Hitman is a game in which you hit men. Sometimes with your fists, sometimes with bullets, and occasionally with a priceless ming vase. It’s a series that has some roots, with its first release (Hitman: codename 47) in 2001 seeing a regular sequel until 2006’s Blood Money. Following Blood Money, Eidos decide to make the still-confusing-to-this-day decision to not follow up the critically acclaimed stealth-action antics of the Hitman franchise, and instead go on to make a generic third person shooter so bad it actually caused a journalist to get fired. And then they made a sequel to it.
Fortunately, someone has managed to chase out the group of twelve-year-old boys that were running the Eidos marketing department, and they have come back to their senses long enough to bless us with another Hitman game. So how does this one stack up? Is it the perfect blend of stealthy sneaking and creative assassinations that Blood Money was, or is it Kane and Lynch: Agent 47 Edition? I believe that it is most definitely the former.
Some reviews have claimed that Absolution is just another third person action game with Agent 47 as the main character, where the most efficient way to finish any level is to just rush through guns blazing and shoot everyone in the face. This only strengthens my case that some video games journalists suck at video games, as I assure you, trying to play the game this way on any of the ’professional’ difficulty settings (hard, extreme, and purist) will see you turned into an Agent 47 Swiss-cheese sandwich. As soon as you notch up the difficulty past ‘easy,’ run-and-gun tactics quickly become an undesirable option.
As per my review rules, I played through the game starting out on the ‘extreme’ difficulty, then eventually (shamefully) dropped down to ’hard’ for some of the later levels. As this might suggest, the game is really, properly hard. I have heard some hearsay that the ‘purist’ mode is more unbalanced than it is hard, but almost every time I messed up while playing extreme or hard difficulty, I felt like it was my own fault, and not cheap godlike AI with pinpoint accuracy and the ability to spot me ten miles away.
Furthermore, the game’s score system encourages stealthy, Hitman-like play. Every un-Hitman-esque action you perform (such as hitting a civilian in the face with a brick or leaving a literal trail of bodies in your wake) will subtract from your score, while performing actions that are the mark of a silent assassin (leaving no witnesses, hiding bodies, making kills look like an accident) will add to it. When you add to this the fact that the global average score pops up every so-on while you are playing, as well as an obsessive-compulsive desire to get the best score possible, it really makes you try and do things the hitman way. While it can be frustrating running through a level for the umpteenth time, carefully timing every single bad guy’s movements so you don’t get caught, that is the very essence of Hitman, an essence that Absolution has done an outstanding job to capture.
So, lets have a look at the tools that agent 47 has at his disposal. You can, in theory, evade your enemies in any combination of three ways – stealth, eliminate, blend. Stealth is fairly straightforward, stick to the shadows, crawl through vents, distract guards and slip past them. Eliminate involves dealing with your enemies (lethally or non lethally – lethal is often quicker and easier but will impact your score) and hiding the bodies. Blend involves the trademark Hitman disguises, where you try to sneak past by hiding in plain sight so to speak. I said ‘in theory’ before, as you will often have to use a combination of all three of these techniques to successfully complete a level, with some techniques becoming considerably less effective as the game goes on.
Stealth works fantastically throughout most of the game. There always seems to be a vent to crawl through, a windowsill to shimmy along, or a convenient chest-high wall to hide behind. The spidey-sense-like instinct system warns you when you are about to be discovered, although it can be a bit inconsistent at times, with enemies sometimes having to take a good, hard look to see you, and sometimes spotting you the second they walk on-screen. Eliminate becomes more necessary as the game goes on – especially in some of the later levels where the number of enemies are so high that it becomes almost impossible to simply sneak past them all.
Thankfully, it also works quite well. It’s quite an exciting experience to distract someone by throwing a bottle across the room, then sneak up behind them, silently break their neck, don their outfit, and drop the body in a dumpster. If I had one complaint it’s that enemies seem to make a beeline for me the second I start trying to hide a body, and the dump body animation is frustratingly long and leaves you completely vulnerable. If spotted, you can either try to quickly eliminate all witnesses, or evade your hunters by hiding in closets or dumpsters until the coast is clear.
