Hitman Absolution review
The Hitman series has one truly unique strength, something which Contracts and Blood Money completely understood: the opportunity to feel like a hitman, with every option and approach that you could envisage available to you. Giving you the opportunity to hide in plain sight, learning your target’s whereabouts, their guards patrols, what outfits will gain you access to what areas, and then planning your hit from there.
Perhaps you’re the sort who prefers to leave your workplace precisely as you found it – but for your solitary target who tragically fell off that balcony. Perhaps you favoured distraction and sleight of hand – leaving a trail of destruction to guide your enemies in exactly the wrong direction. Or perhaps you would opt for a blunter approach – waiting for just the moment to calmly execute your target and any bystanders and walking away in the confusion.
Whatever your poison (or not, as the case may be), the Hitman series gives you the time, space and means to complete your missions as you see fit, making use of complex, believable environments and a wide range of disguises to offer you more options in one level than most offer in an entire game. And it is with that in mind that I can utter these seemingly contradictory statements: Hitman Absolution is a solid, pleasingly varied stealth game with a wonderfully creative pseudo-multiplayer mode thrown in. It is also the biggest disappointment of the year.
Absolution brings three major changes to the Hitman formula: disguises are no longer reliable; many levels do not have any requirement for murder; and the majority of areas are designed as near- or wholly-linear affairs with a defined start and end point.
Alongside these major changes come a raft of minor changes: a scoring system is now in place and constantly visible; levels no longer run like clockwork, with scripted events only occurring when 47 is present to see them; 47′s omniscient map is gone, replaced by an inherent ability to sense when and from where people are observing him; the game is now heavily plot-driven and interspersed with cut-scenes – some interactive, others not; and 47 can now snap to cover in the manner of so many third-person shooters, guaranteeing his invisibility to enemies on the other side of the cover.
All of these changes serve to deliver a single, overwhelming shift in focus. Every previous Hitman was an exercise in patience and calm planning (optional crazed rampages notwithstanding); the vast majority of any given level was spent scoping it out, waiting for your moment to strike. Every moment of tension was thus heightened – the moment you knock out a builder in the toilets, desperately hoping nobody walks in on you dumping his body in the waste disposal; the moment you finally set off your hidden explosives, crushing your target to death under the weight of a chandelier – these moments stayed with you, whatever their outcome. Marking the end to your plotting, the point where your plan is finally tested, they were impressed upon your memory as pivotal events of your own design. Success or failure lay firmly in your hands, making the most disastrous error as memorable and enjoyable as the most perfect hit. It was this which gave previous Hitman game their unique atmosphere, which made them stand out from every other franchise out there.
Absolution is nothing like this.
Where Blood Money and Contracts put the player under intense tension for the 5% of the game they spent committing antisocial acts, Absolution puts the player under constant, mild tension from the moment they don their first disguise. This is because, unlike the previous games, any character in the game of the same ‘class’ as your disguise will see through it if they look upon you for a length of time. This occurs no matter where you’re facing and at extreme distances. However, their suspicions will be allayed should you do something subtle… like dive behind an arch. Or roll from cover to cover. Or duck behind a fridge.
Diving for cover.
The reason for this huge change is explained by the change in level design: in the attempt to deliver a more ‘cinematic’ experience, IO have decided to festoon the game with forced escapes and all manner of linear sequences to complete. Linear sequences that, should you have the opportunity to disguise yourself as one of your assailants using the old system, would have seen you able to walk through the entire levels unbothered. By implementing this new system of deep and rapid suspicion (you have maybe 2 seconds to escape an enemy’s gaze at distance; get spotted from under 5 meters and you’ll be immediately sprung), each such level must be played as a traditional stealth game: ducking from corner to corner, waiting for patrols to pass you by. All of which, it must be said, play rather well. Perhaps lacking the inventiveness of Dishonored or Human Revolution, or the tight design of Mark of the Ninja, these levels nevertheless acquit themselves well, forcing you to focus and work hard to get to your objectives – particularly on the higher difficulties.
Unfortunately, the self-same system absolutely breaks the more traditional levels. No longer may you calmly plan your levels, blending with the crowds: now you must jump from cover to cover in plain sight, darting between stalls in a market as crowds and police bustle around you in a desperate attempt to not be seen by any one of the stallholders hawking their wares who, the moment they set eyes on you – dressed as a chef – will decide you must be some sort of criminal and call for the police. Creep around like a cartoon thief, however, and nobody will bat an eyelid.
