November 18, 2012
It was just another Saturday night, or so I thought. I’d shaved my head in anticipation for what I was hoping was another fairly simple night, one with no complications and one where I’d go unseen, like a ghost in the night. Suited up in my slick black suit with my blood red tie, I slipped into the darkness. If I’d have been seen, it would have been disastrous. My reputation ruined with one lapse in judgment and concentration. I needed to have my wits about me. Especially if I was to slip into the 24 hour Londis round the corner from my house and get myself some gaming snacks without being seen. I had Hitman: Absolution to play and review, and what better preparation than going all Agent 47 on the local shithole of a shop. It’s no Harrods, after all. And by going Agent 47, I mean getting in and out without being seen, not spraying bullets everywhere, before you head to the archives to read of my indiscretions.
The long-awaited sequel to Hitman: Blood Money is finally upon us. And by long-awaited, I mean, “what the hell, IO, we should have had a sequel years ago!” Built on the new Glacier 2.0 engine, Hitman: Absolution throws you into the shoes of gaming’s baldest badass, Agent 47, who finds himself embroiled in a tale of deception, back-stabbery and shadow-stalking. Agent 47 - who is still thankfully voiced by the talented David Bateson - is now a lone assassin of sorts, no longer working for the agency, finding himself travelling throughout Chicago and Hope, South Dakota, as he looks to save the young Victoria from a bevvy of vile and insidious characters, like the country bumpkin, Blake Dexter, and his beefy sidekick, Sanchez.
With the new engine comes a whole host of gameplay upgrades that combine to make Absolution the best Hitman ever in terms of mechanics. Not just in terms of visuals and the new AI tech, which allows for much more immersive open-world environments like the Mardi Gras in Blood Money, but in terms of Agent 47 himself. Our bald headed maestro can now climb up certain ledges, bound over cover, engage in some close-quarter-combat shenanigans and even provide distractions to enable him to move more freely. At the core of the game is also the new Instinct mode, which allows players to blend, perform point-to-point kills – basically, bullet-time – see through walls and see an NPC’s patrol route and destination. It could be argued that it ruins the core of the Hitman experience and goes against everything that the franchise was meant to be about, but after spending 15 hours or so with the single-player campaign, I never once got that feeling. There’s also a skeleton levelling-up system in built too, meaning the more you play, the better and more skilled Agent 47 becomes.
There’s no doubt about it though, Absolution is one of the most action-orientated Hitman games that IO Interactive has ever conceived. For chunks of the Absolution the focus shifts away from 47 being a predator to being the prey, and at times you’ll be sucked into what seems like unavoidable gunfights, but in an effort to appease the fans, the wide-open predatory sandbox elements are still the game’s major focus. Despite Absolution’s more aggressive stealth, as we’re calling it, IO Interactive has stayed true to the franchise for the most part. Those thinking that Absolution is a third-person shooter are just kidding themselves, this is very much a stealth game with planning and cunning at the forefront.
Where Absolution probably loses ground on its predecessors though is in its actual mission scenarios. It’s clear that IO’s approach with this latest iteration is one steeped in realism and at times that holds the game back somewhat. It blatantly needs more iconic missions with its hallmark unique settings for it to truly feel like a Hitman game. You’ll often see 47 let loose in back-alleys, warehouses, factories, a strip club, which are a far cry from the hillbilly weddings and opera house settings of Blood Money. Truth be told, Absolution probably takes its self a little too seriously at times, a trait that hasn’t been attributed to the series in the past. Hitman is usually all about over the top and in your face scenarios, but Absolution is not. That said, there are brief moments of genius that see Agent 47 head to a courthouse, a laboratory and to an underground fight club for instance that have a plethora of opportunities. Whatever the level though, there are usually a ton of different ways to tackle the level, distractions to deploy, civilians to save and bizarre accidents to orchestrate.
