Review: Hitman: Absolution
It's been a six year hiatus for the Hitman franchise after Blood Money, but the original assassin has finally returned. Is it worth celebrating, or should our Bald friend have stayed in the past?
- Addictive?Yes, constantly.
- Worth The Time?Yes, it rewards you well for the time you spend with it.
- Things LovedThe game finds excellent ways to incorporate both action and stealth as well as the classic Hitman formula - and do it all well, the shooting finally feels like a great part of the game, gameplay is fluid and precise, levels beg to be explored and replayed multiple times to discover their secrets, Instinct mode is a good fit, the game is gorgeous with some highly impressive tech powering it, the difficulty options are well designed and let you tweak the game to suit your tastes, the music is awesome and very atmospheric, Contracts mode is a brilliant addition to the series, the score system.
- Things HatedThe disguise system is frustrating, the checkpoint save system can sometimes make you less daring and it has some annoying bugs, the constant presence of the scoring system and inability to turn it off on lesser difficulties can make you conscious about your play style.
- RecommendationIt welcomes newcomers with open arms, yet it doesn't alienate long time fans, and the result is a game that caters for many different styles of play. If you go into it with an open mind, it may just give you a fantastic time.
- Quick ConclusionHitman: Absolution impressively feels like a natural evolution of the series. It has a few faults, but it also gives you far too many reasons to keep coming back for more. This is one of the best games of the year.
- Name: Hitman: Absolution
- Genre: Action Stealth
- Players: 1
- Multiplayer: N/A
- Platforms: PC, PS3, Xbox 360
- Developer: IO Interactive, Nixxes Software (PC)
- Publisher: Square Enix
- Price: R360 (PC), R525 (PS3, 360)
- Reviewed On: PC
I’m a big fan of the Hitman series, and I don’t hide it. Blood Money is one of my favourite games. The six year hiatus the series took after its last outing was painful for me personally, but something I accepted since it ended arguably at its pinnacle. The mark of any truly good game is one that stays good and stands the test of time, and encourages you to return to it as the years pass by. That’s exactly what Hitman: Blood Money is to me, and I recall playing it even earlier this year. Naturally, I was worried for Absolution because of the time that has past since this series last saw the light of day, and because the bar was set really high at that time. But if there’s one thing I made sure I wasn’t going to do, it was expect this to be just like Blood Money. If it was released years ago, then sure, I would have wanted an expansion of the last game. But it’s been a very long time and the series needed to evolve. The question to answer is whether or not Absolution managed to do that, or if it’s a step backwards.
It’s new territory for the series as far as the narrative is concerned. Hitman: Absolution focuses more on its story than past titles in the series, and tries to be a more personal journey for our favourite bald assassin. The game begins with an extremely captivating introduction cutscene voiced over by 47 as it serves to set the game up. From there, you’ll enter the prologue, with 47 getting the order by the Agency to kill his handler Diana as she has found incriminating evidence about them. After carrying out his duty, 47 accepts Diana’s final request to find and protect a girl called Victoria, who is valuable to the Agency in ways you’ll have to play the game to find out, because no spoilers. Agent 47 accepts, but unfortunately for him the ICA soon deem him a traitor for this act, and begin to hunt him down.
The story itself is something to enjoy quite easily. You never get the feeling that the game wants you to take it too seriously, and for the most part it walks a fine line between being serious and somewhat comical and strange. Whether this was intentional or not is up for debate, but its good pacing and bold attitude with even its most far-fetched of concepts keeps it entertaining and worth paying attention to. In between missions the game’s story is told through cinematic cutscenes, and nicely enough these don’t overstay their welcome. The game understands that you want to get back to killing people, so it sticks to the point. Admittedly though the story emphasis does take a bit of getting used to, and you’ll need to adjust to it since it’s quite a change from previous titles, but it does help to give the game a freshness about it in that it gives you something more rounded to work with than simply a string of contracts. Whether that’s a desirable improvement or not is up to you, but it works pretty well in Absolution.
