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Hitman: Absolution begins with the assignment of a contract to Agent 47, much as one would expect. It will be the only official contract that Agent 47 accepts in the entire game, as Absolution steps out of line with the franchise to become something else. Something plot-driven, something heavily stylized, something perhaps more akin to IO Interactive's other recent franchise, Kane and Lynch, than the Hitman fans recognize from the past 12 years.
That's not to say Hitman: Absolution throws all of the staples of the franchise to the side. Players will still progress through levels balancing between action and stealth gameplay to perform the goal of murder. Gone, however, is the assumption that said mission will require any sort of planning or patience. Rather, the player is entirely able and often encouraged to pick up a brick or automatic weapon and burn through a problematic scenario. The skill floor from previous Hitman titles has been dropped for the sake of accessibility, and the skill ceiling has sunk quite a bit itself.
Hitman: Absolution begins with the assignment of a contract to Agent 47, but completion of said sole contract is ultimately played out in a cinematic cutscene. It's the only official contract that Agent 47 takes in Hitman: Absolution, and the rest... Well, that's going to take a bit longer to describe.
Designing the Hit
The most striking aspect of Hitman: Absolution, and also the greatest surprise, is how prominent a role the story takes. Hitman, as far as I'm concerned, has never been a plot-driven experience and I'm extremely skeptical of the decision to change that now. Firstly, Agent 47 simply isn't dynamic enough of a character to carry a story, and that certainly doesn't change in Absolution. Secondly, and of utmost importance, is that a plot-driven game significantly alters the mission structure and pacing of the game.
Where previous Hitman titles' assassination contracts allowed players to partake in each individual mission almost as its own succinct story, Absolution's overarching plot creates a disconnect between the narrative and the mission at hand. Then, each missions is broken into several smaller stages, whether that be escaping after an assassination, continuing pursuit of a target, or progressing through an area just to find out what the next goal is. Very rarely is there simply a large open area with a series of goals; everything is very segmented in order to preserve the narrative structure. Considering most missions boil down to killing a specific individual, a majority of mission segments have little to no relation to the narrative despite being where most of the game's content lies.
It doesn't help the plotline itself is deeply flawed, both as a result of the mission structure and simply poor writing. Initially, Hitman: Absolution seems promising, as Agent 47 rescues a girl and seems faced with questions about his own background. The idea of the Hitman reflecting on his upbringing and the emotions he goes through seeing a child facing the same grim future – awesome, right? That thread, unfortunately, is quickly dismissed in favor of hunting down a misogynist weapon merchant and his endless bigoted cronies who have managed to capture the girl out from under Agent 47's nose. The girl doesn't return until near the end of the game, but by then it's clear there was never meant to be any emotion conveyed at any point throughout Hitman: Absolution.
Creating a cohesive story when gameplay requires a mission structure and the constant introduction of characters to kill off is obviously challenging. But instead of stepping up and addressing the potential problems therein in creative ways, Hitman: Absolution ignores the issue entirely. Worse yet, it glosses over its flaws with an excess of gross adolescent humor and exploitation flick imagery. As a mission boss introduced just a chapter prior says as he is dying, “I've got wood. Why do I got wood?” that every player should question whether continuing the game is worth the effort. It's not that the jokes are repulsive, though that certainly doesn't help, but that they're so clearly forced and unnecessary. The constant push of "edgy" dialogue and imagery is exhausting to the point of being demeaning, as if to say Hitman: Absolution has so little to offer that this lurid attitude is required to give it some personality.
Frankly, gameplay fares no better than the rest of Hitman: Absolution. The systems that made Hitman unique in the past have each been reworked to create a more streamlined and accessible experience. What remains is more of a cover-based action game with stealth mechanics, with a majority of the strategic underpinnings of the series notably missing. Altogether it's a mess, a struggle between meeting the demands of a wider audience with shorter attention spans, and a fanbase craving the depth of creative mission scenarios and unique methods of assassination.
The methods by which IO Interactive seeks to fulfill both play styles is evident as early as the tutorial mission. The player is shown how to pick up objects, incapacitate enemies and hide their bodies, navigate terrain including using cover for stealth, use disguises to avoid detection and of course gunplay. Certainly gunplay, because being discovered often leads to a domino effect of aggression from every enemy on a given map. Old school Hitman players may hear that and think it's time to reset to a control point. Not necessary, as new players will quickly find how simple it is to use guns to solve any problem, or even clear a level if necessary.
Luckily this loose cannon style of play is patently broken, either resulting in a ridiculously easy playthrough at low difficulties or an overwhelmingly difficult experience at higher. The thing is, AI in Hitman: Absolution is brick dumb. Enemies will follow one another into terrible situations until they're dead. Their saving grace is the damage their weapons can do, and how painful it is to play in such a manner.
