When Hitman: Blood Money was released in 2006 it was hailed as a major evolution of the franchise, and is considered by many Hitman fans to be the absolute pinnacle of the series. Faced with these facts, the fine folks at IO Interactive were placed in the unenviable position of having to produce the next Hitman game. A game that had to continue the evolution of the franchise and satisfy its entrenched fanbase. That being the case, I feel there are two things that need to be made clear upfront. First, allow me to allay your fears… Hitman: Absolution is indeed a Hitman game contrary to some pre-release paranoia. Second, the marketing for this game did it a huge disservice as it misrepresents this game as being a mostly action oriented game. Now that that’s out of the way, let it be known that Hitman: Absolution is a pretty terrific game.
For those keeping score at home, Absolution is the fifth entry in a series that follows genetically-enhanced assassin 47. While Absolution is not a reboot or a retcon it does assume that the events of the previous games have been resolved. As such, the start of Absolution has 47 returning to the Agency after his encounter with a group called the Franchise in Blood Money. After tracking down a traitor to the agency, 47 is told about a girl named Victoria, another product of genetic manipulation, who needs to be protected, even from the Agency itself. The rest of the game follows 47 as he does everything he can to keep Victoria safe from a wealthy industrialist named Blake Dexter and the Agency whilst on the run.
The story starts off very strong, but becomes rather hackneyed and disappointing. However, the story this time is told with a cinematic quality missing from previous entries. It’s also a grittier tale that serves as vehicle to explore the inner motivations of 47. Indeed, the one thing the story nails is making 47 feel like a human being with emotions while past entries have been content to keep 47 as a blank slate, an empty vessel in which to reside as you murder people. As a quick note, the audio within this game is also fantastic. Everything from subtle sound effects to the orchestral score evokes a tone that is in line with the current environment or with the atmosphere of each scene.
Apart from the story, many of the mechanics and design elements of the game remain largely intact from previous entries and are executed incredibly well here. But there are some significant new additions this time around. The first major change is that there is no map. Instead you have Instinct Mode, which is basically Absolution‘s version of Detective Mode. This allows 47 to track enemy movements, see them through walls, and view hints and objects of importance in the environment. It also allows 47 to blend in while wearing a disguise, as enemies and NPCs that have the same disguise as you will be able to recognize you if you get too close. While a map of some kind would have been useful, Instinct Mode does help point players in the right direction. Hitman has always been about poking and prodding systems with a trial and error approach in order to overcome challenges, and some will view Instinct Mode as a means of making the game easier. Indeed, Instinct Mode does streamline the game and makes it more accessible, but the good news is that given the plethora of ways to get through any given mission you’ll still be doing a lot of trial and error to find a path through a level that best suits your play style. Especially since the AI at times can be a bit hit or miss. It’s not game breaking, but it will have you retrying some missions more than you would like, holding the experience back and pulling you out of the game.
While in Instinct Mode, there is also an ability called Point Shooting. Basically, this ability is very akin to the Mark and Execute feature of Splinter Cell: Conviction or the Dead Eye mechanics from Red Dead Redemption. Using this ability, 47 can mark targets in the environment (or objects in the environment), and then at the press of a button shoot all of them within a matter of seconds. If you’re going for a run and gun playthrough, this is an ability you’ll be using often to clear rooms of bad guys. In addition to this, Absolution also features a new cover system and the ability to roll to more cover. Both Point Shooting and Blending will consume the Instinct meter which means it can only be used sparingly. Performing actions, such as stealth kills, will replenish the meter. Meanwhile, using it as a sort of Detective Mode will not consume the meter and can be used anytime.
Of course, all this action sounds great, but the hardcore Hitman player will be looking to play the game as stealthy as possible, and will also be aware that Hitman: Absolution will reward players that are patient and observant. During the main campaign there are now multiple opportunities to kill targets using accidental means. One of my favorite accident kills was rigging up a live wire to a spot on a brick wall. Eventually, one of my targets decided to ‘relieve’ himself in that spot, and ended up electrocuting himself. Just as in Blood Money you can still drop conveniently placed heavy objects on target’s heads or push them off ledges. You can even use improvised weapons found within the environment. Really the possibilities are endless.
This time around, the game is also broken up into 20 levels which have multiple sections with discrete objectives. Sometimes the objective is as simple as reaching a door, picking a lock, and escaping that area. Other times the area will be much more open and have up to 3 targets for you to take out. The only real downside to this is finding manually activated checkpoints within a level can be tough. The game also doesn’t feature any means of creating a hard save which will make some sections particularly frustrating. Regardless, your actions will earn you a score that can unlock upgrades, like damage reductions or aim stability, for 47. Your score will also be present on the in-game leaderboards which foster a sense of competition. Each level also has special challenges which earn you score multipliers. Some of these challenges are based on actions taken during the course of a level, like using a specific accident kill to eliminate a target or not using any disguises during the course of a whole level. This is where the replay value of Absolution lies as completing all of the challenges for a given level encourages exploration. Of course, if you really want a true sandbox experience there’s also Contracts Mode.
Contracts Mode is Absolution‘s asynchronous multiplayer suite. Basically you can play contracts made by other players using existing levels with the objective being to get the highest score possible. Points are awarded for fulling certain objectives like never being seen or following a contract to the letter and killing all the targets with the exact weapon and disguise combinations listed. Bonus points are also awarded based on how fast you finish. Unlike other user generated content (UGC), the creator of the contract has to play through the contract in order to create it. That means that any hit posted is possible to do although some will be more difficult than others. There are also several NPCs that can be marked as targets and you don’t have to use the same targets present within the single player campaign. In testing this, I managed to find Lynch (yes…the Lynch of Kane and Lynch fame) present within one of the levels. So I marked him as a target and took him out before escaping the level. You’re then allowed to save the contract or create competitions focused on your particular contract for your friends or others to join in on. It’s an interesting addition that puts a lot of freedom into a user’s hands and sets Absolution apart from other games that have UGC tools present within them. Additionally, it gives the game a huge amount of replay value and really encourages level exploration in order to find targets that are tough to get to or methods of dispatching them that are not readily apparent.
Overall, Hitman: Absolution is a blast to play, and it represents a beautiful union between the Hitman games of old and new ideas. Everything from the presentation to the subtlest of the audio effects feels crafted with a level of care that is the hallmark of IO’s past efforts with the series. And while the marketing didn’t do this game any favors, it’s still reminiscent of the Hitman games fans talk about fondly. With each target comes a huge level of freedom, room to explore, and test new ideas and methods. Contracts mode is also a welcome addition that will give fans a new way to test each other’s skills on custom contracts. Hitman: Absolution is definitely a game worth picking up regardless of whether you’re a fan of the series or a new entrant into the fray. It’s not perfectly executed, but it comes damn close.