Review: Hitman: Absolution (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Hitman: Absolution
Genre: Stealth/Third Person Shooter
Developer: Io Interactive
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: 11/20/12

The Hitman franchise hasn’t been seen in a good several years, despite generally solid critical reception overall. Hitman: Blood Money was the last entry in the series (assuming we ignore the movie, which we really should) for about six years now, and while Square-Enix owned Eidos Interactive certainly doesn’t seem to be the sort of company to leave money on the table with a viable franchise, it almost seemed like we’d seen the end of Agent 47. Well, turns out that wasn’t the case, as after some less than desirable responses to the… sexually questionable advertising campaign preceding it, we now have Hitman: Absolution, the newest chapter in Agent 47’s long and winding history. The game has taken more modern concessions to heart in its design, allowing for players who are more accustomed to stealth games like the Splinter Cell series to find this more accessible, while also offering modes that play to the fans of the franchise. The game still maintains its “do whatever you want” structure, but in a way that could open the experience up to newcomers in an interesting and enjoyable fashion. That said, the game manages to be very impressive, but doesn’t manage to be everything for everyone, and while it’s a marked improvement and a strong return to form, whether or not it’s going to be for you will depend on a few things.

The plot of Hitman: Absolution starts off with the franchise main character Agent 47 back in the good graces of The Agency, the contracting organization who commonly works as his employer in the series. At the end of Hitman: Blood Money, 47’s handler, Diana, had reopened the Agency and 47 had disappeared to go do… whatever it is retired hitmen do after their first attempts at retirement (the priesthood in his case) crash and burn. In Hitman: Absolution, we start off with 47 having been contracted to take out Diana, who has apparently gone rogue from the agency. This then expands into Diana requesting that 47 protect a young girl named Victoria from the Agency, which would be fine in and of itself, but this then, in turn, expands into 47 having to not only take on The Agency, but also businessman Blake Dexter and his legion of hired goons, who have taken an interest in Victoria for unsavory reasons. Taken solely as a piece of work in a vacuum, Hitman: Absolution is a solid piece fiction; the game gives the player enough of an understanding of his relationship to Diana to give the player motivation to want to complete the plot, and the actual structure of the storyline is very good. 47 is made into a human being here, albeit a capable one, as he fails and falls to enemies several times but keeps coming back because he must, and it’s a very strong piece of work as the player can actively empathize with the emotionless killing machine despite his… blank personality. When you can write an emotionally devoid character in such a way as to make the player care about him and his plight, you’re doing something right, and in Hitman: Absolution the writers do something very right.

That said, it seems that the writers do something very right largely because they borrowed concepts from The Professional to get to that point. They didn’t quite get into the specifics of having 47 become more human or learn to value life so to say, but the base concept (assassin protects young girl with his life) was more or less defined by that film, and you can see its fingerprints all over the product here. That’s not specifically a bad thing, mind you, and it’s surprising it took this long to get there, really, but you can see where the influences come in if you’re familiar with the source material. It’s also kind of weird that we go from Blood Money saying that Diana restarted The Agency and 47 basically abandoned his work and disappeared to this saying that Diana abandoned The Agency and 47 being in their good graces such that he’d be actively willing to hunt her down. To be honest, that we start from that point at all is strange given everything we know about the relationship between Diana and 47 to begin with, and while the ending ties some of that up a bit, it doesn’t do so to an extent that makes one feel like it justified the complete change from one game to the next. It’s possible one of the novels written in the universe explains this disconnect, though if that’s the case it would seem that perhaps some sort of effort to address that should be made in the introduction of the game for those who don’t read video game novels, for example. Again, that’s not horrible so to say, it’s just… weird if you have any kind of working knowledge of the franchise, and it’s likely to confuse fans a bit until they get caught up in the main plotline.

