Review: Hitman Absolution
by Bill Henning
Up ahead is your target, a drug kingpin in the middle of Chinatown. He has hired dirty cops to protect him, as well as an army of thugs. He is meeting with a local drug dealer for his next shipment of narcotics. You are to dispose of him and get out.
Simple enough, right?
Well, how do you want to go about it? Do you take out the drug dealer and get the King of Chinatown alone and kill him? Do you poison the drugs the dealer is taking to him? Do you take the sniper rifle and take him out from a rooftop? Or maybe do you cut a piece of sushi the wrong way and drop it into his order and watch him die? These are the questions you have to ask yourself when you go into a level of Hitman Absolution (Absolution). It is virtual playground centered around what you can think of and how you execute it, and the energy and patience you put into it is well worth your time.
Best Laid Plans
Absolution is the fifth game in the iconic Hitman series. The one thing each game has done right is build off of the last one. Absolution is no different – it takes the basic principle of the other games (you have a target and you must eliminate him/her) and cranked up the creativity.
Similar to the previous game, Hitman: Blood Money, Absolution opens up the idea of more accidental kills – kills setup by you that are often indirect ways of removing your target, that look like an accident from an outsider. These “accidents” include setups such as cutting a cable and dropping a light fixture onto the target. In Absolution, this concept has been expanded by providing the player with the ability to pick up random objects and use them to eliminate a target. Each level has a set of accidental kills laid out and it is up to you to not only figure out how to lead your target into these traps, but how to set them off. In one such level you can give your target, who is grilling for a party, gasoline instead of hot sauce, so when he goes to pour the sauce on the meat he sets himself on fire. It feels natural to look around for these objects within a level, and it shows how a little imagination in this game can make every level new experience.
Another major change is the map – it has been removed. At first I didn’t like this aspect of the game, because it made it so much harder to find out where guards were and where they were looking. Replacing the map is Instinct mode, which is a meter that fills up for doing objectives within the game, such as sneaking up on an enemy and disposing of them, and then hiding their bodies without being seen. Instinct mode shows you pretty much where everyone is in the normal camera view, highlighting guards and objects you can interact with. It will also show, if a guard is close enough, the path they are walking along, so you can see if you have to get out of their way. When I realized that the map that was in every other game was gone, I started to use Instinct mode much like I would the old, regular map, and I didn’t have the problem with the function at all. Instinct mode was marketed poorly when Hitman was coming out, making it seem like a giant cheat mode for the game, when it really wasn’t. If developer IO Interactive would have stated that the full map was gone, and all you had was a small mini map and Instinct, I think fans would have reacted to it better. For a game so focused on allowing the player to plan everything out, I think that offering the full map and layout of every level would be a little cheap. But with Instinct mode, sure you can see people through walls, but you can’t see every person in the building. It made me plan out my moves more carefully before moving in for a kill.
Because there were no other games on the market quite like Hitman, the series had to learn and build solely on previous entries, often leading to the lead character moving a little clunky. Sluggish movements and stiff controls at times really made the protagonist, Agent 47, feel like he wasn’t a world class assassin. Thankfully, IO Interactive has enhanced his abilities. Sneaking around is easier – with a press of a button, Agent 47 snaps to cover and is able to move around fluidly, allowing him to better sneak around the map. IO Interactive even added the ability to jump over cover, and while this is a simple change, it makes Agent 47 feel a lot smoother than he has ever felt before. Many of these new elements have been in games before, but it is nice to see a developer actually seeing what works in other games and not being afraid to place those mechanics into a series that is five games old, and not only making it work, but making it feel like a natural addition to this series.
A Story that Kills
In Absolution the story takes main stage, which is a first for the Hitman series. In previous entries, you always felt that a story was sort of thrown together to get Agent 47 from this really cool idea of a level to the next. This time around, Agent 47 has killed his old handler, who had betrayed him and the Agency to save herself at the end of Blood Money. Complicating matters, he has been tasked with protecting a young girl who, just like himself, is a clone genetically engineered to be a killer. Agent 47 gets the girl into hiding as he starts looking for answers about the girl and why she is so important.
Shortly after picking up a few leads the main villain of the story manages to kidnap the girl and for most of the game Agent 47 is on the chase to get her back. Along the way he has to struggle with his own demons of what he is and what he has become, as well as the thought of killing his old handler, who was the only real human contact he has ever had. It was nice to see IO Interactive take the chance and put the story center stage in this game. Letting gamers see Agent 47’s human side was a huge risk but it was nice to see him be vulnerable and then able to get his revenge in a cold calculating method.
Problems with Change
Along with the story, another change was that not every level is an assassination. In the old games you were given a target and had to kill him or her. You could do whatever you wanted to kill the person; with multiple floors, paths and dozens of ways to kill your target, how you do it is up to you. Sure the developer would hint on a way to do it by having you start with maybe a car bomb or a sniper rifle, but you never had to follow that path.