You better get comfortable because there’s tons to talk about with regards to the gameplay. Firstly, the entire structure of the campaign has changed. Instead of being a string of isolated assignments, to help with the story focus the game now is split into three parts, each with multiple chapters. Rather than being one open-ended mission, chapters contain their own set of levels, divided into numerous segments. For example, a mission may start out in a rather small area tasking you with getting from point A to B unseen, and once you do you’ll emerge into a large, completely open area with you having a target to kill, or an objective to carry out. It’s a good system because it prevents really long levels from having high punishes for failure, and it nicely breaks things up with checkpoints. The structure has also underwent dramatic change in terms of your equipment and gear. Unlike previous titles, where you chose your load-out before each mission and could upgrade your weapons, Absolution prefers to just leave you with your Silverballers and Fibrewire at the beginning and lets you find items of interest within levels. Yes, admittedly I missed my syringes, mini remote mines and sniper rifle suitcase, but this change encourages exploration of the levels, and it also makes each level pack unique scenarios.
To give you an example of this in practice, rather than have a sedative syringe like in previous titles that you could choose what or who to use it on, now you may stumble across sleeping pills in the game world and then have to find where and how you can use them. Some might appreciate the old system more, but the difference is that in previous titles you knew what your options were. Inject a sedative into a food item or drink, or into someone so you can take their disguise. In Absolution, the magic is in the discovery, and the game is practically on its knees begging you to replay its missions and explore them, because there’s just so much you’ll miss on your first play, and so much to see and experiment with. Interacting with the environment is more significant than ever, because of all the objects you can pick up to use as weapons or distractions, or for lethal meddling, and also because of all the hide spots and vantage points you’ll need to be aware of. Hide spots can now store up to two bodies, including your own if you need to get out of sight. This is important because the game’s entire alert system has changed. Instead of before, where one alert pretty much gives your position away to the entire world, Absolution incorporates a ripple effect. If you’re under suspicion by someone isolated and he becomes alerted, you’ll be able to take him down before anything gets out of hand, but if someone is near they’ll be able to hear suspicious sounds and come to investigate. If your cover is blown, enemies will spread the news and alert others gradually, and you’ll need to stay out of sight until things cool down.
It’s a more logical system to work with, and it gives you time to manage an alert and adapt to survive. And it gets quite intense when you’re in an area highly populated by cops or enemies and suddenly all the white dots on your map are starting to turn yellow for suspicious, orange for actively hunting you and red for attacking you. This ties into how well the game has been refined, in so many areas of gameplay. It’s a lot more fluid and engaging to play as a Hitman experience. Sneaking is no longer slow and awkward, but composed and efficient. The cover system works excellently. And the shooting finally feels like a great part of the game, as in combination with the cover system it’s good enough to be on par. And for the first time in a Hitman game, I didn’t feel guilty or like I was goofing around when I purposefully got myself into a firefight in one of the levels, because the action feels visceral, the blood splatters look awesome and enemies convincingly writhe in pain when you fill them with lead. Absolution really finds fantastic ways to incorporate both action and traditional stealth into the experience, as well as make use of the classic Hitman formula and do all three well. I will admit though that at times I felt myself wishing there were more classic Hitman missions, because some of these levels and environments are just the best parts of the entire game. But to put it fairly, the game is well-rounded, offers more attractions and performs really well in all three areas of gameplay, which is great. It’s consistently challenging on the right difficulty, extremely immersive, and very easy to get lost in.
