After a hiatus of six years (one can only hope that Agent 47 has been picking his contracts carefully), Agent 47 the eponymous follically challenged protagonist of the series has finally stepped out of the shadows. It has been a long time coming, the only thing we have heard from the franchise since Blood Money is the frankly crap 2007 Hitman movie, but has Danish developers IO Interactive’s 5th installment and semi reboot of the series paid off?
Your first assignment as Agent 47 is to assassinate his former Agency handler Diana Burnwood and this opening level, set in a cliff side mansion, serves as a primer taking you through the basics of how the game works. Diana Burnwood has gone rogue from the Agency and Agent 47 is tasked with taking her out and after a moment of slight hesitation on 47’s part your hit is complete. But Burnwood is also protecting a valuable package, a teenage girl Victoria, who has more in common with 47 than he first realises. Before Burnwood dies she asks him to save Victoria from the Agency and 47 decides to honour Burnwood’s dying wish and goes rogue himself. He takes the girl under his wing and escapes the mansion with her in tow. But just like the hitman in Luc Besson’s Leon, Agent 47’s caring side is ultimately his downfall. This premise of 47 on the run sets Hitman: Absolution off in a very untraditional style, firstly as you are on the run, you no longer have the ability to pick your weapons before each level begins, rather, Agent 47 will collect his ordnance on the fly and secondly 47 now has feelings! And so my problems with Hitman Absolution begin.
Although the first level is an enjoyable foray into how the game works and you will soon be pushing guards to their deaths and using a large variety of sharp objects to dispatch foes, you will also notice cracks in the games veneer appearing, mainly the level design it, generally misfires.
The Hitman games have always had big sandbox levels; Absolution takes a different route and breaks the missions down into smaller more manageable chunks. This may have sounded good on paper, but results in an open world with a closed feel. I would have preferred larger open world levels that really make you think and give you the freedom to try out new strategies. I have always thought of the Hitman titles as puzzle games, working out what goes where and how it all fits together, for a beautiful death, was immensely pleasing.
This was the fun part of the series. Who remembers the fantastic opera house mission in Blood Money, you were able to access the hits in a myriad of ways and traverse all over the map both horizontally as well as vertically. However many of the levels of Absolution only give the impression of freedom, once you start to scratch the surface you realise that is only an illusion. For example when you have to infiltrate Blake Dexter’s (one of the big bad guys) apartment block from the basement up, it seems you have a lot of options open to you, but you soon find that open windows will only lead to a room or two, or having scouted an entire floor grasp that there is only one way up to the next one. Somewhat redeemably all is not lost, there are some suitably old school missions to be played, notably the motel level. Numerous heavily armed Agency men, as well as a hit squad of fetishised nuns called ‘The Saints’ assail 47. This mission eventually ends up in a very open world cornfield, as 47 tries to evade (or slaughter) his pursuers, dressed as a scarecrow if you choose. Here the game really shines, as there are a lot of routes and kill options open to you. Sadly there are not as many levels like this, as I would have wanted.
I also found that I threw stealth out of the window on a couple of the tougher missions and found it easier to blast my way through my enemies. This was not laziness on my part, just that the constraints of the level made it easier to do so and did not force me to stop and think about the path to take, basically there was only one and it was less frustrating to mow the guards down. The other titles never gave you the option to run and gun, they were a cerebral challenge and there were always a variety of solutions to bypass or execute those in your way. Also interaction in the game world can at times be extremely painful. Often enough (to warrant it being a major gripe) I found myself cursing 47’s inability to pick up the correct disguise or weapon I was looking at, frequently and frustratingly having to line myself into just the right position for the option to light up. But my biggest problem with Absolution is reluctantly with Agent 47 himself.
I play games for escapism not realism; but I do appreciate a certain amount of in game world logic, especially when playing a character I am familiar with. By giving Agent 47 a caring streak, IO have taken the essence of what made Agent 47 such a cool character to play with. After all he is a genetically created assassin and assassination is his job, in the previous games he didn’t care, it was his job to carry out the contracts given to him. Not only does Agent 47 now having feelings (feelings!), he is also fallible. Early on in the game narrative 47 stupidly puts himself in a situation where he gets beaten in a fight and set up for a murder he didn’t commit. This is the character that I played through the other titles that’s only fallibility were my own shortcomings whilst playing. How could such a clinically detached killing machine make such a basic error? At this stage I died a little inside and I hate to admit that it left me with a bad feeling that I could not shake for the rest of the game.
