It's hard to believe that May 26, 2006 is over 6 years ago now. No, this is no random date; this is the release date for Hitman: Blood Money, Absolution's predecessor which quickly became a classic to the majority of stealth fans across the world. While Metal Gear Solid was the cement that solidified the stealth genre for gamers, Hitman most definitely made sure the pavement was smooth for you to sneak across. Even the games prior to Blood Money (Silent Assassin and Contracts) were thoroughly enjoyable as a whole, giving IO Interactive a tiresome weight to carry after a 6 year staring contest between fans and developers. 6 years is a very long time for a game to be out of action; it's long enough for fans to forget how good it felt to strangle enemies with Agent 47's fiber wire. Were IO Interactive successful in creating a game of similar quality to the game that gave them so much acclaim, or are 47's Silverballers now too rusty to be appreciated?
Absolution picks up where Blood Money left off, when the ever-present Agent 47 seeks the location of his former confidant, Diana Burnwood, who previously went rogue, exposing the Agency for everything it was and is. Your assignment was given to you by your new boss, Benjamin Travis, who orders you to take down Diana and retrieve Victoria; the teenage girl in Diana's care. After confronting Diana in an early game shock, she pleads that you disobey Agency orders and lead her to safety, appetising your conscience by telling you they'll successfully turn her into the brutal killing machine that you are. After retrieving the girl, you seek safety at an orphanage near your current, discrete hotel. It seems 47 is too used to orders from Ms. Burnwood, as he contacts the town's local know-it-all snitch named Birdie who offers him significant information in return for some of 47's beautiful weaponry. Birdie wasn't bluffing, as he soon tells you of Dexter Industries and how the company's leader Blake Dexter - a real redneck scumbag who you'll grow to loathe - has a money-hungry motive; to kidnap Victoria and auction her off to the Agency for a luxurious ransom. Being the brilliant Hitman that he is, 47 secures the location of Blake and his men but after an unfair fight with the behemoth Sanchez (Blake's idiot tag-along), things don't go according to plan and after escaping the hotel and leaving 47 unconscious, they flee for Birdie who isn't shy on revealing Victoria's location to Blake's men. Alas, Victoria is inevitably kidnapped, given 47 his gaming motive and lust for revenge.
If you're familiar with previous Hitman games, you'll know as well as I do that they were never plot-driven. For the most part, each mission was about one main target sandwiched between a bunch of henchmen, and your objective was to take him down in whichever way you wish. However, with Absolution you are given so much more background information about your protagonist and his foes, which I feel is a welcomed improvement from previous releases. At least this plot gives you something to play for, rather than going through each mission, not even knowing why you're assassinating each target. If you preferred the times when they was no significant plot, that too is okay; because while there is a plot there worth deciphering, it will never engross you to the point where you've forgotten about how good the gameplay is. And even still, I think you'll find a lot to appreciate from how good a job IO Interactive did of creating several characters that you'll be happy to kill off. If you are familiar with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its successors, the characters are very reminiscent of the scumbag Alexander Zalachenko (him being Blake Dexter) and Ronald Niedermann (the behemoth Sanchez). There are several other scumbags that you'll meet along the way that are both revolting and very credible as a whole.
Instinct Mode, reminiscent to Batman's 'Detective Mode'
The departure of Diana as an ally is like a song without a bass guitarist. Incomplete and therefore only cherished when it's gone. Previous games allowed her to fill you in on targets and what was expected of your current location, which subsequently makes Absolution a lot more linear in her absence. IO's alternative is a feature called Instinct Mode which seems more and more predominant in 21st century stealth titles. This feature allows you to see enemies and main targets highlighted in close proximity behind walls and obstacles, as well as several areas of key interest. Enemy tracks are highlighted with lines of fire, enabling you to avoid any confrontation if he/she is walking towards your path. And if that wasn't enough, when disguised, you are also given the option to cover your head when passing a guard, protecting your identity. In the later parts of the game, it also allows you to see lasers and proximity mines placed inconveniently on the ground. Your instinct bar will deteriorate if you are protecting your face in order to evade an attack from enemies, so it never lasts too long. It is also regained from completing objectives, silently killing enemies, hiding bodies and successfully pulling off a headshot. Overall, your instinct bar is extremely well balanced, never making it too difficult, and definitely not too easy.
Besides that, Hitman feels close to as good as it always has in the past. Your Silverballers are always by your side, and it wouldn't be a Hitman game without fiber wire. But they're not your only options; you can pick up bottles, bricks, gasoline cans and other blunt objects to throw and create enemy diversions, as well as use sharp objects against targets with close attacks or distant, aim-assisted throws. These objects range from knives, axes and syringes to tomahawks, hammers and samurai swords, and never fail to amuse when executed unscathed. While the game is quite linear as a whole - each mission has a path that doesn't allow you to go off-course - there are various ways to take down a target. To take Chinatown for an early example; you locate your target amidst a busy crowd surrounded by guards with heavy weaponry. Going into instinct mode can highlight any key interest, and give you various avenues for a blood thirsty Agent 47 to play with. On your left is a guard patrolling your target's vehicle. The area is restricted, but if you take him out, steal his clothes and a nearby remote explosive, you can set off your target's car alarm, wait for him to see what all the commotion is about, and blow him to smithereens, making it look like a bizarre accident. Other alternatives include stealing a drug dealers clothes and taking him down at close range, taking a sniper vantage point, grab a civilian as a human shield, poison his food that is being cooked, push him down a sewer hole or simply just shooting him in the head if you have no patience. Most levels offer as many alternatives as this, which is refreshing.
