Hitman : Absolution Review
Cart: Hitman Absolution
Cab: Xbox 360 / PS3 / PC
Coin: IO Interactive
When people talk about James Bond games and bemoan the fact that 007 has basically turned into a well-dressed Rambo, machine-gunning people with funny accents using downgraded versions of the Call of Duty engine, I always counter that the best Bond game not called Goldeneye already exists; it was called Hitman Blood Money. Sure, it may have lacked some of 007’s glossier trappings: a bow tie, range of snappy-quips and an interest in eating expensive parts of animals, but it did feature a well-dressed protagonist travelling the world engaging in high-end espionage and assassination. You found yourself as both predator and prey and your success was based on patience and intellect. And if that went out the window you could always act like a trigger-happy moron. On paper at least, there was no wrong way to play.
Essentially, each Hitman game comprises of a series of fairly disparate stages with one overriding objective: each one contained someone very naughty who needed to die. These levels are playgrounds designed to indulge your sociopathic tendencies; levels so well-engineered and tautly structured that they leave little room for anything else, including discussions on the moral consequences and emotional hand luggage that must come from being an international murderer for hire. After walking in 47’s shoes for a prolonged period of time you basically realise that your goal is to be the director of the world’s most tasteless sitcom: staging brutal, black-hearted pratfalls in an array of strange and exotic locales.
As the series developed the stages and lethal gags became more elaborate, as did the ways you could dispatch your mark and their protectors. 47 became more adept, too. No longer the trial and error hatchet man who came as a consequence of the slightly oblique mechanics of the earlier games. By Blood Money you could take out your marks with streamlined efficiency, easily assuming the hit-man mantle and fulfilling the initial promise made in the original game back in 2000.
But the world has changed in Agent 47’s absence. With increases in graphical fidelity, larger budgets and bigger development teams, the world of the AAA game now revolves around in your face bombast, ADD-satiating kinetics, a more grounded (yet no less far-fetched) sense of reality and interactivity that barely requires the player’s participation. In short: the true stealth game is so well hidden that it’s basically non-existent. Solid Snake, arguably the icon of crawling around in the shadows has literally aged in front of our eyes, coughing up his lungs and suffering all manner of physiological injuries for our entertainment, while Sam Fisher,the ‘Streethawk’ to Solid Snake’s ‘Knightrider’ still seems to be undergoing an identity crisis which renders him incapable of actually hiding. And let’s not mention the fact that stealthy assassination is basically in the ‘Other Skills’ section of Assassin’s Creed III’s CV, somewhere below ‘making beaver purses’ and ‘selling flowers’.
So where does Agent 47, a man, lest we forget, who strolls around with a barcode on the back of his bald head, fit into this more grounded world, where Batman’s greatest enemy is a dodgy knee and James Bond’s most sophisticated gadget is a pocket-sized radio? Do developers IO Interactive pare down the Hitman experience, creating a more grittily realistic tale of an international fibre-wire for hire whilst also injecting more story and a greater personality? Or do they just reinvent the wheel, albeit with nicer trims? As you may have guessed, the answer lies somewhere in the middle.
Pleasing the Hitman diehards whilst introducing a psychopathic but well-dressed slaphead to a new audience in the current videogame climate is a mission that might make even Agent 47 balk. But IO have risen up to the challenge and produced a very accomplished title that’s almost as polished as its protagonist’s pate. Most of the bugbears that have afflicted the series so far, including the hallowed Blood Money, have been removed or refined. The guns blazing approach is far more satisfying, thanks to better shooting mechanics and a few nice additions like a tagging system which allows you to pop out of cover and shoot people in the face.
Hand to hand combat is also now more of a valid player option than a consequence of poor planning too but, thanks to a quick-time button press system, is still less enjoyable than the “proper” way to play. It would be easy to dismiss the one-button press interactivity as dumbing-down for mass-market acceptance, but I find it to be the natural evolution of the series, where each subsequent game has become more streamlined allowing you to realise your plans more effectively. The ways to dispatch your enemies are still incredibly varied, if not more so, and the research and exploration you have to do before you make your move is even more detailed and richly presented with some very amusing conversations and Easter-eggs for the patient.
It’s in the presentation of these good ideas that Hitman Absolution staggers a bit. While the plot is entirely serviceable: reintroducing the classic Agent 47 to a new generation before taking away his iconic accoutrements, the pacing of the game may make veteran fans of the series want to garrotte it before hiding its unrecognisable corpse in a dumpster. Gone are the disparate sandboxes of yore, replaced with stages that are separated into chapters that chop and change objectives on a regular basis, though, on balance, most of these don’t move far beyond infiltration, escaping from the law or fetching items without being caught.
Some new additions are beyond reproach, however. Disguises are obviously back but now there are different tribes of NPCs within a level. So disguising yourself as a cleaner is fine unless you linger too long near another cleaner who will wonder why there is a bald man dressed in his buddy’s clothing. To evade suspicions you can enter focus mode, where 47 will tip his cap or cover his face for a few moments. Unfortunately this runs out and only fills up when you do something Hitman-ish. It’s a nice addition that keeps you on your toes and offers up a number of welcome dilemmas that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find in a brothel or a crack house.
There is no shortage of colourful villains in Absolution either. Most of them are united by their reprehensibility and love of collecting chest freezers and large storage modules, which are often casually discarded around their properties, but not every level starts you off outside their lair and finishes with you making barbecues explode in their faces. And while this may depress many, I quite like the variety. The plotting of each sequence is very good and the objective change-ups are, for the most part, welcome. I enjoyed the cat and mouse tension of evading the police at a crowded train station while the seconds tick away, for example, even if evading the boys in blue police seemed a slightly overused trope in the game’s early stages.
To satisfy the Hitman hardcore they have introduced, and given almost equal weighting to, Contracts mode which allows you to direct your own sitcom (or “Hitcom”) by exploring a level and offing randomly selected NPCs as you see fit. Once you exit the level you have created a contract for your buddies to best. It’s a lovely addition, even if IO has kept some of the best toys for themselves in the single-player campaign. Basically, it’s the kind of addition you can see outgrowing the developer’s expectations over time, assuming the user-base enjoy indulging their sociopathic tendencies in a digital playground. I don’t think they need to worry there.
Perhaps the biggest misstep is the tone of the piece. While the Hitman games have always favoured a slightly surreal take on the criminal underworld, softening some of its grimness with a uniquely dark strain of humour, Absolution sees this devolve into tastelessness on several occasions. Women, for the most part, are either victims to be abused or hyper-sexualised psychopaths, and pretty much every supporting character is an unremitting dickhole. There are so many shades of black that you begin to roll your eyes at the incessant hatefullness of it all, and if you’re of the opinion that the mass-market mature game is anything but then Hitman Absolution will do little to change those beliefs.
If you can look beyond those decisions (and I wouldn’t blame anyone who can’t) then Hitman Absolution boils down to a superbly polished package offering more than enough to entertain the stealth game fanatic. Dyed in the wool fans may not be swayed by the new presentation, but the beating heart of Hitman lies just underneath the unfamiliar appearance. Just don’t stare or question it for too long, or you too could be found in a villain’s handily discarded storage unit.
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Lancaster based writer, blogger and digital navel-gazer. Opinions are, sadly, all his own. Favourite games include: Streetfighter II, Ocarina of Time, Goldeneye, Tenchu, Red Dead Redemption, Deus-Ex and Granny’s Garden.