This year saw the revival of a number of long-dormant franchises. Along with series like Max Payne and SSX came Hitman. Agent 47 has been in hiding since 2006′s Hitman: Blood Money, but he hasn’t aged a day.
If anything, it seems like the barcoded assassin is in better shape than ever.
A cool avatar does not necessarily make a strong character.
Hitman: Absolution starts with Agent 47 taking out one of the main characters from previous titles. The character’s demise sets in motion a chain of events that sends 47 to South Dakota to fulfill a promise he made to protect a girl named Victoria.Hitman: Absolution puts a greater focus on story and character than previous entries in the series. Most of the time, this works pretty well. A lot of what you’re doing in the game has some kind of context, letting some of the assassinations actually try to elicit an emotional response from the player, rather than just a glance at the score.
While the story works to provide context for the killing, it still falls flat on Agent 47 himself. 47 is a cool-looking guy for sure, but just like Master Chief he’s more of an avatar for the player to explore the world, and less of his own separate entity like the aforementioned Max Payne. The menu that pops up each time you start the story mode reads “It’s Personal,” but it hardly seems it. 47 is supposed to be a trained killer and all, but if he has the emotional capacity to feel betrayed or to want to protect someone, he surely has the range to show a bit of rage or catharsis when killing a particularly troublesome target.
Something else that took me out of the story regularly was the female characters. Virtually every woman you come across in the game is either dressed up like a sex toy, a helpless target, or both. Everyone knows about the assassin nuns that dress up like something out of a softcore exploitation film (complete with a stereotypical Blaxploitation character), but don’t forget about the vinyl-clad dominatrix or the club full of strippers, the girl at the shooting range dressed up like a Daisy Duke sexdoll, or the nude woman in the shower.
It gets distracting at times, and along with that original trailer it shows that the developers really aren’t interested in the women that might play their games or the way the women in their games are portrayed. The only female characters that have any speaking parts are a rather portly nun and the girl 47 is trying to protect.
It’s embarrassing as a gamer to see this kind of thing, and even worse I’m embarrassed to play the game in front of my wife and female friends.
The story works for what it is: basically a Jason Statham movie. For all the focus developer IO Interactive has put on the story, however, it comes up short of where it’s aiming for.
Fortunately, the core of Hitman: Absolution is, with some exceptions, much better.
Hitman: Absolution puts a greater focus on story and character than previous entries in the series.
It turns out you can teach an old assassin new tricks.
Similarly, the new point shooting mechanic works well the few times it’s forced and is yet another option at 47′s disposal. The point shooting system is very much reminiscent of the Splinter Cell: Conviction‘s Mark and Execute, but requires more manual dexterity and better timing.Mechanically, it’s better than it’s ever been. Agent 47 seems at home in the lushly detailed levels, and moves smoothly as one might expect a professional killer to move. New mechanics give him a broader repertoire, letting 47 be a more able and creative killer than he has been. He can, for example, throw an item against a wall to distract or lure an enemy, then sneak up behind and subdue the enemy by hand. And if that goes wrong, 47 is an able fighter as well. The hand-to-hand system is reminiscent of Witcher 2‘s, with contextual button presses integrated into the characters’ movements. Good assassins won’t need this often, but when it is necessary it works.
The last big mechanic, and the most controversial, is Agent 47′s Instinct. The minimap of past games is gone, replaced by an alternate view you can activate by holding down a button on your controller. This mode, at its most powerful in the easy and normal difficulties, allows you to see significant objects in the environment, enemies – even through walls, and even enemy patrol routes. 47′s Instinct, which must be earned by taking out enemies and completing objectives, is limited enough that you can’t walk around with it all the time, but it gives the game some accessibility that previous Hitman games needed.
The different mechanics work in concert to make the game feel new without interfering with experienced players’ play styles or forcing players to play a certain way.
One thing that is quite different from previous games is the level structure. Where previous levels were large sandboxes, the narrative focus of Hitman: Absolution forces the game down a slightly more linear path.
The sandboxes are still there, but they’re often smaller and split up by stealth segments or even short story missions, like one that has 47 stopping at the tailor to get a fresh suit. There’s no hiding, killing, or anything like that, it’s simply an errand to move the story forward.
The sandboxes show Hitman at its best. Whether you’re poisoning someone’s sushi or just garroting them and tossing them into a tank of motor oil, these are the times when Hitman works.
Mixing fun with frustration.
Hitman games are necessarily trial and error. The ultimate goal is to pull off the perfect kill: silent and creative. To find that path, however creative and silent it may be, exploration and experimentation are musts, and resetting is necessary and frequent. When you finally pull off that perfect performance, it’s glorious, and it gives the sort of sense of accomplishment it should.
Sometimes, though, things go wrong in ways you weren’t expecting, and Hitman: Absolution‘s terrible checkpointing system can make the repetition inherent to the game feel frustrating and grating. When you activate an (optional) checkpoint, you can then start over at that spot any time you restart. That resets the whole sandbox, too, however. The only things that don’t reset are your geographical location, your stylish outfit (be it scarecrow or street food vendor), and any assigned targets you may have taken down. Those other 11 guys you put to sleep are awake. Even the one whose costume you stole is awake and clothed.
Some of the checkpoints will even reset you into view of an enemy who immediately becomes suspicious, which can put you into danger right away – the opposite of what a checkpoint should do. A better checkpointing system would’ve gone a long way to making exploration more enticing, but as it is the frustration of trying to get just the right timing over and over (or the frustration of having to wait for the right timing over and over really becomes apparent with the current checkpointing.
Once again, due to the more linear nature, there are a number of segments where killing is not only unnecessary, but just plain discouraged. The game has too many of these stealth sequences, and getting through them is frustrating at best.
While the story mode might stray from the core mechanics a little more frequently than I’d like, the new Contracts mode is just the opposite. Hardcore Hitman fans have always, as the mode’s intro says, challenged each other to complete different missions in the games with some arbitrary limitations. Contracts mode gives fans an official way to do that. You can design your own hit in one the provided maps, setting the mark(s) and requirements like choice of costume and method of elimination. Just like in the core game, everything you do can affect points, so careful planning and execution can net you a satisfyingly huge score. Upon finishing a contract, you can check out your score in relation to, of course, your friends, but also to your nation or the world. The game is fairly new but if fans keep with it the Contracts mode could provide a reason to play Hitman for quite a long time.
Forward strides in spite of flaws.
Hitman: Absolution should, by all means, feel older than it does. IO Interactive has done well to bring its flagship series up to date with useful new mechanics, impressive environments, and a unique approach to multiplayer. Problems with the female characters and a checkpointing system that stresses the trial and error gameplay more than it should are worth mentioning, but they don’t overshadow the strides forward that the game has taken.