Hitman, a franchise that has made bald men seem even more terrifying than really bad toupees, and a series that I’ve lost myself in for countless hours. The wonderful level design, potential for experimentation and the sense of achievement that came from seeing all the pieces moving into place just before you make a hit made the series a singular delight. Yet it was with no small amount of trepidation that I approached the latest instalment, Hitman Absolution.
It’s admittedly absurd to judge a game, or anything, really, by its name, but the moment IO revealed the title, someone walked over my grave. Absolution implies that Agent 47 is looking to change his ways, and that concerned me a little bit. The chase scenes, prevalence of police and all the hiding shown in early footage only cemented my fears that IO were taking this whole shift seriously. Then the developers showed us “Shaving Lenny”, a level from the game’s second act. I breathed a sigh of relief as I soaked in the large, rather open environment, the many options for dispatching hits and the level’s many nooks and crannies. This, I thought, was the Hitman I knew and loved.
Unfortunately, Absolution feels like two disparate experiences, clashing and jockeying for position. One is the product of the developer’s years of experience with the franchise and is reminiscent of Blood Money,the other is a story driven, often explosive romp, filled with set pieces and the occasional Nathan Drake inspired escapade. Tragically, it is the latter that wins out and dominates the game.
The first few hours really set the tone, starting with an extremely dull tutorial that ends with a cutscene hit. One hit in the whole level, and it’s taken away from you. Forgiveness could be given, however, as it is followed up by the excellent “King of Chinatown”, where 47 is dumped in a crowded square with one target, and significant number of murderous avenues. The level is heaving with crowds that swallow up the player, and one can walk around to their heart’s content, scouting out the area and looking for deadly opportunities. There are several disguises to don, from police uniforms to chef outfits, and lots of subtle ways to dispose of the target. I went for something with a bit more oomph, however.
On my innocuous wanderings I discovered the flash car belonging to the man I had been sent to murder. It was out of view of the main crowd, left in an alley with a police officer guarding it. I distracted the cop by tossing a brick, causing him to turn around with his back to me. I snuck up behind him, knocked him out, and dumped him in a dumpster, appropriately. It was then that I noticed some explosives, and a plan was formed. I set the explosives next to the car, and then set the alarm off. Before its owner rushed to see what was going on, I walked out of the alley and into the fringes of the crowd. Within the ocean of bodies, I could see my target freaking out about his sports car, and I decided to put him out of his misery. I pressed the button.
The explosion sent the crowd wild, and in the chaos I made my escape. It was simple and loud, and only one of many ways I could have taken out the King of Chinatown. Despite being a tiny level, it was completely open and non-linear, encouraging players to flex their creative muscles. It’s the freedom and plethora of approaches that made the series compelling, and it’s clear that IO can still pull that off. When it wants to.
An hour or so later I was fleeing from the police, attempting to lose a helicopter, and sneaking through a lazily disguised maze; all this after having yet another hit taken away from me by a bland cutscene. Absolution keeps doing this through the entirety of the experience, tossing in the occasional level that reminds players what the series used to be like, while the remains are filled with linear stealth gauntlets, segmented levels, and a hell of a lot of headache inducing bloom and depth of field oddness.
Nobody ever asked what Hitman would look like with Kane and Lynch’s visual direction, but IO provided an answer, regardless. Strip away some of the gaudiness and visual filters and it’s actually an incredibly detailed, visually arresting title, especially on a PC, but even on my PS3 it offers some impressive eye candy. It’s just a shame it has a tacky glaze getting in the way.
I can honestly say that I don’t know the story of Hitman. I’ve played every single title more than once, and enjoyed them all, yet for the life of me I can’t recall the plot. That is not to say that I care, as I most certainly do not; the series has been carried completely by the gameplay over the years, and that seemed to work. I wish I could say that I don’t recall Absolution’s plot, either, but that’s lamentably not true. There’s a superhuman girl, 47 feels all guilty, he becomes a fugitive, then there’s a kidnapping, cowboys, and killer nuns. It’s just bad, bad, bad.
