Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3 and PC
Reviewed On: Xbox 360
Developer: IO Interactive
Publisher: Square Enix
Multiplayer: Yes. (Read review for further details)
After a hiatus of six very long years Agent 47 is finally back, but unlike a normal human being the passage of time hasn’t made him any less dangerous. In fact the gentle passage of time has made him considerably more dangerous, sort of like a lion you’ve been starving for a few weeks before you release it from its cage while you’ve got a nice, juicy steak taped to your rear end. After such a long time away, though, the important question is whether Absolution was going to be just like the older games but with better graphics or whether it was some new bold new imagining of the franchise. The answer is that it’s a little bit of both.
And by God does the game waste not time in kicking off things, leading us on a dark tale that is far more personal and emotional than Hitman has ever been before. Alright, you can stop screaming at the screen now, I don’t mean they’ve suddenly turned Agent 47 into a blubbering man-child that can only be sated with a brightly colored lollypop and a pat on the head. No, he’s still a bald bad-ass with a bar code on the back of his head, but at the same time we get just enough emotion to make him even cooler than he was before. The tutorial level which teaches you all the basics of being a Hitman, like hiding bodies in dumpsters, sneaking around, tossing bricks at things to cause distractions and looking bloody cool while doing it also just so happens to be a contract for Agent 47 to go and kill off Diana, his handler for many years. Maybe I’ve been spending too much time trying to pretend I’m sophisticated and deep but this seems like a damn good metaphor for Absolution itself, with the death of Diana symbolising the subsequent death and rebirth of the franchise as something that manages to be the same, but different. Anyway, having now shot Diana Agent 47 feels remorse for the first time in….ever. As such he vows to obey the instructions left to him in a letter from Diana, which tells him to protect a mysterious girl by the name of Victoria. And so Agent 47 goes rogue from the Agency, embarking in a relatively simple yet still quite entertaining yarn where he kills a fair few people in his quest to keep the girl safe.
There’s nothing wrong with a fairly basic plot as long as it’s well told, and Absolution’s is indeed pretty simple. Happily it’s fairly well done, boasting some stellar voice-acting as well, but mostly it’s just enough to string together the various missions in a vague way. As you would sort of expect from a game about killing people in the most imaginative ways you can the world if Hitman is a pretty dark place inhabited by equally dark but quite well written douchebags, which is fine because it ensures your desire to stab them in the face with a katana, although it does have to be said that the chaps and chapettes at IO Software have got a baffling fascination with characters that have some some of horrible physical deformity or have lost a body part. The CGI cutscenes boast a grimy, grainy filter and the characters are all exaggerated, but never too far beyond belief. Along the way there’s that whole emotional stuff with 47 I was on about. Without the Agency controlling his life he’s feeling a little bit lost, but don’t worry, all this emotional bollox is actually pretty damn subtle and manages to add extra depth to the character never seen before without ever compromising the fact that he’s a bald badass capable of removing your teeth and ramming them up a certain area that you’d otherwise wish was private and free of teeth. It’s not all good in Hitman land, mind: there’s a few low moments in the story where Agent 47 does a few things that didn’t really make a whole lot of sense, but there’s only one time when the plot comes truly off the rails… and then crashes into an orphanage for cute bunny rabbits. And that’s about half-way through the game, coming in the form of the Saints, a name most people who were keeping an eye on the game will recognise from the controversy sparking trailer. These tight leather-clad killers dressed as nuns had a lot of people interested in how IO would weave them into the story. Except that IO didn’t weave them into the story at all, they’re just there. Seriously, they just turn up and there’s absolutely no explanation as to why the dress like that, or even who they really are, bar a bit of vague back story that you can read in the pause menu. Normally this wouldn’t bother me much, after all crazy McGuffins happens all the time in games, but the thing is that Absolution spends a lot of time building up its dark and atmospheric world, grounding it in reality despite the fact that many of its characters do come off as exaggerated, and as such the appearance of leather-clad nuns wielding guns without absolutely any context left me feeling more baffled than a dog that’s woken itself up by farting. It almost, and I stress almost, feels like a cheap attempt at cashing in on some easy controversy. And that’s a bit of a shame because the whole nun thing boasts one of the most fun levels in the game where you get to sneak around a cornfield as a Scarecrow and kill people. Good times.
