December 14, 2012, Author: Andy Corrigan
Hitman: Blood Money was my first real taster of IO Interactive’s assassination simulator series, and I instantly became a fan. I already loved stealth games as a general rule, but Hitman’s open playground and limitless possibilities really struck a chord with me, to the point where I retroactively went back and played the previous titles.
It’s been a long wait, then, for Hitman to return to our screens once more. Will my love still be… absolute?
Absolute. Heh heh, I’m a genius…
What happens when you must kill the one person you trust the most?
Diana Burnwood has provided Agent 47 with every assignment he’s had since his career began. Despite being a faceless, business-only relationship, Diana represents the most intimate association that our calculated killer has engaged in. Following the events of Blood Money, Diana has gone rogue, making moves to publicly expose the Agency for what it is. The Agency is bruised but not beaten, and they offer 47 the contract to take her down before she can cause more damage.
He reluctantly accepts. It’s just another job, after all.
I won’t go into more detail as not to ruin any twists and important plot points, but this is a far more story-focused Hitman than ever before, one that does a better job of connecting the dots between the various missions and the locales that they take place in. In previous Hitman games, although IO have always nailed the cold-hearted killer angle, 47 has always lacked any kind of personality, nearly always silent, and I’ve always felt that he could be easily replaced by any faceless character as a result. With a more involved story, 47 finally feels like he’s a star in his own game.
It’s not an important story, though, and painfully clichéd in places, but it does a decent enough impression of an action movie to make the ride enjoyable throughout. It provides you with a drive and purpose, rather than just a ‘this is your target because we said so’ setup.
Hitman has always had this sick charm and deviously twisted sense of humour, and fans will be happy to discover that it remains intact despite a slightly more serious tone. Absolution flirts with ideas of vulgarity, gets close to the bone, sometimes even behaves seedily; but it’s always tongue-in-cheek, self-aware and in many cases, self-deprecating. Even the infamous nuns fail to live up to the controversy set out for them by that tasteless trailer, simply feeling like a part of the existing Hitman universe.
In fact, on the whole, I think that IO have done a great job of making your objectives easier by ensuring that your targets are amongst some of the slimiest, sleazy and despicable bunch of characters ever seen in the industry.
It’s the engine that’s seen the biggest improvement, for the first time controlling truly intuitively and fluidly, with just the right amount of weight to 47’s movement. Gunplay was too finicky, too sensitive to be a proper option before, whereas now it’s got all the finesse of a modern-day cover-shooter. That shouldn’t worry the stealth purists, though, as the most satisfying way to play the game is still to hide, be it in the shadows or plain sight.
Although many fans were quite concerned that the extra emphasis on story would have a negative effect on the sandbox arenas they’ve become accustomed to, they needn’t have worried. This is mostly the same old Hitman, only this time with a bit more care taken and a lot more attention to detail.
How much does that story have effect on the game’s structure, though? Well, while previously you were simply given a single location, a target and a sandbox with many possibilities to aid your assassinations, in Absolution, you’ll often find yourself needing to get through a handful of level-sized areas to simply get within vicinity of your target. When faced with this, rather than seeking out your mark, you’re looking for the area’s exit. Sometimes, though, you might get additional targets on the way through. Sadly,
In previous games, getting caught pretty much meant game over. Here, not all enemies will know instantly where you are, meaning that the guard(s) that spots you will have to raise the alarm or run and call for help before you’re overwhelmed. If you’re quick and skilled enough, you can contain the situation before it gets out of hand, but you’ve got to be quick at cleaning up your mess. If perfection is your game, the option to revert back to the previous checkpoint is still there, resulting in the typical (but enjoyable) trial and error you tend to get with stealth games.
It has to be said, though, the checkpoint system is a little frustrating. IO have clearly aimed for something that falls between the previous ‘you die, you restart the level’ and a mid-level save option, with manual saves littered through the levels, mostly near or just after certain targets. It’ll either feel like a cop-out or a gimped checkpointing system, depending on your outlook. A better option would probably have been quick-saves for those that want it.
While things might sound a little more linear for a Hitman game, as with the actual assassinations, there are still plenty of ways in which to conduct your “business”. Although, it must be said that removing the ability to choose 47′s weaponry before a level is a massive omission, and no longer can you have weapons handily placed for you in strategic spots of your choosing prior to jumping in. A scenario explained by 47′s lack of communication with the Agency throughout the game, sure, but it was a vital element of planning that fans loved.
Of course, social stealth has always been a huge part of slipping through undetected. Some areas aren’t always accessible calmly without a disguise, and very often the only way to do this is bide your time and subdue/kill someone with what you need at an appropriate time, dump the body and take their uniform. In previous games, it would have then been possible to just walk right into the areas that the disguise allows, but an added mechanic is in effect here; any NPC of the same class will become suspicious of you if you get anywhere near them. To combat this, you’ll need to use a combination of good, old-fashioned hiding behind cover and usage of “Instinct” to blend in.
“Instinct” is a skill that 47 builds up by performing actions that are considered to be assassin-like; tackling enemies and disposing of them silently, for example. When activated and in the appropriate dress, 47 can wander through heavily guarded areas undetected, but only for as long as his Instinct meter lasts, so it’s impossible to rely on it all too heavily.
