It might have been plagued with problems, but Hitman: Blood Money still has a cult following to this day. Each mission took place in a huge, open killing ground, where the method of death was limited only by the player’s twisted imagination. The game provided the tools and the environment, but it was up to you to decide how to manipulate them through hours of observation and experimentation, and it’s still revered as one of the finest examples of sandbox gameplay. Powered by the meagre muscle of the PlayStation 2 and Xbox (with the 360 version really just an afterthought), it’s no wonder virtual killers were fingering their garrottes with glee when Hitman: Absolution was announced. Today’s consoles are exponentially more powerful than their predecessors, so we could only imagine how much bigger and more densely packed with death traps the new game would be.
Instead IO Interactive used the power of the PS3 and 360 to deliver the most claustrophobic Hitman game yet.
Gone are the huge playgrounds of Blood Money, with each level now broken down into bite-sized murder-chunks. The reasoning behind this compartmentalisation is obvious as soon as you lay your eyes on Absolution’s luscious levels. By making each area much smaller, the game can cram more detail into the environment and the objects that fill it, without causing today’s consoles to burst into flames. The PC version is simply spectacular, using hardware tessellation to deliver a level of detail over and above the consoles, and the crowd technology is still as impressive as it was in the last game, with hundreds of people filling clubs and marketplaces.
The NPCs have been brought to life, far more believable than the robotic automatons of the past, spewing out lengthy reams of voiced dialogue provided you stick around long enough to listen in. In Blood Money, it often felt like you were a kid with a magnifying glass looking in on a huge robotic ant farm, but Absolution’s areas feel much more alive and real, albeit at the cost of scale and openness. While the look of the game is mostly breathtaking, IO has gone a bit crazy with the lighting and bloom stick; even Agent 47’s bald dome casts off enough glare to distract overhead pilots. The eye candy also comes at a cost, occasionally bringing my i7 3770K (overclocked to 4.5GHz) with dual GTX 670s to its knees, often in areas that should run beautifully, such as tunnels.
Due to the smaller size of the areas, many levels follow a single linear route, making it less about experimenting with different pathways and more about following the obvious cues to the next checkpoint. Every now and then it’ll open up into a larger area like a marketplace or apartment building, where hints of the old Hitman experience shine through, but even these areas pale in comparison to the hectares of space virtual hitmen are accustomed to exploring.
Making it even less about player choice is the fact that you don’t get to choose which weapons to start the mission with. Instead you spawn with whatever the level designer has deemed suitable — but you don’t have to use them. There are usually three or four traps squirrelled away in the environment, and they’re not always easy to find; in one section it took me an hour of reloading before I found a certain poisonous fish that I could use to poison my target.
This has a huge impact on the playstyle — whereas in the past you could choose which weapons to take, and the levels were littered with various options of despatching your target, now it plays out like an easter egg hunt. Walk through the level, stumble upon the obvious trap, then trigger it when the target is near. The game doesn’t even let you use weapons that you ended the last mission with — if you left the last mission bristling with items tailor made for mass murder, they’re all gone by the time you start the new mission, even when both missions are directly connected in the game’s timeline. This lack of continuity is strange problem for a game that prides itself on bringing a strong narrative to the series.
The choice to use pre-rendered cut-scenes means that other continuity issues constantly rear their ugly head. Countless times I opened a door in-game, garbed in a stolen police officer’s work blues carrying a police revolver, only for the game to jump to a cut-scene of me entering the room in Agent 47’s trademark suit armed with a silenced automatic pistol. It’s jarring and it’s basic film school stuff, so it’s baffling that a game that places such a heavy emphasis on narrative ignores one of the basic tenets of the storytelling process. If you can ignore the issue, the storyline is actually rather decent. It’s not going to win any Emmy’s, but it’s also not cringe-worthy. We’ve all known that – deep underneath the coat of blood of his recently eviscerated victims – Agent 47 has a good heart, and Absolution explores the theme of how many lives he will take to save a single life.
Chances are you’ll take a lot more lives than you want, as playing the game in stealth mode is brutally difficult. Demons Souls is an utter cake walk compared to stealthing through Absolution on the higher difficulty levels, as the linear level design and aggressive AI makes it incredibly hard to get through most areas. The new disguise system makes stealing uniforms basically worthless, as enemies garbed in the same attire will spot you in seconds unless you use your Instinct power to hide your face, but it burns out in just a couple of seconds. Throw in checkpoints that are harder to find than a working follicle on 47’s head, and this is one tough sucker.
Like Demons Souls, the sweet, sweet sensation of satisfaction of getting through a level makes it all worth it, but you’re going to need the patience of a saint to ghost your way through. Blasting enemies is infinitely simpler, and the improved controls and weapon feedback makes this a very serviceable third person shooter.
This gunplay can be used in the online Contracts mode, where you must kill a target in an area according to a plan built by other players, but most players will probably set up tricky silent assassinations instead. It’s an interesting mode that will likely die out rather quickly, as the joy of setting up or achieving a kill is still limited by the linear levels.
If it sounds like I’m disappointed in the design decision to lessen the scale of the game, it’s because I am — but that doesn’t necessarily make Absolution a bad game; it’s just very different to past Hitman experiences. Experimentation is now replaced by observation and persistence, and it feels much more like a Splinter Cell or Metal Gear game. Yet there’s still the feeling of sweet satisfaction after clearing a level without killing anybody, and in some ways this is even more pronounced thanks to the fiendishly clever AI and devilish difficulty, provided you’ve got the tenacity to retry levels dozens of times.
Many gamers will also appreciate the increased attention to detail, and won’t miss the head-scratching problem solving required in the past. If only IO Interactive could have accomplished both, combining the open nature of the previous game with the lush minutia of Absolution, it’d be the perfect Hitman game. Instead we’re left with a much more focused assassination experience, which sacrifices emergent gameplay for blockbuster presentation.
- A visually gobsmacking game which makes the most of the PC’s powerful graphics capabilities
- AI is much more believable thanks to better behaviour and a wealth of dialogue
- Pulling off environmental kills is still incredibly satisfying
- Gunplay is now a viable – and enjoyable – way to clear the game
- Doesn’t feel like a Hitman game
- A narrower experience than the sandbox gameplay of its predecessors
- Incredibly hard to successfully stealth your way through on higher difficulties
- Very demanding hardware requirements if you want all the eye candy