Also worthy of mention is that researching your targets from the previous games and learning all about them has vanished into the shadows faster than Edward Cullen confronted by Dracula. This is a real shame because it results in pretty much any target that isn’t one of the big players in the story feeling like some sort of faceless drone. IN previous games you’d learn about these people, and through that develop a genuine desire for their death, but in Absolution there were moments when I wasn’t sure who the hell I was killing or even why.
Plot derailing aside, let’s get down to how it all plays. Since it has been six years since Agent 47 last graced our screens and garroted some poor sod to death it needs to bring its A-game. Right, so for those that aren’t in the know the goal of a Hitman game is to kill your target in the most efficient, fun or just plain awesome way as possible. This whole “death” malarky can be accomplished in numerous ways, starting with the basic options like garroting or gunshot and progressing into using an object lying around like an axe or knife to do the deed. The true professional, though, won’t be content with such trivial methods of offing people because scattered around the game’s levels are plenty of rather ingenious methods of causing a sever case of deadness, many of which make it look like a harmless accident, ensuring you can happily walk out of the level with none the wiser, the mark of a true professional if ever there was one. For example you could use a wrench to loosen the wires of a fuse box so that they drop to the ground and then just wait for your hapless victim to wander over, unzip his fly and…uh, introduce a liquid. Or perhaps you could swap the BBQ sauce with lighter fluid and watch as your target goes up in flames, or you could go casually shove your victim over a railing, or ensure that something heavy lands on them. One of my personal favorites was turning on the gas cooker in my victims flat before setting up across the street with a sniper rifle. The blissfully unaware target came into the flat and my bullet provided the spark for a bloody awesome fireworks display. The Hitman games have always, in a way, almost been puzzle games with the players working out exactly how to kill people in the best way possible, and Absolution is no different in that regard. It’s diabolical entertainment at its best.
It’s probably around the time that your drowning someone in a pool of oil that you come to the startling realisation that Hitman: Absolution is actually a murder simulation. I know that sounds like the sort of sentence that the media would pounce on and abuse like a tentacle monster abuses girls in one of those weird animated Japanese films, but let’s face it, it’s true. You spend the entire game coming up with more and more cunning ways to kill people, carefully planning out exactly how you’re going to achieve your goals, such as figuring out whether a cunningly placed radio might be needed to distract a guard, and how you’re going to escape the carnage afterwords.
The point I’m vaguely attempting to make here as I happily slurp my cup of tea and munch on a chocolate biscuit is that Absolution is at its best during these moments, when you’ve got a target or three to kill and you’re free to roam the game’s larger sandboxy levels looking for the best ways to eliminate targets, making full use of Agent 47’s deadly skills as well as his social stealth, sneaky stealth and disguise talents, but we’ll come back to those later, possibly when I’m sober, although that might take a while. You walk through the levels carefully studying the tools at your disposal and the route of your victim, perhaps debating whether a guard or two shall need to be removed via a chokehold or through a simple distraction, such as chucking a ratchet or blowing up every car in the street. Alright, maybe that last one was a bit overkill, but in my defense I wasn’t expecting the chain reaction that resulted in the death of a considerable number of innocents. Learn from my mistakes, people! The game’s first actual mission is the prime example of Absolution at its best. The King of Chinatown places you in a small but extremely crowded part of Chinatown with your goal being to eliminate the King (of Chinatown. Duh). Amidst the bustling crowds there’s loads of NPC conversations to listen in to, and numerous methods of eliminating your target. You could just grab the sniper rifle hidden away beside that window, but where’s the fun in that? Perhaps you’ll disguise yourself as his drug dealer and poison the goods, or maybe you’ll shove him down a manhole. Perhaps you’ll simply set up some explosives on his car and then set off the alarm so he’ll come running. There’s a sense of empowerment when controlling Agent 47 in these moments, a sense that you’re a hunter and that your prey stands little chance against you. It’s fun, simple as that. And there’s an immense sense of satisfaction to be taken from stalking your target, executing the hit and then smoothly exiting the area while everybody stands around and looks startled. This is what the Hitman series is all about.
