It’s been six years since the release of Hitman: Blood Money and since Agent 47 took a leave of absence from the world of gaming, we’ve seen Solid Snake get old, Sam Fisher get angry and the Assassin’s Creed games set a new benchmark in stealth action-adventure gaming. Considered to be a master of his craft, it’s time for the barcoded, bald-headed, well-dressed killer-for-hire to take on a new contract in the much anticipated sequel Hitman: Absolution, under the watchful eyes of Square Enix and IO Interactive.
The story picks up after the events of Hitman: Blood Money. Agent 47’s former handler Diane Burnwood has gone rogue after sabotaging her former employers and exposing their antics to the public. Ordered to kill Diane, Agent 47 finds his loyalties challenged when he discovers that she has been hiding a young girl named Victoria who seems to be of value to the agency. Now the hitman must protect Victoria from the very men who created him and discover what makes this girl so special in the process.
The game spans across twenty chapters, each separated into between two and five sub-chapters. Each mission usually begins with an assassination followed by Agent 47 making his escape from both the game’s villains and the long arm of the law. It becomes a fairly stale formula that shows little signs of deviation with perhaps exception to the opening and closing chapters of the game. Still, taking cues from films such as Leon: The Professional and Taken this is definitely one of the tightest Hitman storylines to date with some interesting characters and plot twists along the way.
Like its predecessors Hitman: Absolution operates in the third person. Levels may vary between assassinations or fleeing a crime scene but what binds them together is their necessity to hide in plain sight in order to complete the mission. Using the environment to Agent 47’s advantage can mean several things, such as crouching behind part of the scenery, hiding in a cupboard or bin, or even using disguises stolen from non-playable characters in order to slip through unnoticed. Many of the assassination missions will require hitting the restart checkpoint option if trying to complete the mission without being penalised for killing innocents or being spotted by the enemy. If patience is a virtue then it’s a downright necessity with Hitman: Absolution. Tracking the movements of your targets often means mingling with the crowd or hiding behind pieces of the environment for lengthy periods of time before determining the best course of action. Agent 47 is also engineered with a unique sixth sense, similar to the Eagle Vision from the Assassin's Creed games that allows him to spot enemies through walls and pick up on environmental hazards that can be used to his advantage. Those expecting an all-out shooter maybe disappointed as taking this approach often leads to death within moments, even during those difficult times when you feel like you’ve been left with no other option. Still, with plenty of variety in your assassination techniques chances are you’ll swiftly find the right method for you. This is where the game finds its replay value, although the truth is you’ll probably accept whatever method you’ve chosen and push forward with the storyline.
What separates Hitman: Absolution from the previous titles is the new points system. Depending on what difficulty you select at the start of the game players are given a target score to reach. Points are deducted for being spotted, causing suspicion or even killing/subduing non targets. It can cause quite a panic when you find yourself in the minuses before the mission has even really started, but there are various ways to redeem yourself throughout each mission and increase your score. A series of challenges of varying difficulty are issued alongside each level. Some of these challenges involve being a little more creative with your assassination techniques. For example, in one assassination mission you’re given the choice to snipe your target to get the job done quickly, or poisoning their cigarette if you’d rather not cause any panic or alarm. The latter option usually requires a lot more time and effort but will reward you with more points and put you one step further to being deemed a true professional.
The points system isn’t just restricted to assassinations either. Finding new ways of distracting enemies and non-playable characters also plays a crucial part in earning your barcode. Throwing objects such as bottles and hammers is a quick way to slip by unnoticed if timed right, but points are also awarded for using various parts of the environment to your advantage. Whether it be setting off a room full of fireworks or strapping explosives to a parked car, these act as the game’s version of the side mission and bring a little more variety to the gameplay. There are also some extra points awarded for those who successfully complete a chapter without being spotted, or even for remaining in Agent 47’s trademark suit for the entire mission.
Some situations do require quick thinking and if you’re caught there are several ways to neutralise the threat without causing anymore panic. Agent 47 can pretend to surrender in certain situations, giving him the opportunity to knock his opponent out, or take them hostage in order to flee the scene of the crime. This is effective in one-on-one situations, but if you’re surrounded, chances are you’ll find yourself hitting the restart button and learn from your mistakes. Alternatively, the option is there to shoot your way out but this is generally suicidal unless you’re quick on the mark with the new Point Shooting system available. Similar to the Dead-Eye mode found in Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption, time will slow down to a crawl allowing Agent 47 to highlight targets before performing an execution-style mass murder automatically before your very eyes. It’s a very cool sight to behold, but for those taking the game’s roots seriously, will very rarely get used.
Hitman: Absolution doesn’t include a multiplayer mode which many games feel the need to wedge in these days. Instead, what’s included is a new score based challenge mode entitled Hitman Contracts. Not to be confused with the 2004 instalment of the series with the same name, Contracts mode allows players to create their own challenges to post online for others to play. There isn’t any heavy construction mode involved as instead the game uses the already existing levels from the Absolution storyline, including the non-playable characters and whatever weaponry happens to be lying around. In order to create a challenge, Agent 47 must travel through the level, using the Y button to mark targets before carrying out the hits himself.
As an alternative to the traditional multiplayer, IO Interactive have taken a big risk with the Contracts mode. Provided you’ve a number of enthusiastic friends who also own the game, it can be quite entertaining trying to outsmart your pals in the most intricate and diabolical ways imaginable. As the points rack up so do the amount of weapons and disguises at Agent 47’s disposal. However, the lack of extra levels and characters in Contracts mode means that the experience becomes a rehash of the main game. Obviously this can be remedied with downloadable content, but chances are that by the time it’s released, gamers will have moved onto the next big action adventure title. Contracts boasts about being the challenge mode that Hitman fans have yearned for over the years, but realistically, the lack of overall creativity and control gives the overall impression that something more could have been done with such a great idea, perhaps even leaving you the feeling that a classic multiplayer mode would have actually been the better option to include.
Agent 47 looks a lot better since his last outing during 2006’s Hitman: Blood Money. However, the game still suffers from some major technical flaws that not only are aesthetically displeasing but can actually interfere with the experience altogether. As with other games in the stealth genre, line of sight plays a major role in whether or not you get caught. Where Hitman: Absolution fails quite often is that some of the game’s levels require Agent 47 to hide amongst huge crowds of people and more often than not the game slows down to a snail’s pace as you navigate between bodies. It would be forgivable if the first Assassin’s Creed hadn’t set the benchmark for this style of gameplay back in 2007. The cutscenes are dark and gritty, sharing a similar style to the ill-fated Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days but don’t quite settle in with the rest of the game. If Agent 47 is sporting an ice-cream van driver disguise or a police uniform during gameplay, he suddenly winds up back in his trademark suit for the cutscenes. Again this would be a minor offence to forgive, if so many games hadn’t started integrating most cutscenes into their gameplay. Still, the voice acting and music are absolutely flawless and it’s clear that the game has been given the Hollywood treatment during its absence.
The Hitman series has been in desperate need of fresh ideas since taking a hiatus in 2006 and Agent 47’s career break has certainly done him the world of good. The Hitman: Absolution storyline isn’t exactly ground-breaking with its storytelling and the game suffers from some pretty major technical flaws but the creativity in gameplay and the sheer length of the plot (taking into account the restarts and challenges) is rather staggering compared to some desperately short tales demanding full price at the moment. So for now put the Assassin robes back in the cupboard and suit up - Hitman’s back in town.