Opponents of video game violence like to level the term “murder simulator” at a lot of games, but there are probably few games out there that fit the description as closely as the Hitman series. It’s been six years since Agent 47’s last extended killing spree, and gaming’s most famous bald assassin is back to creep down hallways, stride impassively through crowds of unsuspecting folk, and loop piano wire around throats. Not one for the kids, then.
Absolution’s story follows on approximately from where the last game in the series, Blood Money, left off, but when 47’s trusted handler, Diana, suddenly betrays their mutual employer, the Agency, without explanation, 47 is appointed as the Agency’s vehicle of bloody vengeance. Not one to balk at killing even close friends, 47 carries out his contract, but things are complicated when a grievously wounded Diana reveals she betrayed the Agency in order to wrest a young girl, Victoria, out of their clutches. Diana’s dying wish is for 47 to protect Victoria, and so our anti-hero finds himself trying to discover why so many powerful people are after Victoria, and just what it is that’s special about her.
As the game’s title would suggest, digging up information on Victoria was never going to be a matter of checking Facebook and popping down to the public library to browse the public records. 47 is soon plunged into the Chicago underworld and its rogues’ gallery of mobsters, squealers, dealers, thugs and porn barons – and there’s only one way he likes to deal with such characters.
The game world is a sordid one, its characters and environments perpetually coated in a thin sheen of grime. Through all the prurience and sadism, there’s a constant undercurrent of dark humour to proceedings – some of it juvenile, but some of it very funny – that serves to bring some light relief from the lurid atmosphere. The story is pure grindhouse pulp, but there’s some memorably awful characters, fine voice acting and 47’s snappy dress sense to carry it all along.
Absolution’s singleplayer campaign is built around clusters of several stages added together to form an overarching level. Each stage often has one or more human targets for 47 to pay a fatal visit to, but many smaller stages simply require the player to make their way past the guards from one exit to the other, or to (for example) disable a security system to allow further progress.
The larger, more open stages will feel familiar to fans of the series. Some of these are impressively sizable in scope, and even more impressively populated by teeming crowds of Joe and Jane Q. Public, and the presentation, performance and – especially – sound design in these busy areas are all excellent.
Subsequent to a relatively quiet build-up, the first time the game sets 47 strolling through a gate and into a surging and noisy Chinatown market packed with hundreds of people is a thrilling moment. Street vendors hawk wares, fry cooks bellow out orders, and 47 can even eavesdrop on unique one-sided cellphone conversations as he picks his way through the crowd. Pinching an idea from Assassin’s Creed, Absolution also allows 47 to blend into the crowd to avoid unwanted attention. All in, the crowd scenes are probably the games’ crowning achievement, which is why it’s only a shame there aren’t more of them.
Larger stages like this are usually the setting for assassination stages, and as with previous games in the series, there’s plenty of ways for 47 to go about his bloody business. Targets tend to lurk in restricted areas where guards will tolerate no open incursion, so how to get in? The player might choose to silently eliminate the guard at a lightly patrolled rear entrance, or perhaps distract them away from their position with a thrown object, or by activating a car alarm. They might choose to shimmy up some wall ledges of a nearby building, and try to make their way in down from the roof. Or perhaps they’ll put an unfortunate maintenance man in a sleeper-hold down some back alley somewhere, leave him unconscious in a dumpster, don his uniform, and stroll in the front door. Find a remotely detonated explosive elsewhere, and perhaps 47 can choose to blow up the entire building.
If all else fails, lock and load and go in silverballers blazing, aided this time around by the new option of a Red Dead Redemption-style “slow time, tag targets, and then shoot them all” mechanic called point shooting. This feature serves to make the otherwise pedestrian shooting action slightly more interesting. Firefights most often devolve into 47 holed up behind cover and popping up occasionally to pick off those enemies that break cover and the suspension of belief to charge his position, and although the player may be occasionally overwhelmed during gunfights by sheer numbers, keeping things on the downlow is typically a much more challenging and engaging way to play.
The true assassin causes the fewest ripples, after all, and careful observation is one of 47’s most important weapons. Here he’s assisted by an Arkham Asylum-esque vision mode called Instinct. Instinct builds up over time, and when activated it highlights points of interest in the world, as well as guards behind walls and doors and their projected patrol paths. Instinct is also spent when point shooting, and can be called upon to buy a bit more time when guards or civilians are coming close to spotting 47 or seeing through his disguise. Players can use Instinct to help 47 stake out a target’s route and perhaps determine where there might be the opportunity to arrange an “accident” along the way. This is the gameplay that the Hitman series does well: setting an objective and letting the player decide just how they want to accomplish it.