It’s a sense of satisfaction made all the more powerful by the inclusion of a Score system which awards points based on your performance during the levels. Avoiding harming innocents, performing signature kills (such as garroting or making it look like an accident), remaining undetected and the like all award you with lots of points toward your total, while Challenges that can be completed during a level, like killing people in certain ways or doing certain things, bump up your score multiplier, as does the difficulty level you’re playing on. Cunningly Challenges are devised so that they require multiple playthroughs to complete, so one challenge might demand you kill the target that way, which you’ve got to figure out, while another challenge demands you kill them this way. The introduction of a scoring mechanic was an ingenious move on IO’s behalf and before long I was gleefully competing against friends and the world in general, trying to prove that when it came to inventively killing people I was the god damn best! Coupled with the simple fact that there’s plenty of different ways of killing many of the characters it encourages you to go back and replay levels numerous times, completing challenges, trying to improve your score and generally just arsing around like you’ve eaten half a pound of sugar before you started playing, which probably explains my decision to go on a killing rampage in the middle of Chinatown with a katana. Have to admit that I did not get a very high score for that.
The score system does come with a flaw, mind you, which is that it’s used to slap you in the face whenever you don’t play the game exactly how the developers intended it to be played. During the build-up to launch much lyrical was waxed about how you could play Absolution any way you wished, be that patient killer, sneaky ninja or rampaging gun-nut with a strange fascination for shooting people in the kneecaps and giggling like a child. It’s important to stop and point out that yes, you can play anyway you want, but do so and the scoring system will kick you in the nuts and tell you to damn well behave yourself. Silent kills followed by hiding the body is fine as your points will level out, but decide to go with brute force or get just a little bit messy and you’ll see the score meter drop into the negatives in bright red font faster than a cow leaping off a cliff, chastising you for your methods and making you feel like a bit of an idiot in the process. It sort of feels like IO only put the whole “play it how you like” thing in for the good PR it brings. Yes, you can play it like a shooter, they croon softly, but you should actually play it way we intended. It’s like being handed a Rubix cube and told I can solve it any way I see fit, and then, just as my hand reaches for the red paint they slap it away and tell me that if I do it like they actually wanted me to I’ll get a cookie. Let’s be clear, here, this isn’t really a flaw: if you want to play it like a shooter you can and to hell with the score, but it is something that I felt was at least deserving a grumble. Also, if you bought a game called Hitman and wanted to play it as a shooter then you probably need your head examined. No offense.
Things get tougher if your perspective victim is in hidden away in a restricted area of your little playground or some other area where people will get suspicious of your presence, bringing in the game’s stealth elements and usage of disguises. The rules governing how stealth works are kept mercifully simple: if you’re crouched your silent and enemies can only spot you with line of sight, with Absolution employing the cover system that is so common these days among…everything. It’s good that they don’t overcomplicate it and as such stealth is solid and enjoyable, following the usual formula of timing your movements so you can sneak through enemy lines while they follow the standard stealth laws governing AI, by which I mean spend stupid amounts of time examining things so you can sneak on by, giggling as you go. Objects can also be picked up and tossed for a handy distraction. And of course you can simply knock out or kill enemies than get in your way, carefully hiding the body in the raft of really convienent cupboards that are around the place.
As for disguises they can sometimes be picked up around the level, but usually you’ll acquire one by knocking some unlucky sod over the head with a heavy object and stealing his clothes. Again, there’s a simple set of rules governing how disguises work in the world of Hitman: anyone else wearing the same clothing as you is capable of blowing your disguise, while anyone that isn’t wearing the same gear is not. This can actually lead to some genuinely stupid moments in the game’s logic, such as you hiding behind a counter listening to a guard talk to a chef for a good while before watching the guard leave, nicking the chef’s uniform and then walking right up to the very same guard who is now absolutely incapable of realising that you’re a completely different chef than the one he was just talking to. Who hires these people? Seriously, there most be some association for retarded guards or something that seeks out employment opportunities in stealth games. Anyway, the point is that if you get too close to someone with the same clothes as yourself you’ll be discovered. Sounds like a good system, right? Well, it is, except for one fundamental flaw: people get suspicious of you from bloody miles away, giving you a short window of time to duck out of eyesight before they declare you an imposter and blow your face off, thus making disguises feel a bit…pointless at times. Wearing a disguise you would expect to have a fair amount of freedom navigating the levels so long as you’re careful not to get in anyones face and use good old sneaking to avoid doing so, but oh no, that’s not how it works here, instead people can see through your disguise from across the damn room even when you’ve got your back turned to them. Wearing a disguise often tends to result in your zigzagging between cover and hiding behind desks. On the lower difficulty settings it’s not too bad and disguises have their uses, generally giving you just enough time to get wherever you’re trying to get to, but on the higher difficulty levels (there’s five on offer, with Purist removing your HUD and ramping up everything to 11) the amount of time you’ve got until enemies declare you an imposter gets considerably shorter, essentially making disguises bloody useless unless you’re willing to spend most of your time hiding behind the aforementioned desk in the vague hopes that the person with incredibly good eyesight will go away or get distracted by something shiny. The only other option to you is to use up some of Agent 47’s instinct.
