Hitman Absolution review
There goes the neighbourhood...
Developer: IO Interactive
Publisher: Eidos Interactive
After Blood Money, I wasn't sure where the Hitman series could go from there. I guess it could explain the six year gap between it and the game up for review right now, which is Hitman: Absolution. I mean really, all you have to do is improve the AI and write a better story, and then there you go, the perfect Hitman game. However, IO Interactive made a bunch of silly decisions that wound up holding the game back significantly. Because they've invested a shitload of their money into their brand new game engine dubbed the Glacier 2 Engine, you better believe that they'll do anything to just break even. Now, the logical decision would be to rework the mechanics of Blood Money to make it more accessible to people who have started playing video games about the same time video games became an activity that even the pop collar broski fraternity crowd can engage themselves into. Granted, I thought the idea of giving the player the basic idea of how a game works would be enough to get people to keep playing, but I guess watering down the experience significantly would also help proceedings. Don't get me wrong – Hitman: Absolution is not a bad game, but what it is, is a misstep in this otherwise fantastic franchise. It does get a fair few things right and can still be a good experience; however, it also gets a few things wrong that drag down the overall experience.
I'm at odds with the story, mainly because it's *bleep*ing terrible. On one end, it's given even more attention in the game as there are scenes at different points in the game, usually to bridge each of the missions together, and it drives the missions more than ever. On the other end, however, is how it's executed. Perhaps my hunger for a good Hitman story is insatiable, because even though this did what I wanted it to, it didn't really do it right. Perhaps it's the concept that makes this game's story bugger up. However, it starts off alright. The Agency wants Agent 47 to assassinate Diana... the person who, in the previous games gave him intel on his mission. The reason for this is because Diana learned of Victoria, a girl that The Agency wanted to keep under wraps. Before long, 47 learns of this himself and then severs his ties with The Agency. He then places her under the care of an orphanage when suddenly, Victoria gets kidnapped by Wade, a hired thug from Dexter Industries, who'll serve as the antagonists for this game. At the same time, The Agency is after 47 because he didn't do what he was told to do.
Sounds good so far, right? Actually, yes. If this was basically what it amounted to, it'd be a serviceable story that'd drive the events of the game. However, it suffers from ultimately becoming a tale of redemption. Agent 47 wants to redeem himself for all that he has done for a company full of terrible secrets by preventing one of them from doing any damage to the world at large. Okay, fantastic – but this game's writing and direction leaves a lot to be desired. While we're meant to be feeling for 47 sparing Diana... I don't know, I was just staring at her ass the entire time because he was essentially walking into a live shower scene. Call me crazy, but it's hard to make a moment emotional if it's compounded by fanservice. That's not mentioning the fact that every characters is two dimensional – Agent 47 is a generic sympathetic hero and the villains are deprived lunatics to the point where it's hard to take them seriously, despite the overly serious tone involving personal vendettas and secret weapons, nor can you even think for a second that they're human beings. It's almost like a Metal Gear Solid game, only instead of flooding the player with exposition and crazy plot twists, it instead presents the players with crappy characters that are impossible to care about due to a lack of effort put into making the characters three dimensional. This might've been ameliorated if the story wasn't front and center, but since it is, the flaws are made much more apparent.
With all that's said and done, the idea of the game is to still go through missions to kill your targets. However, each level, instead of being one big open sandbox, is instead separated into smaller segments, with parts where you simply have to go from Point A to Point B. These are added in order to progress the plot. Nothing more, nothing less. The worst thing I can say about them is that they feel like filler, like you could have a typical Hitman mission of assassinating a target there or something. Instead, the idea is to get there. Whether you sneak or shoot your way through, as long as you get there, you're good to go. There is a scoring system in place where you gain points for killing your designated targets – the better the method of assassination, the more points you get, but you lose points for killing anybody other than your target – but there's no reward for getting a high score... oh, except for it getting uploaded on the online leaderboards for people to marvel at and perhaps scoring yourself a PSN trophy like anybody *bleep*ing cares.
