a hundred NPCs in some of the more crowded environments, such as the strip club and Chinatown. It's a real treat for the ears as well, featuring a dark, moody score that hits the right notes for tension and its all-star cast of voice actors provide top-notch performances that will make you cringe at how gleefully rotten most of them are.
But it's the in-game conversations between totally irrelevant people which often steal the show. Everywhere you turn, it seems that somebody is talking to someone else. These exchanges are usually humorous in nature, though they'll occasionally also provide a nugget of information about one of 47's targets or a place where a murder could be made to look like an accidental death. They add a lot to the general atmosphere as well as providing a needed break to the tension of creeping around corners.
Each chapter of Absolution challenges the player with moving Agent 47 through different environments to complete his objectives. Sometimes the objective is as simple as moving from one end of a stage to another, while others require the player to acquire items before being able to move on. And, of course, there are plenty of stages where your goal is to eliminate one or more individuals.
Most of these locations are places where Agent 47 wouldn't exactly be considered welcome, which generally means he should be staying out of sight or remaining inconspicuous through the use of disguise. The clothes really do make the man in the Hitman franchise, as 47 can dress in the outfits of various types of people in order to fool people into thinking he has permission to access areas normally unavailable. Disguises are only effective on people other than the type 47 is disguised as, however, and people who share the player's fashion sense will see through the subterfuge pretty quickly and expose them.
The best stages are those which require you to kill and feature a large area in which to do so. These environments are huge, with lots of side areas to explore, multiple access points and plenty of opportunities, subtle and otherwise, to eliminate targets. They're also filled with weapons, firearms and melee alike, tucked away into the corners and crevices. These larger stages best demonstrate the fun in the Hitman formula because there is so much to take in and they contain greatest diversity of approaches.
Adding to the list of things to try, each level features a list of challenges which offer all kinds of goals, from collecting disguises to suggesting unique opportunities to kill. It's not possible to accomplish all of them in a single run and they offer a fun incentive to return to levels and try for more. Even without them, the stage design is so dense with possibility that coming back to attempt a new approach to a level is enticing enough.
Absolution uses a mechanic called "Instinct" to represent the innate abilities and training of the master assassin. Activated with a button press, using Instinct slows the game down a bit and highlights interactive objects, shows the locations of enemies (and their travel path, if in motion), and provide hints on how objects can be used to achieve objectives. It can also be used to deflect attention from 47 when wearing a disguise and to engage a combat technique called "point shooting" which allows the player to freeze time and aim multiple shots to take down groups of enemies quickly. These active Instinct abilities are limited by a meter, which is replenished through a variety of actions.
Longtime fans of the Hitman series may be disheartened by the Instinct system, which does have a pretty strong impact on the game's difficulty and can suck some of the fun out of exploration by drawing explicit attention to kill opportunities and how they are used. But this need not be the case, as Instinct is one of many factors affected by the game's five difficulty settings. Easy and Normal modes exist to accommodate less skilled players of stealth games and newcomers who may be unfamiliar with the subtleties of Hitman. Returning players would probably do well to just start on Veteran, which limits the functions of Instinct (adding a considerable cost to those abilities which remain) and presents a challenge level more in line with prior entries.
While the game purports a "play-how-you-want" design style, there are two core elements which run counter to that assertion. Players will quickly learn that combat is not a very practical first option. 47 is a pretty capable fighter, for what it's worth, with a melee combat system consisting of quick-time events that allow him to dispatch enemies in close quarters easily and in little time. He's no slouch with a gun either; the shooting mechanics are competent and cover works adequately. The problem is that engaging in open combat -- even melee -- invariably announces the player's presence to other enemies in the vicinity, who will then move to converge and overwhelm.
More on the nose, however, is the scoring system which rewards players for achieving objectives and taking advantage of special kill opportunities while punishing them for being seen somewhere they aren't supposed to be or eliminating characters unnecessarily. The score is visible in the upper-left corner of the screen at all times, adding and subtracting, the tick of its numbers a constant judgment of the player's performance. By its very presence, the scoring system implies that there is, in fact, a right way to play Hitman Absolution, which is to complete objectives without being seen and utilizing a minimum of force. This is still a stealth game at its heart, regardless of any stated intent.
For the first time in the history of the series, Absolution features an online multiplayer component, "Contracts." In this asynchronous game mode, players create challenges by replaying stages from the single player campaign but with the freedom to choose their targets. While moving through the environment, the player can designate any NPC as a target and then eliminate them. Up to three targets can be chosen and killed in this manner before the player chooses to leave the level and share their newly completed Contract with the game's community. The game records the weapon used and what disguise was worn for each target and creates these as objectives for future players.
The Contracts system is brilliant because the player is creating content through play and experimentation, not through a clunky or complex editing system. There's no such thing as an impossible Contract (as the originating player has to have accomplished the goals set forth in them) and the range of possible combinations of victims, weapons and disguises is mind-boggling. Players can compete for scores on Contracts by challenging their friends directly and a rating system is in place to help separate the wheat from the chaff.
Hitman Absolution offers refinement of a beloved series in many ways, boasting more visual pizzazz than most anything releasing this year and a well-paced story which features a good share of weirdness without attempting a scope beyond its means. While some simplifications could irk fans who may complain that the game has been watered down, the range of difficulty options should provide ample satisfaction for players who seek a classic Hitman experience without totally alienating those trying its unique blend of stealth and exploration for the first time.
THE VERDICT - Hitman Absolution
Reviewed by Conrad Zimmerman