It’s not just the atmosphere of the levels that takes a knock, either. Ignoring the comedy acrobatics you must make use of in even the most innocuous situation, what really suffers is your freedom. On any difficulty level above Normal, the increased number and attentiveness of characters effectively closes off most approaches to your target, leading to something unlike the previous Hitman games: the sense that there is a ‘right’ way to deal with your target. No longer do you feel like you are inventing your own approach, subverting the levels to your own gain – now the experience is nothing so much like you’re following a level designer’s lead.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t highpoints: there are two, maybe three levels which come close to the original’s freedom, offering you large levels in which to work, with a wide variety of disguises available to circumvent security. But even these are spoiled by the unutterably moronic checkpoint system which sees any characters knocked out or killed magically restored to health and all patrols returned to their initial positions, should you choose to reload. So much for freedom to experiment, when failure will set you back to square one of a thirty minute setup.
When is a Hitman game, not a Hitman game?
No, Absolution is no Hitman game and its attempts to live up to that mantle see it fall on its face. It is only when the game – and the player – allow it to be something else that it can be considered a success. When approaching it not as a subtle hitman, but rather as a violent murderer, the levels become far more entertaining. Ignore the pervasive scoring system, and instead engage in low-scale warfare – use your environment and the very many tools available to you to bloody the noses of your enemies when you get the chance, clearing a path to your target without the greater whole knowing your presence, and you’ll likely have a great time. Had this game been an addition to the Manhunt series and been able to change its presentation accordingly, it would likely have been a rousing success.
Though, even there it would have suffered for IO’s cinematic ambitions. Even ignoring the game’s worst excesses of button-press cut-scenes, the actual plot they have crafted is, well, not quite up to the standard that they believe it to be. This is hardly new to Absolution – the Hitman games have been characterised by uniformly underwhelming narratives, but until now they had been kept in the background, nothing more than skippable cut-scenes between the meat of the game. With Absolution, story is front and centre, and we are forced to sit through miles of inane dialogue and plot.
The most obvious downside to this is the impact on gameplay – in levels where you must wait for conversations to play out before moving on, or move to certain areas in order to trigger certain events: highlights include levels where you must trigger such events at the right time to synchronise with the clockwork patrols of the level, else find yourself in a situation which is impossible to overcome non-lethally, something you can have no idea of without knowing the events in advance.
However, there’s another, more disturbing side to this emphasis on storytelling too.
Return of the nun’s
The characters in the game are grotesques; ugly characters with ugly personalities living in an ugly world. Unfortunately, IO seem to have taken this as their cue to write some of the most offensive female characters seen in a game – quite an achievement, considering the competition. Pre-release much was made of the gang of women wearing latex nuns’ habits being brutally murdered by 47 in a CG trailer. Despite the game director apologising for the trailer, said characters are still in the game, and they’re characterised just as awfully as you might anticipate: apparently all victims of abuse at the hands of men, they’ve decided to get their revenge… by dressing up in bondage gear and going on killing sprees. Oh, and they refer to one another as “bitches” in conversation. Great stuff. Not quite as great as another side-character however: a dominatrix featured in several scenes, who never says a word, before being senselessly and brutally executed several hours after her introduction for no reason beyond, presumably, shocking the viewer. Hitman games rarely go out of their way to be tasteful, but in its sexual fetishisation of the women that 47 or other characters kill, Absolution crosses the line into something altogether more unpleasant.
Perhaps you couldn’t care less about the game’s portrayal of women, or its inane story. Or, perhaps you’ll choose to skip the story entirely and play through the wonderfully inventive Contracts mode. Allowing the player to play through any level of the game, Contracts mode allows you to choose up to three targets, deal with them in a set way, then challenge other players to complete it in whatever way they see fit, with more points going to those who beat the level without using more tools, or causing more commotion, than the first player. It’s a brilliant idea and well executed.
But it can’t change the fact that, as a Hitman game, this is still an abject failure. It’s an interesting score attack mode but doesn’t bring the player any closer to the openness and freedom of the earlier Hitman games. Take Absolution as something different, as a murder simulator with a degree of freedom and you’ll enjoy it a lot more: just try to ignore the asinine story being forced into your face at every turn, the desperately creepy characterisation of women and the game’s discarded heritage as you do so. If you can do all that, then you may be in with a chance of enjoying Hitman Absolution. If not, you’re likely to be left with nothing more than a bitter taste in your mouth.