If there’s one thing that sets Absolution apart from other games this generation, it’s all in the detail. Whether that’s the Glacier 2 engine allowing unparalleled crowd technology, or the fact that the game released on the 47th week of the year, in reference to Agent 47, the game’s protagonist, it’s difficult not to be drawn in to the plight of our favourite suited assassin.
We last saw Agent 47 six years ago, with Hitman: Blood Money often being labelled as the best of the franchise. Whilst the plot itself wasn’t hailed as groundbreaking, the freedom on offer to players in each mission was often overwhelming, allowing true customisation in terms of approach and execution.
Absolution changes its focus from the great deal of scope we’ve been used to in previous iterations, and as a result, the game’s largest flaw is that it fails to live up to the creativity presented by its predecessor. However, Absolution is still a fantastic game in its own right, and easily one of the most polished experiences you’ll likely find this year.
The largest change between previous entries and Absolution, is how the narrative dictates the gameplay, rather than vice versa. As mentioned previously, other entries allowed you to approach missions how you saw fit, giving the player great opportunity in designing creative kills, whilst the story took a back seat the action.
Here, the narrative takes centre stage, with its linearity often stifling player ingenuity. The main reason for this is that Agent 47 no longer has the support of the Agency, resulting in a lack of resources and ineffective communication. Diana Burnwood, Agent 47’s handler, has gone rogue after sabotaging the Agency in what can only be described as a traitorous act. In its reformation, you are assigned to assassinate Diana in order to achieve retribution, by new director Benjamin Travis, who also asks you to return a young girl to him, found at Burnwood’s estate.
The rest of the game’s narrative is set up from this point, as Agent 47 chooses to protect the girl personally, under Diana’s final instructions, rather than return her to the Agency. As a result, gameplay is shaped by stealth, subterfuge, and deception, rather than calculated, callous, premeditated actions.
Most missions feature Agent 47 on the run, avoiding the authorities or other AI enemies, who are all out for your bald head. Whilst Blood Money put players in the shoes of the ultimate assassin, Absolution strips those resources away to make you feel fragile, vulnerable and lost. There’s still some mechanics in place that attempt to counter those feelings, such as Instinct, which allows you to highlight objects of interest and see guard patrol paths, but such features don’t cover up the change of approach.
It’s refreshing therefore that the narrative is engaging, for the most part, thanks to outstanding voice acting and intriguing albeit stereotypical characterisation, all supported by exceptional cinematography. I found myself drawn into the story far easier than previous games in the franchise, and welcomed the change of direction by developers IO Interactive, although some fans may find the greater focus unwelcoming.
With little resources to rely upon therefore, there’s no prior mission briefing or loadout selections. However, you can access a mid-mission notebook, which serves to inform you of mission objectives as well as optional challenges, but the limited detail here won’t primarily influence how you play the game. That’s reserved for Absolution’s focus on trial and error, with the path forward sometimes unclear.
You’ll be restarting checkpoints on a regular basis, if only to study guard patrols, experiment with approach, as well as to improve on botched kills and assassinations. As a result, Absolution is saturated with replayability, thanks to the game’s challenges and unlocks which always encourage you to try an alternate direction you hadn’t previously though of or found on an initial play through.
This is slightly marred by enemy dialogue and some set pieces, which repeat continuously upon reloading, meaning you’ll often wait to hear a pair of guards have the same conversation for the tenth time, only for them to separate and allow you to move on. Such mechanics increase player impatience, and are made worse when you’re forced to restart a checkpoint.
Thankfully, with combat more improvised here than before, there is never one set route to take. You’ll find a range of items lying around, all of which can be used and interacted with for different purposes. For example, a glass bottle can be thrown to distract a set of guards, whilst a box of fireworks can be lit to create panic, allowing you a brief moment of respite. The amount of interactive items on offer is tremendous, helping the environment feel a part of the action, rather than simply serving as a backdrop.
For the most part however, missions are simply broken up into travelling from A to B, countering the freedom the franchise has become a staple for. There are the occasional playground levels thrown in for the mix, but are too few and far apart in order to create any significant memorable experience, especially in comparison to the design of Blood Money’s locales.
