Game: Hitman: Absolution
Developer: IO Interactive
Publisher: Square Enix
Available on: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Windows PC
Reviewed on: Xbox 360
The rumours have been flying around since we first saw the new game in action. Has Agent 47 gone action on us? Fans and critics alike have been concerned that the latest game in the series from IO Interactive – Hitman: Absolution – has stepped away from the slow, carefully planned gameplay that made the title popular, and focused more on action movie set pieces. All the while, the developers have been re-assuring us that it is the same Hitman that fans have come to love, and players can choose to play it however they wish. So which is it? Radical departure or tried and tested gameplay? Hitman: Absolution definitely makes some bold choices in its direction, so let us help guide you through one of the most anticipated games of this console generation.
STORY: For the first time in a Hitman game, there is one large, over-riding storyline that continues on through every mission in the game. In the past, the levels – or contracts – within the Hitman game have been just that, individual contracts that each have their own self-contained story and a unique character all of their own. Absolution, however, focuses on Agent 47 and his handler from the previous games, Diana Burnwood. After saving your life in the last game, Diana has since gone rogue and left the Agency, taking with her a lot of Agency funds and secrets. Who else would ICA ask to eliminate her but their top assassin, Agent 47. It isn’t that simple though. With her, Diana also liberated a young girl named Victoria, who the Agency was holding against her will and who holds great importance to the future of the ICA.
Without giving too much away, 47 goes on the run from the Agency in pursuit of the truth behind Victoria, but we soon find out that there are other parties interested in the mysterious girl, including a weapons magnate from Hope, South Dakota, named Blake Dexter. He and his impressive entourage will pose the biggest personal threat that 47 has ever had to deal with, and will become the main antagonists in the game. Being a rich man in a small town, he has the police in his pocket and 47 can trust no-one, so he really is alone to tackle it all by himself. The story is certainly an interesting one, and the game is far more cinematic than any other previous versions with its ongoing story and inter-related missions.
Indeed, each larger level is often broken down into three or four smaller stages, with different objectives within each. For instance one may be infiltrating an area, the next pulling off an assassination, then the third successfully escaping. This does provide some solid structure to the levels, and allows one to connect to the next quite easily, whilst still being book-ended by some very impressively staged cutscenes. The issue here is that by making all of the levels follow the same story, we lose the unique atmosphere that used to be present in each and every hit in the old games. Every level had its own story and a character all of its own, that made them extremely memorable. Unfortunately a lot of the levels in Absolution feel somewhat normal in comparison, lacking the grandeur of the past. Conversely, they are probably a little more realistic this time around, and a lot grittier than before, showing a slight change in direction for the game. It still maintains a dark sense of humour, but that is hidden a little deeper than before.
GRAPHICS: You will immediately notice that the game is much more visually impressive than any of the past. All the way from little level touches, fleshing out the environments and making them deep with detail, to the character models themselves. Whereas in the last game, Blood Money, a lot of the characters were quite stylised and somewhat unrealistic, characters look far better this time around, and a lot of motion capture work has gone into making the animation look more fluid and realistic than ever. Long gone are the strange ragdoll effects that some bodies had in old Hitman games, everyone reacts in a much more believable way in Absolution. In fact, the title actually manages to shake the trend for glitches that the Hitman series is somewhat famous for. A little unfortunate is the quite obvious differences between core characters and lesser ones, with the facial integrity dramatically dropping when you look at these secondary characters.
Cutscenes in the game are also hugely impressive, with them successfully adding to the cinematic atmosphere with some great staging, lighting and effects; so much so that you feel like the game is that little bit closer to a blockbuster movie than it used to be. In fact, the lighting throughout the entire game is very effective, bringing out a great contrast between the moody and atmospheric moments, and the more light-hearted ones. Although the use of light and shadows doesn’t enter into how the Hitman does his job, it does add to the feel of sneaking around and makes you feel like you are trying to be a real silent assassin.
