Hitman Absolution review
Still Seeking Perfection
For 6 years IO never strayed too far from what they had established in the original Codename 47, instead they opted to simply tweak a few things here and there while continuing to innovate with their always brilliant level design by constantly coming up with more fun and sadistic ways for players to take out their targets. Blood Money is one of the best examples of how what I refer to as the “building off a good foundation” model of game development can pay off. If players were able to overlook a few control issues and a few awkward animations that had plagued the series since its inception then they were rewarded with almost pure stealthy nirvana, a definitive title in the genre and one that is sure to go down as a true classic amongst certain gaming circles.
Six years have passed since the end of the “Classic Hitman Era”, and I mean that as no slight to Absolution but to hold it up against what came before is a bit like comparing the 2009 reboot of Star Trek to the original series from the 60s. Sure a few familiar elements and characters are shared between them but they almost feel like two entirely different franchises when put next to one another and to assume you like one just because you like the other would be a huge mistake. Now this isn’t to say if you loved Blood Money that you’re automatically going to hate Absolution, but you do need to keep in mind that the gaming landscape has changed since the franchises outing and 47 has changed along with it.
As if signifying to its players that Absolution is going to be different from what came before, the opening mission sees Agent 47 being sent by the Agency to take out Diana Burnswood who longtime fans will no doubt remember as the “lady with the pretty voice who use to tell 47 what to do” Before finishing the job however 47 agrees to take a teenage girl named Victoria into his custody at Diana’s request. It turns out though that like those damned Decepticons, Victoria is a little more than meets the eye and 47 taking her under his care leads to… uh a lot of stuff happening.
If there’s one thing that seems to have stuck with the franchise it’d be IOs ability to come up with a good idea for a plot, but then just botch it completely when it comes to nailing the execution. For all the talk of this being a much more personal mission for everybody’s favorite bald headed killer, it sure doesn’t come across that way in the script, as 47 responds to Victoria’s danger the same way he’d probably react to learning that a waiter had mistakenly given him diet pepsi. To be fair that is entirely in character for our protagonist; I mean it’s not as if I’d prefer having him give monologues that clue us in to what’s on his mind. If you’re going to cast an assassin as the lead character its makes perfect sense for a certain kind of detachment to exist between them and the player, but as a developer you've got to realize that it severely limits your ability to tell the audience a character driven story.
Normally the weakness of the narrative is no big deal for a Hitman game as they have rarely expressed much interest in story telling anyway, but that changes in Absolution and some of the cutscenes drag on too long and all of the games major villains are written as broad caricatures who all seem to be attempting to constantly one up each other in the ridiculousness category. I don’t mind it if developers give me a half assed story as long as it’s also presented in a half assed way. But what I don’t appreciate is when developers wholeheartedly attempt to shove a half assed story down my throat. Because then rather than brushing it off as no harm no foul, all of its faults are magnified and I can’t help but to bitch.
“But I don’t give two flying farts about a story” I hear you yell “Just tell us already, does that tried and true Hitman gameplay still deliver?” The answer to that question is both no and yes. No as in Absolution doesn’t feature that classic Hitman gameplay we all know and love, but yes as in it most certainly delivers.
You know what that say about all work and no play
To continue my Star Trek comparison Absolution is just like the 2009 reboot of that franchise. It’s quicker, sleeker, and a whole lot more effing brutal than it used to be. Yet it also retains the heart of what made the franchise great. In star treks case that would be the sense of adventure (or so I’m told; not a classic ST fan) whiles the greatest thrill in Hitman remains getting that perfect hit. In Absolution Agent 47 is a lot like Daniel Craig’s version of 007, capable of quickly making his way through an area while he savagely beats down anybody unlucky enough to his path. But IO knows that its hardcore fans will get a greater kick out of avoiding a confrontation rather than fighting through one and they’ve made sure that it’s still always a possibility. You’re just gonna have to work a lot harder for it now.
