As virtual assassins love to boast, waiting's part of the job. What Agent 47's handlers forgot to tell us is that factory-like repetition is a hidden clause in his job description for Hitman: Absolution.
After a hiatus of a little over six years following the last game, Hitman: Blood Money, Io Interactive returns to the franchise where players take on the role of a bold, brash and brutal hitman who stalks prey.
Its unique combination of tough, stealth mechanics and the meticulous planning required to pull off the perfect job created an appealing antithesis to other titles, such as Ubisoft's Splinter Cell, where sneaky heroics were performed for the greater good. The series' protagonist, Agent 47, does things because the contract requires them to be done. And he's very good at what he does.
Absolution glosses over Agent 47's long history, though veterans will recognize his trademark suit and pistols as well as the significance of why he has a bar code on the back of his head. For everyone else, it feels like somewhat of a new start, leaving the title accessible to newcomers who may have never gotten into the series.
It starts things with a job against an old friend, Agent 47's old handler. The ultra-secretive and newly resurrected Agency wants her dead for burning them. They also want a girl who she's taken returned at all costs. It doesn't take long for Agent 47 to carry out his task with cold precision, but he's also found a reason to turn his back on the Agency and Benjamin Travis, the man who hired him.
Things get off to a great start, but I didn't have to wait long before the dated checkpoint scheme began grating on the fun.
Save-anywhere schemes haven't killed classics like Thief, Deus Ex, or more recently, Dishonored. Rather, they allow players the freedom to pick where they want to leave off in order to experiment and play out the possibilities. Checkpoint saves aren't bad, either, and can work well, but Absolution's implementation often makes creativity feel like a liability.
A player can go for the direct method and simply kill the target, but it's always a lot more fun to use what each level provides to enhance the experience. However, it feels as if someone attached a puzzle lock to the toy box that needs to be solved every time you want to reach in.
After the first few times, I felt myself aging as I listened to scripted conversations ad nauseam while waiting for NPCs to move into position for a kill. You must retrace your steps to get to the point where your best-laid plans fall apart until you can get it right. It's like 47 going through the motions of assembling a sniper rifle for use, missing a shot, disassembling it, and then re-assembling it to try again. It's not as bad in some missions, but as the complexity of the challenges and objectives increase along with the scope of each area, it becomes a grinding, Pavlovian exercise.
The intended payoff is the tension to not screw up. In other games, this is fine-tuned to manageable doses of action that don't feel like punishments if you need to repeat them. Here, the agonizing redundancy of having to sweep through the same moves dilutes the initial euphoria when you discover the various options. It sucks the fun out of actually playing in the levels.
The checkpoints also have to be activated by players; it grants a sliver of freedom, and not every area has them. They're especially welcome sights after finding a disguise that might work well for the next step of your attack. As if repetition weren't bad enough, everyone respawns, aside from the specific targets you're supposed to take out. That technician you knocked out earlier for his clothes? He'll be back with a new set. If you've whittled down a few guards on the way to that checkpoint to give yourself a little breathing room, you can kiss that progress good-bye, too.
The people in Hitman: Absolution are equipped with super senses that can penetrate time and space to ruin a perfectly fine hit, and this adds to the checkpoint burden. I've taken out people in isolated corners of the map, like in a restroom, only to have a guy freak out at the front desk 30 yards — and a few walls — away. Patrol scripts can unexpectedly break in the same way, such as when a person stares at you no matter where you go on the map, so you must either restart another aggravating checkpoint to reset the logic or go in with guns blazing.
Everyone is also paranoid to the point that skulking around in another's clothes can be more trouble than it's worth. It makes sense that if you invade someone's personal space or do something goofy like climb through a window or enter restricted areas without the right look.
However, it doesn't make much sense if you're clothed from head to toe in a clean room suit and someone thinks the same thing from fifty 50 away. Sometimes 47 "conveniently" forgets the face mask that goes along with his stolen uniform. When he's dressed like any one of dozens of guards in an area, he's still an instant suspect because they must have face-recognition technology installed in their optical nerves or something.
Agent 47 does have a "power" called Instinct, which is replenished by quietly knocking out people and successfully taking down targets. Using it, he can hide in plain view with the right clothes even if someone is staring at him. It's also shorthand for his honed abilities to detect people through walls and get an idea of the important items in the room. It's a useful tool, though veterans may try the harder difficulties, which severely limit instinct and can remove the HUD for an even greater challenge.
The near-realistic gameplay and story, which is carved out through meticulous social engineering, is at odds with the player's ability to change clothes in seconds and carry an arsenal of weapons in what are obviously subspace pockets. When it works, though, those moments capture some of the most taut experiences that a stealth sandbox can offer.
The beautiful backdrop walls it in. If you were disappointed in the muddy visuals in Dishonored, Absolution's crisp world brings out the worst of Chicago's crumbling infrastructure into rain-drenched, and crowded, life before taking you to South Dakota's wide-open country and small-town charms.
The areas range from being impressively open to claustrophobic. Some are divided into smaller areas separated by doors that close behind the player, preventing any further exploration because the game considers you to be "done" there. Each lays out a spread of deadly approaches to your target whether it's poison, a convenient hanging pallet of bags to crush them with, or in letting you replacing a bottle of hot sauce with explosive fuel. They also add up within its challenge system, which tests players on their creativity.
If you're looking to pad your position on the global scoreboard, the challenges make it worth your while to replay missions, and they take a little of the edge off of jumping back to checkpoints to try new things. Challenges range from the standard stuff, such as finding all of the possible disguises in a mission, to providing a creative death for your intended victim, such as rigging a hair growth experiment to melt their face or poisoning their nose candy. You can even save civilians caught up in the private war you're waging against your enemies. This is an Agent 47 with a slightly nicer outlook.
As good as he is, he's not indestructible, and getting into a firefight can be punishing. Hand-to-hand fights are handled exclusively through QTEs, likely approximating 47's exceptional reflexes as a professional. For shootouts, using the cover system and returning fire works well, but as a fragile assassin facing incredible odds, don't expect to earn much in the way of challenges or to survive as wave after wave of bad guys who are armed to the teeth. It's manageable in small, isolated chunks, but letting things get out of hand is clearly not where you want to go, and the game can often remind you of that.
Topping this off is the Contracts multiplayer system. Players can tweak missions within the game and provide them as "contracts" with attached cash points, which can be used to unlock costumes and weapons for online use. Players may be required to take down a target with a bottle while wearing a specific disguise and escape unseen, or they can simply gun them down without worrying about collateral damage.
Building a contract is also easy: Pick the starting equipment for Agent 47 and head into a mission setting from the main campaign. From there, you mark a target and take them out with whatever weapon or clothes you are wearing and then exit the level to complete it. This also makes things fair by forcing a successful playthrough versus cavalierly creating one with an impossible target, making it a duel of wits online as opposed to reflexes. It's a uniquely Hitman way in challenging other fans over how clever they are — or how well they can exploit the gameplay — by showing off what you can do and seeing if others can keep up.
I loved and hated Hitman: Absolution. It wraps its stealthy assassinations within a slim and challenging margin of comfort. Often, that's due to clunky mechanics that don't share the same kind of experimental freedom as other sandbox games, especially when unexpected glitches can ruin a half-hour of careful exploration. You can expect many hours of gameplay against a detailed backdrop of revenge, murder, and deliciously unsavory characters and comic book-styled villainy. It's not as beautiful a kill as it could have been, but the lengthy contract can still make a compelling argument for giving this wetwork collection a second look.
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