SOUND: The sound design too is also greatly improved from past outings. With the addition of many Hollywood and television stars to the voice acting cast, the conversations and cutscenes sound much more professional than in the past. You would think that you are watching a film when you hear some of the voice-acting work, and that really is a benefit to the whole package. Musically, the game makes use of a lot of the old Jesper Kyd musical themes from past games, yet with a new composer having stamped his own identity on the score. The music often imitates the surroundings, and the southern, Cowboy style of Hope is reflected well in the moody, almost Western-like music.
GAMEPLAY: As was touched upon in the story section, the game has a different structure than before, and the fact that levels are split up into distinct sections does lead to some of the levels having a really different feel from one another. There are more or less two main level types on display in the game, those being the more traditional hit levels, where you are placed into a situation and asked to kill a target, or targets, and then there are the new stealth levels. These typically involve sneaking into a highly-guarded area using disguises and shortcuts, trying to attract as little attention as possible. These are a really big departure from the traditional gameplay, and whilst they may not be the action-orientated scenes fans were scared of, they don’t quite fit in with the regular Hitman style.
These levels come across a little more like a Metal Gear Solid game, for instance. You will need to use cover and carefully avoid the routes of guards, whilst also using the new Instinct system to blend in. Your Hitman Instinct is a meter that you can build up by successfully hiding bodies, or completing challenges and, when activated, allows you to track enemy routes and highlights action areas and points of interest. This does differ slightly depending on which of the five difficulty levels that you choose to play on, providing more or less assistance, and charging up quickly or more slowly. This is obviously meant to act as the difference maker, the reason why Agent 47 is such a top assassin, but you will find yourself using it a lot, as even when you are disguised as a Police Officer, for example, other officers will suspect you if you just walk past them through them not recognising your face. You must use Instinct in order to blend in and hide your face, which becomes a little tiresome when you have to try and sneak throughout an entire stage.
You could choose to treat some of these levels like chase scenes though (and one or two stages actually force you into escapes from the police, so the more action-orientated play is forced upon every player to one extent or another, albeit only for short periods of time). You might prefer to kill your enemies and make a lot of noise about it. This will be okay on lower difficulties, but near-impossible as you turn that up to higher levels and both enemy numbers and accuracy also rise. It is nice that gamers can pick to play the stages in the way that they please, and this encourages a lot of replayability as you can really experiment and complete levels in numerous different ways.
This also, of course, extends to the ways that you can kill people and how you complete your hits. On the levels that are out and out assassinations, you can usually kill your target directly, cause an accident to secretly kill them, or maybe poison or drug them. These are just three ways, of a selection that usually includes more than half a dozen alternatives, but it gives you a little taste of some of the ways you can assassinate your targets. You normally even have many choices of how to get rid of their bodies, and to cover up your crime. Accidents are, of course, higher-scoring and will help you to remain anonymous at the end of a level, but then you also have to consider quieter, more discreet methods, that may not even be noticed by the time you leave an area, as they were such stealthy kills. As you would expect, the more attention you raise, the harder your escape will be, with the ultimate goal being when you can simply walk away from a murder in broad daylight, without anyone being any the wiser.
As you progress through the game, the levels where you can actually conduct these well-planned kills are few and far between, with so much going on in terms of the story that you simply can’t walk around a level to inspect it and learn the various aspects that could cause accidents, or could be used in your kills. There has always been a large element of trial and error in the series, but in the past players could always scope out a level and plan a kill as long as they didn’t act suspiciously, whereas in Absolution it becomes hard to even move a few feet without someone suspecting you or halting your progress, even if you haven’t got your hands dirty yet. This becomes very frustrating and can limit the feeling of freedom for the player when they can’t simply scope out an area when they want to.
The game has certainly moved somewhat away from a very focused Hitman simulation into an overall stealth title, and it is hard to judge whether or not this is a good move for the series. It really provides a lot more variety in gameplay styles from level to level, as well as helping to drive the story forward, but it does lose sight of the heart of the old series – the well-planned kill. Gamers who like a good adventure that they can become jump into straight away and become engrossed in are likely to welcome this move away from the sometimes fussy planning of a kill, but long-time fans may not be as easily convinced.