Unfortunately, due to the levels being split up into segments, when you do get to assassinate your targets, it's less of a game of skulking around for the best method to kill your target and more like a gerbil going through linear hallways. Granted, there are some levels that take place in open areas, but there's more suffocating linearity than there are sandbox areas. Because of this, there aren't as many methods to experiment with - you'll be given a limited amount of options, which I guess is their way of streamlining the experience for those who couldn't learn how to play Blood Money even after that tutorial level because not having your hand held is a rather intimidating prospect – doubly so if you don't turn off the tutorials, which itemize exactly which methods of assassination you can carry out. Do yourself a favor and turn it off – given that one of the things it says is “running is noisy”, you bet it's going to talk down to you like you're a drooling imbecile, and that's mainly because that's what it feels like when you go through these levels. Funny enough, it's the AI that'll have moments of being complete idiots – sure, they're smarter than ever in seeing through your disguises to the point where if you're anywhere near them, they'll recognize you in an instant (unfortunately, by anywhere near them, I mean ANYWHERE near them – they can detect you from about 50 feet away, which is not only a huge flaw that almost ruins the game, but I also did not know humans had eagle vision... *bleep* you high school biology, you lied to me), but if you're interacting with certain objects, they'll be like “wait, never mind, Frank just got a hair cut and got one of those trendy bar cade tattoos that the kids are talking about on the back of his head”. Goddamn.
So while you can obtain disguises by isolating and/or killing somebody and nicking their clothes, it's not exactly foolproof unless you either know exactly what to interact with, take cover or use the brand new Instinct feature. With this, you can not only keep yourself hidden by hiding your face, but also see what you can interact with and use the all new Point Shooting system (or as some have dubbed it, mark and execute, a feature used in Splinter Cell: Conviction) to slow down time, mark enemies with the cursor, and then shoot them all seemingly at once. On the easier difficulty modes, it also allows you to make the distinction between civillian and enemy, but not on the harder difficulty modes. Also on the easier difficulty modes, it regenerates, while you have to fill it back up by completing objectives, taking down targets and performing silent takedowns on the harder difficulty modes, which forces you to use it smartly. Do you only use it to sneak past guards, or do you want to perform some Point Shooting? Decisions decisions...
While Point Shooting is on my mind, the shooting feels tighter – Agent 47 can utilize the tried and true cover system with no problems and aiming can be done by holding down a trigger. Also, Agent 47 can finally utilize hand to hand combat – oh, it was touched upon in Blood Money, but here in Absolution, it's been expanded on and feels *bleep*ing satisfying beating the piss out of unsuspecting guards. All of these features help you Rambo your way through levels with aplomb, and goddamn, it's fun to do it this way! Oh, doing it the stealthy way isn't bad either as Agent 47 can utilize cover to stay hidden and, granted that you can use the Instinct feature, disguises work alright, but given the disguise flaw I've pointed out before, well, I hope just sneaking around ala Sam Fisher or Solid Snake is more to your liking in a game called Hitman... at least you can still make use of staged accidents where you can make kills look like a suicide.
But really, despite having less options while being put into more linear levels, the mechanics are still executed well enough to work with, and the scenarios are still sensible enough to work. You still feel like a Hitman at the end of the day, which in a game called Hitman, keeps its head and shoulders above water. Executing your targets via staged kills or expertly using weapons while in just the right places to make sure nobody knows you killed anybody is still possible and fighting like Bruce Lee works out pretty well for itself. The Instinct feature helps you blend into your environments and execute precise shots. The big issue, however, is the poor AI that renders the disguise system virtually useless, forcing you to use the Instinct feature more often than you should. For newcomers to the series, this isn't a huge deal, but for veterans, it's easy to see how it can be a game breaking flaw as because of this, Absolution degenerates into a generic action/stealth game. Adding onto this is that it has moments where it degenerates into a quick time event fiesta and then there are times where it degenerates into cutscenes where shiny things go boom. At the same time however, it never truly turns into a bad game; it only ranges between mediocre and good.