Blending is one of the few aspects of the game I had a problem with. Yes, you can don a disguise, and yes, if you have a disguise appropriate to that area (cop, janitor, night club bouncer) people will be less suspicious of you, but only people who are NOT the same class as the one you are disguised as. What this means is, if you are dressed as a cop, for example, other cops are immediately suspicious of you. You can burn the ‘instinct’ meter to try to blend in,… by covering your face with your hand. It looks utterly ridiculous, particularly when wearing a disguise that has a mask! It also seems very un-hitman like, as purposely covering your face as you walk past someone should only serve to make you more suspicious. However, it feels like the entire game is built around this system, so I have no suggestions to change it without completely eliminating the challenge.
It does work well when there are multiple types of disguises in the level. For example, in the hotel level, which was one of my favourites, there are janitors, electricians, hotel staff and even the bad guy’s group of thugs. This works quite well, as you can, for example, use a janitor disguise to slip past a group of thugs. In later levels, there is sometimes only a single disguise choice (for example, the orphanage level), making the disguise almost completely useless, as the bad guys will spot you unless you burn through all your instinct (which in the harder difficulties, does not regenerate). I feel like I should actually have to be doing something suspicious for people to be… suspicious of me, especially when I am trying to blend in with an assortment of random masked criminals. It seems kind of illogical for them to zero-in on me like some kind of ace detective when I’m just minding my own business.
I mentioned instinct a couple times and I should go into a little more detail. It’s essentially a second meter opposite your health bar that you can use to perform a variety of actions. By default, activating it will give you Batman-vision, allowing you to see silhouettes of enemies through walls, the paths that they will travel on the ground, objects of interest and the mission objectives and exits. You can also use it, as mentioned before, to blend in and trick people wearing the same disguise as you. Lastly, you can use it for point-to-point shooting, in which you can mark several targets and then eliminate them all at once in a John Woo-style cutscene. On the harder difficulties, it is only regained by performing score-increasing actions and completing mission objectives. A lot of the later levels seem to be built around the feature, which seems like it would make the super-hard purist mode (in which instinct actions are unavailable) brutally difficult to the point of impossibility.
The main story is kind of a sequel to Blood Money mixed with origin story. It does feel a bit out of place to be 47 on the run from the cops, having assassination targets that are more ‘people I have to kill before they kill me’ rather than the actual paid contracts of the previous games, but it manages to work quite well. There are a few turns in the plot that will leave you scratching your head but it all kind of pulls together in the end. It’s not the best story but for a game about a man specifically experimented on to become the world’s first ‘super assassin’, it’s… sufficient.
There is also a new ’contracts’ mode which I’m sure a lot of fans are excited about. It’s one of those things that sounds amazing in concept – go to any Hitman level and select any person in the zone as a target. Set kill conditions and upload your contract to the internet, where fellow Hitman players will try and complete it for the highest score. Unfortunately, the limited scope of the levels and the broken disguise system means that the mode gets pretty bland pretty quickly. It’s a nice little distraction from the main story, but it won’t last you too long. Maybe for people more obsessed with high scores than I am (although I assume they’d all be trying to get Silent Assassin rating on purist mode rather than bludging through contracts). Good idea, poor execution. It would have been nice if they had maps built exclusively for the mode, instead of re-using campaign levels.
Graphics don’t make the game but are still an important part of it, and in Absolution’s case they are one of the most impressive aspects of the game. I have a pretty kick-ass rig so I was able to run the game on ultra and it looked amazing (as you may be able to tell from my screenshots). I was especially impressed with how well it was able to render large crowds (such as in the Chinatown level) without taking a hit in performance. I managed to stay at a steady 40-60 FPS the entire time. It’s nice to see Eidos truly optimizing the game for high-end PC’s, instead of simply building it for consoles (now fairly limited) graphical capabilities and then sprinkling on a couple of extra bells and whistles for the PC gamers.
Hitman: Absolution is most definitely a Hitman game. Granted, it’s not the best Hitman game, but after leaving us hanging for so long after Blood Money, seeing ANY Hitman game is something positive. Fans of the series and stealth genre should be impressed enough to at least finish the main story. More than that, fans of actually being challenged in a video game, who are sick of the hand-holding invincible-allies-that-kill-everything-for-you style of games that have recently become popular, will find more than a sufficient challenge in Absolution. It’s a well made game, and though it has its flaws, I still thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s a nice, warm, welcome back for Agent 47, and hopefully the return to regular installments of the series.