While Absolution is undoubtedly a stealth game, it doesn't necessarily have to be played as a stealth game, which allows for a greater gaming audience. Much like Dishonored in that you won't get the full enjoyment out of flying through it all guns blazing, I wouldn't advise you to play it this way. But there are definitely areas in the game where you will no longer have the patience to wait 5 minutes for an enemy to move to a position that is more convenient for you to escape, so sometimes combat is the only answer. And surprisingly, the combat with this method is very enthralling and rewarding. The kick off each weapon feels as real as any successful shooter, and blowing lead into a guard, target or civilian feels as real as it can. There are plenty of games out there where shooting a target feels too similar to shooting a wall, so it's nice to see a game's Plan B work so well, making the game enjoyable even when it frustrates you.
Taking a moment to embrace those beautiful, vibrant colours
The disguise system has made a dramatic change that divided fans - admittedly the divide isn't even, in that plenty preferred Blood Money's disguise system. If you find a chef's disguise, or take down a chef and steal his, you won't have any trouble from a guard (and vice-versa). But if you come across another chef, they're immediately on the defensive and feel that you're an intruder. It can be a bit ridiculous, especially with guards because it isn't likely, if put into a real life situation, that one member of the police force would know every other person involved. And even if he did, it's possible that a newbie could be on the cards. But alas, Absolution is absolutely unforgiving when it comes to disguises. This is where you'll bleed out your instinct really quickly, and once you do, you're really in trouble, when comments like "I've seen his face before" and "hey buddy, stop for a minute!" quickly circulate a room and make you notorious in a matter of seconds. It's fine if you have no problem being spotted and continuing, but if you're a stealth perfectionist, you'll have to restart a checkpoint every time you're spotted as you lose a significant amount of points, and more importantly, the opportunity to finish a mission with the Silent Assassin rating. Checkpoints are also scarce and optional, which adds to the sense of frustration if you can't grasp a certain mission. It is fair to say Agent 47 has a very distinctive appearance, and that even other bald characters in the game differ greatly from himself, but that doesn't make it okay to add something that hinders the overall quality of the gameplay.
It's easy to look at graphical comparisons between Blood Money and Absolution and note that the latter is a vast improvement to the former; but you have to remember how long ago Blood Money was released, so it isn't a pertinent substitute. However, the graphics are still very impressive on Absolution. It's quickly made apparent that Square Enix are involved, as lighting in most scenes is very similar to Deus Ex: Human Revolution - albeit a lot brighter. Textures are almost spot on (the only issue I had was towards the end during a cutscene when a logo on my disguise kept appearing and disappearing), and successfully play in perfect synchronisation to the fast-paced cutscenes and gameplay. Faces are extremely detailed and portray the characters very well. Agent 47 has this gruesome "don't mess with me" face that he wears so well, portraying little to no emotion which I think was absolutely key in his character for how the plot played out. Characters like Birdie, Wade and Blake also look as seedy as they are, and even without audio you can tell how much you'll hate them after a couple of minutes of air-time. Character voice-overs are also spot-on; David Bateson returns as our Hitman and plays a more predominant role than in the past - one in which he deserves credit for, for just saying as much as necessary without spoiling 47 as a character. My only complaint is a serious lack of Diana, who was my guidance as a youngster.
Sometimes 'subtle' just doesn't cut it
The mode that impressed me most was Contracts. I really didn't expect too much from it as a whole, but it adds so much replay value to the game that it made the full priced purchase worth it. Contracts allows you or a friend to choose any mission of the story mode to create your own scenario; you can choose to have up to three key targets that may have been irrelevant to the game's campaign. The method of assassination is entirely up to whoever is making the contract, deciding which weapons, costumes and discretion they please. In order to make a contract, you must play through it yourself in the way you think necessary - if you played through it and weren't spotted towards the end, an objective of the contract for your friend is to escape unseen. There is also the option of only killing primary targets, which greatly increases the difficulty as well as the ransom. The contract creator can also decide whether or not all bodies must be hidden. Some can be extremely tough as you are required to kill a target with a weapon you're having much difficulty to find, but it's thoroughly enjoyable - especially if you have a friend who is keenly interested in the game. Even if you don't, you can create your own and make it public, as well as participate in any public or featured contract, fighting others over the highest score and ransom. The money earned can be used to unlock weapon upgrades, suits and objects making the game mode completely satisfactory as a whole.
Hitman: Absolution is no perfect game, don't get me wrong. There are moments in the campaign that will have you pulling your hair out. Not because they're tough per se, but because it's so painstakingly difficult to sneak past certain guards without enabling their sixth sense and getting pounced on in the process. While some missions in the game are thoroughly enjoyable and extremely memorable (in fact, every mission is extremely distinguishable from the last which is an extreme compliment in a repetitive gaming period), there are some that you'll want to erase from your gaming experience index because of its tiresome difficulty. The story was enjoyable without being too in your face, but the ending definitely felt rushed. As a whole, it's still an extremely enjoyable game that you can constantly revisit with the various methods of assassination in each level, and playing Contracts is something that can be done long after game completion - there's no doubting the game's replay value with 5 different difficulties which differ immensely from one another, as well as an online mode with great spontaneity that'll definitely keep the franchise on peoples' radars for a future release.