Long time Hitman fans were justifiably nervous about the direction of this series after its infamous “Nun Commando” trailer. For those of you who missed it, it featured a set of sexy nuns, stripping out of their habits to reveal hooker attire, and then attempting to blow up Agent 47’s hotel room with rocket-propelled grenades. It looked like a disastrous turn towards stupid for a series more known for the cerebral. Fears abounded that the series had been ruined by airheaded Marketing executives wielding pie charts.
The good news for the fans is that Hitman: Absolution isn’t a brainless shooter. The bad news is that it isn’t a very good stealth game either. The gameplay has shifted dramatically from that of disguise-based, “hiding in plain sight” formula to more of a “hiding behind objects and in containers to stay out of sight” one. With this change, Absolution loses a lot of what has always made the series special. It is a turn for the worse.
It is a turn that brings great disappointment, because Hitman: Absolution has a lot of little parts that do work. It still has some nice traditional assassination levels where the old formula shines through. It also has some minor tweaks to the interface and a few new bells and whistles that help facilitate the stealth-action gameplay. There are some good ideas here, and some genuine attempts to appeal to hardcore stealth-action fans while making the game less tedious. Unfortunately, these improvements are drowned out by some atrocious game design and a lot of really annoying levels.
The previous Hitman games have been functional shooters, but they have always shined the brightest when they work as stealth games. In addition to some basic mechanics like sneaking and silenced weapons, the series has its signature stealth mechanic – disguises. Instead of just hiding in lockers or in darkness, the series allows you to hide in plain sight by changing your outfits. The series has also been known for its large, nonlinear levels, complexity, Robust AI, emergent gameplay, and the freedom that it offers you in taking out your target.
Like many stealth games though, the series has had its frustrations. Inconsistent and unpredictable AI has often meant that your carefully laid plans are blown apart when a guard sees through a disguise or notices you killing another guard from 100 feet away. The lack of feedback from your environment has often left you in the dark about how well you are hidden. The challenge that developers of stealth action games have faced over the years is to reduce all of these frustrations, keeping the game fun without ruining it for hardcore fans or taking away the thrill of a great stealth kill.
Absolution has a lot of changes, largely to address these typical problems. Some of them are subtle – improvements in feedback and environmental interaction that make the game more consistent and predictable. Guards now signal their suspicion level with dialog, which is a nice subtle change. Guards will instruct you to approach them if you are suspicious, follow you and yell at you if you walk away, and then give you an ultimatum if you keep walking. Frequent alerts pop up to tell you your status, such as if you are in a hostile area where your disguise is not appropriate. Frequent prompts also tell you when you can interact with switches or objects, of which there are many.
A very conspicuous change is the new “instinct” system, which has gotten a lot of criticisms from fans of the series. It is not, however, the game breaking, game spoiling experience that it has been made out to be. It is a well designed system that contributes to your ability to remain stealthy without making things too easy. By consuming instinct (which is limited), you can temporarily see guards through walls, mark and execute enemies, or hide yourself from a guard who is suspicious about your disguise. These abilities consume your instinct quickly, which means that you can’t put them to significant use more than once or twice a level. Instinct isn’t a gigantic sledgehammer. It is more like a fragile crutch that you can call upon occasionally to survive a few minor mistakes or give you a little bit of extra information. Your entire reserve gets depleted in a manner of seconds if you are using it to compensate for a faulty disguise.
You can earn instinct by completing sub-objectives and being extra graceful as you go about your mission. For example, you will earn a big chunk of instinct if you drug a guard on the tutorial level so that you can take his key card. You can earn instinct if you knock somebody out and hide the body. In this manner, the instinct mechanic also adds value by rewarding you for being careful and clever. Your reward for being stealthy is a tool that helps you remain stealthy.