Ah yes, Instinct, a concept which had a lot of Hitman fans nervous whenever IO chatted happily about it in press releases and interview. Essentially it’s a concession for both newcomers to the franchise and to the modern gaming world in general, which seems to fear that if it actually presents a challenge the player will have a panic attack and never touch the game again. And it’s a concession that soon proves to be a smart move on IO’s behalf because they made it entirely optional, ensuring that the hardcore out there can simply ignore it and get on with the business of stabbing that person over there with a screwdriver while new players can use it to pick their way through enemies and discover those various wonderful ways with which to kill people. The concept behind Instinct is that it’s Agent 47’s intuition and….uh, instincts presented to you visually, allowing you to see enemies through walls, their patrol routes and interactive objects scattered around the level. On second thought, I’m not buying that this is his intuition visualised. How the buggery does he know all this stuff? Anyway, Instinct can also be used to blend in while using a disguise: simply hold down the button when within sight of somebody likely to get suspicious of you and Agent 47 will pull of some amazing trick to blend in, like pulling his hat down a few inches. Apparently in the world of Hitman people are capable of seeing you as imposter from a 100ft away, but not if you’re within 5ft and pulling your hat down a little bit. Instinct can be gained by performing good kills, sneaking past people and generally just behaving like a professional. Instinct also comes packing an ability that’s been ripped straight out of Splinter Cell: Conviction’s playbook: Point Shooting. Activate this mode and the world goes all slow-mo, giving you the change to tag enemies using the right trigger, after which you just tap a button to have Agent 47 execute each enemy. Well, if it’s good enough for Sam Fisher then it’s damn well good enough for 47.
Fans of the previous games will likely be disappointed to learn that Absolution’s levels aren’t as vast and sprawling as the ones found in previous games, instead this time even the largest of maps in Absolution are still fairly small. However, they are packed full of beautiful detail courtesy of the game’s new Glacier 2 engine, which can create crowds that’d make Assassin’s Creed need to go for a quick nip of whiskey and a lie down. Perhaps the size is the tradeoff for IO whacking so much detail in there. Since Agent 47 is no longer a part of the Agency that means the ability to select a load out before each mission has tragically disappeared with nothing to replace it: there’s no black market for killers with special sales on poisoned knives, nor can you keep weapons which you find in the levels, which the little logical part of my brain found utterly stupid because what sort of professional hitman would refuse to keep the handy silenced pistol he found during a mission? It’s a hard pill to swallow but for gameplay reasons I can see why IO chose to do this: it forces you to adept and use whatever you discover within the game’s levels, be that a handy sniper rifle hidden in a drug-dealers room or the knife that the chef was using before you knocked him out and hiding his body in the freezer. At first the inability to pick out weapons and gadgets before a mission upset me so much that I had to join Assassin’s Creed on the couch, but before long I was enjoying scouring the levels for weapons or using an axe as a mighty long-range killing weapon by expedient of hurling it at people’s head’s, although I’m going to briefly complain about how insulting the game can sometimes feel when presenting things to you: “Here’s a sniper rifle,” it says, “placed next to this really good vantage point. Oh, and here’s a wrench right next to the wires you need to loosen to electrocute someone.” Let me figure it out myself, please, Absolution, I’m a big boy now and can handle murdering people in the face on my own. Christ know’s I’ve been doing it enough in games.