Despite how long IO has had with the game though, it’s not perfect and it lacks a little polish at times. I fell through maps, walked through NPCs, got stuck by NPCs on infinite animation loops and even experienced bizarre cutscene moments – at one point Agent 47 was pointing a syringe at an individual in a cutscene thinking it was a gun. There is something to be said for continuity with costumes though and seeing the disguise you're wearing in the level in the cutscene is a very nice touch indeed, as is the superb audio design. Whether you’re talking about conversations between NPCs, the ambient background noise, people on mobile phones, the fireworks, the sizzling of pork on a hot skillet, IO has certainly put a considerable amount of effort into this aspect of the game, and it shows. It certainly does wonders for the immersion levels.
There are some interesting design choices too, like why IO thought that sticking a stealth takedown on the same button as a lethal takedown – depending on what you had in your hand – was a good idea, we’ll never know. Guaranteed, if you play it you’ll cave someone’s skull in with a hammer instead of silently subduing them! The mid-mission checkpoints are a let down too, not in that they only save your progress for that session, but that if you restart from that checkpoint it doesn’t save your progress, it’s like it throws you into a default checkpoint instead, so enemies may reappear and traps you set may become undone. Rather frustrating is an understatement.
Arguably the biggest improvement in Absolution though is its highly innovative and addictive new asynchronous game mode, Contracts. It’s a simple concept in truth, but one that's fantastically executed. The crux of it is this: you create your own hit contract in the single-player levels and you challenge your friends. You can play theirs, you can play yours, you can play anybody’s. The sky’s the limit here. It’s not just about taking out the game’s main targets either, you can choose any NPC who has a role – from mechanics and chefs, to porters and police officers – and decide how someone kills them, what they’re wearing and a whole host of other criteria to fill, the only proviso is that to create it, you have to actually play it through first, meaning no hit is impossible.
It’s genuinely a genius mode and IO Interactive should be praised for creating something that promotes replayability without just slapping on team deathmatch. The campaign has enough replayability with a whole array of challenges to complete, meaning you’ll want to return and perform a magnitude of different hits, but Contracts is where the real replayability is. It’s almost endless in its scope and will have you squeezing seconds out of your best times and working out the cleanest hits. There will likely be two types of players though, that’s for sure: setters, who create the challenges; and chasers, who set the highest scores. That said, it’s not perfect either, and its structure could do with a few usability tweaks, like being able to change disguise and weapon if you decide to restart a contract mid-game.
In terms of achievements, Hitman: Absolution is a gold mine and will throw them at you left, right and centre. Most of them are secret, all spoiler achievements though, which is how they should be done, and there are plenty of achievements for progressing through the game. It must be said though, considering that there are multiple routes to take for each assassination, IO didn’t do enough with leveraging that creativity the player uses in their achievements. There’s a good balance, good mix and something for the hardcore Hitman nuts, it’s just a shame that they aren’t very innovative or creative.
In all though, IO Interactive has done a fine job in bringing back Hitman to the masses, but the need to create a more realistic experience has ultimately held the title back from true greatness. In terms of game mechanics Absolution is easily the greatest Hitman title that the studio has ever created, and with the new Contracts mode added for good measure, the franchise has never been in a healthier place. We’d like to see IO put the batshit crazy back into the franchise for good measure though, whether as a sequel or as DLC. And there’s even a cameo from Kane & Lynch thrown in for good measure. They’re always good to kill.
There aren’t enough superlatives in the world to praise Hitman’s audio design. From the musical score and voice acting, to the fantastic ambient background noises, all of which are nothing short of superb.
It’s the prettiest Hitman title to ever grace consoles, let down only slightly by a few graphical glitches.
The new, more mobile Agent 47 makes Hitman a pleasure to play as always and opens up so many more avenues and tactical options for players to take advantage of.
The 12-15 hour campaign will keep you busy and engaged in the short-term, the brilliant Contracts mode will keep you occupied and bedazzled in the long-term.
Absolution throws achievements at you like they’re going out of fashion. Fear not, there are a few for the Hitman superfans out there that’ll keep them going at least for a short while. There’s a distinct lack of creativity in them though. Shame, considering the subject matter.
Hitman: Absolution is the sequel to Blood Money that fans have been itching for. In terms of game mechanics it’s the best Hitman that IO Interactive has ever created, although the lack of inherently unique settings is a disappointment. That said, IO has more than made up for that with the brilliant asynchronous Contracts mode, adding replayability to a single-player game in the most smart and stylish way.