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Hitman: Absolution Review

By Jeff Buckland, 11/19/2012

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Hitman: Blood Money was released more than six years ago, but I feel that it aged better than many games of its time, and this only made fans of this assassination series by IO Interactive more antsy as the developers spent years away from the franchise that made them famous. But a couple of years ago, IO announced that they were returning to familiar ground with Hitman: Absolution, the fifth game in the series. Now that it's out, does the game live up to the rather high expectations set by its predecessors, and does the involvement of publisher Square Enix help or hurt the overall package? It's not an easy question to answer, despite my overall impression of the game telling me that this is at least a mild departure from the original games. That alone will make some fans frothing-at-the-mouth furious, but I'm willing to roll with the punches. What I've found, though, is that the game's pacing and style might have gotten a solid bump, but new departures from the Hitman formula discourage experimentation and ramp up the general anxiety felt in this game without a real payoff. If you're a fan of the series, I can't presume to know exactly what parts of these games were the most special to you, but chances are that at least a couple major ones got screwed with in the making of Hitman: Absolution.

Our returning protagonist, genetically engineered assassin Agent 47, starts off with a hit order from the re-created Agency organization that employs him to do his work, but the problem is that the hit is put on Diana, his old handler and the woman who saved his life at the end of Blood Money. The level for this assignment works as a tutorial and does a great job teaching new players about basic stealth rules in the Hitman world, most of which are similar to past games, as well as a few new tricks that he's got with the nearly-supernatural Instinct system. (This allows him to foresee enemy paths, see hostiles through walls, notice useful objects littered throughout levels, and use Point Shooting, which is a dynamic multi-kill cutscene using firearms.) He'll soon get caught up with a teenage girl that seems to be set up to be engineered against her will to become a hitman like 47, and soon enough he finds himself being tracked by the police, a criminal underground, and the Agency itself as he goes on the run.

If you've read all this in the hype leading to this game, it might make you think that Hitman: Absolution is nothing like the past games, but that's not entirely true; the developers get some of this under control and before long, you'll be set free in an open level with many options for taking down a target - or several. (The issue is that this doesn't last terribly long.) The game scores you based on your performance, comparing you against your friends as well as the rest of the world on leaderboards, and yes, the closer you get to being the Silent Assassin - leaving no trace behind, making sure your hits look like accidents, not killing anyone that's not on the list - the more points you get and the more stuff you unlock. Unfortunately, most of the things you'll unlock don't really help you achieve the game's eventual goal, which is to become the embodiment of the Silent Assassin by killing only those who need it and avoiding detection entirely. The stuff you unlock does more to help you in the firefights that might be fun but are actually against the point of this game. To play this game the way the developers truly intend, you restart from your last checkpoint when gunshots ring out, not pull out your own weapons and and engage in a firefight.

Sure, you can play Absolution like a third-person shooter, but it can be awkward, and it'll be kind of difficult as well: some levels will throw dozens of enemies at you, all while you've only got a very slow health regeneration system, as no Call of Duty-style heavy breathing will put you back to full health in a few seconds. The point is that if you insist on playing this game like Rambo, you're probably going to hate it, especially since the levels and situations are just not built to make this a satisfying action game. Stealth, disguise, evasion, sabotage, and smart kills are what this game's built for, although I'm a little frustrated in just how often the player's forced to evade law enforcement: whole sections of the game come up often that force 47 to creep through alleys and abandoned buildings while cops are crawling all over the place. Never has 47 been so vulnerable, acting too much as the prey rather than the predator.

This is made only more annoying when you wear a disguise (usually a very useful tool in the series' past) as your enemies this time around will become suspicious of your face from 25 feet away, even in low light, and even on Normal difficulty. Simply put, disguises aren't nearly as useful as they were in past games, and you'll have to spend much more time using stealth and evasion in most levels rather than switching disguises smartly. This, along with the way that 47 finds himself out of control of many situations, wins up changing the tone of the game in a way that's just not much like past Hitman titles. My favorite game in the series was Blood Money, and even though it had people trying to kill 47 near the end of the game, those elements were only one part of the mission and the focus was still on the job that had to be done. In Absolution, the people that are coming after the you wind up being the focus of far too many missions.