But back to the level thing. Absolution’s levels are indeed considerably smaller and simpler than we’ve seen from the series in the past with each mission split into bite-sized chunks. On the one hand the smaller chunks of level help to increase replay value as it lets you jump in and quickly replay a level several times. It also comes with the added benefit of extra save points because each time you walk through a door into the next bite-sized chunk the game saves. Say what you like about Blood Money but the often massive levels made some gamers wary to experiment too much in case it all went tits up and they had to replay a tonne of the level to get back to where they were. The increased saving and smaller levels does at least help encourage a bit more experimentation, but it’s still understandable that long-time fans of the series will feel upset at having the sprawling playgrounds taken away from them in favor or tighter and more focused areas. To be fair to Absolution, though, the sandbox levels may be smaller but they are normally packed with detail and present plenty of opportunities for mischief and mayhem. In fact I for one didn’t mind the more streamlined sandbox levels as I felt they were well sized and suited the gameplay style. No, my problem stems from the fact that there’s just not enough of them, like IO were worried that if they gave us to many open environments to roam around in we might never leave them and thus all that effort they spent sticking nuns into the story would have been for nothing. There’s only a few actual large sandbox levels in the game and they’re connected by far more linear and scripted sections in the name of cinematic storytelling . If Hitman is at its best when it leaves you alone to plan your move in the elaborate game of murder chess in a fairly open landscape then it’s at its worst when it chucks you into tighter environments. Happily, mind you, even at its worst Absolution is still pretty fun. There’s a couple of pretty good linear levels, like the train station and sneaking through a cop-infested library, but for the most part they don’t hold a candle to the sandbox missions. A few of them give you targets to take out, but usually only offer one interesting way of killing them, while the rest task you with getting from point A to point B with no target to eliminate, removing the wonderful puzzle-like quality of working out the perfect hit. These sections tend to rely more on the sneaky stealth aspects, and while those mechanics are done well enough they’re hardly spectacular, leaving them feeling like pretty standard stuff. Had there simply been more of a payoff for completing these narrow levels in terms of large sandbox areas to play in things would have been different, but there’s not and its a shame that IO chose to do this route, although all respect to them for trying to introduce new elements into their franchise. Keep these linear, more cinematic sections for future games IO, just be sure to give us a lot more playgrounds to balance it out.
Regardless of whether you’re carefully sneaking through corridors or whether you’re ambling through crowds, stalking your prey, there’s going to be times when things go utterly tits-up. Unless you’re like me, who almost automatically reloads the last checkpoint should my hit go wrong or I’m discovered, then these moments are when you’ll whip out your guns and attempt to control the situation by shooting everybody a lot until they stop moving, and it’s actually advisable to do so because while it may not strictly be healthy for your score it does create some nice emergent gameplay as you attempt to take everybody out before they can alert everyone else and thus spoil your day. The cover system that Absolution employs which let’s Agent 47 hug walls like he’s afraid they’ll run away and leave him all on his own is solid and works well enough, but the aiming is just loose enough to ensure that gunfights are nothing more than okay and certainly aren’t going to have the likes of Gears of War quaking in its absurdly massive boots. To test out IO’s claims of being able to play the game like a shooter I did just that and can confirm that yes, you can just go through the game blasting everyone, but the gunplay mechanics just aren’t good enough to warrant doing so. And anyway, the scoring system would never forgive you.
There’s just one more thing to wrap up before I move onto the game’s “multiplayer” offering, and that’s the bloody awful checkpoint system that IO have implemented. On the lower difficulties you can find checkpoints around the level which must be manually activated. These don’t act as save points but only for the session you’re in – turn off the console or go back to the dashboard and you’ll have to start the mission from the very beginning once again. This is absolutely fine, except for the fact that checkpoints in Absolution are a mess that make no sense. Should you reload from a checkpoint you’ll find that every guard you knocked out up until that point has suddenly respawned in their original positions and any traps you set up before the checkpoint have reset themselves, forcing you to wander back through the level and set them up again. The checkpoint system should help encourage experimentation, but in reality it’s a poorly designed mess and the placement of checkpoints feels haphazard and random at best. Hell, I’m not eve entirely certain what IO were going with when they added it into the game. Part of me feels it was shoe-horned in the last minutes before the game was chucked out of the door to go live its life, before being mugged by savage gamers and forced into a disc drawer, into eternal servitude. Game’s have it hard, you know.
