Hitman Absolution review
Fortune favours the bald
It’s not often we’re ever going to use a snippet cribbed directly from Wikipedia to open a review, but it just seems so apt here: “IO Interactive has confirmed that Absolution will be easier to play and more accessible, but will retain hardcore aspects.” It’s not often the world’s biggest encyclopedia page gets things absolutely right, but it has in this case.
Hitman Absolution is nothing like what we feared it would be; it’s not the ridiculously scripted, base-level straightforward third-person shooter that takes a few too many cues from Call Of Duty. There’s a couple of linear sections, true, but this is also a game where – in a desert in the middle of nowhere – you have approximately 20 different items to pick up, ways to deal with your target and other bits to find. True, early on in the game you’re ushered down a set path as you escape from a helicopter in hot pursuit and a couple of times it is clear a mission is only there to progress the tale of rescuing a kidnapped girl.
But then you’re back in the action: working your way slowly and methodically through an area, spotting your targets, figuring out what you can do to dispatch them, approaching any given situation in a way totally of your own making. You try, you fail. You try again, you mess up stupidly and restart. You blow yourself up with a proximity mine you forgot you’d set. Eventually you take out your targets and escape – you do pretty well, you’re impressed with yourself.
You immediately choose to restart the level.
Hitman: Absolution is a game that demands you replay its scenarios as much as it encourages you to do so. Post-mission screens are a veritable ‘here’s what you could have done’ list of items, cryptic how-to-kill-them clues and costumes. You see what you missed out on, it triggers a memory of seeing a fire axe or a rickety palette hanging high above, you instantly want to play it again and try that out. IO knows damn well what it’s doing when it uses this sort of transparency; when it points out quite clearly just what your opportunities are. And as a result you have dozens of events you will want to play over and over again.
We haven’t even mentioned the difficulty settings yet, which in any other game would just be a course for saying… well, saying nothing. Because who talks about difficulty levels? But in Absolution they’re important – they matter to the game, and not just from a trophy perspective.
Going lower down the rankings to easier modes means you have more on-screen help, Instinct is more readily available and enemies are dumber. As you work up through the hardness factors you lose prompts, maps, indicators and so on, it becomes harder to earn and hold on to instinct, enemies become smarter and more numerous. It becomes a lot more challenging, unsurprisingly.
But it’s done in such an organic fashion that it feels incredibly right. It feels like the kind of experience where – even if you do choose easy or normal from the start – you will teach yourself to move up through the ranks, eventually making yourself a capable and effective killer even on purist mode. We wouldn’t say we’re quite capable or effective at that rank, mind.
Anyway, back to that hardcore/accessible split. The fear we had about Absolution before it came out was based on marketing. Stupid, horrible marketing. Marketing trying to show a product to sell to a certain type of person – a certain type of person who isn’t us. Who isn’t most fans of the Hitman series. The game was made out to be more accessible and, as that’s all we’d seen of it, assumptions were made that this would be the whole direction for the game.
But it’s not. It’s refined where it needed to be – it’s more straightforward and riddled with far less silly little idiosyncrasies that divided opinion. No longer do you have to hold a button to tighten your fibre wire before attacking with it, for example, and it’s made much clearer that you’re about to be spotted (at least on easier difficulties), removing much of the ‘HOW DID HE SEE ME?’ frustration of previous games. That’s the sort of way in which Absolution is more accessible – in the ways it should be more accessible.
There’s no less freedom than there was before. You can still make it up as you go along as much as you can plan and execute a flawless plan of action. You will be punished for making mistakes and you will feel the euphoria that comes with not making mistakes. Absolution treats its players like adults; like people who actually know how to play games and aren’t demanding they have their hands held at all hours of the day. But if you want – if you need – to hold hands to steady yourself, you’re more than welcome, and catered for, to grab on tight.
Let it be said that you need this training and grounding in the game’s mechanics, as provided by the main 20-level campaign, to get anything worthwhile out of the online Contracts mode. We were hoping for something special from this: a mode in which you create your own hit and post it for anyone else in the world to take on, with scores ranked against each other.
Unfortunately it’s not exactly the brilliant mega-thing we hoped for. It’s fun and a distraction that will keep you playing a tiny bit longer than you would anyway. But there’s a distinct feeling that Contracts lacks a fair bit of user input. You’re limited to existing campaign levels and have no say in the placement or inclusion of any characters in said levels. It’s just your own killing-stuffed filter plastered over an existing framework.
It’s not bad, mind you, and if there’s scope for additional levels and options to be added through patches or DLC then it can only grow as an experience. The act of actually having to play through a level how you want those taking the challenge on to do so is fun in its own right, forcing you to play properly – because you can still be discovered and killed, even when manufacturing a mission for others. It forces players to make things that are achieveable, and it means the better players are going to be capable of making some rather difficult experiences for the rest of us. Contracts doesn’t feel like a missed opportunity so much as it does a shallow one.
A huge part of what makes Absolution such a compelling game is the world it’s set in. Not just the well designed and almost too detailed levels, but in the way IO sees and presents the bad in the world. We’ve seen it before from the studio, especially through Kane And Lynch, and it surfaces again here. The people you’re out to kill generally deserve it: they’re ugly, both physically and mentally; they’re perverts and psychopaths; they embrace corruption as tightly as they embrace the cash that inevitably motivates their actions. In short, they’re a bunch of bastards – and it’s fantastic to see.
It’s not like we’re dealing with the depth of characterisation that will change the very course of storytelling as we know it, nothing as huge as that. It’s more in the details – in Blake Dexter licking his teeth as he talks, in Lenny’s physical and mental afflictions, in Birdie’s jacket stained with the fecal matter of a thousand pigeons (or his security guard’s ripped crotch on his jeans). There’s small, almost insignificant detail to the people; imperfections that turn them into far more believeable, rounded characters than they would otherwise be. Plus, as mentioned, they’re a bunch of bastards who deserve to die, generally speaking.
It’s just a shame that most of the female characters in the game are relegated to size eight, skirt/latex-wearing, cleavage-baring, sexy femme fatales or damsels in (partial) distress. But let’s not get back on to that trailer.
This bunch of reprobates (and whatever the opposite of ‘reprobates’ is) makes up the inevitable story that is far more focused than in any previous Hitman title. The voice talent is surprisingly good, the cutscenes are suitably moody and dark and generally speaking it isn’t a tale that feels in any real way bad, per se. But it does serve as little more than a shuttle service to get the player between playgrounds (of death and sneaking). Credit where it’s due: we wanted to kill the people we were told to kill, and 47 ends up a slightly more rounded character at the end of Absolution. But ultimately the narrative is ignorable, serving as little more than a reason to fill space with this paragraph.
Also, for all the demands for David Bateson to reprise his role as 47… well, he’s not actually //that// good, is he? Monotonous and emotionless, but in entirely the wrong fashion – he doesn’t bring mystery to the character, just an aloofness that damages scenes.
IO even manages to skillfully navigate the whole minefield of leaving things open for a sequel. No major spoilers, of course, but on finishing Absolution you are presented with a satisfying finish to proceedings and the possibility for things to continue in another game. Alone, it’s a nice thing to point out – combined with everything else IO gets right, it’s just another reason this is one of the best games to come out on PS3 this year. It’s one of the best games to come out on PS3 at any point. We don’t know what they’re putting in the water at Square Enix’s publishing headquarters, but it seems to be doing a damn good job.
It’s still a bit rough around some edges, but there’s no denying the scope, intelligence and passion poured into Hitman: Absolution. IO has made quite possibly the best game in the series and easily one of the best games on PS3.