Agent 47 has had it rough over the years. Rougher than any genetically-engineered professional assassin could ever come to expect. Missions have taken him just about everywhere in the world, almost everyone he has ever met either tried to kill him or was supposed to be offed as a contract and now, in Hitman: Absolution, the fifth game in the venerable series, he is tasked with ending the life of the only person who he has ever come close to caring in his life, Diana Burnwood, his former handler and in a way, the only person he could consider a friend in his dangerous lifestyle.
Absolution begins on that very mission, which acts as a tutorial of sorts for the game. Hitman, as the name implies, is all about taking down targets as quietly and carefully as you can (or as chaotically, if you so choose) and get out in one piece. On one hand, it’s not as simple as running in and shooting everyone up, but on the other, since Absolution is a very refined game – much more than its predecessors in fact. That allows a more violent approach to be a viable option, if that’s your choice.
Your victims are usually very well protected and require a little planning before being executed. That’s where some of the series’ signature features come in play. First, the use of disguises which help give the bald assassin access to otherwise locked down locations. Finding the correct costume for a situation is paramount since more often than not, there is someone already wearing said set of clothes, which must then be relinquished in a covert way. Then the corpse (or unconscious body, if you are extra careful) has to be hidden away and your actual approach as careful and casual as possible, not to raise suspicion. Disguises work as a gameplay mechanic regardless of the obvious comedic nature of seeing a 6’4 pale-skinned bald man trying to pass off as a cook in a Chinatown noodle stand, surprisingly enough.
In previous Hitman games, 47’s movement and repertoire of abilities were fairly stiff and cumbersome when it came to doing just about anything. Absolution does away with complications by making most of your moves context sensitive. Basically, you can take someone out as you attack them face to face or from the back. By being stealthy, you can either kill or simply subdue NPCs even if 47 is unarmed, resulting in a silent take down. Directly approaching and attacking a hostile target from the front results in a ‘quick time event’ and can cause quite a bit of ruckus, especially in crowded areas.
Being detected isn’t as annoying as previous games either. Depending on the level of noise you make and the difficulty you are playing the game on, only a part of guards and enemies might hear you. There are moments when you are detected and only one enemy will rush at you because he happened to be closer to your location. In fact, distracting guards is a major part of Absolution. Throwing items reverberates sound that can be picked up by targets within earshot in which case they’ll come by and investigate, giving you a chance to slip by unnoticed or finish them in a more secluded location.
Added to 47’s bag of tricks is an Instinct meter that makes use of his superior reflexes in order to provide you with Absolution’s version of the Batman: Arkham Asylum ‘s ‘detective vision’. While not nearly as detailed as the caped crusader’s tool, Instinct comes in handy in a few different ways besides showing enemy locations, their patrol patterns and the location of useful items. It can also serve as a way to “brush” by sticky situations, having Agent 47 ‘act casual’ when donning a disguise close to suspicious enemies. The Instinct meter is also drained when use the new ‘Point-to-Point’ shooting system, that works much like the one seen in Splinter Cell: Conviction, freezing time and letting you “tag” targets before executing them at once. The Instinct meter runs out fairly quickly and is refilled at specific points of the game depending on what difficulty setting you’re playing the game in.
Absolution is divided into two tiers of difficulty – Normal and Professional, each cut into different options. Basically, the further you get into the Professional difficulties, the less tools you have at your disposal, with Instinct being much more limited, as well as making your enemies become progressively smarter. In counterbalance, the score multiplier that influences your mission results is increasingly larger the tougher you make the game.
The mission design makes full use of all elements in environments without seeming too obvious at first glance. The best part of the Hitman games is booting up a mission only to wonder how in the world you’ll finish it, only to feel really clever once you do. That feeling is in full effect in Absolution and it gives it miles of replayability if you look for it, thanks to a smart challenge system that keeps track of just about everything you do in the game, pushing you towards getting better scores and trying out different approaches and getting better scores.
Speaking of replayability, Contracts mode is the most substantial addition in that regard in Hitman: Absolution. In it, any of the game’s missions can be used as backdrops for player designed objectives. These objectives can go beyond simply killing a target and can also include bonuses like using a particular weapon, don a certain disguise or achieving a number of points at the end of the Contract, as long as the person who creates it can finish it themselves before submitting it. Points are then converted to money, which can then be used to buy new items for use in the creation of your own Contracts. Tournaments can be setup among friends in order to see who can get the highest amount of points, too. There are also online leaderboards that keep track of your score in the main story missions and Contracts, keeping track and putting your score against people on your friends list, your country and the world, which is a nice incentive to keep improving.
This is a gorgeous looking game, starting with its locations, that vary not only geographically but also visually. Each level feels like its own world thanks to strong art direction and a striking graphics engine that has some of the best lighting effects, which is put to incredible use, especially in some of the night time missions and indoor sections.
Along with the lived in feel and mundane beauty found in the world in Absolution, its cast of characters is also worthy of note, although some of the designs, particularly later on in the game seem to be edgy just for the sake of being edgy, like the group of female super assassins that happen to dress as sexy nuns. Overall, though character design and writing falls in a good mix of dark comedy and gruesomeness as the Hitman series has been known for over the years.
Hitman: Absolution provides a tense and lengthy adventure that rewards patience and creativity. Much like its predecessors, it demands multiple playthroughs thanks to some of the cleverest mission designs seen in the series up to this point, rivaling those of Hitman: Blood Money. Add to that the much improved, simplified control system and the (close to) infinite possibilities of Contracts mode, you can expect to hang with 47 for quite a while. Just don’t get on his bad side.