In Absolution there a more than a couple of levels where there is no one to kill. It is escape or move from point A to point B. At first this was great because it was different – being able to use nothing but stealth to work your way into a place and not worry about having to kill someone was refreshing. But after awhile it felt more like filler levels instead of actual Hitman levels. It feels like these levels were just there to make the game longer and this takes away from the core of the game, assassinating targets.
An example of one of these levels comes early on. Agent 47 tries to get a jump on a target and things go rather wrong, which then leads to him being framed and the police chasing after him. The first time I played this mission, it was exciting. But later on I started to notice that the game used this mechanic for a lot of missions, such as sneaking into a weapon facility over the course of four levels. At that point I’d forgotten who my target was and felt a little out of the loop.
On top of that, IO Interactive took away one of my favorite aspects of the older Hitman games, the escape from the level. In the previous games, it wasn’t just planning the perfect kill, but getting out as well. The player would work their way through one large level finding the perfect way to take down the target, making it look like an accident or catching them alone, then have to hide the body and get out, by either backtracking through the whole level or going even deeper into the level to reach an extraction point. More often I would fail a mission trying to escape than actually killing my target, and in Absolution that enjoyment is gone. Now there are just areas that say “Escape” – simply walk up to the area and the level is over. That isn’t fun. Part of being the world’s best assassin involves the escape; why remove this part of the game? I understand that as a player you wouldn’t want to trek through four levels just to escape, much like how you did to get into the place. But there’s a simple fix – don’t spend four levels getting to the place! We don’t need to climb down a super large cave just to get into a weapons building, we just need to know that he got there; once we’ve arrived let gamers play around in the world to get in and get out unseen.
The other thing added to each level is a points counter, which keeps track of what you do and awards points appropriately. The quieter you are and the more stealth tactics you use, the more points you get. Kill a person who isn’t a target? Lose points. I found it odd, and I kept feeling like I was doing something wrong when I tried a plan and received negative points. But later when I came back and tried to beat my friends score or my old one, it was fun, and felt like a new challenge.
Another staple that has been tweaked is the way in which the player can freely move around the world in disguise. Like in previous games, you can remove a guard, either by killing them or knocking them out, and take his uniform to walk around unnoticed. But this time around it’s not so simple – when you wear a disguise, any character wearing the same outfit will be more suspicious of you because, well, you are a bald man with a barcode on the back of your head. And while this helps the game feel a little more realistic and adds a new level of challenge to the game, it is a little hard to believe at times. At one point Agent 47 is being hunted by Chicago police and is on the run. If you change into a police uniform every person will know you’re not really a cop. It is hard to think that out of a group of over one hundred people each and every person would know that you do not belong. It isn’t as bad when you are playing on an easier difficulty, but when you get to the hard setting it is almost pointless to switch outside of your normal suit and tie. This removes a crucial aspect from the original game – before you could openly walk around to see how to set up the kill you wanted to pull off. This ability has been drastically scaled back and pretty much makes the ability pointless.
Contracts in Blood
Absolution does have a form of multiplayer, which is a bold move for a game like this. But unlike some games that are strictly single player forcing multiplayer onto the game, Absolution does it right. The mode, known as “Contracts,” is much more like a game of Horse, where you get a player’s targets, what he was wearing and how he took them out and have to match him and do it faster and possibly even better.
You can play any level that you have completed and sort of go into a free-play mode. At this point the level has no objectives; it records what you are wearing and what weapons you are using. At any point you can look at an NPC and press a button to mark them, and now you must kill that person or unmark them. Once they are killed it is recorded and you can move on to mark at least two more targets. If you survive and escape you can save this contract and give it a name and a quick little description and send it off into the world for others to try and replicate what you did.
This is, in a word, brilliant. Now you can take even the boring filler episode and make them into an actual mission, allowing gamers’ creative sides to come out. Say you were in a level where a bunch of men have taken over a church and you want to take out three guys while you are wearing a chicken suit – go for it. Say you want to only kill them with a fire axe – have at it! The possibilities are endless and it is wonderful.
I enjoyed Agent 47’s newest outing, and a new, more personal story stands out more so than any other before it. I feel that the game only trips over itself here and there. Most of the new gameplay elements are welcomed and enjoyable, but other things should have been tested a little more. Cutting out the escape to each level leaves a terrible taste in my mouth and I hope it’s changed for Agent 47’s next game. But then again, I’m just glad that a relic like 47 can still be used to make amazing games about actually assassinating targets, instead of being a glorified parkour game.
About the Author
Bill Henning didn’t start gaming on consoles, he started with Battle Chess on MS DOS. Staying mostly on PC games until about 13 years ago when he finally owed his very own system. A great story is just as important to Bill as graphics, control and overall “game feel.” Some of his favorite games are: the Max Payne trilogy, Mass Effect trilogy, Dark Forces 2: Jedi Knight, the Hitman series andAlan Wake. Some of Bill’s favorite developers are Gearbox Software, BioWare and Remedy Entertainment.