So in the end, most players will be thrust into making the most of Absolution's stealth mechanics, and therein discover the heartbreaking truth of the game. It's with my utmost disappointment that I state a majority of Hitman has become a linear experience. Nevermind that the 20 missions in Absolution are broken into check-pointed subsections; it's that each of those subsections typically have very limited true stealth ways of completion. There are still weapons and disguises strewn about, but key items and scripted kill scenarios often have very specific precursor requirements. Want to get through that door? Get the key. If you want the key you'll need a police disguise. If you want the police disguise you'll need to follow this gentleman into this room after he's done with his scripted dialogue.
If that was it, at least there'd be the potential for discovery in every map, but even that has been taken away with the introduction of Agent 47's Instinct. Stumped? Press the right shoulder button and see where every key item in a given level is located, along with the pathing of every potentially aggressive patrol. It's Hitman-style “Connect the Dots,” and I find it mind-boggling how much thought must have gone into breaking down the Hitman formula into an easily digestible and uninspired experience.
Attention to Detail
Hitman: Absolution's asynchronous multiplayer mode Contracts is the bright light in the dark and shows a lot of potential. At face value it's a customizable mode that allows the selection of map, target and mission particulars, where upon completion the player can challenge others to finish the same scenario with a better score. I have hopes that others will be able to create some extraordinary experiences here, but judging from the limitations of the game, perhaps my hopes are unfounded. Rather, I expect the majority of scenarios to be silly and include overly specific goals. Still fun, mind you, but symbolic of the attitude with which Absolution was designed.
Visually, Absolution can at times prove very impressive. For instance, the Chinatown level is populated with dozens of fully animated NPCS, food carts full of boxes of rendered 3D ingredients, and well-modeled and textured statues lining the street. Immersion is a tenuous thing, however, as animations can at times look rather awkward and even broken. Cracking an enemy over the head with a coffee cup looking the same as most other blunt objects, for instance, and Agent 47's stocky animations in particular are rather repetitive and robotic. Old fashioned ragdoll for downed foes and sketchy blood and bullet graphics do more harm than good, and ultimately Hitman: Absolution's vestige of visual acuity can quickly fade when the action starts.
Speaking of immersion, IO has a tendency to ignore the tenuous state of the game in order to progress in a way they deem appropriate. A simple example of this is how Hitman: Absolution will clear the player's disguise and armaments between the segments of a mission. As in, mass murder in a samurai suit with an AK-47 on one side of the door will result in Agent 47 in his suit and a calm atmosphere on the other. Worse yet is how the game loves to throw in cutscenes haphazardly, displacing the player during particularly dramatic moments. Consider assassinating a target in police uniform with a shotgun blast to the face, only to find Agent 47 in a cutscene wearing his standard suit and tie, wielding his silverballers, with the target lightly wounded and begging for their life. "Excuse me, but didn't I just shoot you in the head?"
What hurts Hitman: Absolution the most, in my mind, is its lack of identity. Creating a Hitman title that's accessible to a wider audience is certainly an admirable goal, but that comes at the sacrifice of the franchise's identity. Gameplay that allows the player to focus on stealth or action is a solid approach, but when neither is executed well, things can feel disassociative. A blockbuster story with Hollywood actors is popular with big games these days, but stretching it over the top of Absolution's mission structure doesn't feel cohesive. Then it all comes together and becomes one tragic mess.
There's no greater example of this than the adoption of the segmented mission structure. One part might be as simple as opening a door and another assassinating an important plot figure, but each typically includes the same amount of content, resulting in a pacing equal to doing chores. Complete the mission and the reward is a pre-rendered cutscene full of bondage jokes and the introduction of another bland character to kill next mission. A majority of Absolution's missions are immediately forgettable, and even the best missions have segments that are insipid. Replayability? Sure, I can go back and try the level again using a bong to incapacitate targets instead of a wrench, but why would I want to?
If I had to question something specific about IO's design direction, I'd call out Hitman: Absolution doubling down on instant gratification. Have just enough time after work for one level? Sure. Jump in, assassinate a guy by making him pee on a high voltage wire, then if you're running low on time quit and rejoin the mission at the half-way point later. Weapons are everywhere, escape routes are everywhere, every piece of content in the game is associated with one challenge or another. Don't worry about getting lost in a level either, as there's a subtle linearity at work to keep you moving forward. Worst case, use the Instinct feature to point exactly where Agent 47 needs to go to progress. Welcome to the new Hitman, it's rather a buffet compared to the franchise's typically hearty meals.
Hitman: Absolution is an unfortunate step in the wrong direction for IO Interactive. The influence of Kayne and Lynch and modern stealth action games is clear, but the result is a muddied, incoherent experience that left me questioning why the game was branded Hitman at all.
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