The new Instinct ability works well in practice, and is actually a good fit. Replacing the real-time map from previous titles, the new feature works like Batman’s Detective Mode, except its usage is limited, and depending on your settings and difficulty, it can show enemy paths, targets, objects of interest and hints. If you play on the easier difficulties, it does really simplify things, but fortunately you can tweak its advantages in the options menu as well as lose most of them as you increase the difficulty. Your Instinct bar recharges as you perform kills, complete objectives and such, but it gets used up quite quickly. What’s great about the feature is that it adds a lot more flow to the game, and being able to see enemies through walls and where suspicious enemies’ paths will lead to is a great advantage that allows you to always be planning your next move. The feature is also used for the game’s Point Shooting mechanic where, by depleting your Instinct meter, you’re able to slow down time, select your targets and gun them down in a flash. These are quite exhilarating to watch thanks to the awesome camera work and visual and sound effects that emphasise bullet impact. Admittedly, I thought I’d reject the feature as it seemed too action oriented but your usage of it is quite fair, and you won’t use it that often unless you need to take down a group without raising an alert. It’s something fun and efficient for the trigger happy, but if you’re chasing after a high score you most definitely won’t use it.
The Instinct meter is also used in the game’s revamped disguise system. If you’re under scrutiny, you can hold down the Instinct button to sort of blend in and avoid detection, but this depletes your meter fast on the harder difficulties. This would have been a nice feature, but the problem is that the disguise system is badly designed, and it’s unfortunate that it’s actually the game’s biggest flaw. It now works that whatever disguise you take, you can pretty much fly under the radar wherever you have access to, but all NPC’s with the same uniform will automatically be suspicious of you when you get near. This gets unimaginably frustrating if you’re surrounded by cops and you’re wearing a cop disguise, for instance. Just a few seconds of being close to them will make them call you out and start to approach you to get a closer look at you, and your only options then would be to run, fake surrender to knock them out when they get close, but this makes a lot of noise, or walk away slowly and lead them to a secluded place to take them out. I can’t fathom why this design choice was made, because it’s not at all realistic for starters. A cop doesn’t know every other cop around, and even if you turn your back to them the suspicion meter still rises. Basically, even with a disguise, you can’t hide in plain sight, and you have to sneak around, which is absurd and entirely defeats the purpose. It works when you get the right outfit, but I can’t understand why the previous system was changed. In Blood Money, NPCs of the same uniform would give you a once over if you got close, but if you acted natural they’d ignore you when you walked away, but in Absolution it can often end in extreme amounts of frustration.
The other problem I had with Absolution, although it’s not as severe as the disguise complaint, is the new checkpoint system. You don’t get to manually save your game at any time like before, but now in levels you’ll have to find checkpoints that you can activate. Now, in previous titles manual saves was a resource you had to manage, and it gave you all the freedom and encouragement in the world to experiment with the world and be daring if you had saves to spare. But in Absolution, it can happen that you’ve pulled everything off perfectly, but you know that your checkpoint was fifteen minutes ago, so you really don’t want to screw up. It makes you less daring and hinders experimentation, which is another questionable design choice. It can also happen that you miss checkpoints entirely based on where you go in the level. The system also has some annoying bugs, because it doesn’t seem to restore the world in the state that you saved your progress on. For instance, bodies you hid, and enemies you killed, seem to get undone, yet you’ll hold onto your inventory and disguise just fine.
The game has also incorporated a new scoring system, which works out awesomely, but it has a small catch sadly. Displayed in the upper left corner of your screen, your points are constantly tallied as you play, increasing and decreasing as you perform well or badly. Basically, you’ll know if you pulled off the right kill, and if you’re heading for that Silent Assassin rating. It’s also great because you can stay connected to leaderboards and see how your friends are doing in the missions you’re playing, and try to beat their scores. If you play on a higher difficulty, you’re rewarded with bonus points at the end of the mission, so it balances out. Now, the issue is that you can’t make the score not display unless you’re playing on Purist, the highest difficulty setting where you have no HUD to speak of. By virtue of the fact that it’s visible at all times means you’re getting reminded that there is a right way to the play the game, and it certainly made me conscious of my play style when I was just trying to do my own thing and have fun. I don’t really know why you can’t just choose to not have it display, but this is just a personal nitpick and it does do a lot of good as you’ll know you made a mistake rather than in previous titles where you may have been completely unaware of one tiny detail that prevents a perfect rating.