While it works fine in gameplay, as a concept it’s pretty broken, as you have to believe that every employee of every organisation that 47 might infiltrate, no matter how minor, knows each other. I think would have preferred a mechanic where guards might become suspicious should you not be carrying the correct weaponry or start behaving erratically, rather than resorting to a ‘get through unnoticed’ button.
Instinct yields many other tricks, and some of these will probably feel like they’re ripped right out of Sam Fisher or Batman’s repertoire. For example, holding the Instinct button and hitting X/Square will offer you a short window in which to tag a number of enemies Conviction-style, before restoring the flow of time and having 47 automatically shoot wherever you marked.
Finally, Instinct also allows you to see enemies through walls within a certain a radius, their walking path indicated by a flaming line, and it also highlights any interactive points of interest. This could be a subtle item, like a radio that you could use as a distraction or something more effective, like a pile of unused proximity mines that you can arm slyly…
With this, the sheer amount of ways to complete your objectives is Absolution’s greatest strength. Will you stalk your prey and lay in wait where they frequent the most, or will you poison their favourite beverage? Will you cause that big distraction and then take a careful aim before disappearing into the crowd, or will you go all-guns-blazing and hope you don’t get overpowered in the process? The choice is yours, and it’s really, really fun to go back and experiment.
The campaign is delicately underlined by a gentle unlock system. As you ‘level up’ your rank, you’ll unlock predetermined perks and skills as you go. You’ll get better attributes like improved weapon handling, or better recharge rates or conditions for earning Instinct. Its effect is pretty negligible if I’m honest, but there’s a sense of progression as a result.
For those purists worried about 47’s new skillset making life a little too easy, there are plenty of difficulty options for you tailor the experience entirely to your own expectations, and these can be changed every time you head back into the campaign. IO have truly made a game for everyone without compromising on the aspects that everyone has enjoyed about the series previously.
Even on release, Blood Money was a game stuck painfully in the last generation, and that was especially true of the visuals. With Absolution, Hitman looks like it belongs on current formats, with high detail, impressive animations, and often, a huge amount of character models on-screen at any one time. 47’s rendering looks immaculate, classy in motion, and although the same can’t be said for every character, it’s great looking game on the whole.
IO have really nailed the environments, producing tremendously varied and atmospheric sandboxes for you to exact your dastardly deeds. While some are bigger than others depending on your given objective, and some are bustling with heavy crowds, the attention to detail never lets up, never appears less impressive; it always seems bustling with life. Ironic, given how many times you’ll take it…
Allow 47 to seduce you with his lucid tones…
If the levels look busy, then they certainly sound busy with excellent sound engineering evident at every single turn, and the great, environmental acoustics are paramount to this. For the first time, 47’s guns have this great, chunky sound that really satisfies, if you need to rely on them, of course.
There is a brilliant soundtrack in effect too, and for once, “Ave Maria” isn’t overbearing in its usage. Instead it makes way for a suitably gritty, dynamic soundtrack that ebbs and flows with your actions on screen.
With the extra emphasis on story, Agent 47 plays a much more vocal role as they flesh him out a little more this time around. David Bateson’s deep, gravelly voice suits the cold demeanour of our anti-hero perfectly, really bringing 47’s personality forward in this iteration. The supporting cast also brings their A-Game, and not just the key characters, either. Even the most innocuous conversations between low-level henchmen are entertaining, sometimes funny and nearly always useful. In this respect it’s a game pretty tight in production value.
I’ll take that contract
I know my recent editorial on creating my own story in Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation might have struck a chord with some, but I didn’t expect IO Interactive to make an entire mode based around the idea.
Although not strictly a multiplayer in the most common sense, IO have come up with a system that perfectly suits the Hitman ethos. By taking to the Contracts mode, you can enter any level from the single-player campaign, tag a target of your choosing and eliminate them in any way you see fit, before making your way to one of many designated exits.
In a simple ‘create as you play’ mechanic, this forges a Contract, leaving you with a challenge that you can offer to the community to see if they can best your efficiency. That efficiency is determined on many complex factors, such how well you stuck to the challenger’s rules, which weapons or outfits were used, right down to simpler, clearer factors like getting spotted or not.
I have to say that taking on other player’s challenges is enormous fun, and it’s not just restricted to a separate mode. You can pause the single-player campaign at any time and take on an additional contract relevant to your specific area. Such a nice touch, and a great way to add an additional challenge to your playthrough.
Hitman or Miss?
With Absolution comes many positive changes to the Hitman formula. The core stealth mechanic is much improved and the gunplay is refined to the point where shooting your way out actually begins to feel like a legitimate Plan B. Don’t worry, though; 47’s best moments come when you move invisibly, balancing social stealth with proper stealth. When you’re stalking your virtual playground, seeking out the cleanest, messiest or just most comical way to off your targets, the thrill of this game can be almost unbeatable.
Still, it’s impossible to ignore that in fixing some of the series’ hallmark complaints, IO have created one or two new ones in the process. To that end, despite having different faults to that of its predecessors, Absolution is still very much a game that typifies the series: It’s held back by some blemishes, but the strength of all it does well means that it’ll be adored by a particular type of gamer.
Personally, I’m just that type of gamer, and if you’re in that bracket too, then you really shouldn’t hesitate in picking this up.