In addition to instinct, the game also rewards you with mission points for accomplishing objectives and penalizes you for being clumsy or unprofessional. Kill a civilian and you lose points. Blow your disguise and you lose points. These points function a lot like experience points, and when you accumulate enough of them, your abilities improve. The combination of instinct and achievement points is a remarkable improvement. More on that below.
The environments are as interactive as they have ever been, loaded with objects that you can interact with, hiding places, and little activities that you can partake in to make your disguise more convincing. As a cop, for example, you can blend in by pretending to ogle a box of doughnuts. Every object that you can pick up can be used as a weapon, which gives you all kinds of possibilities to distract guards and improvise kills. Vases and bottles can be broken on people’s faces and radios can be smashed onto their heads. Numerous objects on each level provide opportunities to make assassinations look like accidents, such as stoves that you can turn on and circuit breaker boxes that are conveniently located next to a spot where your target goes to pee.
You will ultimately need these tools, and maybe wish that you had more because, unfortunately, the disguise mechanic has been badly neutered for this game. Disguises only work on people who you are not disguised as. The cop disguise only works on non-cops. The guard disguise only works on non-guards. Since there are lots of either cops or guards on most of the levels, the majority of disguises that you can take are virtually worthless. In an attempt to make up for this loss, cover mechanics have been added. You can now stick to corners or crouch behind waist-high obstacles while you wait for patrolling guards to pass by. The de-emphasis of disguises is a major change in how the game works, and it is ultimately the game’s downfall.
Breaking with the previous iterations in the series, Hitman: Absolution has levels that are somewhat small and linear. Whereas the missions in previous games were contained on one big map, the missions in Absolution are typically broken up into four small maps that must be played through in linear fashion. Once you enter a map, you cannot go back to the previous one, and none of the guard statuses carry over. By opening a door or entering an elevator, you instantly wipe your status with the guards and start anew. There are a few nonlinear assassination levels, but even those areas are quite small. Lack of level sizes and linearity contribute heavily to the game’s problems.
Hitman: Absolution makes a terrific first impression with its incredible visuals. I cannot vouch for how well this game fits onto the Xbox 360 or the PS3, because I played it on a mid-range PC. On that machine, it looks absolutely beautiful. It runs perfectly at 1920X1080, with all of the settings completely maxed out. Technically, it is cutting edge, with environments and characters that look as realistic as any other game in recent memory. In addition, it sports a huge variety of indoor and outdoor environments that range from drab to colorful, fitting whatever is appropriate all of the time. In this regard, it looks better than the pile of games on the market right now that are technologically impressive but feature nothing but endless seas of brown and gray.
Hitman: Absolution features a lot of variety not just in its environments, but in its characters as well. This game is not one of those experiences where you see the same bodyguards, the same NPCs, and the same enemies over and over again. Each level is populated by at least a few guys who look different from the guys on the previous levels. Even the police officers show tons of variety in their ethnicities and the gear that they wear. Thanks, to this variety, each location feels like a realistic venue, despite how small some of them are. Speaking of NPCs, this game picks up where Blood Money left off in how many it can shove onto the screen in spectacular fashion. Levels in places like Chinatown and a crowded train station are so packed that you can hardly get through them in some places. Nowhere in the game does all of this activity impact the frame rate. A strong case can be made that Absolution is 2012’s graphics game of the year.
Hitman: Absolution offers up a lot of thrilling moments and, at many times, an intoxicating level of choice. Each game in the series appears to try harder than the last one when it comes to giving you ways to improvise a kill, and Absolution continues that trend. The game manages to accomplish this goal without giving you the feel of being contrived. Hints are available to tell you what these options are, but you can turn these hints off. You probably should turn them off so that you can experience the fun of discovering them yourself.
