Context is an important thing. Without a whole slew of identical games before it, Medal of Honour: Warfighter would have been regarded as one of the best games of this year. Without such a ridiculous marketing push, Daikatana might have escaped critical humiliation. Likewise, without knowing a thing about the barcode on the back of Agent 47’s head, you could assume that he’s a genuine human being.
So goes the premise of Hitman: Absolution, the most recent entry in IO Interactive’s Hitman series. Scoffing at the titular agent’s previous cold demeanour, Absolution dares to give the Hitman a soul, and in doing so, paves the way for the most narrative-driven – and in many ways, the most disappointing – Hitman game yet.
Within the opening hour of Hitman: Absolution, Agent 47 (now directly identified as ‘The Hitman’) fulfills an assassination contract on his long-time handler, Diana Burnwood, only to realize two seconds later that maybe it wasn’t the smartest of moves. Complying with Diana’s dying wish; he agrees to protect a young girl from a whole host of characters looking to claim her in the name of genetic voodoo, and sets in motion a chain of events that… well, don’t really make sense.
If I have one problem with the series’ newfound narrative focus, it’s that the narrative itself is god-awful. Impressive voice acting and motion capture are destroyed by a plot that proves itself to be completely inept. The general mood seems to gravitate towards a faux-grind-house style, complete with big breasts, backwater murderers and an obnoxious grain filter; and if one thing has been proven in recent years, it’s that big budget grind-house experiences don’t work – by nature; they’re antithetical to the premise of the genre. When an initial target dies questioning an impromptu death-boner, you can’t help but be forced to wonder what happened to subtlety. I have nothing against Tarantino’s introduction of sleaze-cinema to the mass market, but Hitman Absolution is a perfect example of its more regrettable influences. The story on display here is a complete bastardization of everything that makes the dumb so endearing.
What’s worse is that it will occasionally lapse into sincerity, and expect you to come along with it, in some cases mere minutes after witnessing the last Rodriguez inspired blunder. Tonally inconsistent, woefully misguided, and in complete opposition to the series’ previous sombre outings, Absolution’s story is, in short, a huge mistake.
Of course, Hitman has never proved itself too reliable in the story department, so this turnout should prove relatively inoffensive to fans of the series. The real concern lies in the alterations that IO Interactive have made to the core gameplay. Of Absolution’s twenty missions, only four or five follow the ‘traditional’ Hitman formula – that being, locking you in a large, closed system with a target to kill and a place to escape. The bulk of the game is instead composed of smaller systems, often no bigger than a couple of rooms, linked together by linear stealth segments. The bulk of the game’s content takes a backseat to a story that most people won’t even care about.
Clearly, it’s not Hitman as we know it, but perhaps it’s not entirely removed from the chrome-domed beauty we know and love, either. As a matter of fact, when it comes to game mechanics, Absolution provides its most compelling case for existence, and alters a lot of the series’ set-in-stone workings. Gone are the pinpoint, almost Quake-precision levels of control that the series once provided, giving way to a more concentrated movement, reminiscent of a deliberate tactical shooter. While this may create a poor first impression with the Hitman Old Guard, it goes great lengths towards grounding 47 in the world, free of the ‘floaty’ feel of previous entries. For the first time, he actually looks like a plausible human being. The hallmark disguise system has also been overhauled and geared towards creating a greater challenge, and for better or worse, succeeds.
There are a few glaring flaws in these new systems though, the most infuriating of which being the enemies ability to notice 47 at a short glance, from the other side of a room, even when he’s wearing a mask that should for all intents and purposes render him incognito. Once you’ve learned the systems, it doesn’t prove to be too much of a problem, and, admittedly, helps balance the game out; but it’s indicative of just how far you have to suspend your disbelief in order to stay immersed in game’s world.
Whereas the Hitman series was once renowned for stepping outside of the boundaries of the stealth genre, Absolution falls into the trappings of most stealth games in that you’ll find yourself feeling alienated until you’ve come to terms with the minutiae of the AI’s behaviour. It’s a videogame, full of videogame systems, and any steps taken towards a more realistic aesthetic have been lost in the mechanics’ move away from common sense.
In theory, the game’s mechanics are capable of giving us the best Hitman game to date. Unfortunately, that isn’t what we’ve been given. If there’s one major flaw with Absolution, it lies in the level design. As a substitute for Hitman‘s usual emergent sandboxes, we’re presented with an assortment of narrative focused scenarios that drift in and out of plausibility far too much. A large portion of the series’ charm lies in the realism of its environments – they’ve always been coloured by the wacky and wonderful, but never to the ridiculous extent portrayed in Absolution.
It was around the point at which I was sneaking into a Bond villain-calibre weapons lab, surrounded by exploding pigs, that I had to stop and think about what, exactly, the designers were hoping to achieve. The world around 47 has lost its sincerity, apparently devolving into absolute chaos in the six year gap between games, and as a result, there’s less fun to be found in bringing any of your own chaos into the mix. It’s hard to feel like a the sole chaotic element in a system when you’re confronted with a group of latex-clad super-nuns in an exploding pig factory.
Although plausibility is the least of Absolution’s concerns when even its flagship levels, such as the oft-publicised ‘Streets of Hope’, just feel limited in scope compared to the series’ previous attempts. Your options are no longer emergent, they’re scripted, a fact made blatantly obvious in the game’s new ‘challenges’ screen, which for the most part gives you a comprehensive outline of every way to approach a level, often limited to no more than eight or nine approaches. It has replay value, sure, but it’s all prescribed for you, set out in digestible chunks in the form of a dishearteningly uninspired list. The levels feel less dynamic – less like a closed system, and more like a traditional, Splinter Cell-style shadow run through the developer’s gauntlet.
