Developer: io Interactive / Publisher: Square Enix / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Partial Nudity, Use of Drugs, Strong Language]
Hitman games have always been intentionally difficult to penetrate. You could spend hours searching out all the ways to eliminate a target only to find someone on YouTube who executed it more cleverly. Missions are hard-as-balls but also immensely satisfying when a plan comes together. Hitman: Absolution is IO Interactive’s attempt at a much more straightforward experience, one just as focused on providing an engaging, cinematic narrative as a mechanically flexible sandbox world. But too often these traits are at odds with each other.
Absolution makes sweeping changes to the structure of Hitman while clinging to mechanics of the past. The old and the new don’t always blend well, making for a game that more often than not seems unsure about what it wants to be.
Absolution’s set up alone makes you realize that for this turn more craft has been infused into its narrative than this series has typically warranted. The tutorial takes place during a mission in which series protagonist and genetically enhanced clone Agent 47 is assigned to take out Diana Burnwood, his long-time personal handler at the shadowy organization known as The Agency. Before Diana takes her last breath, she asks 47 to ensure the safety of a young and important girl named Victoria, knowledge of whom is presumably the reason why Diana is being hunted by her own organization.
From this point onward, 47 is on the run from The Agency as he must hunt down the money-hungry whackjobs who have Victoria. Absolution humanizes 47 in a way we’ve never really seen before. His sole motive is to protect Victoria. The narrative does a great job of revealing nuggets about 47 without actually telling you about him. He empathizes with Victoria in a way that no one else could. He sees a lot of himself in her. And as you learn more about her, you learn more about 47.
Absolution frequently dabbles in the grotesque. Many of its characters feature physical deformities and deeply sociopathic moral compasses. You visit strip clubs and underground wrestling matches. I often felt like I needed to take a shower, in a good way, after playing Absolution because of the dark themes and images it explores. This shines an interesting light on 47 as someone who, despite being a career assassin, still somehow manages to emerge as the “good guy.” It also allows Absolution to visit some pretty dramatically different locations while maintaining narrative cohesion.
“Hey, don’t worry, we know what makes Hitman great” is the message Absolution sends with a set of early missions reminiscent of the open-ended, exploration-based levels the series is known for. The often-shown Chinatown level is a prime example of when Absolution is at its best. Tasked with eliminating a drug dealer, you’re dropped into a crowded square. Cleverly placed solutions to eliminating your target are all around. You can disguise yourself as another drug dealer and sell him poisonous drugs or snipe him from an apartment window or plant an explosive on his car, set off his car alarm and sit back to watch the fireworks. It’s classic Hitman.
The point here is that there’s no interference or pressure from the developers about what you should do. Their involvement is strictly set up; it’s your job to determine how creatively you want to knock down the pins. But it quickly becomes apparent that these moments are few and far between. In what I can only guess is an attempt to make Hitman a more accessible experience, Absolution introduces many sequences that are completed simply by making it from point A to point B, no assassinations necessary. The idea of choice and freedom is still present, but nowhere near as effective.
Disguises no longer allow you to roam around environments freely. In fact, they now work rather counter intuitively. If you’re wearing a cop uniform every other cop will see through the disguise. This is problematic from a gameplay perspective in a few ways.
For one, it makes disguises utterly worthless most of the time because the location you are likely to pick up a disguise is also the one where the NPCs will be wearing that disguise. This goes a long way to discouraging exploration. Rather than choreographing the most interesting solutions, I felt compelled to take the path of least resistance, which was more often than not stealthing through a level. As you continue Absolution will drill the idea in your head that stealth is your only option for many sections of the game. This seemingly contradictory messaging is at the core of the game’s problems.
Even the assassination missions in the back half of Absolution are hampered by this design. With 47 being a wanted man, you no longer have the luxury of showing up to a location anonymously. It’s one thing to give me countless ways to kill a target but exploration becomes a chore when fighting against the game’s serviceable but not exactly fun stealth mechanics.
This issue is partially alleviated by the Instinct mechanic. Instinct governs your ability to see through objects, spot targets, determine AI pathing, and, most importantly, hide while disguised. Holding down the Instinct meter when walking near an enemy that would normally spot you allows you to slip past them undetected. How this meter depletes is dependent on the difficulty level, but you can refill it by completing objectives and stealthily taking out enemies. Unfortunately this often feels like a half-baked solution that’s difficult to rely on. It depletes so quickly that it’s nearly impossible to tell when your instinct will be effective and when it won’t be.
At any point in Absolution you can pull up a list of challenges for your specific mission. These usually involve killing certain targets in some elaborate way, or making it through areas undetected, or picking up all the disguises in an area. Completing these challenges will increase your overall score for that mission. It’s a pretty effective attempt at increasing the replay value of Absolution and ties into the game’s asynchronous multiplayer mode.
Contracts Mode is new for Hitman. Here you can go through any section of any mission in the game to create a contract. You can target up to three different NPCs and murder them in the style of your choosing with a disguise of your choosing. You then upload this and challenge specific people on your friends list to try and better your score, as each contract has leaderboards. Contracts isn’t free from many of the issues that plague the rest of the game but is a well-designed way to integrate some form of multiplayer without dragging down the core experience.
There will be a few moments in Absolution where the number of NPCs on screen will come close to blowing your mind. The technology being used is impressive across the board but it’s really the art direction and cinematic presentation that make Hitman easy to view. The relatively reserved level design translates to dense, detailed environments. And IO seems to choose its locations based on what will give them the best excuse to show off their art skills.
Absolution makes great use of sound from both design and aesthetic perspectives. I’ve never felt more “in a crowd” than while playing Absolution. Take different paths through a level and you’ll hear entirely different parts of a larger conversation. This is a great way to deliver contextual narrative through multiple playthroughs. These bits of narrative aren’t integral to pulling you through the game but are a nice touch and go a long way in creating a sense of place in Absolution.
It’s clear IO Interactive was reaching for new ground with Absolution, in hopes of creating an experience more accessible than previous games in the series. But at the same time they cling to many of the philosophies that made the old games so great. The result is a game with an identity crisis trying to be too many things to too many people. It’s more successful than it should be but ultimately the entire package is brought down by being pulled in these two polarizing directions.
+ Dark and humanizing approach to the narrative
+ Technical masterpiece/Gorgeous art direction
– Straightforward gameplay at odds with ambitions of choice
7 / 10