Killing Them Softly
Here’s a simple truth: Modern gamers love longevity. Players expect to get a bigger bang for their collective buck now more than ever, a sentiment that has led many game companies to pack as much replay value as they can into their titles. Some—like Call of Duty or Halo—have opted to do this by featuring a deep multiplayer suite, while others—like Skyrim or Borderlands—have chosen to simply pack as much content as they can onto a single disc. And let’s not forget this generation’s massive spike in DLC either. This whole idea of games having to last longer in order to be worthy of a player’s time and money is widespread, and one that Hitman: Absolution follows to a T. Fortunately, it’s all the better for it.
But let’s take a step back first. Hitman: Absolution is the fifth entry in developer IO Interactive’s longstanding stealth-action franchise, and the first since 2006’s Hitman: Blood Money. Players will once again control the bald killing wonder that is Agent 47, as this time out sees him on a quest for revenge, redemption, and, you guessed it, absolution.
Absolution’s narrative is more or less typical Hitman fare—dark, violent, and often ridiculous. Originally tasked with assassinating a former colleague and close friend, 47 soon finds out that the hit isn’t quite what it seemed. Things go to hell, and eventually the master assassin ends up at odds with former employers, the shadowy Agency. He winds up having to care for a gifted (and therefore, valuable) young girl named Victoria, but loses her to a cast of cartoonish characters, the likes of which include a redneck businessman, his genetically-enhanced Hispanic wrestler sidekick, a greaseball imbecile, and the Agency’s director—who is the spitting image of Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation—among others.
It’s a competent and often witty tale, but let’s just say there likely won’t be any novelizations of this script anytime soon. The Man on Fire narrative of one man on an unstoppable mission to save a young girl is compelling on its own, as are the ‘60s-style aesthetic throwbacks that can be seen through the game’s old school vehicles or the Dick Dale-like guitars that play at its start menu.
But for every potentially dramatic moment, there’s some creeper talking about how aroused he is upon being shot or some NPC calling 47 an offensive slur. Hitman games have always embraced their over-the-top nature, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but here I can’t help but feel like the opportunity to explore the more readily interesting aspects of an assassin like 47—one of the first things you hear upon booting the game is a very well-delivered speech about the utilitarian nature of his work, for example—was somewhat wasted.
But let’s be honest, you’re probably not picking up a Hitman game for philosophical discourse, are you? No, we’re here to kill the bad guys, and it’s here where Absolution plays as solid as ever. Simply put, the amount of freedom Absolution grants players on a level-by-level basis is astounding. Sure, at its core, this is still like any Hitman game—you start out each level in one place, and you have to get to another place, oftentimes subduing and killing targets along the way. Absolution isn’t going to change that. But the sheer breadth of ways you’re allowed to sneak and kill here are so clever and, in most cases, so seamlessly built into each of the game’s sprawling locales that completing them all for a given section becomes a game in and of itself.
Let me give you an example. This isn’t much of a spoiler, but around midway through the game 47 goes to assassinate the genetically-enhanced wrestler—or, Sanchez, if we want to use the name IO gave him—in the middle of one of his matches. When I went to do the deed, I chose to blend in with the raucous crowd—which, like every crowd in Absolution, is portrayed fantastically thanks to IO’s great Glacier 2 engine—subtly moving my way around the ring until I reached the door to the catwalks upstairs, where I had earlier spotted a good vantage point of the area. After choking out a guard, assuming his outfit as a disguise, and stashing his body in a nearby locker, I then walked right by his now-fooled colleagues until I reached the aforementioned vantage point. When I got there, I found my eagle eyes to have served me well, because a nice, sleek sniper rifle was sitting there. I waited for Sanchez’s to turn his back to me, lined up the shot, and fired away. I quickly evaded the alerted guards and made a brisk run to the exit, with my mark now down for the count.
Now, I’d have been content with being forced to fulfill my hit that way, but after I went back through the level a couple more times, I found that I had only scratched the surface of my death-dealing. Other possibilities included dropping a lighting rig on top of him in the middle of the fight, taking out his scheduled opponent in the section prior, donning his disguise and fighting Sanchez myself, tossing a remote-detonated charge in the ring and blowing him up, rolling in guns a’ blazing and mowing down everyone in my path, or just sneaking in normally and shooting him like any other enemy. There are probably other options too. You just have to experiment and explore a bit to find them.
