Before Connor, Ezio, and Corvo, a bald, barcode-wearing assassin graced gaming with his somber, subtle, and soulless approach to killing his targets without a hair or bullet casing littering the scene. With his signature suit concealing his dual Silver Baller pistols, Agent 47 brought a new twist on assassinating and became iconic in his own right. It’s been six years since Agent 47 has been called to duty and with all the advancements that the aforementioned assassins have brought, he’d have to count on more than his enhanced abilities to maintain relevancy. Hitman: Absolution has injected all of the right serums to keep his signature style and add some new tricks to uphold his Silent Assassin rating.
Agent 47’s former boss Diana has turned rogue, forcing the Agency’s hand and sending 47 a contract to kill her instead of a contract to kill for her. Despite former relations, Agent 47 fulfills his duty but quickly regrets it he deciphers the Agency’s true intentions. Now on the run, multiple factions have taken an interest in Agent 47 and what he holds dear, making it a rat race to see who cleanly escapes with the goods.
Our barcoded killer is very unattached from everything, but, ironically, he makes for an interesting character. His distanced relationship from everyone and cold-hearted, badass demeanor demonstrates his heartless killing side and sells the fact that he is a hitman. He rarely shows warm feelings for anything and keeps it serious and strictly business. Agent 47 does show a more human side with the MacGuffin of the story (a teenage girl), which actually works in a Kratos sort of way. Cynics might have a point stating that he is a little one-sided or that one human relation seems counterintuitive to his character, but it just works for him and what kind of person he is.
Everyone else is a complete piece of rotten, moldy shit. Like their work in Kane & Lynch, IO has crafted a cast of characters with salty personalities built straight from Satan’s list of endearing qualities. What separates these pricks from other antagonists is that these guys are intentionally terrible people, carefully constructed to get under your skin and annoy you with every spoken word and mugshot. None of these subjects dabble in the moral gray area; they’re all scumbags. Straddling a line between intentionally unlikeable and unintentionally unlikeable is tough, but IO has succeeded since even the mere on-screen appearance of these goons made my stomach turn. When it gets time to introduce them to your fiber wire, you’ll take pride in sending these men right in line to high five Hitler in Hell.
The way in which you send them there is your choice. In the vast array of contracts you are assigned, there is always more than one way to take care of your target, many of which count on player intuition. Each way to dispose of a figure isn’t spelled out, but careful players will observe key points in the level along with patterns and devise a devious way to take care of the target.
Subtlety, clever design, and sparse waypoints allow players to feel intelligent as they piece together convenient ways to perform in-depth assassinations. You could just snipe him with a well placed round, but if you listen in, you may be able to indirectly kill your target, leaving no direct blood on your hands. The open nature of the assassinations can make each run different and, with the addicting challenge and upgrade system, can encourage many playthroughs as you strive to grab 100%.
Levels, like assassinations, capture the same open spirit. Traversing the environment usually rewards players for searching corners and finding vents. The front door might even be a worthy path, given you’ve found the correct disguise. It doesn’t flash possible scenarios on the screen, but it makes players feel smart by tapping into that endorphin-driven sense of discovery.
However, it may take some time for this self-fulfilled sense of accomplishment to start settling in. Unlike the other assassination games, Hitman takes pride in being one of the most difficult in the genre, but never in a slanderous, hateful, or unfair way. The enemy AI definitely made it through high school and doesn’t suffer from nearsightedness, something that most stealth games are guilty of. It can be a little unsettling at first, for an enemy to actually see you choke someone out from a “far” distance, but it’s hard to knock it because of the steps it takes towards realistic behavior.
Guards will investigate any oddities and hear most of your actions if you aren’t careful, so paying attention at all times is vital. Disguises also aren’t completely foolproof, forcing you to keep people dressed in the same uniform in mind. Playing Hitman made me realize how much other stealth games make sacrifices for players to ease right in. Either approach isn’t naturally bad, but familiarizing myself with the systems and controls (after countless restarts) gave a larger margin of satisfaction because I was getting better.
Absolution allowed for this improvement because of the friendlier design. Stealth games can no longer acceptably limit the player control-wise, which has forced the genre to adapt in order to survive. Absolution has evolved, without sacrificing the more hardcore aspects. In the vein of detective vision from the Arkham games, Agent 47 can see through walls using Intuition. Governed by a meter (in most difficulties), this allows sneaking to feel more fair since, if you are paying attention, it makes it harder to become spotted from a surprise guard around the corner.
This meter also lets players see certain routes for guards and allows the disguises to blend more efficiently with individuals in the same getup. Utilizing this meter effectively will take some effort but it adds to the player’s repertoire of strategies and makes sneaking feel more modern. Point Shooting, which slows down time and allows instant precision shots (think Dead Eye from Red Dead Redemption), also uses this meter and is a useful tool for quickly remedying a mess or taking multiple targets out efficiently and silently. Easy-to-see contextual button presses, sounds, and visual clues also make sneaking more streamlined and shooting, while still not great, is good enough for what the game tries to achieve.
