Platform | Release Date
360, PS3, PC | November 20, 2012
Developed by IO Interactive
Published by Square Enix
Hitman: Absolution follows the Original Assassin undertaking his most personal contract to date. Betrayed by the Agency and hunted by the police, Agent 47 finds himself pursuing redemption in a corrupt and twisted world.
Following the two Kane and Lynch games, IO Interactive had pretty much used up all of the goodwill I had. Years of regular Hitman releases made them one of my favourite developers, and I’d followed them into fresh territory only to be disappointed… twice. Understandably then, I was pretty apprehensive upon hearing that they were returning to the series that they made their name with. After all, Hitman: Blood Money had been a divisive release in and of itself, with change that didn’t exactly receive universal support from the long-term fans of the franchise.
And to be honest, my initial impressions of Hitman: Absolution weren’t good. It looked like IO had completely ignored what their fans had said about Blood Money, tweaking the formula even further to give Agent 47’s new adventure a completely new feel. Fortunately though, after calming myself down and letting the game speak for itself, I soon found that I was wrong to judge Absolution so harshly. Not only is it a great game, but a brilliant evolution of classic gameplay.
The story sees Agent 47 tasked with taking out an old friend, before a conspiracy unfolds that sets him against the Agency he’s worked with for years. The narrative has a distinctly Western feel, taking you into the wilds of America as much as it does its busy streets. At times it almost appears as though 47 has gone back in time, stalking around small towns still stuck in the 60s. This sets up fresh challenges, with less time spent tracking the rich and powerful. Now, you’ll spend far longer negotiating through gritty underworld dens, grimy towns and even an expansive cornfield.
Not every one of these new settings pays off. While it’s a thrill to sneak around police at a congested train station, the game falters when a level dictates more linear play. Hitman has always been at its best when you’re dropped into a thriving open world, and has always struggled when the designers rely on funnelling you down corridors. The worst of this sort of gameplay is up front – a lengthy escape scene being particularly offensive – but push beyond it and you’ll fall into a constant stream of classic Hitman brilliance.
These are some of the largest levels the franchise has ever had, with very few closed doors and dozens of tricks and gimmicks scattered around. Bottomless pits, electrified fences, sniping positions, exploding barbeques, falling disco balls – the list goes on and on. In the very best levels you’ll be tasked with multiple kills. Studying the complexities of each level, only to spring a sequence of traps and walk away without suspicion is an absolute thrill. More so than any other game in the series, this process feels organic. Every kill scenario is backed up by NPCs, thematic elements and authentic level design. Nothing feels out of place, and no part of any one of the locations feels ‘videogamey’.
If IO have tried to bring Hitman into the real world by blurring the line between a kill and the environment around him, then it’s easy to justify the new disguise system. In the old Hitman titles, taking on the right disguise made you practically invisible to the NPCs around you. Now, putting on the clothing of a factory worker, as an example, will only get you so far. If other factory workers see you, they’ll complain that they don’t recognise you as one of their colleagues and will raise the alarm unless you can flee or disable the witness.
At first, this is frustrating. It’s balanced by a new Intuition system that rewards stealthy actions with juice for a meter bar. Activating this system with a single button press reveals important items, enemy positions and, most importantly, allows Agent 47 to shield his face and deceive those that would recognise him as a threat in disguise. That initial frustration comes simply because the system is unfamiliar to a long-time player, but once you get used to it the benefits become clear. Where the level of tension used to drop when disguises were used, in Absolution it never dips. You’re always on guard, always looking out for the NPC that might spot you, and always ready to make a quick dash or desperate move.
Kane and Lynch often felt sloppy, particularly when it came to aiming and character movement. None of that failure is present here, with the disguise system being just one tweak. Agent 47 moves confidently in cover, and interacts fluidly with the environment. The control system is smart, and key actions are easy to complete, including the hugely satisfying knife throwing manoeuvre. Alongside all the other improvements, it’s brilliant that the basics have been perfected, ensuring that absolutely nothing jars you out of the immersive experience Absolution offers.
Once you’re deep into the single-player mode, the slightly hammy acting, weird lip-syncing and melodramatic plot exhibited in the occasionally overlong cutscenes will have grabbed you. The script is well written, but it’s being able to inhabit the role of Agent 47 so completely, so smoothly, that makes it easy to become absorbed in. After the credits roll though, it’s the user created content that will keep you coming back.
The Contracts mode allows players to set up challenge levels to share online. Choosing your level is the first step before setting additional goals based on a set menu, as well as combining the requirement to kill particular NPCs with particular weapons or methods. There’s already thousands of these combinations online, and the rating system does a great job of making sure the cream rises to the top. Everything loads nice and quickly, and I found the networking to be stable. It’s easy to lose a few hours to this content, which is more than I can say for the majority of releases that support similar systems. A Hitman game is the perfect venue for it, and the implementation here is excellent.
Visuals and audio are at a standard reserved for the very peak of the AAA category, but ultimately their success lies in how well they compliment the developer’s other achievements. Like everything else, every sound effect or visual trick is used sparingly and appropriately, contributing to the depth and realism established in every other aspect of the game design.
Whatever it was that meant Kane and Lynch didn’t work out for IO, it hasn’t infected the development of Hitman: Absolution. Despite an uneven start, and some changes that might be challenging for old players to accept, it brings the franchise forward in a gargantuan leap. Making Hitman modern, giving it all the polish of a Call of Duty or Uncharted game, not only sets this apart as one of the year’s best releases, but also makes you realise how limiting the linearity in those games is. Agent 47 is back, and his world is more open, more innovative, and more deadly than ever before.