Hitman Absolution review: Vintage 47, successfully remixed
18th Nov 2012 | 13:00
We did most of it as a consummate professional in a sharp suit or a cunning disguise, but on occasion we pulled off our kills dressed as a chipmunk or in a Hawaiian dressing gown barely long enough to cover our dignity. And for most of the game, we did it with a big smile on our face.
In large part, this is classic Hitman pressed from the same mould as
To our mind that's a good thing. While we don't want our hands held throughout the game, we'd rather see a decent slice of IO's smarts in a single playthrough than arrive at the end feeling we've missed out. And the kills themselves include several scenes that will live in your memory alongside the best of the series to date. No spoilers here, obviously, but the hits you've seen in previews (like 'King of Chinatown') are child's play compared to later assassinations.
FROM SLAY TO B
However, Absolution's 10-12 hours of game (which could be more or less, depending on which of the five difficulty settings you choose to tackle and how many times you replay) aren't all hub areas and creative kills. As demonstrated by early snippets like the 'Chicago Library' level, some stages are more concerned with getting from A to B unseen. These linking levels offer some choice, and reaching your goal often means distraction rather than assassination, but they're only ever filler between more interesting arenas. Cruicially, though, most are still fun.
The link levels push the narrative forwards. In previous games, Hitman felt like a series of micro-stories held together by a wafer-thin plot. Now, while the game itself remains open, the story is more tightly focused, with a single tale underpinning every kill. Absolution does tell a more human story about Agent 47, but although it changes your perception of the man himself (for the better, we think) as he assumes a more fatherly role, it never takes itself too seriously. Each of the bad guys are still despicable caricatures, not evil characters. Main villain Blake Dexter is wonderfully unhinged, and is definitely the star of the show, even if the stage where 47 eventually executes him is relatively disappointing. He deserves a better death.
In fact, the game really runs out of steam at the end, and finishes incredibly abruptly. Sure, most will replay every stage at least once to check out alternative outcomes and try to complete the myriad challenges and item hunts, but we expected the first properly story-driven Hitman to end with a bigger bang (or at the very least an elaborate 'accident').
Another element of the game that irritates is the checkpoint system. Hardcore players will tackle higher difficulties, where mid-level checkpoints are turned off completely, but regular players will undoubtedly get frustrated by the strange saving system.
During most (but not all levels) you'll find at least one checkpoint, which you can choose to activate or not. It's risk versus reward - save a checkpoint for later, and there's less repetition if you mess up at the climax of the level - but if you don't save at all, you need to start from scratch if things don't go to plan. That's fair enough.
However, hitting a checkpoint resets guard patterns and behaviours, which could leave you stranded in a very tricky spot that becomes more difficult than it needs to be. In some cases, it's easier to restart the level. But this a minor annoyance in an otherwise well-paced game.
Similarly, the new Instinct system is solid but not quite perfect. Again, players can switch it off at higher difficulties, and this makes the game much more challenging. However, in some situations it simply doesn't work consistently. Hitting R1/RB shows outlines of where your targets (or guards) are, and sometimes it'll show their patrol patterns. But not every time. Instinct also allows you to blend in when you're disguised. Again, holding R1/RB makes 47 dip his head to hide his face, throwing off suspicion. However, on occasions, you'll be rumbled at a distance, seemingly at random, while using Instinct. If there is a narrative or gameplay reasoning behind this, it's never made clear. It's a minor annoyance that gets magnified if you fall foul of it during a tricky hit or at the end of a tough level.
These are petty gripes in a generally brilliant game, though. While
Keen-eyed fans will spot plenty of Easter eggs hidden throughout levels too (including cameo appearances from both Kane and Lynch), and AI characters often deliver fourth-wall-breaking lines that remind you that you're playing a game. Their lines are clever and knowing, not genuinely hilarious: that would spoil the mood.
Another reason to recommend Absolution over Dishonored is Contracts mode, which lets you devise your own missions (discussed in detail below). Here's a quick summary: making your own hits is great fun for a few hours, until you realise that IO have done most of the coolest stuff in their own story levels. It just doesn't feel as gratifying offing Johnny Nobody, the random cop, with a plain old pistol, even if you are dressed as a scarecrow.
Overall though, Absolution delivers on the anticipation of a series that has been lingering menacingly in the shadows for six long years. It does so with creativity, genuine player choice, the odd smile and an unrivalled panache for turning murder into an art form.
We take 47 online to create our own fiendish hits for friends to fulfil...
There are minor spoilers ahead, so please read at your own discretion. After finishing the game we decided we wanted to create our first hit in the courthouse level. It involved somehow getting to the judge, unseen, knocking him out, stealing his clothes, and killing the defendant using the judge's gavel. However, to create an online Contract you have to play the hit first, setting the conditions as you go. It's a smart way of ensuring each Contract is actually possible. After several aborted attempts and timing tests, we finished the hit, applied a name and description, and uploaded it.
And for those accepting challenges rather than creating them? Friends can challenge you directly, and their levels load quickly after being accessed with the press of a button. Easy. The process is simple - the difficult part is for those on the creation side to think up a hit fiendish enough to fool their assassination-hungry friends.
See, the devs have already picked the most outrageous kills for the story, so your own hits can feel pedestrian in comparison. A more detailed level editor, allowing you to set more specific non-kill conditions and add your own items to the levels would have improved Contracts significantly.