There is a feature that's rather cool in the form of the Contracts mode. Essentially what it entails is that you can create your own missions via marking your own targets and the manner of which they are to be assassinated, and then uploading them online so that Barry over in Yugoslavia can play it. The idea is to see who can beat it the fastest with the most precision, grace and anonymity within the game world so that you can unlock weapons and disguises within the Contracts mode. I suppose this was placed into the game so that there'd be some replay value as in this game's precessors, the replay value was found in the numerous ways of which you could assassinate your targets in each mission. Since you start each level with just a loud pistol – no loadouts here, no weapons carry on from level to level besides your pistol – there's only topping the leaderboards to look forward to in the single player campaign, but hey, at least you have this mode to mess with.
It's at least nice to see that IO Interactive top themselves with such beautiful graphics. The Glacier 2 engine manages to produce some detailed designs laced with high quality textures, rich and dynamic lighting and lush colors. Not only that, but the animations are very fluid, helping you to get immersed into the game. Surprisingly, the framerate remains at a steady rate, even when there's a lot going on. This is helpful because levels like the marketplace and the night club are filled to the brim with people, and given that they can influence how the rest of the level will go depending on how you go about them, having a poor fps count is just bad. Thank god it's great, although you may want to make sure your computer is at least somewhat up to date. That's just the in game graphics, folks – the cutscene graphics are even more beautiful, sporting richer textures and more fluid animations. Perhaps it's not as good as what was seen in the trailer, but given that we live in the same world where Dead Island exists, this isn't a big deal.
Unfortunately with the departure of Jesper Kyd, I was worried about how the soundtrack would be handled. Would it be like Final Fantasy XIII where Masashi Hamauzu was essentially a poor man's Nobuo Uematsu, or like Silent Hill: Downpour where Daniel Licht is essentially the western equivalent of Akira Yamaoka? Sadly, Thomas Bartschi essentially lives under Jesper's shadow – he produces a soundtrack with similar elements of quiet droning tracks for sneaking sessions and dynamic symphonic tracks for action scenes, but half the time, it sounds like *bleep*ing background music. Sometimes, it sucks you right into the game, but at other points, it just sounds like noise that plays because it just seems like noise needs to be played. It's not bad, but it just doesn't feel right. The same cannot be said for the voice acting, which is brilliant. Shitty writing aside, the voice cast at least tries to suck you right into the game and with some strong voice talent behind the microphones, it does a valiant job of conveying the dialogue in a way that would make it seem good... if only the writing wasn't objectively terrible.
In synopsis, Hitman: Absolution is a game that works, but it doesn't inspire the same amount of brilliance that Silent Assassin and Blood Money do. It's odd because for the most part, it's a well made game. Besides some gorgeous visuals and strong voice acting, it does feature opportunities for some cold, hard killing with such style that there's still an innate sense of satisfaction to be acquired from getting the best kills without so much as alerting a dust mite. The problems come in the form of a terrible story that's front and center, a disguise system that's essentially useless due to the AI's eagle eyes unless you interact with the right objects or use the Instinct feature, the fact that it feels like a generic action/stealth game and the fact that it feels like a scaled down experience. Sure, there are some sandbox levels, but they're amidst the linear, hallway-esque levels, separated into sections as opposed to bigger levels, all of which are contained in smaller areas which give you less options to play with, thus significantly lowering the replay value unless you mess with the Contracts mode. It's a shame that this game houses some big flaws because outside of some design woes and the inability to care about the story, I actually kind of enjoyed my time with Absolution. It's no masterpiece and certainly not as good as Blood Money and Silent Assassin, but on its own terms, it's a game that deserves at least one playthrough, especially if you have no prior experience to the Hitman games.
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