But let’s get away from the singleplayer stuff and move on to what could sort of be described as Absolution’s multiplayer mode. You can stop flinging cyber-poop now, there’s no Deathmatch or anything to try to fit in the modern trend of everything in the known universe having to have Deathmatch thrown in to it. Instead what IO have created is a unique mode called Contracts, in which gamers can create and share their own contract for anyone else to play using levels from the singleplayer story. This might sound like a full-blown level editor from the description, but it’s actually not. To create a contract for your friends and everyone else to play you pick a disguise and starting weapon, and then literally have to play through the level of your choice from the singleplayer campaign, choosing your targets as you go by looking at them and pressing Y and the method of their death. Once you’re finished the game records what disguises you used and the method with which you killed the target/s, and then creates the contract based around how you played, factoring in things like whether you were spotted or if you killed anyone other than your target as well. It also sets a base payment amount for other players who accept the Contract, because obviously they ain’t going to do if for free. Payment, eh? Yup, replacing the scoring system in the singleplayer is Contract Dollars, which pretty much work in the exact same way as the scoring system except that it starts at a set, base amount. Do badly and the amount you’ll earn will go down, while adhering to the Contract’s stipulations, like never being seen, ensure the best amount will be earned. There’s also a time bonus thrown in that activates on your first kill, giving you a nice bonus if you’re able to smoothly and quickly execute your targets. With your hard-earned cash, you know, the cash you earned for killing people, you heartless bastard, you can purchase new disguises and weapons, or upgrade weapons you already own with silencers and such. Or you could just find weapons in the singleplayer because picking them up unlocks them for Contracts, although some weapons do still have to be bought.
On the one hand Contracts is an incredibly fun mode and a clever concept on IO’s behalf. Playing through the various scenarios that other players have created is a blast, and there’s some pretty ingenious ones out there. But ultimately Contracts is limited by its own concept. The only levels from the singleplayer story that really feel worth using, and indeed the only ones that do seem to be getting used by gamers, are the larger, more open levels, and as we’ve already covered there’s only a few of those to choose from. And since there’s no way to edit them in any way, shape or form, like adding in or removing weapons or even playing with AI behavior, it quickly becomes apparent that your options when creating a contract are pretty slim. There’s only so many ways to kill off your targets, and no matter how devious the player creating the mission the fairly small level design and nature of the game mean it’s still usually pretty obvious as to how they achieved it. In short, then Contracts is a great concept and the choice to actually have to play through the level to create your mission is good, but it definitely needed some basic editing options. It also tends to make you sit and daydream about how freaking awesome a fully fledged editor could have been. You read it here, IO, now go make it happen. Seriously, go and do it. Like, now. I’ll wait.
After six years of waiting Absolution is in the position of having to both please fans and attract a brand new audience. What we’ve got is a more cinematic Hitman that’s undoubtedly a great game, albeit one that has, in some ways, taken a few steps backward before taking just as many forward. The new focus on storytelling is a brave move for the series, but as a result we’ve got more linear levels and nowhere near enough sandboxes to play in. But in the few sandboxes we do get the gameplay is slick, fun and satisfying, capturing all brilliance that the previous games in the series had. And even at its worst in the more linear and streamlined levels, Absolution is still good fun. If you’ve never played a Hitman game then Absolution is the perfect time to jump in – you certainly won’t regret it – and it if you’re a long-time fan then in some ways you might find yourself feeling a tad disappointed with some of the changes, but enjoying yourself nonetheless.
+ Pulling off the perfect hit.
+ Contracts mode is a great idea.
+ So many ways to cause death.
– Not enough large levels.
– Checkpoint system is a mess.
– Leather-clad nuns. Nuff’ said.
The new Glacier 2 engine has been used to create dark, grimy levels packed with details and its ability to populate areas with thick crowds is amazing.
The voice acting is top-notch and the sound design is impressive with a great score that follows the action well.
Absolution’s plot is a simple string of events that essentially tie together the levels. It’s enjoyable, but nothing special.
The larger levels in Absolution would have easily scored a 9 in this department with the mixture of planning, stealth and disguise working well, but the more linear sections just aren’t as good.
Around 8-10 hours for the singleplayer but it does have a lot of replay value, and Contracts should keep you going for a few more hours as well.
The Verdict: 8
Hitman: Absolution has taken a while to get here but it has been worth the wait, delivering a great game that fans should be happy with and that newcomers can easily delve in to and enjoy.