The focal point of IO Interactive’s Hitman series has always been its open-ended attitude toward mission structure. I was around twelve years old when I was introduced to Hitman: Codename 47, and it was the first time I’d experienced the concept. In fact, the idea was so foreign to me that I initially took the lack of defined paths and guidance as bad game development rather the creators’ intent. “There are like four different entrances to this building! How am I supposed to know which way to go?!” I would shout insolently at the screen. Then I would lose my patience and get myself killed. It took a while, but eventually I picked up on the subtleties; A bottle of sleeping pills here, a hiding place there, and I started to see that the laissez-faire approach was very deliberate. This was a game you were expected to build partly on your own. The tools were all laid out and left for your discovery and you could choose which to use and how. It rewarded creativity, exploration and patience first and foremost, amidst the suspense and tension you would expect from a game about stealth.
While the series progressed it added or altered Agent 47′s tools and abilities, but the core element has always been the same: Choose your own path. And while Hitman games have seen fluctuating critical success, the franchise has been missed since its last release, Blood Money, six years ago. Finally, in 2012, IO has brought back everyone’s favorite bar-coded assassin with Hitman Absolution.
Hitman has never been much about story. Sure there’s a running storyline about how Agent 47 is a cloned killer working for the ICA, and a handful of characters pop up to talk to/betray/assist him throughout the five games, but it’s at best a serviceable excuse to drop 47 in varied environments with people to kill and nothing more. Unfortunately no one told Hitman Absolution this. It takes itself far too seriously for a game in which you can dress up like a scarecrow and murder dozens in a cornfield. The game begins with a contract to find and kill former ICA handler Diana Burnwood, for convoluted betrayal-related reasons presumably explained in Hitman: Blood Money. The new boss, Benjamin Travis, wants Diana killed and so 47 sneaks into her mansion and shoots her while she’s in the shower. In her last moments 47 learns that Diana was innocent all along, and that there is a girl named Victoria, a subject of genetic experimentation, who he must protect. Seeing the error of his ways 47 blasts his way out of the compound and turns against Travis. The rest of the game follows Agent 47 as he rescues, loses and re-rescues Victoria a number of times and kills a handful of targets in the process. The cinematics do little to make you care about 47 or Victoria, and the brooding, operatic score can’t liven up the paint-by-numbers plotline.
Absolution shoehorns a ham-fisted sense of morality into Agent 47 during cut scenes that, depending on how you play the game, can wildly go against his in-game actions. It’s a really misguided attempt to make 47 likeable, and why should he be? You play as a featureless, lab-grown killing machine whose only recognizable trait is a bar code tattooed on the back of his head. If there ever was an opportunity to let a player run wild with depravity, this is it. Yet you’re forced to see this trained assassin risk life and limb to rescue a child for no personal gain. This is a character who, by the way, can (And likely will – More on that later) kill every passerby he comes across. You are taught in the game’s tutorial that murdering civilians to take their uniforms is an effective and recommended way to gain access to certain areas, so why should he have any kind of moral high ground? I understand the need to make the player relate to the protagonist, but the game is called Hitman for god’s sake. I don’t want or need a gun for hire to have a heart of gold.
The other characters don’t fare any better. Among 47′s targets are stereotypes like a fat Texan in a white cowboy outfit who Yee-Haws and hollers when he gets excited, a redneck with a mullet and southern drawl and a giant Mexican wrestler henchman with a handlebar moustache named Sanchez. I’d almost consider this an attempt to make archetypal fun-to-hate enemies that justify your killing them if not for the immaturity written everywhere else in the game as well. Absolution drew fire before its release with a trailer depicting Agent 47 fighting a gang of scantily clad nuns, and unfortunately it wasn’t a clever ploy to drum up controversy for promotional gains – that’s exactly the way the game treats sex and women. It’s one thing to have a killer visit seedy environments like strip clubs, which feature naked women (Absolution certainly does this too) or depict a sexually aggressive woman, but it’s another when every single woman in the game dresses like a porn star on Halloween and is involved in some kind of sexual perversion. This kind of cartoonish, exaggerated attitude toward stereotypes and sexuality could have worked if it was played for parody or for a grindhouse aesthetic, but it’s played straight which makes it comes off as ignorant and lazy. You know those soccer moms and newscasters that are always going on about how video games are all about misogyny and violent drivel? Turns out they’re not just hysterical uninformed pundits – they’re also the focus group for IO Interactive.
