Leaving the world untouched and unaware of your presence is the mark of a skilled Hitman; a perfectly executed plan of assassination set-up to look like an unfortunate accident. As you make your way through the crowds of roaring and cheering fans at a wrestling arena, your target is one of the unlucky contestants in the ring. But how do you get to him? Do you pull out your pistol and blow him away from centre stage? Or do you use a disguise to sneak onto the catwalks above and send the lighting rig crashing down on the fighters below?
All of this and more is possible in Hitman: Absolution. And thanks to an immersive world with richly detailed environments, a huge collection of weaponry and challenging dynamic gameplay – becoming the ultimate assassin is a deathly reality.
Following the events of Hitman: Blood Money, the ICA Agency that employed both Agent 47 and his trusted mission handler, Diana Burnwood, has been all but destroyed. Diana has gone rogue, taking with her sensitive agency assets—namely a young and traumatised girl called Victoria. The reformed ICA Agency wants Victoria back and Diana dead, a contract which Agent 47 has accepted. For our cold-blooded assassin, a contract is a contract, but killing the one consistent person in your life can test even this man of steel. The initial set-up will be interesting for Hitman fans, but it isn’t long before 47 goes Jason Bourne on us and his enemies. No, he doesn’t lose his memory; he loses his patience, soon finding himself hunting down the very people chasing the young girl he was supposed to kidnap.
It can be a tough sell that Agent 47 cares for anybody enough to risk his own life. His character has been known to kill innocents and criminals. However, we have to applaud IO interactive for trying to develop 47’s character a little bit, and given the context of the story, it works well. Characters such as Birdie and Blake Dexter are easily some of the most charismatic people found in the series, and the dark, whacky humour juxtaposes Agent 47’s grim demeanour nicely. With excellent voice work, great mo-cap, and superb facial animations, Hitman: Absolution is far and away the most cinematic entry into the franchise. However, much like each perfectly placed hit 47 carries out, it comes at a hefty price.
The Hitman series has always emphasized stealth, planning and action. More often than not, you would hide in plain sight wearing the disguise of building workers, cooks, cleaners, managers, and any other number of costumes for the taking. You would have your target, a location, and it was up to you to capitalize on the tools you had at your disposal.
For the most part, these pillars are still present, but the story has forced the hand of IO Interactive to remove certain key features. Agent 47 has no mission handler; he is pushing the narrative himself. Because of this, he has no prior knowledge on the targets and their behaviours, and instead must improvise when the situation calls for it. You are no longer able to choose your equipment before a mission, and assassinations with the scope and creativity found in previous games are few and far between.
Hitman: Absolution is without a doubt a change to the formula that Blood Money so firmly perfected, but this is not an inherently bad thing. When the game remembers what makes the series great, it shines above its predecessors, providing the best assassin simulation you can find today. Stand-out levels such as the Vixen Strip Club and the wrestling arena hit home exactly what the Hitman franchise offers that other assassin experiences seldom do: planning a hit.
Throughout the game’s assassination missions, you are given a target (or targets) and must eliminate them as you see fit. How you choose to put them down will affect your score and rating—a system that tracks whether or not you hid the bodies, if you were detected, and the way in which you killed your targets. A shot to the head with a silenced pistol certainly gets the job done, but a bullet in the cranium screams “murder”. The most efficient method is to orchestrate the entire job as if it were an accident. Toying with high tech equipment, sabotaging a gas cooker, poisoning a drug supply; these are just some of the unique ways to assassinate your target(s), and playing this way might not be as hard as you think.
Agent 47 is a seasoned expert in the art of death and Hitman: Absolution puts that wisdom in your hands by way of “instinct”. At the press of a button, you will activate Instinct and this allows you to see close-by enemies through walls, spot points of interest in the level, locate key items and more. You cannot simply keep your finger on the trigger button though, as the instinct meter slowly drains when you use it. This mechanic acts as a nice addition that rids us of the constant need to switch back and forth between an overhead map.
That said, Hitman veterans might want to turn off instinct mode, because it essentially points out exactly where to find perfect assassination opportunities. Players using this feature will still have to perform the hit and plan exactly how to get in the right position, but when accidental death boils down to the pulling of a lever, it can make things a little too simple.
Of course, Agent 47 is no one-trick-pony and at any point in the mission you can take an action approach. The amount of weaponry found in the world is staggering, allowing you to pick up statue busts, fire pokers, knives, books and bricks. Throwing an axe into an unsuspecting enemy is disturbingly satisfying, and being able to weaponize your environment so freely constantly keeps an option at your fingertips. We wish there were more varied animations for each different weapon though, particularly when we go in for the kill. Fiber-wire and silver-baller pistols make a return, and thanks to some much needed refinement in the control scheme, strangling your pursuers has been made more intuitive.
In between the excellent assassination missions, Hitman: Absolution can fall slightly short of what we’ve come to expect from the franchise. A good portion of the game will be spent evading guards, and these segments essentially play out like a traditional stealth game. You’ll be taking cover, crouch walking, tossing objects to create distractions, and subduing foes silently. Although these levels represent the core of a great stealth-action game, it has sucked dry the very essence of Hitman. Regardless, even without a target for you to dispose of creatively, these levels provide a platform for experimentation and more challenging gameplay.
No longer can you simply take a suitable disguise and walk freely through the levels. Co-workers of the person whose clothes you are now wearing will spot that something is off. You’ll need to stroll past these colleagues, constantly breaking line of sight, or use your instinct meter to “blend” past them when their spidey-senses start tingling. Alternatively, you can find a disguise that only one person is associated with (a head chef in a small kitchen, for example) and nobody will spot the difference.
While this system adds more depth to the espionage, it could use some tweaking. It seems odd that a masked disguise would somehow let slip that the Bald Man is behind it. Nevertheless, careful usage of instinct, distractions, and hide spots will see you through most encounters, but it might not provide the same impact as dropping a disco ball on a target’s head.
For players looking for a more traditional Hitman experience, Contracts Mode goes a long way to fitting the bill. Contracts Mode is a user-generated-content platform where players create their own assassination missions using NPCs and levels found in the main story mode. Crafting your very own assassination is simple, but you won’t get sucked into the comprehensive freedom found in a typical level editor. However, this accessible system allows anybody to make their own contract and doing so is an assassination mission in itself.
By “playing to create”, you choose a level, mark any NPCs you see as a target and kill them. How you choose to kill these targets will become objectives for the contract and affect the amount of money paid out to the victor. Hitman fans will be happy to know that you can select a disguise and a weapon prior to starting your contract, bringing back some of that pre-planning we’ve grown to love.
Contracts Mode also transforms the less-than-stellar stealth segments into more involving assassination jobs, opening up more Hitman content than ever before. This is easily one of the biggest steps forward for the series, and we cannot wait to see what Square Enix and IO Interactive do to expand on this concept for future titles.
Hitman: Absolution may not be the Blood Money 2 that fans were expecting, but it is a worthy entry into the series. With a more intricate disguise system, refined stealth mechanics, impeccable attention to detail, and some of the best missions found in the series so far, Hitman: Absolution succeeds in maintaining a high standard and in some cases, raises the bar that came before it. It is a pity that the core structure of the experience deviates from everything that made Hitman so great, but the lengthy campaign, coupled with the awesomeness that is Contracts Mode, will keep would-be assassins coming back for more.
This review was based on a final version of the game provided by Square-Enix.