One of my favorite things to do in a video game is to just stop and look around; observing the habits and routines of NPCs, seeing what items in the world can be manipulated, and testing the boundaries of what I am allowed to do as player and character. The Hitman series has long been the gold standard for this type of gameplay, culminating in the stellar 2006 installment Blood Money. Well, after a long hiatus, Agent 47 is finally back. Hitman: Absolution, released in November 2012, maintains some long-standing elements from the series, but forges ahead into a new direction in areas of gameplay and narrative. Do these changes enhance the Hitman experience we’ve come to know and love, or is it hit and miss? Read on to find out.
When last we saw Agent 47, he was fighting his way out of his own funeral (long story) after being double-crossed by Agency contact Diana. Absolution picks up with you paying her a visit to tie up loose ends, which leads into the story at hand. It involves a mysterious young girl sought after by the Agency and enterprising criminals; each sleazier than the last. There is greater emphasis on a narrative tying the levels together, which takes away from one of the traditional joys of the series — being able to experience a wide range of levels and terrain.
Some of the game environments are classic Hitman, in that they put you into a specific area, give you a target, and let you go to figure out how to best take them out. The Chinatown missions in particular, with wall to wall crowds, alleyways, and multiple access points, are the missions where Absolution shines. That’s not to say that sections with a newer kind of level design are terrible — on the contrary, many of them are decent — but they are much more limited in terms of how many options you have as a player. While there’s generally more than one way to achieve objectives, more often than not you can definitely feel the game nudging you towards one over another. That, coupled with a significant number of levels whose objective is to simply traverse the area, is somewhat disappointing.
There are some curious technical issues with Absolution. The first thing that pops up, and is pervasive throughout, is the wide variance between character models. Some, like 47 in particular, look amazing, while others look blurry and half-finished. Also, there are some very long load times on PC which is something I haven’t experienced in a long time (well, except for Duke Nukem Forever, and it’s never a good sign when you’re inviting that comparison). Finally, later sections of the game suffer from an up-and-down frame rate in parts.
There are new additions and refinements to gameplay when dealing with NPC confrontations such as pretending to surrender, but Absolution suffers from a poor transition from stealth to combat. Unlike previous installments, there is no ability to switch between third-person and first-person which is disappointing from a straight-up combat perspective. This game has a cover system and over-the-shoulder aiming that is functional, but not as good as it should be. There is the ability to stop time and mark multiple enemies for instant execution — similar to the one in Splinter Cell: Conviction — which does help to even the odds, but aside from specific scripted moments, it’s easier and far less risky to just pick them off one by one.
Hitman: Absolution has a lot of great things going for it, but the areas where it stumbles are of the cardinal rule variety; most notable being the way it handles disguises. The basic idea is that if you disguise yourself as, say, a guard, then other guards will be suspicious of you because they know their kind better than others. It’s a cool idea in theory and it makes sense if the objective is to make the game more realistic and immersive. The problem however, is that on many occasions you are going into areas made up entirely of guards, rendering a disguise virtually useless. The developer counters this issue by giving you an instinct meter which allows you to slip by as long as the meter is full enough. It comes across like IO wasn’t sure what kind of game they wanted to make. On one hand you have this approach to create a realistic tension that a disguise can be found out at any moment, but at the same time give the player a totally video-gamey way to get past it. Not only that, but some levels are brutal in that you can get spotted instantly as an imposter while others let you coast through without raising anyone’s attention. For a Hitman game, a strong disguise system is essential to the experience — it’s frankly what the series hangs its hat on — so the issues with it in this game really do drag it down.
The Hitman series is one of gaming’s most unique in how it deftly balances player choice, set-pieces, environmental traps, and pattern recognition with an easy-to-understand interface and multiple points of ingress and egress. There are definitely some great new ideas here, such as the expanded methods for killing and the attempt at overhauling disguises, but they are not executed as well as they should be for a game of this pedigree. In some ways, Hitman: Absolution feels a bit like Hitman 2, which also had some serious gameplay issues buried amidst outstanding presentation and ambition. In that case, it took two subsequent releases for all those wrinkles to get ironed out. Here’s hoping IO learns from this game’s problems and makes the next installment a tighter and more refined experience.
[+Excellent crowd mechanics] [+Detailed levels to explore] [+Numerous options for dispatching characters] [-Technical issues] [-No first person mode] [-Flawed disguise system] [-Lots of ideas, few executed well]