In a move that’s sure to divide the “classic hitman” fan base Absolution switches up the formula by giving us what feels like almost two entirely different types of levels. There are those in the classic vein which I will refer to as “throwback” levels, and those that play like the love child of Hitman and Splinter Cell which I will refer to as “infiltration” levels.
Throwback levels feel like the next logical progression of the established Hitman formula. 47 is placed into an open environment, given targets to take out and it’s up to you to decide how best to proceed. These levels really allow you to take your time and get creative and these are sure to be the ones that Hitman purists are going to champion and request more of in Absolutions inevitable follow up.
Infiltration levels on the other hand put you in more confined spaces with an emphasis on forward momentum. Rather than attempt to take down a target most of the time you’re simply attempting to get from point A to point B while alarming as few people as possible.
The transition between the two is seamless and while I enjoyed the throwback levels a good deal more the infiltration levels certainly have their place, and make for a nice change of pace.
As alluded to earlier Agent 47 is deadlier than ever. The gunplay in Absolution is more satisfying than it ever was in previous titles and that’s thanks to tweaks both glaring and subtle such as the tightening of the aiming system and the improved audio work that’s been done to make each weapon sound much more distinct from one another. 47 now possesses a pretty fluid cover system and the ability to see through walls and take out multiple enemies with a barrage of bullets at the cost of his "Instinct".
Up close 47 is capable of taking people out either hand to hand; which plays out as simple but effective QTE’s, with melee weapons ranging from screwdrivers to bongs, and of with his trade mark fiber wire when you manage to get the drop on some poor unsuspecting fool. There are so many tools of destruction available at your fingertips it’s virtually impossible to stumble across them all in one play through. Savvy players will want to keep their eyes open for environmental kills that take advantage of 47s ability to manipulate his surroundings to his benefit.
A few things hold back the gameplay from true greatness however. The much maligned disguise system pretty much deserves all the fanboy bashing that it’s been receiving lately. Yes I get that Blood Money could become a bit too easy once you memorized what disguises gave you access to where but that was part of the fun. Now disguises fool everybody except another member of the group of whatever outfit it is you’re wearing. So let’s say I dress up as a janitor to sneak into a hotel. As long as I only run into hotel security or what have you I’m golden, but the moment I run into a group of Janitors I’m ‘effed. Another moment has it where you need to sneak into a room that only hotel security is allowed into, but that is swarming with members of hotel security. So even if you have the proper disguise to get into the required area, you’ll still be spotted quicker than you can say “Wait it was the other guy”. It’ times like these that Absolution turns from a fun experience into a frustrating one.
Checkpoints are also scattered infrequently throughout levels and can really deter you from taking any creative risks for fear of losing those last 15 minutes of progress. Enemies you've killed before activating the checkpoint will also respawn once you've died and I don’t think that I need to spell out why that is such a bad idea.
A few bad decisions aren't enough to detract from the overall experience as a lot of love and care has obviously gone into crafting Absolution. Visually the game is a knockout with the standouts being the depiction of large crowds, some very detailed facial animations, and excellent lighting. And even if the story does turn out to be disposable it does give us one of the most kick ass fight scenes I've seen in a long time. The soundtrack is strong as always and helps supply some key narrative moments with more dramatic weight than they would have earned on their own.
Contracts Mode allows gamers to play around within the games missions and target up to 3 marks while deciding the optimum conditions for them to be taken out along with setting the time to beat. Admittedly fun to mess around with, something like this lives and dies by its community so it’ll be interesting in seeing what other players manage to come up with. Speaking for myself I can honestly say it’s almost as much fun seeing my friends come up with new solutions (and spectacular failures) to the virtual assassinations I had already committed.
After a long time away the Hitman series returns and though it doesn't quite manage to reach its former heights, it does look primed to return to greatness. Absolution might not be perfect but there are still a lot of good times to be had with it.
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