These problems only make up only a portion of the game, and the remainder is a little more like what Hitman veterans expect, where you track and kill your targets with ingenuity. These missions are at their best when you do a little experimenting to figure out how to get a clean kill and escape without detection, so the real disappointment for me is that the developers have simultaneously undermined the kind of creativity you're invited to use by implementing a frustrating checkpoint system. You'll find checkpoints lightly sprinkled throughout certain spots in levels that allow you to save your progress once per physical checkpoint, and there's no system for manually saving your game at all. (And on the higher difficulty levels, of which there are five total, you can't even use the checkpoint system.) This can get frustrating, as there are long sections of trial-and-error stealth and split second timing where one mistake near the end of a section meant re-doing the whole thing. Not only does this discourage experimentation, but through repeating whole sections half a dozen times, it also caused me to sometimes settle for just killing the final cops or guards at the end of a level, rather than figuring out a more appropriate set of final steps for evasion or finding the exit.

At the very least, I have found the PC port of the game to be pretty solid. Developed separately from the console versions by Nixxes, the guys who were in charge of the very solid PC port of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Hitman: Absolution has plenty of detail options, great controls, a quick benchmark mode to check your machine's performance, and a pretty solid frame rate. The textures look vastly more detailed on PC than on consoles and the special effects, while a little overbearing sometimes, still looked excellent. Some other journalists have reported bugs and frame rate issues, but I didn't find any, and on my lower-spec laptop, the game ran fine where other games released this year struggled.

The artists have lushly designed an interesting, varied world that shows us dilapidated, graffiti-covered alleys in rundown areas of Chicago, small-town America in another, and plenty more as you go throughout the game - all with equally impeccable detail. Sure, the plot is a bit silly and its rather wacky cast of characters feels like a mismatch for how seriously the game tries to take itself otherwise, but at least this collection of stereotypes and almost-comic-book-villains can make for interesting gameplay; for the most part, they're not just thrown in for no good reason.

These issues pile up to the point that even though this game is much more open and free than some recently-released FPS games, the expectation from the series' fans, myself included, was much higher. The game becomes oppressively structured and linear in some sections, and less of what the Hitman series is known for: explore the level, find the right disguises, figure out how to take out your target, retrieve your outfit, and quietly slip out the exit. There's a separate Contracts mode here, though, which might wind up turning into something closer to the Hitman that fans want, even if it's still quite a departure. Here, players pick out levels and set up targets, disguises, and AI behavior, then upload their creations. Players then download these custom-made challenges and play through them, competing for score. It's an online-connected mode but is played 100% solo. It actually works much better than I expected, mostly because the AI behavior and level design in some of the game's areas lend themselves well to players designing particular encounters. Contracts mode also adds some level of replay value for many gamers after the story mode is completed, which is probably going to be a help since I seriously doubt that those who haven't played past Hitman games - which could wind up being the majority of Absolution's playerbase - will bother to try and get Silent Assassin ratings or re-play the game at the three difficulty levels beyond the default Normal setting. Contracts mode gives a wider range of gamers new ways to keep playing without asking them to exhibit the patience required to handle the higher difficulties.

Hitman: Absolution's insistence on putting Agent 47 on the run can often get in the way of what made the series so fun in the past, and the lack of a manual save system undermines the kind of goofing around and experimentation that made past games so enjoyable. The final product isn't terribly loyal to Hitman's past, but IO Interactive and PC developer Nixxes nevertheless built a very exciting and unique experience, with lots of stealth, evasion, and intrigue. It won't play as the action game that adrenaline junkies want, and the compromises made in the name of suspense also won't sit well with long-time fans of the series, but Hitman: Absolution is still at least a decent, well-structured game with fantastic visuals. If you're sick of the action games where you're simply pointed down a linear corridor and get orders yelled in your ear to kill all the bad guys and move onto the next corridor, then Absolution might be the cure for your funk. Just keep in mind that Hitman: Absolution is often a more stressful and less genuinely enjoyable time than the series' past entries, with experimentation and openness taking a backseat to tension and frustration. It might make for a more focused, story-oriented experience, but it's not really what the Hitman faithful are looking for.

Disclaimer: This review is based on a downloadable PC copy provided by the publisher over Steam.

Overall: 7 out of 10



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