It has been six years since gamers took control of Agent 47. At the time, the freedom and strict operating parameters made Hitman: Blood Money the best in the series while still managing to alienate newcomers. In the ensuing years, stealth and assassination have become en vogue thanks to the yearly releases in the Assassin's Creed series and the surprise hit that is Dishonored. With a wider audience, the time is perfect for Agent 47 to come out of retirement for one more job. Thankfully, Hitman: Absolution shows that both he and IO Interactive are up for the task.
The game starts off intriguingly. As Agent 47, you take on a contract that tests your loyalty as you have to eliminate Diana Burnwood, your former handler and head of The Agency who sought to bring it down from the inside. Finding her laying low in Chicago, you complete your job but discover she's harboring a girl named Victoria, the latest of The Agency's experiments. With memories of your own experiments, you go rogue, hiding the girl and seeking answers about why she's special in the first place.
Admittedly, story has never been a strong point with the series. The plot is fine, and the "twists" are sometimes predictable, but the details bring it down. Some of the decisions 47 makes seem questionable if you've been following his mannerisms since the first game. The cast of characters also feels too spread out, with so many eccentric characters who feel out of place. The infamous killer nuns, for example, have a sequence so short that one wonders why they got their own trailer. Despite these misgivings, the tale is held together by some memorable moments. While you won't hate everyone, you'll appreciate how that hate keeps you glued to the tale.
Gameplay is what attracts the fans, and the six-year hiatus doesn't seem to have dulled the team's focus. A majority of the levels has you trying to eliminate a target, but you must decide how to approach it. You can play it out like a shooter, going in with guns blazing and killing your target in plain sight, and while it won't make the mission a failure, it places you very low on the online leaderboards. Unlike most games of this nature, the shooting mechanics are good, the cover system works, and enemies display a decent amount of intelligence. Those who approach the entire game this way won't get much out of it.
To that end, stealth becomes the preferred way of dealing with the situation and, when combined with subtlety, the game really opens up. Your standard stealth mechanics work exactly as you'd expect. You'll often hide in shadows, dumpsters or closets, but you'll also be able to blend into crowds of people and among tall objects as long as you remain still and don't bump into anyone. The same goes for a disguise system, which lets you blend in with your surroundings but doesn't feel overpowering. A number of everyday objects can be used to distract others, so even though throwing bottles or triggering car alarms aren't lethal activities, they are instrumental in helping you get what you want. Alternate paths also open up to the point where you have several different ways of sneaking to your target.
Then there are the kills and numbers of ways you can execute individuals and dispose of the bodies. Your garrote is almost always with you, as are guns, but you'll go through a number of missions without your classic silverballers. Items procured on the field are also useful, so bricks, knives and scissors make for fine weaponry. Choking and neck snapping are also par for the course, but there are more creative ways of killing, such as remote mines, poisoning drugs and food, and falling objects like rickety pallets and broken chandeliers. As for body disposal, you can hide the corpses in closets and containers, or you can make them fall through windows or ledges and near-bottomless pits and ledges.
With the foundation of the game is already in place for series and genre veterans, the team addressed the accessibility issue for new players. Some changes are minor, such as automatically latching on to a corpse from a garrote kill, but they make it much easier to perform kills. One change, the instinct meter, is much bigger since it gives you a better visual of what Agent 47 sees. With your instincts activated, you can easily ID your targets and keep an eye on their patterns. Objects of interest also become visible, so you'll quickly know what you can interact with and what's needed. Instinct also lets you sneak past those with similar disguises by blocking your face with your hand, and you can use instinct to momentarily freeze time to get in some quick kills with multiple targets. Instinct isn't infinite, though, and while you can replenish it depending on your difficulty level, you'll get it faster by performing essential mission actions. The inclusion of instinct doesn't turn the game into a cakewalk, but it lessens the frustration for those who aren't experienced with the stealth genre but want to use this as their entryway.
This doesn't mean that the title abandons everything to cater to new players, though. There is a variable difficulty level that may make things easier for new players but challenges veterans by limiting or eliminating some abilities and punishing for not being stealthy. Playing on higher difficulty levels also presents challenges that reward you with bonus points or permanent point boosts. The difficulty level is variable, so those who start off playing on easy can graduate to a higher difficulty level without having to start over.
