Also On: Xbox 360, PS3
Developer: IO Interactive
Publisher: Square Enix
Rating: 18 (PEGI) / M (ESRB)
After a month of being without a PC, I’m back! A new system is built, it’s running better than I could have ever hoped for and it’s knocking games out of the park. Time to get back to reviewing after a month long hiatus. Next on the list – Hitman: Absolution.
Absolution is a mixed bag. A few treats like the return of 47 and the ability to be a silent assassin. Also a number of tricks like small levels, absurd characters and a poor attempt at story. Do the treats make up for the tricks? This is what I think.
Hitman has always been a franchise to reward patience and experimentation. Blood Money, the last game before Absolution, was the best and a true sign that taken the right way, a franchise could hit highs never before thought of. Relegating the plot to a side thought as well as making every level detailed, interesting to explore and investigate, as well as handing over number of tools to use and experiment with, Blood Money was everything that was needed to build on to make Absolution great.
Absolution went in a different direction. I couldn’t be more thrilled to have 47 and his glistening cranium back, but Absolution feels wrong. Gone are the contracts of Hitman past, assassinations with little or nothing to do with the overarching plot. In are story based objectives that focus on movement between areas, moving from one sequence to the next or fulfilling a specific non-assassination based plot point, while ignoring the exploration of detailed levels to plot an assassination in a way you see fit.
The core issue is that assassinations play such a small part that ‘Hitman’ is the wrong name. There is actually very little hitting of men, unless you just decide to smack a few people around on the way through the story. This is Agent 47: Human Revolution. Jealously eyeing up the recent success stealthy games have had, IO Interactive have made everything work towards producing a stealth game.
Levels are made up of multiple areas. These areas are mostly restrictive and only have a handful of paths to walk down, leading towards a single point at the end that leads towards the next area. This is a shame because the window dressing is excellent. Aesthetically Absolution is second to none and when it shines, in such as the Chinatown level, it really gives the feeling of being in a huge bustling crowd. Having to make your way through this while keeping an eye on targets and points of interest is a blinding light at the end of the story tunnel.
It’s this story that is the cause of most of the flaws. The want to cater to a story has led to compact level designs, with only a quarter of them being about assassinations. This has also resulted in a number of other terrible choices along the way.
As well as size, scale and density suffering, so does the whole concept of being able to make decisions for yourself. The design dictates so much in certain areas. One such example is where you have worked your way through some tunnels, leading out to a bridge to a research facility. It’s a singular path where even thought is taken away because right at the side of the tunnel exit is a conveniently left silenced sniper rifle and stairs up to a snipers nest.
Another abysmal decision is the inventory system, or rather the lack of one. Early on in the game 47 loses his trademark gear, the silenced silverballers. These are replaced with a pistol that couldn’t be louder if it had a foghorn attached to it. All other equipment is found during the level and it is carried over into the next area but then lost when the mission is complete.
Not all of the changes are bad. One sensible change made is to the disguises. Where in the past a disguise would let you into any permitted area, no questions asked, here the people in the same outfit will be suspicious of you. This I can fully understand. If you were a member of a police force then it is reasonably safe to assume you would know your colleagues and their faces. Somebody new just appearing would raise suspicions. Pick another disguise up though and those people wont be as suspicious. When does a cop, or a guard, ever notice the cooks, the janitors or the mechanics?
This is sadly not a perfect system though. The level designs often leave you walking through areas full of one type of guard and of course they are always suspicious. The only way then is to break line of sight, which makes them immediately forget you and restarts the suspicion meter completely. The other issue is that the suspicion meter is cruel. It increases rapidly and everybody seems to have extremely good eyesight because I’ve had them suspicious of me from extremely long distances.
Instinct is the way around this when permitted (on all levels aside from Purity). Instinct is the new supernatural tool in 47′s arsenal. It allows him to see the silhouettes of everybody through walls. It allows him to see their patrol paths. It gives him the ability to stop time and pick out many targets for a quick multi-kill and most importantly, it allows him to stay inconspicuous. This is done in plainly the most reasonable way possible – by covering his face with his hand.
It all boils back down to the decision to make a story out of Hitman. Your first mission has you sent to kill your former friend and ally, Diana Burnwood. Following the hit Diana, laying in her blood, asks 47 to protect a young girl called Victoria and being the known softie that he is, he agrees and stashes Victoria in an orphanage then heads on a personal mission to find out why The Agency cared so much about this girl. This mission offers him plenty of targets to flaunt his wares and hit some men.
The downside is that for the sake of the story all your hard work is left to ruin. After sneaking around and using fire as an inventive way to kill a particular character you are then treated to a cutscene where he has been shot and dying from a bullet wound, then asking “why do I have wood?”. Or maybe after painstaking effort to make your way through a hotel, ensuring there is no way you would fail your hit, a cutscene then takes the kill away from you and has you acting like a bumbling moron as far away from the 47 we know as possible.
Taking the kills away from you, sometimes even stopping them altogether is the antithesis of what Hitman is all about. All of this is for the sake of a story full of meaningless characters ripped from a cheesy grindhouse flick. Wade “I have Wood”, Limp-Dick Lenny, Sanchez the Hulk and so many more that do not belong, not to go into the kinky leather-clad sexy nuns. The whole thought process that went on inside IO Interactive is mind-boggling at best.
Contracts mode is what I like to think of as the apology. Offering you the ability to pick a level and create your own hit out on a person. You can include a back-story, specific aims of the way to kill and the outfit to wear, alongside other goals like not being noticed. In addition to creating contracts you are able to select and attempt to complete other contracts people have made. Inevitably these contracts are all set around the few good levels and they offer what is needed, the ability to plot your way through to assassinating the target.
Creating your own contract begs the question of why? None of the characters are relevant, no matter if you create a fantastic backstory of how Gary the Fisherman really wanted a new boat, but the local cod mafia didn’t want him on their lake and so burned his boathouse and all his equipment and his only option was to hire you to kill them. All the characters are interchangeable and there is no real reason for them above anybody else. Fulfilling the contracts has the issue of there being a specific weapon to use and outfit to wear when killing the target. Divergence and intuitive methods are punished rather than accepted and pushed.
Absolution suffers from two core things. First is that it has one of the finest games around to live up to in Blood Money. Second is the number of inherently bad decisions made that contradict all the franchise has ever been. Were it not a Hitman game I may look a little more favorably on this because as a stealth game it is good. It does offer, by my count, four levels that were there in the same vein of previous Hitman games and those were still fantastic and a sign that all is not lost, somebody in IO knew how to make a level that would allow for exploration, planning and a number of ways to execute your target.
These capture the glory of days past and this is something to celebrate. Especially if the threatened sequel moves into having more of these, less of linearity and story and learns from history. Sadly due to my inability to play any game of sufficient requirements for the past month or so I haven’t been able to get in and warn that this is not one I would buy until it is a good, low price. Hopefully though it’s just another piece out there that wants to bring back the open, thought inducing past, rather than the stagnant present.