By Marty Mulrooney
Hitman: Absolution is the fifth entry in the Hitman series of stealth action video games, following on from 2006’s Hitman: Blood Money. Players once again take control of Agent 47 as he undertakes a variety of missions… and this time, it’s personal. Developed by IO Interactive and published by Square Enix, Hitman: Absolution was released on the 20th November 2012 (the 47th week of the year) and is available for Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.
Hitman: Absolution begins with a tutorial mission that both explains the expansive controls and gameplay mechanics, and sets the extremely dark tone of the story. Under orders from the ICA (International Contract Agency), Agent 47 is ordered to hunt down and kill his former handler Diana Burnwood, who has apparently gone rogue after kidnapping a valuable teenage girl named Victoria. The player must infiltrate and sneak through Diana’s mansion, find her… and kill her.
After shooting Diana through the glass door of her shower at the very end of the tutorial mission, 47 hesitates – she is the closest thing he has ever had to an ally and a friend. Bleeding to death on her bathroom floor, Diana begs 47 to protect Victoria. None of this makes sense – she would never betray the Agency, at least not without good reason. Showing only a flicker of remorse, 47 makes his decision. Leaving Diana in a pool of blood, he shoots his way to Victoria’s room, before taking her and hiding her in a Catholic orphanage.
Hitman: Absolution is the most story-centric Hitman title to date. Agent 47 is now completing his own personal missions, rather than those hand-picked and handed to him by the Agency. The set-up is still the same – find your targets and kill them by any means necessary. The first proper mission sets you the task of killing the ‘King of Chinatown’, after being asked to do so by an informant known as ‘Birdie’.
The level is fairly large and contains a staggering amount of detail. Hitman: Blood Money’s memorable mission ‘The Murder of the Crows’ featured a large crowd of people that still looks impressive even today, although it was only ever really window-dressing. In Hitman Absolution, huge crowds of people appear throughout and it looks incredible. What’s more, this time the crowds act more realistically and actually serve a purpose – gunshots will send everyone running towards the nearest exit causing mass hysteria and confusion, whilst standing still with people all around you will provide natural cover.
The aim of the ‘King of Chinatown’ level is simple – kill an up-and-coming local gangster known as the ‘King’ along with his drug dealer. There is only one problem. He’s standing beneath a pagoda in the middle of the crowd, surrounded by corrupt cops hell-bent on protecting him. Time to get creative. The possibilities are many and varied. You can poison the King’s coffee, or snipe him from the drug dealer’s apartment. You can use explosives, or cause suspended pallets to fall ‘by accident’. Sometimes the old ways are the best – wait until your target is taking a leak, then fiber wire him from behind.
Murder is Agent 47’s art and every death he causes is a masterpiece. The animation in Absolution is superb, whether you’re cracking someone over the head with a statue or burying an axe into their skull. There are weapons everywhere. Using disguises is also back in full force. One of the best levels sees 47 picking off targets in a cornfield… dressed as a scarecrow. The game assigns points to every action, but never stops you from playing how you want. For example, knocking out a NPC will deduct points from the player’s score, but hiding their body in a closet will gain the exact same amount of points back, therefore negating the penalty. It’s always preferable to make deaths look like an accident, but there is nothing stopping you from wading in guns blazing – although you’d certainly be missing the point.
Unlike in previous Hitman games, each level is split into several areas. Moving from one area to the next triggers a checkpoint and you cannot backtrack. Some hardcore fans may balk at this decision, but each area packs enough content to almost be considered its own level. There are also other mid-area ‘checkpoints’ that can be activated and 47 can now use ‘Instinct Mode’ too, which allows him to see enemy positions, patrol paths and areas of interest within the environment. Playing at higher difficulty levels turns this mode off, but it is actually very well implemented and using it never feels like cheating. It can be used whenever the player wishes, but disguises will only fool NPCs wearing the same outfit if you use instinct when within their immediate view. For example, using instinct mode when dressed as a policeman will make 47 dip his hat down low, obscuring his face. You can also blend in by acting like a policeman – helping yourself to a doughnut when prompted uses no instinct whatsoever and makes 47 appear normal to those around him. Instinct is earned by being an effective killer – silent take-downs and completing objectives are just two such examples. Instinct can even be used to initiate ‘Point Shooting’, which allows you to ‘tag’ multiple enemies and then shoot them all automatically.
The world of Hitman: Absolution is a very dark, gritty place. IO Interactive has done an incredible job of making each level feel like a real location. It’s a heightened form of reality that’s a lot of fun to inhabit and explore. The graphics are some of the best seen this generation (especially on consoles) and the music and voice acting is strong. The downside is that the story itself is very basic. It seems ripped straight from a direct-to-video movie – and a nasty one at that. Not counting Agent 47 and Diana, the characters are two-dimensional and vulgar at best. Women are portrayed in a highly sexualised manner (the ICA’s elite hit team ‘The Saints’ all dress as slutty, gun-toting nuns) and the majority of the men are evil, violent pigs. David Bateson returns as Agent 47 and does a fantastic job (who else could voice a killer with so much class?) but talented actors such as Keith Carradine and Powers Booth are wasted.
The online component of Hitman: Absolution surprises because it’s actually rather brilliant. So many AAA games feel the need to include some form of online mode – only a select few pull it off this well. In ‘Contracts’ mode, players can build their own levels while playing. Any single player level can be chosen and once loaded, the player simply plays to build. For example, the player might enter a level, knock out a cook, steal his clothes, hide the body, kill a henchman with a screwdriver then exit via a back alley. This then becomes your created level – to earn top points, other players must only kill the target (the henchman). They must leave no bodies to be found. Finally, they must execute the kill with a screwdriver whilst dressed as a cook, then escape via a back alley.
There are no boring level editors to contend with and even the toughest user-created missions always feel 100% possible – after all, someone else must have done it all before to create the level in the first place! What ‘Contracts’ mode does is provide additional content that takes the very best the single player experience has to offer, and avoids the hit-and-miss cutscenes and storytelling. The gameplay mechanics aren’t perfect – is it really probable or even likely that every cook in Chinatown would know each other and therefore be able to spot an imposter? – but the controls are responsive and within this twisted video game world at least, the rules make sense.
Hitman: Absolution is a brilliant game that tells an average story. Agent 47 is still pretty much a blank slate, but he becomes increasingly more likable as the game progresses simply because the people he kills are so utterly repulsive. Victoria could have been an interesting character but she is mostly absent and Diana (with whom 47 has always had a complex relationship) is sorely missed throughout. Despite these negatives, the gameplay is taut and focused and the visuals are beautiful despite the often dank locations. This is a dark game even during levels basked in bright sunlight. Replay value is through the roof and trying out new approaches seldom gets old. Hitman: Absolution admittedly gets some things wrong – but it also gets a hell of a lot right. Pull on your gloves, straighten your tie and get ready to take out the trash. Agent 47’s business is death… and business is booming.
8.5 OUT OF 10