Hitman: Absolution is a very different kind of game from its predecessor Blood Money, a game that I fell in love with just a few months ago, despite its release in 2006. Blood Money heavily emphasized the idea of stalking your pray in plain sight, planning a kill by exploring the intricately detailed sandbox around you, and watching your carefully constructed series of “accidental” events unfold around you. If you don’t want these, though, it can be about finding the perfect vantage point to snipe your targets, or bust down the door guns a’blazin, or whatever the heck you wanted it to be about. Hitman was basically its own genre, until now. Absolution never recreates the same kind of freedom of choice found in Blood Money, but it does provide a handful of options for getting from A to B or taking down a target. Absolution very clearly places presentation and storytelling over gameplay, and manages to do both pretty well.
Hitman: Absolution follows Agent 47 on a contract to kill his former handler Diana Burnwood, after her betrayal of the Agency. As you might expect, things don’t go as planned and 47 finds himself on the run from the Agency to protect a girl named Victoria from further genetic experiments. It isn’t a very intriguing story compared to its predecessor, especially given how much more effort Absolution puts into it. I was often unsure of exactly why I was doing what I was doing, having to go over the briefing again to fill myself in. It’s difficult to comprehend Agent 47’s motivations for protecting Victoria under the request of Diana when 47 himself is a stone-cold killer who refuses to express emotion. Up until now he’s been nothing but a vessel for the player’s decisions, but Absolution tries to throw a moral compass into his hands which, unfortunately, falls a bit flat.
Absolution’s pacing and level structure could be easily equated to October’s Dishonored or Deus Ex: Human Revolution. The game gives you an objective–“Kill Duder McSomeGuy”–and plenty of tools and opportunities to achieve that goal. For the majority of Absolution, though, objectives are more like “Walk through this door” or “Walk through this door that requires a keycard”. That’s where Absolution begins to feel the most like the previously mentioned games in that I’m simply trying to get across the room, not killing a specific target in unique ways. There are multiple ways to get across that room; you could subdue a guard and take his disguise, creep around and avoid sight, or take out your Silverballers and lay waste to all those with a pulse. I definitely had moments of magic experimenting with these different play-styles, though the changes made to the disguise system make it less practical and harder to manage. Those with the same disguise as yours will rapidly begin to see through your ruse and blow your cover. The only way to counter this is to blend in, which quickly burns your Instinct meter. This would be a good balanced system, if regaining Instinct wasn’t so valuable and hard to do. When the fastest way to regain Instinct is playing like a mass murderer, it directly contradicts the use of Instinct to stay stealthy.
Despite that issue with Instinct, it’s overall a very smart addition to Hitman. Its primary use is the “Detective Vision-like” mode that highlights enemy positions and movement paths through walls. It will also highlight points of interest that drop subtle hints at the possible things you could do with something. For instance, a notice on a guard’s coffee cup may pop up telling you that “he really likes his coffee”, then perhaps you find upon some sleeping pills that you would be perfect knocking him out. Whereas previous iterations left discovery completely up to you, Absolutions nudges you in the right direction, but still leaves plenty of room to feel satisfied at cleverly executing a kill. That sense of self-pride is important to Hetmans’ fundamental gameplay loop, so it’s even more important that it’s done well here.
All of these welcome additions and improvements to the Hitman formula are met with a bittersweet taste in the mouth. They only work well when applied to the classic sandbox levels you’d expect from Hitman, which are few and far between in Absolution. When my only objective is a linear run to a door, the need to use Instinct is reduced. Even when the game finally does provide a proper sandbox with which to experiment, it’s much smaller than those found in Blood Money. Absolution’s scoring system doesn’t help, either. There is a constant number in the right corner at the screen at any given point, rewarding or taking away points according to your play style. There are also a myriad of challenges to complete during a stage that greatly increase your final score, though trying to do all of them in one playthrough is impossible. All of this is in pursuit of a bigger final score, which is then added to the national and friends average. There is a very specific problem with the way the game scores players: It subtracts points. Losing a ton of points when I decide to shoot a random guard in the head directly contradicts the idea of playing the way you want. It’s one thing to grant bonus points when you perform difficult stealth tasks, but to take away points because I’m not the perfect assassin feels cheap, and sucks the joy one gets from tagging six dudes with Point Shooting and watching the rapid gore unfold.
The other half of Absolution’s package is Contracts mode, a surprisingly deep way to add some replay value. Contracts mode is essentially the custom challenge mode we’ve always invented in Hitman, now properly implemented. Creating a contract means entering any stage from the story and marking three targets for execution. Then you play out the situation whichever way you want, taking out the targets. The game will then analyze the different stipulations you performed like “Only Kill Targets”, “Hide All Bodies”, or “Kill this guy with this specific gun and disguise”. You can then name your contract, challenge friends to beat your score, and then send it off into the world for all the community to play. Though my previous problems with the game’s level structure bleeds over into Contracts, every stage is linear and small with very few exceptions, meaning you’re going to see a ton contracts on those few open levels and less on others. Regardless, Contracts is a very cool concept done pretty well here.
Hitman: Absolution is not an example of why I love Hitman, because it’s a very different kind of game. Nearly all of its improvements feel like IO Interactive still had Blood Money on the brain, when in reality they don’t work nearly as well when a stage is as linear. Still, Absolution left me jaw-dropped at its visuals and attention to detail–which are well-represented by the countless lines of incidental dialogue between the AI. Games like Deus Ex could learn plenty of things from the way Absolution handles its movement, cover, and shooting. Though it’s definitely not the Hitman sequel that I would have preferred, none can doubt how well put-together a game it is in the end and for that I salute thee, Agent 47.
Hitman: Absolution gets an 8/10