Hitman Absolution Review: Misfiring With A Great Gun

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Posted on November 18, 2012, Ross Lincoln Hitman Absolution Review: Misfiring With A Great Gun

I kind of agonized over Hitman Absolution. One the one hand, it’s a Hitman game, and a Hitman game only comes with a few basic requirements. Get them right and you’ve basically struck gold, and Absolution gets a hell of a lot right. On the other hand, my expectations of what a game can do have changed in the 5 years since the last title in the series was released, and that’s a huge problem when your goal, as was Square Enix and IO Interactive’s, is to update a classic series while retaining what made it special.

That Absolution mostly met my expectations is a triumph in and of itself, especially when you consider that 3 years ago it looked like Eidos Interactive might take the series with it into death. Alas, for all that works, Hitman Absolution also proves unnecessarily frustrating at times, particularly with certain save and gameplay mechanics that are themselves meant to be improvements on previous games. It’s also kind of hobbled by a half-baked story that coasts on genre conventions and, more often than not, makes the otherwise satisfying gameplay parts feel tedious.

Did Square Enix and IO Interactive fail to deliver? No, but much like the people who open the door when Agent 47 rings the bell, those of us receiving the package might not always like what’s in it.

Hitman Absolution
Platform: PC (reviewed), Xbox 360, PS3)
Developer: IO Interactive
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: Nov. 20, 2012
MSRP: $59.99

Killing For Profit And Fun

Hitman Absolution is for all intents and purposes a direct sequel to 2006′s Hitman: Blood Money. The story isn’t much; Having been manipulated into killing his former handler, Agent 47 leaves the ICA and goes on the run in order to prevent a teenage girl (like 47, she’s a genetically engineered clone) from being inducted into the Agency’s staff. This puts him at the center of a conflict between a corrupt defense contractor, numerous criminal elements and his former employers. The game largely centers around 47′s attempts to protect, then retrieve the teenage girl. And you know what that means: Killing. He haz it.

Features returning from Blood Money include climbing (yay verticality!), the ability to stash bodies in convenient hiding places, the choice to subdue rather than kill, and a streamlined version of notoriety (minus bribes and the hassle of dealing with CCTV cameras.) Disguises are back, though they’re not the magic bullet they were in Blood Money. Naturally, there are numerous melee weapons and firearms, including the trademark Silverballer pistols and 47′s trusty fiber wire.

Added to these are some new features cribbed from a dozen other games. The brand new Instinct system (more in a moment) is directly inspired by Eagle Eye from Assassin’s Creed or Detective Mode from the Arkham series. The HUD now has a mini map that identifies targets, and notifications of important information appear on screen. Light RPG elements have been added in the form of a scoring system that rewards completion of optional objectives within missions. Your score unlocks improved abilities and new weapons, and is compared to other players on a leaderboard. There’s also a wider degree of agency and creativity for players to soak up as they kill their way through Agent 47′s latest adventure.

That last point is where Hitman Absolution really shines (or if you prefer, stays hidden in the shadows so that no one ever catches it). While levels are still organized as discreet instances linked by cutscenes, they’re built with considerable variety, ranging from a crowded Chinatown marketplace to a small midwestern town. Taking a page from Dishonored and Deus Ex: Human Revolution, these levels contain numerous ways to get around; you can walk around nonchalantly, don a disguise and maneuver through a crowd of realish-acting NPCs, or sneak around in tunnels and air ducts. Every level is designed to ensure no single way of completing your primary objective, which is a huge benefit to players of different skill preferences and expertise.

The scoring system is great too. In addition to completion of primary objectives, you earn points completing challenges, optional parameters in missions like never donning a disguise, killing (or not killing) people other than your target, and method of execution. The challenges are often contradictory, so it’s impossible to complete them all during a single playthrough and you’ll need to replay missions if you’re planning to platinum. It’s a cool way to make every playthrough feel unique.

For those of you purists out there, despite the opened-up menu of options the game is still rigged to encourage stealth. You’re severely punished, scorewise, if you rely on your firearms to complete objectives. In addition, level creativity and the scoring system end up combining in surprisingly clever ways. One of the best examples is a level set in a gun shop that takes advantage of a person’s tendency for linear thinking, and punishes them for it hard. After several missions in a row spent avoiding your guns as much as possible, you’re suddenly ‘forced’ to compete in a target shooting contest. You will find this contest intensely difficult, until you realize there’s more than one way to skin, garrot, stab or shoot a cat, and that a much easier way to complete the mission has been built in. We won’t spoil it, but it’s definitely one of the game’s cleverer moments (even if it made me want to punch my computer).

Killing, and to some degree combat, is also very well done, though perhaps too easy for players used to the punishing difficulty of previous games. The game still heavily emphasizes evading attention: if you cause too much trouble or get caught in the act, you risk calling down not only enemies in the level, but back up (which includes SWAT teams or bigger, badder enemy henchmen). However, it’s slightly easier to avoid blowing your cover. Say you catch the attention of a wandering enemy; you have the ability to turn the situation to your advantage before they can alert their colleagues, via the new ability to pretend to surrender to someone who has a gun trained on you. They’ll come close to apprehend you, giving you the chance to quickly take them down. (This is also useful if you’re surrounded by multiple enemies, as you’ll capture your would-be arrester and use them as a human shield).

Instinct adds another layer of flexibility (or perhaps ease). Like Detective Mode from the Arkham games, when used it gives you the passive ability to see an X-ray view of the world, revealing nearby enemies and objects of interest. The twist is that it also has an active mode, which gives you access to a couple of special powers activated by expending ‘Instinct’ points in the same way mana is expended when casting a spell in a fantasy RPG.

The first, “blending”, works when 47 is wearing a disguise; it allows you to walk past people who might recognize that you’re not a legitimate cop, baker, henchmen, etc., just long enough to get away without starting a fight. The second, “point shooting”, is a lot like Dead Eye from Red Dead Redemption. When selected, Agent 47 goes into bullet time and can assign several different points in his field of vision as targets. Once assigned, as soon as 47 exits Instinct he fires off a rapid succession of shots that takes out every designated target with deadly precision. It’s a great idea, though in practice it doesn’t always work (a bit more on that shortly.)

Another bright spot: While previous Hitman entries have been largely spy/hired killer stories, Absolution ends up firmly in Tarantino land, a mix of Western and Grindhouse, suitably backed up by a great voice cast, and Thomas Bärtschi’s understated, Spaghetti Western-sounding score. (A perfect example of how this works is in the notorious sexy nuns. Yes, they are in the game, but forget that commercial, in context they’re just kind of ridiculous and fun.) It even boasts a color wash that evokes aging film stock. It’s a great fit for the game’s subtle genre shift.

I should also mention Contracts Mode. We covered it at length after our hands on at PAX Prime last September. I’m happy to report that it’s every bit as great as it seemed at the time.

So, if you think all of this sounds great, you’re right. The problem is that every time you start to fall in love, something silly cocks up the mood.

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