Just about every one of Absolution’s 20 levels is designed this way. Over the course of my fifteen-hour playthrough, I electrocuted a man while he was urinating, caused someone to accidentally set off hundreds of fireworks and burn himself alive, threw about a dozen people off of rooftops or bridges, rigged a tunnel to collapse onto someone, poisoned a villainess’ sushi, and dropped a disco ball onto a group of strip club attendees, among other things.
The thing is, though, I never had to do any of that. Hitman: Absolution unabashedly worships at the almighty altar of player choice, which means that you’re just as welcome to turn it into an action game—although the gunplay is admittedly not nearly as tight as the sneaking controls—turn it into a purely stealth game, or play it down the middle whenever you’d like.
The levels’ expansive, interconnected nature, and the subsequent feeling of never fully knowing if you’ve seen the best the game has to offer, are the primary sources of Absolution’s play value. But they’re not the only ones. Each level is scored based on how much skill you display throughout the area. Get by unnoticed, or take down your mark without laying a finger on him, her, or the trigger, and you’ll be rewarded with a higher number. Getting the highest rank of “Silent Assassin” is a challenge even on Normal mode, and essentially requires you to play through each level multiple times in order to memorize the lays of the land by heart.
The enemy A.I. here is solid, by the way. They coordinate and work together well, forcing 47 to lay low behind some sort of cover at almost all times. One dumb move will usually mar the rest of your time in a particular level, so care and precision are near-constant requirements. The baddies are little more than cannon fodder during larger shootouts, although those—if you couldn’t tell from their pedestrian controls or the fact that you’re not rewarded with points for engaging in them—are not Absolution’s number one assassination method of choice anyways.
Further adding to the replayability factor is a new mode called Contracts, a sort of half-mission, half-level creator that allows players to make up their own assassinations—well, contracts—and share them with the rest of the Absolution community. While not as all-encompassing as the level creator in, say, inFamous 2, Contracts mode is quick, enjoyable, and easy to use. You just have to pick one of the story mode’s levels, mark one or more of the NPCs found within as targets, take them out in whatever fashion you’d like, and then choose which exit to escape through. Depending on who you killed, what weapon you used to complete the hit, how you were dressed when you did it, and various other factors, Absolution will create the terms of the new, soon-to-be-shared mission for you and let you upload it for the world to play.
So, when I headed over to Chicago’s Chinatown district dressed as a giant chipmunk to chuck an axe as Chef Ning Tan’s face—this is all real—and then exited without alerting any cops, my mission (I named it “Crouching Tiger, Flying Ax”) was born. In order to fulfill the terms of my contract, players will have to kill who I killed, dressed as I was, and exit they way I exited. If they succeed, they’ll get a payment, which can then be spent on various unlockable outfits, weapons, and the like. If they don’t alert anyone, they’ll get a bonus. Whether or not the Contracts mode takes off with the community is still unknown, but the potential is certainly there for even more hours of replay to be added onto an already deep single-player experience.
I’m about 1,500 words into this review and I still feel like I haven’t told you about everything Hitman: Absolution has to offer. In a way, though, that’d only be fitting for a game like this. Despite being a strictly single-player experience, Absolution packs more replay value into its two game modes than most games would do with five. It has its fair share of deficiencies—a goofy narrative, okay gunplay, a few bugs here and there—but overall, Absolution is a game that demands you explore its nuances over and over again. Just be sure to stay quiet when you do so.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.5 Graphics
Character models and environments look wonderful thanks to great design and IO’s Glacier 2 engine. Crowds in particular are superbly portrayed. 4.0 Control
IO has been at this for a while, so they know how to give 47 the precision and touch required for a good stealth game. Gunplay, however, is just okay. 4.0 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
A big orchestral, cinematic score highlights the sound department. The TV and film actors of the cast do the best with what they’re given, although that’s not much. Some minor bugs here too. 4.5 Play Value
This game was designed to be played at least two or three times, if not more. Unlockable challenges, outfits, and weapons—as well as high scores and the new Contracts mode—will keep you playing for weeks. 4.3 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid
|2.5 – 2.9 = Average
|3.5 – 3.9 = Good
|4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor
|3.0 – 3.4 = Fair
|4.0 – 4.4 = Great
|5.0 = The Best