It’s been six years since the last Hitman game, so I couldn’t wait to get back into the slick, professional world of Agent 47. I was looking forward to it all – the Silverballers, the sharp suit and of course, the barcode.
So yeah, I was a little put out when, by the third mission, you have none of these things left.
Remember Spider Man 2? It had the potential to be a pretty decent movie, but a huge chunk of the middle followed Spidey after he’d lost his powers. Basically, at that point, you’re just watching a movie about a normal guy. The whole ‘OMG, he’s lost his special shtick’ thing is a poor storytelling crutch.
I guess it’s not exactly the same. 47 is still the stone-cold professional, able to get in and get out without being noticed, leaving just one warm corpse to mark his passing… even if his suit is looking a little bedraggled. For me, though, the whole “this time it’s personal” story just didn’t seem to work. 47 seems to swing between icy professional and inexplicable softie with a moment’s notice, and it’s all a little internally inconsistent. At the end of the previous game, the Agency consisted of, well, just 47 and Diana, as far as I could tell. Now they’re outcasts from an Agency that resembles a kind of ‘bad guy CIA’ more than the contract killers’ agency of games past.
Zoom in a bit on individual missions, though, and the narrative gets considerably stronger. It seems that pretty much every character has a conversation to listen in on, whether he is a mercenary guard or a drunken bachelor party dude at a strip club. Some of these conversations offer hints, but a great many of them just give the world a lived-in feel. Level design is really good as well, from the interesting and unique locations where many of the missions take place down to the actual positioning of cover and impromptu traps that you can use.
Aside from the lukewarm story arc, there are a couple of big problems with Absolution, I’m afraid. Most importantly, it’s very buggy. In fact, it’s fair to say it’s poorly-ported. Dr. Chill, Game Debate’s cold-blooded test PC, struggled to get an acceptable frame rate on anything above medium settings, with frames per second falling as low as 14 on one particularly ballistics-heavy map. The game crashed regularly, sometimes so hard it took Steam with it. Cutscenes sometimes see 47 pointing invisible weapons or having completely silent conversations. Occasionally, during regular play, I faced invisible enemies (with visible guns).
The two other major flaws are the scoring system and the save points, both of which were horrible travesties. Early into the first tutorial mission, you’re told that ‘the game will now analyse your play style’. What that means is that you’ll be steeply rewarded for using your fibre wire or Silverballers, and therefore penalised (by missing these huge rewards) for using any of the myriad of imaginative and interesting weapons in the game. Score enough points and you unlock new abilities, many of which would be useless if you’re playing the game the ‘right’ way. When I first heard that the game would be ‘monitoring my play style’, I thought it meant that perhaps I would unlock stealth bonuses if I achieved certain stealthy objectives or bonuses that helped with gunfights if I tended more toward that path. This would have made sense! Develop your ‘character’ into a stealthmaster or a gun-nut, as you see fit. But no. You’re on the path they’ve set you, and there’s very little you can do to deviate. No weapon loadout choices at the start of a level, no safe-house to try out any new unlocks. Nothing like that.
And the save points. My word. I’ve always detested save points in PC games, but Absolution has actually found a way to make the system worse. See, if you respawn on a save point after dying or failing your mission, things ain’t the same as they were when you saved. Guards and other characters will be reset to previous starting points, leaving you with no idea if that guard you’ve just waited five minutes to evade is now back in your way or not. Or if your target has to go through his entire speech to his chum before he sets back off on his rounds – and if you mess it up, better believe you’re going to have to sit through that conversation again. Previous Hitman games have limited the number of saves you can make in the course of a map depending on the skill setting – a clever way to limit those players who want to crank up the tension and not overly punish those who would rather save whenever they like. Goodness knows why they changed it.
It sometimes feels a little like Absolution took a leaf out of Spliter Cell Conviction’s book, taking the protagonist away from his trademark togs and comfort zone for a bit and making a rougher-edged, more actiony game. Many of the levels in Absolution don’t even have a target to kill, and some of those that do feel a little like the targets are either illogical or ought to be optional. Sometimes, the justification seems to just be that 47’s spotted a particularly bad person, who ought to be killed – this personal judgement theme seems a little difficult to synch with the professional button-man idea. While certain levels capture that old-school feel where you take your time, blend into the background and scope out your targets, plenty more time is spent just trying to find the exit to the next level.
Now, let’s move on from these sour-tasting apples, and sup instead at the ambrosial spigot of positivity. Because for all its failings, Hitman Absolution does some things incredibly well. As mentioned, the locations and characterisation show immense attention to detail, and there are always many, many ways to hit a target. The new instinct system, which highlights armed enemies and targets for you even through walls, works as an excellent alternative to the map. The same instinct system is used to hide your face from people who might see through your disguise – this eats into your instinct resource whereas the ‘scanner’ does not, and it occasionally felt like the two abilities should have been separated. There’s a ‘mark and execute’ system similar to that used in recent Tom Clancy games, which sometimes doesn’t work perfectly, but does allow for some amazing set-pieces… particularly the cake. I’m not saying any more about that.
Replay value is something that's been considered carefully, as well. There are tons of in-game achievements to collect, for killing targets in a number of unusual ways, or hiding a certain number of bodies in a children's ball pool, or recovering all of the videotape evidence of your passing... it'd not be possible to collect all of these things in one playthrough. On top of this is Contracts mode, whereby players can design hits for each other: Just pick a map, select a mark, then choose a couple of other conditions and you're good to go. This mode allows the purists who just want to play 'kill the target' missions a whole lot of opportunity to keep playing once the main storyline is done.
Does it feel like a Hitman game? Yes. And it also feels like more and less than a Hitman game. Speak cryptically, like Yoda, do I? Hmm. The thing is, everything that makes Hitman unique is still there. Sneaking, disguises, dragging and hiding bodies, trying to clear a level without alerting anyone… all just like it used to be. There is a new mechanic for hiding in crowds, which just feels very Hitman. There seems like a lot of opportunity for just going gun-crazy once you’ve been spotted, which is something that always ended up happening in the older games too. I guess, when it’s been six years, all the fans really want is a whole file of new contracts, and the personal, desperate angle of the tale just interfered with that a little.