I don’t know if the Hitman series is legitimately hard, or if I just don’t get it, but I really have trouble with them – and I’m a stealth game fan. I play every one I can get my hands on, and I like to think that I’m pretty good at that sort of thing.
But the Hitman series… It’s more like the Hit-or-miss-man series when I play it. I’ll be doing really well, infiltrating the operation area without being detected. Then there’ll be some sod in my way, and there’s no option other than to eliminate him, which I do so quietly and efficiently – and then some bastard will see me when I’m hiding the body. The slightest slip-up can mean a world of trouble dumping on you in an instant.
I think that’s what fans like about the Hitman series. Its unforgiving difficulty and convincing approach to stealth gameplay is a welcome change after you’ve dodged sentries in other games by running in their blind spots – i.e. 15 feet in front of them. No, in Hitman, the enemies can see you from ridiculous distances, and even wearing a disguise isn’t completely foolproof. Killing enemies other than your target is a calculated risk, because it’s difficult to do without attracting attention and it takes time to hide the body, during which you could be discovered. But when you finally complete a mission, slipping in unnoticed and eliminating your target with little to no collateral damage, well, the feeling of satisfaction and achievement is unmatched.
In this game, Agent 47 is called into action to assassinate his former Agency handler, Diana Burnwood, who went rogue and took a teenage girl named Emily, one of the Agency’s research subjects, with her. The Agency located her at a mansion in Chicago, and sends 47 in to eliminate her and retrieve the girl. With her dying breath, she begs 47 to take the girl and flee, otherwise she’ll be trained for a life as a super-assassin like he was. In a surprising display of humanity, 47 agrees and so begins a game of cat and mouse, as he tries to keep Emily safe by eliminating everyone who is looking for her.
You actually play through that little scene-setting intro as a tutorial stage, and I’d highly recommend you pay attention, especially if you haven’t played Hitman before. Also, I didn’t play all of the other games, so I’m unsure as to how far my jaw is supposed to drop when Agent 47 assassinates Diana. Maybe some rabid fans gawked in disbelief at that scene – the opening cinematic sure made a big enough deal out of it.
Anyway, Hitman: Absolution is split into two parts, the single-player story mode and the online contracts mode. The story mode is exactly what you’d expect, a linear set of missions Agent 47 has to complete to progress through the story. It’s very gripping and atmospheric and the missions are surprisingly varied for a stealth game. You could be infiltrating a dingy hotel one second, crashing through an abandoned library the next, ducking through a hazy, pot-smoke filled hippie commune the next, and impersonating a police officer in a densely-packed subway crowd the next. And this all happens so seamlessly and without any noticeable change in pace, that you’ve really got to give the developers a hand for level design.
The stages are exquisitely detailed set-pieces, simultaneously open-enough for you to choose your own approach, but linear enough to keep you going in the right direction. There are always several different paths 47 can take to reach his objective. You might want to knock out a guard and take his outfit, or crawl through an air duct. Maybe you’ll set off a car alarm and draw the guards away from their posts. There’s nothing to stop you from going in guns-blazing, if you think you can pull it off. But in Hitman, VIPs are guarded by about 50 or so guards, and they’ll call reinforcements if you start doing too well. So, yeah. It’s your funeral.
But even when things don’t go according to plan, and you end up getting caught, it’s not an automatic game over. In fact, it’s actually fun. Agent 47 can fake-surrender until the enemy gets close enough for him to to grab them and use them as a human shield. The guy’s allies will be hesitant to fire at 47 for a while, giving you a chance to edge your way to an escape route – or cover at least, before things get out of hand. It makes you feel like a real badass. It will affect your rating at the end of each mission, sure, but there’s nothing to stop you from going back and trying again for a perfect run.
To help him keep things under control, Agent 47 has an “Instinct” meter. This allows him to sense enemies through walls, guess their intended routes (indicated by a flaming trail) and even shoot multiple enemies with deadly accuracy. It depletes fast though, so use it sparingly. As 47 acquires points for completing each level, he’ll earn upgrades, like increased accuracy with weapons, slower instinct ability drainage, slightly longer delays before being recognised – the usual kind of thing.
The one thing that might get up the nose of Hitman fans is that you cannot choose your weapon load-out in the story mode. 47 starts each mission with a predetermined set of gear – usually a pistol and his fibre wire at best. There are plenty of guns and makeshift weapons to be found in each stage, if you can find them.
This struck me as a bit odd, since my shiny black Professional Edition of the game came with a PSN voucher for some pretty sweet, fully-upgraded gear. Turns out you get to use them in the Contracts mode. While not a multiplayer mode per se, you still need to be online to play it. It basically allows players to create their own stages and play through the stages other players have created. As players complete contracts, they’ll earn money to buy better gear and upgrade it. There are leaderboards for the best assassins and the most popular player-created stages and blah, blah, blah… you know the drill. I don’t think it would have been too much to ask for a dozen or so stages for offline players to enjoy – for those of us with temperamental Internet connections.
It’s no lie to say that Hitman: Absolution is as much a work of art as a game. You’ll want to play each stage multiple times to try all the different approaches, listen to all the conversations you missed, look at everything you didn’t see the first few times, and gawk at every pole dancer in the strip club. Even tiny details, like cobwebs and cigarette butts in the end of an air duct could only have come from the mind of an art designer who actually looked into one to see what they’re really like on the inside.
There’s only one down point to the visuals – and that’s the ridiculously excessive amounts of bloomed lighting. Everything in the game that even thinks it has a little bit of light shining on it sparkles to the point of blinding you. Woah, woah, geez! Developers, seriously, haven’t you been paying attention during the last five years of gaming? This kind of thing was a running joke back in 2007 and 2008, and for good reason. Bloomed lighting is not something you find in reality – and hell, it doesn’t look that good even if you’re going for big style points. It’s the videogame equivalent of a graphic designer putting an outer glow around a logo. Come on now.
All in all, I enjoyed playing Hitman: Absolution, especially on the harder difficulties, where I had to work hard just to finish the stage, never mind get a perfect score. Anyone looking for a good challenge will probably like it – but bear in mind that half the game requires an Internet connection.
Bottom Line: Thrilling stealth action with great visuals, but not for the impatient.