Killing as an art form
The Hitman series has been dormant for far too long, in my humble opinion, but thankfully that has now been remedied. Square Enix and Io Interactive have finally graced us with a true current-gen entry in the series, and while it may not have won Game of the Year, it’s still a solid addition to the franchise. While it’s not at all a rare thing for killing to be a part of video games, the Hitman series has always tried to elevate murder to an art form. In that aspect the game is quite successful, but there are a few changes to the formula that may be a tad off-putting to some Hitman purists.
One of the new additions to the game is a scoring system, which is how your ranking is determined. Killing someone who is not a target subtracts points, but if you can both kill them silently and hide the body it results in a zero-sum game. Things like getting spotted, on the other hand, will result in a dramatic decrease in your score. Accomplishing goals, and killing targets with ‘accidents’ or using signature kills gives you bonuses. It’s a bit of a balancing act, and for the most part it works well.
They say that patience is a virtue, and in the case Hitman: Absolution it’s virtually a necessity. Sure, you could don a disguise, walk into a room and open fire on your target, but doing so would not only tank your score, it would also have a terrible effect on your experience. If you’re looking for a third person shooter, this isn’t the game for you. This is a game about observing your surroundings, studying the movements of your adversaries, and planning your actions accordingly.
The newly implemented instinct mechanic allows you to identify enemies in a crowd, and even through walls. It also can predict the movements of some enemies, so you can plan accordingly. It’s actually a fairly helpful (if a bit of a cheat) early on, but I found myself using it less frequently as the game went on. While I understand that the somewhat random nature of the AI makes predicting their movements a bit difficult, overusing the instinct ability really can take a lot of the challenge out of the game.
The use of disguises has been revamped a bit, and though it’s functional it’s not a perfect system. Putting on a police uniform, for example, will prevent anyone other than actual police from recognizing you. Cops, however, will for some reason immediately become suspicious of you. Fortunately, you can use hiding spots or burn instinct to keep your identity hidden until the threat of detection is past. The disguise mechanic works okay if you adopt the guise of, say, a janitor… it makes sense that a small pool of janitors would recognize each other. However, when you’re talking about the entire Chicago police force it seems a bit of a stretch that they would immediately begin to suspect you from across a courtyard the instant you step into view.
(There’s also an ongoing question regarding disguises: Given that the only description that anyone ever has for Agent 47 is a “bald guy with a barcode tattoo on the back of his neck”, why in the world doesn’t he invest a few hundred bucks in a couple of high quality toupees?)
For arguably the first time in the series, Absolution is a story-driven game, rather than a disparate series of missions with a rough story wedged in between. Given that 47 is an emotionless, cold-blooded killer for hire, it takes a bit of effort to try to make him into a sympathetic protagonist. They largely attempt to do this by making the villains over-the-top, maliciously evil characters. The main antagonist is a crass arms dealer who would clearly sell his own mother off a piece at a time if it meant a few more dollars. He is joined by his opportunistic, sadistic, money-grubbing wife, and a bodyguard who may as well be Danny Trejo playing the Incredible Hulk. There are also a number of other bad guys you encounter, each more malevolent than the last.
On the other side, 47 is tasked with rescuing and protecting a seemingly harmless teenage girl. She is the product of genetic manipulation, and her DNA is the MacGuffin that drives the narrative forward. Putting Agent 47 in the role of a protecting father figure does serve to humanize him a bit. At the end of the day, however, no matter how it’s dressed up he remains he remains a cold, calculating killer. Ultimately, none of this really matters… the story is merely there to provide the context for the gameplay.
The voice work is mostly well done, though there is one particular character who is presented in such an exaggerated way that it really detracts from their presence. Music is mostly used well, but there is one song that is reused to an extreme degree. It plays from radios, and is featured in numerous cutscenes, and then again in the credits. Given the incentive to replay missions multiple times, it’s almost impossible not to get sick of it, and I really wish they had devoted a bit more of the budget to fleshing out the soundtrack so it didn’t seem so repetitive.
The levels have a lot of different options in how to approach them, and you’re rewarded for creativity. Every level has a number of challenges associated with it, and completing these give you permanent score bonuses for that level. These challenges range from making it through the mission undetected, or without using disguises, to killing targets in specific ways. It is impossible to complete all challenges on a single playthrough, so there is a pretty solid incentive to replay missions numerous times.
The levels are a bit more linear than past entries, as you’re often required to exit the mission through a different location than you entered it. This means that the “retrieve your suit” aspect that was a staple of past games was necessarily abandoned. It’s not really a major issue, but when you finish a mission wearing an electrician’s outfit, and then start the next one wearing your trademark suit it does seem a bit baffling.
There is a manually activated checkpoint system within the levels, but I have a hard time recommending its use. Triggering a checkpoint allows you to restart at that point if you die, or if things spiral out of control. The problem is that, since they reset guards to their default positions, they sometimes wind up starting you standing a few feet away from a guard, and if you aren’t wearing the right disguise you’re immediately spotted. This is something that really should have been addressed prior to the game’s release.
The use of Fiberwire and dragging bodies has been reworked, and both mechanics are dramatically improved over their predecessors. Sneaking up behind someone in order to garrote them rarely results in a swing-and-a-miss, as it often did in the past, but there are still occasions where they somehow magically detect your presence and block you. Dragging and dumping bodies is much more fluid than it used to be, and you seem to be able to move a little bit faster while trying to conceal corpses. It generally makes the experience a bit smoother, which is always a good thing.
Higher difficulty settings result in quite a change to the game. Not only are the enemies more attentive, each increase in difficulty adds more guards to the mix. Even the addition of one or two more guards can radically change how you have to approach the mission, and it can result in having to completely scrap a tried and true strategy and start fresh with new tactics. On the highest setting the instinct mechanic is disabled, meaning you are solely reliant on your own observations to pass the trials. It can be quite a challenge at times, but it’s also very satisfying when you succeed.
The biggest new addition is Contracts mode, which allows you to create challenges within the various game levels and share them with others. Want to challenge people to kill somebody in the middle of a crowd while wearing a chicken suit, and without being detected? No problem, but there’s a catch… you have to do it first. Contracts are created by playing them. You pick the targets, you pick the weapons, and you pick the exit used, but you cannot create an impossible dilemma, because you have to successfully achieve the goals in order to create the challenge in the first place. It can be a lot of fun, and it certainly allows you to explore the various environments in your own way. The problem is that the best, most interesting kills are already challenges within the single player game.
While not a perfect game, if you like stealth games you should absolutely give this game a shot. The Glacier 2 engine makes the game look great (though there’s a bit too much bloom lighting for my tastes), and the environments are varied and fun to explore. Outwitting your opponents is a lot of fun, and the story is actually the strongest of the series to date. Contracts mode is a nice new addition, and the possibility of new levels added in the future could only improve it. If you’ve been a long time fan of the series, you may have mixed feelings about some of the changes, but overall it’s a game worthy of your time.
**Note: On the console versions of the game there is a known bug which can corrupt save files. Square Enix is actively working on a patch, but until then it is highly recommended to create a backup save.
Tested on 360