Presentation wise, Hitman Absolution hits some lows and…mids. From a distance the game looks quite nice. Open environments have a lot of variation in terms of color and landscape. Throughout the game you’ll go everywhere from city streets to desert highways to a huge quarry, and there are dozens of interior locations to sneak in and out of in search of goodies and alternate paths. The game can hold an impressive amount of people in a single environment, with quite a few unique character models, too. When you get up close though, and 47 does like to get personal, things can start looking muddy as you notice the lack of detail. It’s not a deal breaker but considering some of gorgeous games to come out these past couple years, the graphics leave something to be desired. The general visual palette is also somewhat bland, forgoing any kind of unique style. It’s not quite sharp enough to look real and far too boring to be recognizable. Voice acting is pretty top-notch though, from the cartoonish central characters to the in-game chatter. NPCs will react nicely as you play, whether they’re screaming as you throw them over a railing or just asking why you’re crawling around like an idiot.
Like I said though, Hitman has always been about gameplay. The story and the presentation are secondary to this franchise, what matters is making you feel like a capable killer. Unfortunately Absolution isn’t quite there with this either. The most significant problem with the gameplay is that you can only save at location-specific checkpoints. These don’t necessarily carry over all your actions prior to saving (I once rigged a stove to explode and saved before it blew up. I had to reload the checkpoint after being spotted, and when I did the stove’s gas was off again), and they also don’t save outside the current session, so if you want to turn off your console and leave the house midway through a mission I hope you don’t mind retracing your steps. Most importantly though, this means that your freedom for trial and error is severely restricted. As a series that relishes in creative killing, Hitman requires the you to discover new things and play with the environment. Your willingness to do so drops significantly when the smallest mistake can undo 45 minutes of careful planning. It essentially cuts the legs out from under you, requiring far more reservations while planning a hit. Technically the game provides the mechanics to fight for flee if you are discovered, but as with most stealth games, these gameplay elements aren’t particularly effective. If you’re like me, you’ll want to reload as soon as your plan goes awry, and Absolution is not your friend in that regard. I imagine better players than I will say I’m just not good enough at the game, or that I can’t handle a challenge and I suppose that may be true, but I don’t see what there is to be gained by making the punishment for error so high.
Aside from the issues with saving the game, major as they may be, the actual stealth mechanics and gameplay are pretty strong. 47 has a detection indicator similar to the damage indicators in a first person shooter. The indicator will point in the direction of the NPC who’s spotted you, and it will expand until you are noticed or you slip away. It’s one of the better detection monitors I’ve seen before, and considering that Absolution‘s environments are a great deal more open than most other stealth games, it’s well-needed. Additionally, 47 has an ‘instinct’ meter that allows him to see enemies and objects of note through walls. It can also indicate the walking paths of enemies, and allow you to ‘hide in pain sight’ in certain instances, which doesn’t nerf the game as much as you might think. Detection is still a constant possibility, and all of your abilities will prove useful. Disguises are still a major part of the game. Certain disguises will grant 47 free passage through an area, provided NPCs of the same caste aren’t nearby to get suspicious, which often times is one of the only safe ways forward. Finally, 47 still has his signature fiber wire, dual silverballer pistols and an array of weapons and objects to pick up and wield against thugs.
Certain special items in the environment, like poisonous fugu fish or a rigged generator can eliminate targets in contextual moments. These are the best ways to get your kills. Drop a chandelier on your target and you can walk straight by the ‘accidental’ death unquestioned. These kills are far more rewarding than a simple garrote or pop to the head, not to mention they’re the cleanest methods for disposing of your victims. Furthermore, every mission features a list of challenges that encourage you to play the mission over again. Kill the target in as many creative ways as possible, and you can master the level. In addition to the different context kills, there are disguises, weapons and evidence to collect, which all add to completion scores and level mastery.
This is not a grand resurgence for Hitman. Had it focused less on trying to tell a story about heroes and villains and more on simply giving you targets to put in the ground, Absolution could have been a welcome addition to the big games of 2012. Instead it crumbles under the weight of a terrible narrative and a single maddening technical oversight. Hitman fans might still enjoy the game as it does maintain its core concept of freedom and experimentation, but this is a disappointing return for one of the genre’s best icons.