Most of Absolution‘s achievements are purely technical. IO’s new Glacier 2 engine proves stunning on both console and PC, and finally does justice to the ‘neon grime’ art design that was so prevalent, and yet technically restrained in the earlier Hitman: Contracts. Blood Money’s awkward middle-ground discounted, it’s great to finally see a high-definition Hitman game; and the capabilities of the technology really shine through as early as the game’s second level, where bustling crowds are realised in a much more reactive, dynamic faction than in the series’ previous efforts. Square Enix, first-time publisher of the series, are obviously putting some of their money in the right places; Absolution is the first IO Interactive game that feels like it’s been given a proper spit-shine, and accentuates their confidence and skill as developers as a result. (Consider yourself forewarned, however, a few sections have the ‘glare’ slider set to ‘five thousand suns’. Some of Absolution’s brighter areas forced me to literally squint at the screen to avoid eye damage.)
The game also attempts to find some degree of absolution (GEDDIT?) in a mode, confusingly enough, titled Hitman: Contracts (also, there’s a mission called ‘Hunter and Hunted’ – completely unrelated to Contracts’ closing mission of the same name – someone over at IO Interactive seems intent on messing with us). While some of the single player campaigns missions might leave you feeling a little underwhelmed, Contracts mode attempts to alleviate those concerns, allowing you to pick any mission and turn it into a more traditional assassination via an on-the-fly mission editor. The ability to choose any segment of any level is appreciated, allowing you to cherry-pick choice sections from otherwise bland levels and turn them into something closer resembling the Hitman of old. It’s surprising how distinctly a sudden change of focus can affect some of the game’s more debatable segments, in some cases transforming once-linear shadow-crawls into semi-open sandboxes. It doesn’t fix the broken level design, but at least tends itself towards more dynamic, systems-heavy approaches to missions; though if you’re anything like me, it’ll just make you want to play Blood Money again.
This is a petty complaint, too, but it’s worth remembering that the Contracts mode is subject to your ability to stay online – so if, like me, you have a connection that isn’t quite stable, expect the game to forcibly remove you when the line drops. If anything, it just reminds me that one day, the servers will be thrown offline for good and it’ll be left inaccessible in the vanilla game – a shame, considering it’s one of Absolution’s greatest additions to the franchise, and is gated behind an unreliable barrier. The day Contracts goes offline, Absolution ceases to be a worthwhile product.
Absolution is exceptionally well-polished, there’s no doubt about that. The real problem lies in the series’ legacy and the game’s necessity and possible inclusion within it. Given the Hitman series’ reputation for innovation in the stealth genre, I think it’s fair to expect something more than a ‘decent’ game; and Absolution’s advancement towards a Bourne-esque middle ground feels unnecessary and even detrimental to the franchise’s identity. I can’t imagine I’ll find myself returning to play this one for years on end, as I did with previous entries in the series, chiefly because it feels so familiar – not to other Hitman games, but to other, less distinct entries in the stealth genre as a whole.
A lot of the comparisons to Splinter Cell: Conviction are unfair, but certain missions really do fall into the blockbuster trappings indicative of a ‘dumbing down’ of the series’ core ideas. Levels are beautifully envisioned, and fun to replay, but not in the same way that they have been, especially when the in-game systems, such as the persistent score meter and lack of checkpoints, seem to act in direct opposition to the experimentation that had previously proven central to the series’ allure.
It’s a weird phenomenon, in that it occupies a space in which it’s not quite deep-rooted enough to satisfy core Hitman fans, and yet may be a bit too abstract for the average consumer. I’m sure sales figures will tell otherwise, but Absolution sits in an odd place, and will no doubt be viewed as the bastard child of the series for a long time to come.
That said, I’m not wholly dismissive of the game’s efforts, and it’s worth taking the internet’s knee-jerk reaction with a pinch of salt, Absolution doesn’t exactly spit in the face of everything that’s come before, as a matter of fact, it proves to be slyly self-referential throughout. The game’s penultimate mission, for example, seems to act as a veiled tribute to the fan-favourite Contracts level, ‘Traditions of the Trade’, while levels as seemingly unique as those in Chicago Chinatown are coyly reminiscent of the first game’s middle section. Non-player character dialogue is tighter than ever before, and proves funny and disturbing in equal measure, playing into the veiled sense of voyeurism that no doubt led most to become Hitman fans in the first place, and grind-house failings aside, there’s still plenty of IO Interactive’s wacky, unannounced humour present, from weapons-grade toilet plungers to giant chipmunk costumes ripe for combination, and even a surprise cameo by the protagonists of IO’s other prominent videogame franchise.
Overall, Absolution is a fun diversion, but doesn’t quite strike that same magical vein that previous entries dug so deep into. If anything, it’s reminiscent of Dishonoured’s recent release and reception: to me, it seems that big-budget gaming is so starved of genuinely divergent and emergent experiences that we’ll happily jump on the lap of any blockbuster title that provides us with a modicum of player choice, longing for the days of Deus Ex and Hitman 2, when ‘choice’ was still a common factor, and not a game-selling gimmick. Hitman: Absolution fares better than other recent efforts, but remains indicative of a negative trend in triple-A development. Again, context is an important thing. If you’ve never played a Hitman game before, you’ll be able to have some meaningless fun with this one, sure. Play it in the context of the series as a whole, however, and you’ll be left twenty hours short with a slightly sour taste in your mouth.