Also adding to the conceit of a myriad of options are the many context-appropriate everyday objects scattered around each stage for 47 to acquire and deploy as improvised weaponry. While the idea of a trained agent being able to make anything handy into a deadly object as if he were an unhinged Macgyver is nice one, there’s not enough practical reasons to do so. Irrirtatingly, 47 doesn’t have a choice of what equipment to take into missions with him. He’s armed at all times with his signature garrote for silent takedowns, so with a few exceptions such as knives and combustible gasoline cans, the only real point in picking any of these things up is so see the differences in animation between 47 killing someone with a fire axe and bludgeoning them with a toy robot. More satisfying are the possibilities for the context sensitive application of objects: leave a bottle of lighter fluid where condiments were previously stored, for example, and 47’s unsuspecting target may receive an unpleasant surprise when he attempts to liberally apply what he thinks is hot sauce to his BBQ steak.
It’s in the stages in which there are no specific targets to eliminate that the game lets itself down somewhat. Many of the smaller stages in some levels can best be described as material that would be found in the “Deleted Scenes” section of a movie’s DVD release. Some are almost bizarrely short, requiring 47 merely to make his way across a single courtyard, for example. There are far too many of these filler sequences, particularly in the early part of the game, where 47 often finds himself having to escape from the Chicago P.D. Having 47 forced to exfiltrate rather than infiltrate feels like something of a betrayal of the series’ principles.
Although there’s at least a visually memorable section of the escape that is staged through a drug-growing hippie collective, and a pretty neat sequence at a train station, sneaking around when the only goal is to get away simply isn’t much fun, perhaps because many of the options for creativity are removed. With the larger, much more open, and considerably more enjoyable stages providing such a huge contrast, it’s puzzling as to why so much of this comparatively uninspiring gameplay ended up in the final product, and it can feel like tedium to slog through it in order to get to the next assassination stage.
Missions can also start to feel like a chore due to the game’s checkpoint system – or lack thereof. Glowing insignia are scattered around the floors of the larger levels, and 47 can step on them to save his progress in the stage to date, but the symbols are strangely placed, and it’s not uncommon to play a long time without finding one, only to trip across two within a couple of rooms of one another. Restarting at these checkpoints means that major stage progress, such as eliminated targets, is preserved, but previously dealt-with guards will pop back in right where they came from, which can be highly annoying considering the work put in to remove some of them in the first place.
There’s also no saving mid-stage and coming back to it in a later session, as checkpoints will only save progress for the current session. It’s unclear if IO Interactive wanted players to live with the consequences of their mistakes rather than reloading quick saves all the time, but it seems a curiously retrogressive and occasionally frustrating way of charting player progress.
When the campaign comes to a close, players can replay their choice of stages to try and complete the many challenges that the game sets for each level, or turn instead to the game’s Contracts mode to continue to satisfy 47’s homicidal urges. Contracts is a unique approach towards a sort of pseudo-multiplayer that allows players to both create and play other players’ challenge missions. Creating a contract to challenge other players with is a matter of first playing it in person; the player saunters 47 out into one of the campaign’s selected single player missions, sets up to three targets, and deals with them as they see fit. As they do so, Contracts is carefully noting exactly how they go about it: kill a target with a metal pipe while wearing a chipmunk mascot suit without ever raising the alarm, and then use the northernmost level exit, for example, and this is the exact challenge that is set to players who subsequently attempt the Contract. In other words, if the player can accomplish it themselves, they can challenge others to do it as well. There’s fun to be had both in trying to set difficult challenges, and in attempting some of the fiendishly difficult Contracts that other players around the world have managed to create. It’s a good idea and adds yet more replay value to the game’s already highly replayable assassination stages.
At times, Hitman: Absolution shines: a perfectly planned and executed assassination provides genuine player satisfaction, an overheard conversation at a train station makes the player feel part of a larger world, or a moment of frantic improvisation when discovered to evade pursuers or silence a witness can be generally thrilling. It’s just a shame then that a hefty chunk of the game is padded out with material that isn’t nearly as enjoyable.