As much as I disliked Agent 47’s character plot developments and the series has never been so story driven before, there were elements that I enjoyed. I found the storyline and the secondary characters amusingly over the top, it has a very Grindhouse heavy vibe, if I were to compare it to a movie it would be in the Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror it’s so bad it’s good category, and why not? After all gaming is becoming to the 21st century what cinema was to the 20th. The cast of characters is bizarre and grotesque and the voice acting is great. 47’s two main nemeses the arms dealer Blake Dexter and the Agency man Benjamin Travis are voiced by Hollywood actors Keith Carradine and Powers Booth respectively. Although I enjoyed the story, it does sit uneasily in what I expect from a Hitman game, was this new plot heavy direction necessary and does anyone really care?
Game wise the biggest new game mechanic in Absolution is Agent 47’s instinct. This is represented as a bar that drains whilst in use. You use it to highlight enemies, sense potential hiding places and alternative routes as well as hide in plain sight. With it turned on you can for the short amount of time it lasts, walk past or through potentially hostile NPC’s unnoticed. It does burn up very quickly though, even quicker if you are being actively watched, but can be refilled by achieving objectives, silent kills and signature kills. Disguises are back and there are a lot to collect, but these also bring their own illogical failings. The disguise system has changed a lot, now wearing a disguise will grant you immunity from anyone not in that group, as long as you are in the right area. For example, wearing a gardener’s outfit in an area where gardeners are allowed to be will get you past any guards. But if you get too close to any of your fellow gardener’s your cover will be blown, unless you use precious instinct to get by them. It’s annoying though, that having donned a police uniform, cops on the force will recognise you as not one of their own, where is the logic in every cop on the force knowing every other cop personally or every street vendor knowing what every other one looks like! The disguises are also very quickly blown on the harder difficulty settings, and the system feels more than a little broken. It also it seems ridiculous that when wearing a disguise and using instinct to bypass someone in the same uniform 47 just tilts his head and covers his face with his hand. This just looks blatantly conspicuous!
The scoring system in Absolution is as ruthless as 47 is at killing. You always start off with a zero score and for every error you make you lose points. You gain points for ‘signature kills’ namely arranging your targets assassination to look like an accident and for achieving objectives. However you lose points for any time that you are spotted, or kill a non-target enemy, but you can get around this by doing silent takedowns (killing without being spotted) and successfully hiding the body. Doing so off sets the penalties incurred and brings your score back up to zero. In essence you can kill as many enemies as you like, just do it like a professional. Killing civilians is a big no, no, doing so will drastically reduce your overall score as will running and gunning through levels as tempting as it may be. If you are online your score gets compared to a national average as well as a global one, this is a nice touch and encourages you to play levels again for personal if not national pride. Another big factor in your final mission score is the challenges that have been added to the campaign.
The challenges are many and varied, whether it is collecting all the disguises available, killing targets with specific weapons or making your work look like various accidents (turning on a electric generator, knowing your target is about to urinate on it is diabolical fun). Completing these will give you a bonus score modifier to your overall performance on the mission you are playing. These are a welcome addition and certainly added longevity to my play throughs.
Replay-ability wise the Absolution campaign has five difficulty levels from easy to the hardcore purist mode. As the difficulty increases your instinct level becomes more limited, from no longer regenerating to being completely absent in purist mode. In purist there is no help, no guide, no interface, no instinct and only a crosshair. Purist offers a challenge more akin to Hitman of old. Without painstaking research of enemy patrol patterns and knowing exactly where everything is on a level you are going to die many, many times. This is surely the setting for the hardcore fans and the masochists among you. There is also evidence to collect, which is usually placed in awkward areas to reach without a bit of preplanning or the correct disguise to wear and should offer a good challenge for completionists.
The multi-player aspect of Hitman: Absolution is the Contracts mode, it’s a kind of assassination sandbox created by other players. In Contracts you create hits for other players to complete or attempt the contracts other players have devised. The catch is that you have to have completed the contract yourself, so there are no impossible scenarios out there. If you are so inclined this will get your murderous creative juices flowing, as you can plot out some fiendishly difficult game play. You can have up to three target victims and can even stipulate what weapons and disguises are to be used, as long as you have unlocked them from the main game. Contracts scores you on your time and how efficient you are, the better you are the higher the payment you receive which can be used to unlock weapons missed in the main game along with some additional weapon enhancements.
As you can tell I liked and disliked Hitman: Absolution. New players will find a lot to like, but some old timers (like me) are inevitably going to be frustrated with the new direction the game takes. There are some great elements to the game, graphically it looks fantastic, but when you analyse them as a whole it just doesn’t sit right. I don’t think I am being too harsh by what I have said here, after all “absolution” is the act of freeing from blame or guilt, but I just can’t find it in me to absolve IO for what they have to Agent 47 (feelings and fallibility!). I hope that the next installment steers Agent 47’s killing career back on track. It’s not a bad game by any margin; it’s just not a great Hitman game.