The compromise throws in something unfortunate: smaller playing areas. There are a good number of levels to go through, and the total playing time in story mode is in the double digits, but a number of levels feel slightly claustrophobic. This is more evident in the early levels than the later ones, as it feels like you can scope out the area and come up with a few ideas of how you want to execute the hit. The reduction in size is also accented by some of the larger levels being broken up into smaller sections that don't connect due to boundaries, such as elevators or locked doors.
There are a few other issues with the title — some of them technical — that detract from the game. Targeting certain actions becomes problematic when one button triggers two things. Having a weapon and a chest next to each other, for example, is an exercise in frustration when you want to hide the body you're dragging but are constantly doing weapon swaps instead. With no way to switch targets, you'll likely abandon the body out of frustration. There are times when the body collapses in a way that makes it impossible to carry or change disguises, mostly when the body dies near a ledge and falls. Finally, when sneaking around the game on higher difficulty levels, the enemies gain a superhuman sense of your location, often spotting you when you're clearly behind cover.
One of the more interesting additions to the game is Contracts mode, the closest the series has come to true multiplayer. Players have a chance to craft challenges for other players; they simply select a level, designate the targets to be eliminated, and set up the requirements to fulfill the mission. The catch is that you have to play the contract exactly as you want the hit to go down to ensure that you created something that can be done. Playing community-created contracts yields contract dollars based on your performance and how well you matched up with the creator's intentions. That money can be used to buy new equipment and disguises to make your own creations even more unique. Whether you decide to mimic a famous horror character and go on a stabbing spree or infiltrate the strip club with a chipmunk costume, you'll find no shortage of missions that are creative, absurd or a good mix of both.
Like the main campaign, your levels are restricted to small areas, so trying to string together a series of challenges into a longer level won't work unless you publish each one separately. The target cap is only set to three, a good number if you don't want players to create virtual shooting galleries, but the available targets feel limited. There are only a few you can choose from per level, so you have to settle for targeting a random cop or thug instead of a civilian if you want to mix things up. Finally, the game automatically sets the contract value based on your play style, so even if you felt a challenge was difficult, the game might not see it that way and assign your contract a lower value than appropriate.
The graphics are quite good. The environments and almost every man you meet are dingy and dirty, but the care taken in crafting such ugliness is visible and a sight to behold, especially when you consider the age of the hardware. There's also a slight difference for most, in not all, of the people you meet, so it never feels like you're dispatching clones of the same henchman. Particle effects like rain and smoke are handled well, but what really impresses are the large crowds. Like some of the previous Hitman and Kane & Lynch games, the environments have enough characters to rival a Dynasty Warriors title, and they do so without a hint of frame rate issues, showing that the engine can handle quite a bit. There are a few flaws, though most are notable when viewing characters and items up close. Agent 47 still has an angular head instead of a smooth one. Enemies seem to carry faces with eyes that stay open after death — something that is super creepy the first time. Nevertheless, the grit and blemishes help craft a beautiful game.
Similarly, the sound is done very well. The score may not be handled by Jesper Kyd this time around, but you still feel his influences in the music. There's a heavy synth vibe that permeates most of the pieces, with an emphasis on sharp bass that elicits fear and dread. Like before, the score only pops up during important plot points or when it feels the need to ratchet up the tension, and the minimalist nature works in its favor. The sound effects enrich the surroundings, and that's helped along greatly by the unimportant conversations. Guards talking about details gone awry, listening to civilians complain about the weather or delays in schedules, or hearing anyone else talk about inconsequential subjects helps make the game world feel more natural. Speaking of voice, the work expended in that area is impressive, if a little excessive at times. Regardless of what you think about the plot, the performances are handled well, and while some will question why some high-profile actors were assigned for some very minor roles, the results are convincing enough that you'll feel it was worth the cost.
Hitman: Absolution proves to be another notable entry in the series. It may house a ho-hum plot, and you'll hate just about every character you come across, but the open nature of the approach is good enough that you'll overlook those blemishes. There's no true method given for each mission, and that's refreshing enough that you'll want to play through each mission several times to find all of the possible avenues. The Contracts mode gives you something more grounded. With a solid presentation at hand, IO has come up with another winner that stealth fans should check out. Our only hope is that it doesn't take the team another six years before Agent 47 returns.
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