Where the game performs best is in its large, opened ended missions that are as intense as they are dynamic and exciting. Sure you’ll find yourself wishing for more of these, but the other segments are a nice change of pace and the game is always engaging. Some of the levels in the game are so interesting that you may find yourself already thinking about what you’d want to try out on your second playthrough while busy with your first. And as for the famous “accidents” you can cause? I was in stitches for some of them. The game certainly hasn’t lost its ability to make killing people so damn satisfying and sadistically pleasing, and that’s really what I find myself wanting from a Hitman game at the end of the day. Plus you’ve got tons of new weapons, the option to toggle between duel-wielding pistols and attaching silencers to your Silverballers at the push of a button, extremely gory kills and many new assassination techniques, and heaps of collectibles. When playing I stuck to asking myself a simple set of questions. Am I planning elaborate ways to kill people? Definitely. Am I loving the hell out of permanently retiring people in very disturbing ways? Not an inkling of doubt about that.
The game’s new online feature, Contracts, turned out to be a brilliant idea that is executed extremely well. Basically, this feature lets you play a level in the game and create your own targets and challenges. You’ll walk through the level, mark up to three targets of your choice, kill them in whatever fashion you wish and select the escape point, all in an attempt to make the level challenging. The clever part is that you cannot create an unfair Contract, because you actually have to complete it yourself before you can save it and upload it. The manner in which you initially complete your own Contract determines its bonus conditions. For instance, if you only use pistols and use no disguises, those will become bonus conditions for players to try and imitate for extra cash at the end, and this can be used to buy upgrades and gear. You can naturally play Contracts from other players, thumbs up their Contract if you enjoyed it, and challenge your friends to the ones you make. It’s an awesome idea that is lots of fun, and it definitely lengthens the lifespan of your game as you’ll try to master the game’s mechanics and create a genuinely challenging scenario for your friends to struggle with.
Graphically, Absolution is simply gorgeous with some highly impressive tech powering it. It’s impossible not to be astounded by the sheer volume of NPCs that can be on-screen at once, and the game shows absolutely no hint of slowing down. On the PC version, it seems that enabling MSAA in graphics options will cause the game’s frame rate to drop noticably, and hopefully this will be fixed with a patch. Still, on all settings maxed out the game performed perfectly. The environments are large, expansive and wonderfully detailed, and packed with life, begging you to explore and get immersed in the world. You can easily just spend time walking around and listening to the humourous conversations of NPCs or watching the world just live, and completely ignore the mission at hand. Colours are bright and vibrant, and the game has a strong sense of style. It’s fantastically dark and broody, while still managing to be visually exciting, and this is reflected amazingly well with the game’s awesome soundtrack, which flares up during an alert and really nails the atmosphere. In the visual and audio department, Absolution does some of the most impressive things I’ve seen this year, and it deserves a great deal of credit.
Before concluding this extremely long review, let’s tackle the question that is most likely on many minds. Is this the best Hitman title? As a massive fan of this series, I’d say you could make a case for that, sure, but I wouldn’t say it’s definite. There are some moments in this game that have been the best I’ve experienced this entire year in gaming, and others, because of the flaws or extended segments where the classic formula is absent, where I felt annoyance or disappointment. Still, Absolution is undoubtedly an excellent game that breathes life into this series again. Plus it has an insane amount of replay value to boot, and that’s not even getting into its Contracts mode, which I’m sure players will have a blast with. If I look at this game purely with regards to value for money, it performs admirably as well, and I know that I’ll be spending a lot more time with it. If a game can make me excited to keep playing it despite finishing it, then I’m completely satisfied, because truth be told I usually stop playing after completion.
Hitman: Absolution impressively manages to feel like a natural evolution of the series. It has a few faults and stumbles, but after all is said and done it’s an excellent game that gives you far too many reasons to keep coming back for more. If you go into it with an open mind and not set yourself on the idea that this has to be exactly like the previous game, then you’ll find that it’s a great sequel, and that’s coming from someone who is obsessively in love with Blood Money and holds it up as an all-time favourite. This is one of the best games of the year. The original assassin is back, and it’s a glorious return.