It has been 12 years since the release of Hitman: Codename 47. It established a world of complicated assassinations, disguises, and a dark humor that permeated every aspect of the game. Since that first release, developer IO Interactive has iterated on that same formula to varying success, culminating in 2006′s Blood Money, the apex of the series. Since then, IO has taken its time creating the next entry in the series, while diverting themselves into forays into a new property, Kane and Lynch. Their return to the Hitman series with Hitman: Absolution finds them more confident than ever in their mechanics and presentation, but this is not the Hitman series’ fans might remember, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worst.
It’s important to note that Hitman: Absolution looks amazing. While Blood Money was an Xbox 360 title, it was more or less an HD release of an last-generation game. It didn’t really leverage the 360′s capabilities into anything amazing visually. However, in the time since then, IO has made significant strides in their visual design, highlighted by Kane and Lynch: Dead Men, a flawed title with a striking visual aesthetic. Absolution pushes the Hitman series to new visual heights, with a sharp visual design highlighted by some amazing post-processing effects. Environments are beautiful and well-lit, and some levels astound with the number of characters on screen. The demoed Chinatown level is a highlight, of course, but it’s not the only time 47 will find himself blending in with crowds. IO has taken the ideas first introduced in the Assassin’s Creed series and expanded them here, with a mission on a train platform being the standout in terms of crowd dynamics.
IO has also expanded their narrative capabilities. For the first time in a Hitman game, there is a real sense of narrative propulsion here. Instead of each level being a self-contained set piece, the areas in Absolution are mostly comprised of traversal puzzles, especially in the mid-game. This is not to say that you’re going to find yourself completing Prince of Persia-style leaps in order to progress, but there’s a de-emphasizing of the assassinations that changes the tenor and gameplay style of Absolution. There will be levels where your only objective is to get past a group, as opposed to coming up with a Rube-Goldberg solution to assassinations. This change in style may turn off long-time fans of Hitman, but it thankfully is limited to the middle-third of the game, which itself drags in ways the bookend parts of the game don’t. Once you get past the Saints (more on them later), the game picks up steam and heads toward the gratifying last area which allows players to flex their old-school Hitman muscles in the best way possible.
The structure of the game has changed, as well. As I said, each level is now part of a larger thread, both narratively and structurally. There are 20 “chapters” and each one is broken up into 3 or 4 sub-levels with their own objectives, be they assassinating, escaping, or just moving from point A to point B. While this creates a larger variety in environments, the environments are also much smaller than in Blood Money, with a handful of exceptions. These smaller levels don’t feel as packed with secrets and cool touches as Blood Money, but it tightens the focus of the game in a way that some might feel appealing.
Mechanically, Hitman: Absolution is the best game IO has ever done. In past games, certain gameplay choices (read: gunfights) were not really an option due to the game’s poor controls. Additionally, it was difficult to do anything with precision due to the game’s context-heavy setup. Now, 47′s movements and actions are easily and smoothly dictated by the controls, and the game’s tightened shooting and cover mechanics make even the biggest gunfights manageable. The AI still needs to catch up with the mechanics, though, as enemies don’t react realistically to situations. They will occasionally attempt to flank a player behind cover, but never make any concerted effort to get you out from behind it. I don’t think there are grenades in Hitman: Absolution, and their importance is evident in most gunfights. Additionally, enemies will quickly forget about dead bodies left in plain sight, and the binary states of searching you out don’t feel organic.
With a larger focus on its narrative, Hitman: Absolution shows that IO still has some room to grow as storytellers. The problems are evident from the beginning, as the initial choice that sends the entire story in motion never felt earned or justified. 47 makes a decision that basically happens off-screen, and the player is forced to pick up the pieces from then on, without much in the way of justification. Players new to the series will particularly feel out of their depth, as the game relies on a working knowledge of the series to fill in the gaps in the narrative as presented. The game focuses on the seedy underbelly of the world in a quasi-Kill Bill “hick mafioso” sense, but the characters feel like parodies. “Oh look, there’s the kinky sheriff! There’s the rich cowboy with a money fetish! There’s the dominatrix!” This weird mixing of sex, money, and violence culminates in the Saints, the controversial cadre of assassins that made an appearance in a heavily-criticized trailer earlier this year. After that controversy, a promise was made that upon playing the full-game, players would understand the depth of the Saints and their reason for being in the game. Well, I’ve finished the game, and I can safely say that they are just as empty as characters as we thought they would be. There’s a short introductory video that precedes their appearance in the game, but they are killed off as quickly as they are introduced and with as much ignominy.
Hitman: Absolution is a thematic mess. Everything is ugly and dark, and the reasons why 47 chooses to go against this ugliness are never really fleshed out. He’s slightly more three-dimensional as a character than the pawn that he was in past games, but he’s tasked with carrying so much more of the narrative and thematic weight that it often falls apart at its most base levels. What’s his motivation? Why now? All of these questions are pushed aside in the name of introducing more depravity into the world.
One positive of the story is that it does take power away from 47. Instead of having the advantage in every situation, this 47 is vulnerable and alone. Often, his trademark suit and look is eschewed for a dirtier, more roughshod appearance. In Hitman: Absolution, 47 is a wounded dog for most of the game, and this is a place where the game shines. There’s a desperation to the events in Absolution that haven’t been present in the series since its inception.
The Contracts mode has some promise as a haven for players accustomed to the opennness of past Hitman games, but its success is going to be predicated on the community. The tools to create levels are typically cumbersome, but with time and dedication, players may find themselves becoming relatively successful in creating fun Hitman levels.
Hitman: Absolution is a much more ambitious game than its predecessors. A robust audio/visual package combined with a deeper focus on narrative make this the most enjoyable presentation a Hitman game has had. However, a limiting of gameplay options, specifically in the middle third, will cause issues for series’ veterans who are looking to scratch a specific itch. New players may find themselves overwhelmed by the previous knowledge of the plot the game seemingly requires and by the depravity of the world. For those who find the groove though, Hitman: Absolution is a treat.
A copy of Hitman: Absolution for PC was purchased by the reviewer for the purposes of this review.