The checkpoint system isn’t as successful as the other improvements. During each level and provided you’ve picked a lower difficulty, glowing icons on the ground serve as progress savers. The generous intention is thoughtful but the execution isn’t always as positive. While it saves Agent 47’s progress, the enemy AI resets to the beginning. So if you restart from the checkpoint, the targets and other AI start from the literal beginning of their paths. Maybe the engine can’t remember everything, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that you have wait extra long for enemies to get further in their routine so you can continue where you left off. With save systems like Dishonored and Deus Ex: Human Revolution that grant you the power to save anywhere, this sticks out as questionable, even if it is better than nothing.
Even with these improvements, if you can’t adjust in time, you can tune the difficulty to your liking. Each of the five difficulties are available from the start, each for every skill level. Think you’ve hit a plateau in skill? Your cockiness will be tested as you bump up the next level and are quickly humbled. Instead of taking the easy path of raising and lowering health bars, enemy numbers increase along with their vision cones. On Purist, which should be called Sadist, only the crosshair is available to you. No Intuition or any other HUD element are on the screen. This hardcore alternative showcases the depth the game dares you take advantage of. With all of the ways to tackle every level and combined with the array of difficulties, Hitman not only has something for most initial skill levels, but a deep well for those willing to put the time into it since upping the difficulty almost makes it a new game.
Even though it has a healthy variety of ways to play, the score system strangely seems to passively discourage most playstyles. Getting through a mission with only killing a key target will pay out in spades, but that is the only playstyle it seems to favor. Murdering anyone else or even subduing a guard doesn’t reward you with less points, but actively subtracts points from your total. Because the score system is always on the screen, the red numbers getting taken away from me felt like the game was teasing me with all of these open routes, but only giving me a pat on the back for one specific style. I felt like I was playing it incorrectly since the feedback loop was so negative and so blatant on the screen. If the score system is going to be present at all, a better alternative would be to let players see this in a different mode or to have smaller bonuses for “sloppy” play. That way everyone feels positively encouraged for their method of tackling missions, something Deus Ex: Human Revolution does splendidly.
Scoring seems a bit more unneeded seeing as the Contracts mode scratches that itch rather beautifully. Instead of adding a dead-on-arrival deathmatch variant, IO opted to go a more creative route and add a multiplayer mode that uses the strengths of the single-player with a score-based asynchronous aspect to it. Contracts allows creators to make players their own hitman and gives them the power to set hits on almost NPC in the game, along with establishing certain parameters for everyone to achieve. The better you do, the more cash you get for upgrades and such.
Since the game is already so naturally open, players with creatively sick minds can mold silly contracts that test your skill, which is an ingenious way to add replayability. Having more control over patterns, AI, and characters in the level would have been a good inclusion, but the depth shown here is beyond serviceable for now. It would fit under the “Play, Create, Share” motive that Sony has going, except with much more strategic garroting.
Kane & Lynch‘s engine wasn’t the prettiest one out there, which prompted IO to create a new one, as evidenced by its prominent logo in the opening. If I had created such a beautiful engine, I’d be bragging too. Absolution looks striking in most areas, with impressive lighting, great looking water, and solid textures. No longer do they have to hide beyond crappy YouTube-like grainy effects; this game has a great visual style. The soundtrack matches the gameplay atmosphere, with scores that evoke a tense, hunter sort of mood, ready to release the tension at any moment. Voice acting is remarkable as well, with some good, scummy performances by the main baddies and hilarious side dialogue by NPCs in the world.
Despite his vacation, Hitman: Absolution feels fresh and inspired, thanks to many great decisions along the way. Few titles can maintain the balance between keeping hardcore elements and adding new player-friendly ones, but Absolution lasers in on this tiny bullesye and strikes it with the accuracy of Agent 47 after a dose of diazepam. The initial difficulty may be off-putting, but to those willing to work with it will find a deep game that will test their sneaking mettle. With Absolution, Agent 47 dusts off the fancy suit and tie and lets it hang right up there in the Assassin Hall of Fame with the metal skull mask and pointy, eagle beak tipped hood.
+Challenging stealth mechanics that reward patience, intelligence, and the player’s ability to seek things out and try new approaches
+An array of different ways to play and many inventive ways to kill targets
+Contains a fairly interesting story filled with the scummiest assholes that you need to see dead
+Contracts mode is a superb way to extend the life of the game
-Learning curve might be too steep for some people
-Checkpoint system could use some minor work
-Point system only positively reinforces one way of play
Final Score: 9/10