Absolution’s biggest achievements though are its instinct system and its point reward system. These systems succeed because they do what no other stealth game has quite managed to do – reward you in-game for being stealthy by improving your stealth tools. A fundamental problem of stealth games, even the great ones, has been giving you a good gameplay incentive to stay stealthy without being unfair. With some games, like Hitman 2: Silent Assassin, completing a mission by just mass murdering everybody is easy, and the only penalty is your mission rating. Getting the highest rating possible was a form of meta gaming. With other games, like the first Splinter Cell, you can insta-fail a mission if you are discovered. Most stealth games default to the former approach, such as the recently released “Dishonored”. The safest approach seems to be to make the game super easy if you get busted, so that stealth is little more than a style choice.
HItman: Absolution offers the best solutions to this problem of any stealth game that I have played. Both the point reward system and the instinct system reward you adequately for being clever and careful. They both penalize you for being careless or killing indiscriminately. They both do it in ways that don’t completely wreck your mission if you make a little mistake. I have yet to see any review that gives this game the praise that it deserves for this accomplishment.
It is an accomplishment that should have been in a lot better game. The upgrades that make assassination more fun are tragically squandered on a game that becomes mostly a linear, irritating stealth game where half of the levels don’t even involve you assassinating anybody. The shift from disguise-based “hide in plain sight” stealth to a cover-based “line of sight” stealth is a disaster of epic proportions. When people who don’t like stealth games complain about stealth games, they are usually complaining about cover-based “line of sight” stealth. By adopting these gameplay elements, Hitman: Absolution becomes a member of the stealth genre that people typically associate with frustration and tedium. It is a shame, because the Hitman genre has always been a genre of its own, and Absolution had potential to be the best of them all.
The horrendous design for the non-assassination missions contributes to the game’s tedium and frustration. The small levels are full of choke points that are protected by swarms of guards, who populate the levels like insects. If the disguises don’t work on these guards, then what is left for you to do? You either resort to a ton of trial-and-error, where you try to complete the level during the twenty seconds that everyone happens to have their back turned, or you pull out the hardware and shoot everyone in the head. Neither of these approaches is fun. Further adding to the game’s annoyance is IO’s bad decision to abandon the save system of the previous games and go with a simple checkpoint system. The old save system limited the number of times that you could save, but at least you could choose when to use those saves. You could set your own checkpoints and save right after hard parts. It made the game less tedious without removing the challenge. Getting rid of that system made no sense.
Adding further disappointment to the mix is the game’s story. As video games stories go, it is average, at best, but it also takes the easy way out of making Agent 47 essentially a good guy again. He is a killer with a conscience. This time, he is evading The Agency to prevent them from getting their hands on a teenage girl (presumably, to turn her into an assassin too). Why does this guy have to be portrayed as killing only bad guys for some greater good? A genetically engineered killer with a barcode tattooed on the back of his forehead shouldn’t have the luxury of a conscience. The series has never put forth a good story that portrays Agent 47 as the ruthlessly efficient, cold blooded killer that he should be. At this point, I should probably stop hoping for it.
Hitman: Absolution is a disappointment. It is not a disappointment because it is a horrible game. It is a disappointment because it has some parts that are good enough to make it the best of the series, but they don’t end up inside a good game. The wonderful first impression that it makes with its strong first few levels and excellent visuals is quickly spoiled by the neutering of the disguise mechanic and the awful non-assassination levels. It never recovers from those missteps, and the overreliance on line-of-sight stealth is a step in the wrong direction for this series. Its mixed results are, in many ways, typical for an IO game. It is strange that even though I consider myself a fan of this studio, I can’t think of a game that they have made other than Freedom Fighters that I have loved. It seems as if every game of theirs has at least one bad level for every two good ones, and one idea that fails catastrophically for every two that succeed.
I get no pleasure in making these criticisms, because the game takes some chances. Absolution has a lot of features that seem to have been genuinely designed to make it a better stealth game. The game appears to have been designed as much for the hardcore fans of the series as the newcomers, which is saying something in this day and age of so many games being designed solely for "accessibility". Hitman: Absolution does stand out from the ocean of gray and brown shooters that populate the market, but not in enough good ways to warrant a recommendation.