Hitman: Absolution does a lot right. Its story is not one of them. It does a fine job of propelling its relevance and driving the motives of the experience, but it falls down as soon as characters open their mouths. Thankfully, what Absolution lacks in narrative coherence it makes for in pure satisfaction: whatever way you choose to play the campaign, Agent 47 always ends up being the badass and stylish assassin we’ve come to love over the years. This game, like its predecessors, is not for everyone. But what does that matter? This is a game for Hitman fans, and it definitely hits the target…for the most part, anyway.
The B-grade plot ignites what initially appears to be a structured, simple enough story: tasked with killing his now-rogue ex-handler from The Agency, Agent 47 closes in on a plan by his “employer” to protect a young girl, whose safety is entrusted in our antihero by the initial target. Things start off superbly, and the first 10 minutes or so set a fantastic scene for what appears to be an exhilarating story. Unfortunately, things fall down pretty quickly. Characters are unlikable enough to make killing them seem completely justified, but the tone doesn’t seem to fit in next to Agent 47’s calm, stylistic approach to his job. On one hand, you have a likable murderer whose most sinister of acts still manage to keep him in a high light, and on the other, you have enemies and friendlies that lack any real sense of humility or personality.
The biggest problem with this is that it seems purposely structured this way. It feels like Agent 47 is supposed to look like a victim, which is fine as I feel its a role the character fits well, but other characters appear to try and take the limelight away from him by being forcibly vile individuals, which seems to unbalance the entire structure of the narrative.
The positive on the story front in the presentation. Absolution sometimes actually watches like a film, with powerful direction and slick camera work. Agent 47 is perfectly portrayed as this seemingly heartless, highly intelligent, eerily well-dressed individual, so at the very least we have a lead character that is just as likable and rough around the edges as he was in the game’s predecessors. Absolution reminds me a little of David Fincher’s Alien3: it doesn’t tell a great story by any stretch of the imagination, but you can tell that someone in the development process had high hopes for making an emotionally grinding tale. It looks good, but it just doesn’t tell a very good story.
The big plus is that the gameplay is relentlessly exhilarating. It’s basically split up into two different types of mission: assassinations and escapes. The latter type of mission is restrictive in its linearity, but it challenges you to escape locations unseen. You have a clear exit marked on the map HUD, and only a limited number of pathways to reach it, but the gameplay branches off in offering a number of different ways to reach the objective. Will, you cautiously take down a cop and steal his uniform, or will you take your chances and go in guns blazing as you work towards the exit? The goal is, of course, to be as stealthy as possible, and the game rates you with a score based on how you interact with the world and the approaches you take, but you’re certainly not restricted in how you achieve and/or reach your goal.
The assassination missions are a little more complex. They precede the escape missions, obviously, and act as a great lead in to Agent 47’s push towards freedom. Environments are open with multiple entry points and assassination options, so you can choose to engage a target in any number of ways. The real challenge is doing it without being noticed at all, including dumping the body, but you can still complete objectives by being noticed and having the alarm raised as to your presence. The relevance of your actions become more important in the higher difficulties, and there is more reliance on stealth maneuvering than going in with guns blazing.
What Absolution lacks in narrative coherence it makes for in pure satisfaction.
The important question with Absolution is whether Agent 47 actually feels like an unstoppable killing machine, and for the most part he does. The added benefit of his instinct powers, which locate items and individuals of interest within environments, put more control in your hands and take away the tediousness of constantly watching the radar as in other Hitman games. However, diehard fans of the series might understandably see this implementation as opening the experience to a more general audience, which might be perceived as a bad thing in a game where precision and skill mean a lot. The added benefit of constant leaderboard reminders as to your performance in a mission might also frustrate the more highly skilled gamers, as it does sometimes feel a little too easy to get a high score (although this concern is limited to easier difficulties: Purist level is, as you’d expect, relentlessly hard to perfect).
Being in complete control of Agent 47 allows Absolution to feel especially engaging and enthralling. Precise Shooting I feel gets slow-motion precision shooting down better than Max Payne 3, and the aiming and handling of weapons is smooth and accessible. This game teases you with hoards of weaponry and encourages you to take the action route, but it goes against you by punishing you with a lower score if you choose to be the noisy assassin not especially akin to The Agency’s killing requirements. Furthermore, using Agent 47’s instinct to blend into environments and trick suspicious guards and policemen makes the stealth option just as appealing as the all-out action one: it’s so satisfying to move through an area dressed as a cop while maintaining a healthy meter of instinct and not being detected.
The main campaign can be played any number of ways and can take between six and twenty hours to play, depending on the difficulty and your skill level. Your approach is also important, and there appears to be a countless number of secrets, Easter Eggs and unlockables scattered across every environment. I was scoring well in most missions but I was only finding a few of the 20+ items in each.
Once you move beyond the campaign, and I think you’ll want to play it more than once, the Contracts mode allows you to create, upload and share your own missions with people across the globe. It’s a fantastic addition that adds plenty of value to the experience and should be valued by the Hitman faithful.
Hitman: Absolution, like its predecessors, is paced according to the way you play it. It wants you to play it slowly, taking your time to uncover every last piece of evidence and tool needed to be the most effective assassin around. It also teases you with slick weaponry and great gunplay, but that loses its appeal when you discover you’re blasting through the campaign so quickly as to not really enjoy its better aspects. This is where I feel the game distances itself from being an experience for a general audience: Hitman fans will probably love it, and should be able to look past how certain additions attempt to simplify the experience, but those new to the franchise might not be as enthralled by the character or his work. If you’re open to slowly moving your way through Absolution, I think you’ll love it. But if you’re after an action game with explosive gunplay, it might be over too quickly for you to really care about it.