Very few games, at least in recent memory, have allowed for the true meaning of murder to shine through. And that true meaning is entwined, almost endlessly, with the concept of freedom. The true fear, tension and exhilaration from killing comes from not knowing how it’l go down. Even when planned to a T, there’s still room for surprises. IO Interactive’s Hitman: Absolution distills this sensation and imposes it against strong set pieces, situations where stealth is as important as learning when not to kill; where learning when not to kill is as important as reacting quickly enough to killing. It’s imposing at first, sometimes baffling, but therein lies the appeal.
To recap: Agent 47 must kill his ex-controller Diana Burnwood. However, things aren’t as simple as they seem, and Agent 47 knows better than to just leave things be. Going rogue he begins a long and bloody quest that brings him face to face with southern businessman/authority figure Blake Dexter, arguably one of his more twisted adversaries yet. The preview build we played didn’t really push forth many details on the entire situation but the five chapters were deftly crafted and flow effortlessly with the narrative.
Hitman: Absolution doesn’t try to employ any cutting edge story techniques, nor does it weigh down the missions with excessive cut-scenes. Paying attention to developments is important, especially since so many of them happen within the context of the mission. But the segments between missions are tautly constructed. Agent 47 is his usual dead-pan self, Dexter is as sinister as they come (and it’s hard not to see a little Bush-streak in his mannerisms), and the other characters are similarly well-developed. But being 47 doesn’t mean just embodying the man – it means controlling him, and using his most dangerous skills effectively.
Absolution employs a control scheme that may take getting used to, but it’s never overtly complicated to use, whether in a pinch or while avoiding enemies. A new melee combat system has been installed, which relies on quick time events to disable attackers. You can also fake surrender, in order to sucker an enemy in, before proceeding to take him hostage, commandeering his weapon and annihilating his allies. A Mark & Execute system also comes in handy if you’re surrounded by multiple enemies. The usual mechanics of sneaking, navigating from cover to cover and stealing uniforms to blend in with surroundings is still intact. A special meter for activating Instinct Mode guides you to targets and objectives, along with allowing you to blend in with your enemies.
Be warned however: If enemies get too close of a look, they’ll be on to you. And they’ll be nice enough to tell their friends, depending on how alert they are. The Threat Meter is now a grey circle on the screen, showcasing the direction of alerted enemies. Moving quickly and quietly is thus supremely important. This especially plays a huge role when you have no guns to use. Agent 47 can use objects in the environment to his advantage, to create distractions or even whack enemies over – or through – the skull with.
All of these factors come together for some of the most vibrant levels you’ll see in a third person action game. You’ll sneak past strippers having serious conversations about the loss of their dignity to the more unscrupulous clients. You’ll overhear cops toying with hippies as they attempt to arrest the lot of ’em. The henchmen eschew the traditional, well, henchmen banter in favour of calm, collected conversation. No one feels out of place – except you, if the enemies look hard enough.
Let it be said that Absolution features some of the more vicious ways to kill a target that you’ll see in an action game. One example is the Chinese market, wherein you must assassinate a target who is under heavy surveillance. There are several approaches to take: For example, you could obtain a poisonous fish and mix it with his drink, or head to a food stall he likes to frequent and mix it with his usual order (this entails killing the original cook, however). You could set off his car alarm, thus getting him alone in the alley to execute. Or just shoot him from the rooftops with a sniper rifle. The possibilities, at times, feel endless but don’t let it fool you into thinking that you won’t be on a roller-coaster every now and then.
Taking place in Chicago, a series of missions has you infiltrating a hotel where Dexter is staying, attempting to corner him (before being disposed of and framed for murder), escaping the burning wreckage of the building, navigating down the floors – past marijuana farmers and police – through an abandoned library, avoiding detection by helicopters, and then to the subway where you have to reactivate the trains to make your daring escape. It’s so tense, yet so concisely packed, offering up a multitude of ways to bypass your foes but never once taking away from the tension of the exercise or the observation necessary. One particular mission has you assassinating three targets across the crowded Chinese market, and it’s far from easy. But that’s what makes it fun, as you’ll be exploring more and more obscure and insane ways to kill these guys.
The various challenges in the game reward you for attempting different kinds of kills, be they with weapons, explosives or other nefarious means. Finish enough challenges and you can level up 47’s abilities. This creates a good motivation for revisiting missions, but more importantly, having familiarized one’s self with a mission before, it’s interesting to go back and attempt it again, armed with the knowledge of the environment and target patterns. It’s what encourages the leap from players to hit-men: The more you learn about an environment, the better equipped you’ll be to tackle it.
There are some games you get so caught up in that you tend to downplay the graphics and sound. Hitman: Absolution’s next generation visuals only augment the experience. Honestly, if every single third person action adventure put in this much effort into water effects, dynamic shadows, character textures and environmental design, life would be a whole lot easier. A sinister, Gotham-like tone paints the proceedings of Absolution, flirting with the neon smut of strip-clubs and gothic dystopia alike. It’s a fitting package, accentuating the grim world that 47 finds himself forever running circles in.
We didn’t get a chance to try out the new Contracts mode, sadly, which allows you to custom-create hits and upload them online for players to take up. The devs are also providing their own range of hits for players to take up. Time will tell how well this mode blows up, but judging from the rest of the game, it should be a blast. IO Interactive and Square-Enix have something very special with Hitman: Absolution. They’ve taken the beloved franchise and significantly upped it to the level of an intelligent summer blockbuster. It’s absorbing yet intricate in it’s mechanics and rewards both the road less travelled and the one revisited. It’s already looking like a major winner, not only for the franchise as a whole but as one of the more compelling stealth/action titles to come out in recent years.