Poorly written dialogue, trite characters — including a cowboy weapons dealer antagonist who might as well been an oil baron or an evil Mr. Toad — and horrible pacing. Motivations are boiled down to redemption and greed, there’re no attempts made to foster investment or sympathy for anyone, and the grindhouse thing the game was aiming for ends up being a total misfire.
Not only is the plot one of the worst things about the title, it’s also the cause of many of the other glaring issues, primarily that Agent 47 is no longer a hitman. He is now an angry bald gentlemen who kills people in an attempt to rescue a kid, but mostly he hides and runs away. Thus, 47 spends more time hiding in bins than hiding in plain sight, and goals are more often “get from point A to point B” than “kill this target”. When players are told to kill someone, it’s almost incidental, and merely something you need to do to continue through a particular part of a level.
The switch from open playgrounds to more linear missions is another bee in my already bee filled — one might say saturated — bonnet. The moment 47 walks through a specific door, everything resets. The previous area no longer exists, and everything you did there has been consigned to the history books, or, rather, the score/rating thing at the end of each scenario. A magical portal that erases everything I did in the past does sound nifty, but it doesn’t do anything to improve Absolution, instead shooting the pacing in the foot and making every mission it is employed in a jarring, disconnected experience.
These segmented areas are a symptom of the title’s inability to make one forget they are playing a game. Instead of immersing players in 47’s world, they are confronted with abrupt cutscenes, quick time events and awful features like “instinct” or the ever present scoring system. Instinct is essentially a magical ability that lets 47 see through walls and predict the paths of wandering NPCs, and in the difficulty levels below Veteran it’s pretty much game breaking. There’s no need to spy on people, you can just hold down a button and see exactly where they are and where they are going.
As if that wasn’t immersion breaking enough, 47 can also use it to avoid detection when in a disguise. You see, in the world of Absolution, everybody knows everyone who wears the same uniform. When disguised, any NPC wearing the same clothes will rather quickly become suspicious of you, no matter what you do. Standing still? Suspicious. Walking around and banging into people like a drunk? Equally as suspicious. Tilting your head down a ever so slightly shielding your face? Not suspicious at all. That’s what instinct does, it makes you invisible by having you look really odd, that is, until your instinct meter runs out. When it does, you lose the ability to put your hands anywhere near your face. It’s nonsense, of course. It lacks any subtlety, and replaces 47’s ability to hide in plain site with something a lot less challenging and a lot more mechanical.
The whole time you’re going through these generally dull motions, you are being scored and judged. While the previous games were about completing your objectives on your terms, there’s a demonstrably right way to do things in Absolution. Someone spotted you? Points deducted. Killed someone who wasn’t a target? Points deducted. Assassinate someone the way the developers wanted you to? Extra points. It made me miserable. It took all of my strength not to going back to previous checkpoints just because one chap noticed me. It doesn’t have an impact on the actual gameplay, and you can certainly ignore it, but it drives home the fact that this is a rather limited game where players are directed rather than truly being given free rein.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however, as there is one new addition that shines brightly: Contracts. Simply, it’s bloody brilliant. Players can replay stages from the campaign, but they have some creative input and may choose their own targets. Once the player has completed their level, it can be uploaded and played by others. The weapons used in the hits, and the methods in general are saved, and become objectives for those playing it afterwards. If you use a syringe and a scientist outfit to take out a victim, then future players will be tasked with attempting that too. This way it means that no objective is impossible, as someone had to pull it off for it to become a contract. The mode is all about the bare essentials of the franchise: eliminating people and not getting caught.
Hitman Absolution ends on a note that does a lot more than suggest a sequel, and we already know that Square Enix Montreal are going to be developing the next game; so I can only hope that it retains nothing from this outing other than the extremely compelling Contracts mode. I’m kidding myself, of course, but a man has to have dreams. I will not deny that there were moments where I found myself playing for enjoyment instead of performing a chore, but they were mere teases, glimpses of what the game could have been was it not shackled by shaky direction and boring games of hide and seek.