That isn’t to say Absolution’s levels are boring or dull, in fact, quite the opposite. You’ll travel to a range of locations, each packed with detail and carrying their own personality, whether that’s a dilapidated hotel full of dishevelled misfits, or a vibrant hippie apartment stacking your local supply of cannabis plants. As a result, Absolution is up there as one of the most immersive games of this generation.
Unfortunately, this is broken slightly by the constant display of a score counter on the game’s HUD, which tracks how well you’re doing in terms of stealth and precision. The more you blend into the environment, and the less impact you have on the world around you, the higher your score will be. Kill innocents, or leave bodies lying in plain sight, and expect that score to drop into the negative. It’s a great feature that helps you understand the consequences of your actions, but does counter the emphasis placed upon the narrative by lending Absolution a somewhat arcade experience.
The AI ensures that you’ll have a tough job of reaching a high score too, with animation and behaviour patterns excellently designed, if somewhat inconsistent. When it works, enemies will search incessantly for you, communicating with their teammates, and taking cover when the excrement hits the fan. However, there are plenty of moments that serve to baffle too.
Why are the police searching a bookcase when they’re supposed to be on the lookout for a hairless killing machine? After donning a disguise, why does every other person wearing the same uniform immediately question my appearance? Do all cleaners, security guards and police officers know each other’s appearances by heart? Why is my behaviour challenged when walking in close proximity, but accepted when moving whilst crouched at a further distance?
Such moments of hilarity will either entertain or frustrate, especially if stuck on the same section for an extended period of time, only to have your efforts broken by appalling AI behaviour, but fortunately for the most part it’s more than acceptable.
There are checkpoints placed within levels too, a necessary addition due to the size and length of some of the game’s missions. Rather than being automatically activated, players can choose to enable them at their own leisure, essentially allowing you to dictate the level of difficulty. Again, this is a feature that’s inconsistent, as enemies will respawn upon a reload, even if you had previously dispatched of them prior to your save.
A first time playthrough of the game will last between 15-20 hours, especially on the higher difficulties, which is recommended due to less hand-holding and a reliance on imagination and strategic thought. With challenges and unlocks added into the mix, there’s more than enough to warrant multiple playthroughs, with the option to select individual missions also a welcome feature.
Finally, there’s Contracts mode, IO Interactive’s attempt at bringing the Hitman community together without presenting the typical multiplayer fare we’ve seen in other action games. Whilst you don’t play directly with your friends, you can design your own assassinations, known as contracts, and then upload these online for others to try out and beat.
It’s an excellent addition to the franchise, and the mode itself is as ingenious as the creativity found within. Whilst you can’t design your own maps, or choose how many NPC’s feature within each level, you do select which targets to kill, how many, and how each is assassinated, right down to what clothing you were wearing at the time of the execution. By successfully completing a contract, you’re rewarded with in-game currency, which you can spend on weapons and other items, allowing you to further customize your approach.
Ironically, this is where the true Hitman experience lies, but by no means should you overlook the game’s campaign. As a complete package, Hitman: Absolution is swarmed with detail, and credit must go to the development team at IO Interactive for the amount of effort taken in ensuring each mission carries it’s own identity.
Whilst the story mode doesn’t quite match up Blood Money’s inventiveness, it isn’t afraid to try something new, and there’s a great foundation in place for future entries. As a stand-alone game, or for those new to Agent 47’s adventures, Absolution is a fantastic place to start, and you’ll likely love the experience more so due to how well it immerses you by keeping the tension a constant high. Absolution doesn’t manage to absolve itself of its most significant flaws. However, is it a great game in its own right?
(Reviewed on Xbox 360. Review copy generously provided by Square Enix. Thank you!)
ONLY SINGLE PLAYER SCORE
Story – 7/10
Gameplay/Design – 8/10
Visuals – 9/10
Sound – 8/10
Lasting Appeal – 9/10
Overall – 8/10
(Not an average)
Platforms: PC, Xbox 360, PS3
Developer: IO Interactive
Publisher: Square Enix
Ratings: Mature (ESRB), 18+ (PEGI)