MULTIPLAYER: There is no multiplayer mode per se in the game, but rather a new social way that players can challenge themselves and their friends, called Contracts mode. What Contracts mode does, is allow players to pick any level from the main story mode and play it through as they like, creating their own hits and their own challenges to meet. For instance, rather than kill the story target, you may choose that a particular security guard is now the object of your attention, and make him the new contract. Then you play through the level and try to get your best score, before challenging a friend. But that’s not all, what if you have other requirements to meet? Maybe you will also tell players that they have to be dressed as a librarian whilst they make the kill, and they have to bludgeon the enemy to death with a statue? These requirements may make the contract harder, but it personalises it, and allows for near infinite variables so that the game mode can constantly re-invent itself.
IO will also be putting together their own contracts together for players to tackle, as well as featuring the most impressive user-created ones in the main Contracts menu. Maybe your own contract will gain a cult following and get users around the world challenging each other to beat your scores? This mode is pretty unique in gaming terms, and allows for the already dedicated Hitman fanbase to really show off their creativity and imagination, in coming up with unique and exciting challenges. This will really add a great amount of longevity to the title too, constantly giving players a place to come to when looking for new challenges, after exhausting everything else in the game. If the mode catches on, it could in theory rumble on for years, with more and more hits being dreamt up everyday.
LONGEVITY: The game is by far the longest Hitman adventure that has ever been undertaken. Contracts and Challenges aside, there are already far more stages overall than we have seen in the past, and the main story is bound to take you a while to play through, regardless of the difficulty you play on. Of course, ramping up the difficulty will make the game far harder, and make planning each stage carefully absolutely essential, learning the ins and outs of the level in detail in order to tackle them successfully. You will need to know the routes of enemies and the blind spots perfectly to get a Silent Assassin rating on these higher difficulties, making each level last for a huge length of time.
Then you can add the Challenges on top, such as killing a stated target in each specific way listed, wearing every disguise found on a level and locating every type of weapon. Being cumulative rather than resetting every time, players can re-play levels over and over in order to complete all of the challenges, only after getting them all can they say they have truly mastered each one. Completing all of these also leads to higher stage scores, and you can then compete with friends and foes alike on the online leaderboards, to see who has the best scores across the regular story missions. All of this content will take a long time to tackle, especially if you want to get the highest rankings on each stage, rather than just blast your way through the levels. How long the game will last you will obviously then depend on the individual themselves a little.
VERDICT: The success of the shift in gameplay for the series will be a difficult thing to measure. Fans who have followed the series closely might be left a little cold by the shift away from the one-off well-crafted kills of the past. You were always given a separate location and target, and then let loose to investigate and imagine a kill scenario all of your own; this lack of options and flexibility often led to the most enjoyable results. Each level in Blood Money, for instance, was instantly memorable and had buckets of character to spare. The levels in Absolution are based more closely to real life and, as a result, are a little more mundane in comparison.
It will undoubtedly win over a raft of new players to the series, as the pretensions of the past are dropped somewhat in order to provide more options to how you can tackle the game. Players can now enjoy levels that are a bit more immediate and action-packed, or they can take their time to try and create the best kill possible. It is true that now Absolution prefers to get players straight into a tense situation, often guiding their hand a little with the use of instinct-based hints and pointers, more so than Hitman ever did in the past. Without such additions newcomers to the series would feel quite alienated, so they are great for attracting new players, whilst old hands can then choose to turn off the hints, or make Instinct somewhat defunct by playing on professional difficulties. You really can tackle stages in the way of your choosing.
As a cinematic experience, the game is also a great success, with character development and the motivations of Agent 47 being more involving then ever before. On top of that, levels are more varied than in the past, with different objectives and gameplay styles to experience. The stages are split up in such a way that the tension in the story is built up slowly and ramped up to a thrilling conclusion, which is far better than most action games on the market these days. Contracts is also a tremendous addition to the game, and a truly original concept in online gameplay, one that will hopefully really tap into the social media mindset most gamers now have. The issue is just that the game feels less like the old Hitman games and more like a stealth-em-up. This won’t bother all gamers, but may leave the die-hard IO Interactive fans a little disappointed. The Hitman series did need to evolve though, as Blood Money does feel very old-fashioned when you play it nowadays, but it remains to be seen if Hitman gamers were ready for that evolution.