On the aesthetic side of things, Hitman: Absolution is visually stunning on almost all levels. Agent 47 himself looks very impressive in action and at rest, the more notable enemies you’ll face also look distinctive and strong, and even generic crowds of people look well detailed (though they can repeat now and again in large crowds). The environments are heavily varied, as 47 travels through several different locations, so you’ll see a lot of interesting environments as you progress through the game. Enemies occasionally ragdoll awkwardly, and there are occasionally issues with texture clipping that pop up here and there, but these are often very minor and don’t come up very often overall. Aurally, the game features a very strong soundtrack that is used to good effect, featuring a solid orchestral score that changes as 47’s situation does throughout the game. The soundtrack is well matched to the game as well, featuring more ambient, lower key tracks while stalking around incognito and higher pace, more frantic songs when exposed or when enemies are cautious. There are also some excellent setpieces created through the music, including a long walk to a church that’s highlighted with the sort of western sounding theme that might accompany a gunslinger’s last stand, that give the game a real artistic flair that it uses to good effect. The voice acting throughout the game is also very solid, especially that of David Bateson as Agent 47, as he manages to convey simple emotional responses through 47’s otherwise blank voice, and it adds a lot with a little. The rest of the cast also turns in a very solid performance, including celebrity contributions by Powers Boothe and Keith Carradine, who turn in excellent (but not overshadowing) performances as well. The sound effects are also quite well done, as the simplest movements generate somewhat realistic effects, and the guns sound appropriately powerful and well varied.

Hitman: Absolution is a fairly complex game at first, though the game does walk you through its mechanics and how it wants you to do things throughout the first mission to give you an idea of how to play. The left stick moves 47 around the game world, while the right stick controls looking and aiming. The left trigger is used to zoom in and aim at targets, the right trigger is used to fire guns and throw held objects, or drop held items if you’re not aiming at anything. The A button uses 47’s agility actions, such as climbing and dropping from higher ledges, and also allows you to put on disguises when available. X is your melee attack and subdue button, B allows you to move into cover and drag bodies, and Y is your context sensitive interact button for using items in the world or picking up items. You can also hold the left bumper down to run around if you need to be somewhere in a hurry, press in R3 to duck down or stand, or L3 if you want to look over the opposite shoulder. Finally, the D-Pad allows you to swap between 47’s various armaments on hand, with the left direction handling pistols, the right direction handling larger guns, the up direction mapping to melee weapons, and the down direction allowing you to holster armed weapons or pull them out. The first mission goes into the minutiae of how this all works in context and the game will occasionally highlight how best to handle certain situations when new techniques can be involved, so you’ll not be at a complete loss at any point. This is good, as it can take some time to get used to the mechanics, but once you have them down everything generally feels fairly natural in execution and works well.

Hitman: Absolution has a different way of handling its mission structure from its contemporaries in the genre, as the franchise has always been more about player freedom to do things on their own over dictating the path, and this game is no different. You’ll be dumped to an entry point at the beginning of each stage with a general objective to accomplish, and the game will step back from there and say, “Okay, figure out how to do this.” The first stage introduces this concept very early on, in fact, as you’ll have to figure out how to get into a room on the second floor of the mansion, but you’ll have several different ways of accomplishing this. You could, absolutely, go into each section guns blazing if you’re confident in your shooting skills, but the game tends to reward the player who doesn’t do this. The game will actively penalize you for shooting up the joint, and instead reward you for solving your problems more creatively and with less loss of life. Now, this may sound weird, as the game is all about giving you crazy weapons to play with and punishing you for using them seems absurd, but you’ll find that figuring out the most creative way of taking out a target has a very strong appeal of its own. Sure, you can walk up to the target in the middle of everyone and plug them dead, but it’s so much more satisfying to hide in a chest, wait for them to pass by, jump out, garrote them and stuff them into the chest instead, believe me. The game certainly agrees, as it rewards you for not killing non-target persons, creatively killing targets, hiding bodies, and more, so even those with more violent methods can find themselves doing very well.

A big part of your arsenal in most difficulties will be your Instinct, which is a sort of vision that allows 47 to analyze the world and figure out tactics. For those who have played the more recent Batman or Splinter Cell titles, you might have an idea of how this works, though it’s more involved here. By holding down the right bumper, the game goes into a black and white sort of view, and enemies, interactive items and useful elements pop up in various shades of orange and yellow. Dependent upon the difficulty, this can show you enemies through walls and floors, the path the enemy is taking, hidden pathways you can take, and hints as to how to proceed through the level should you need them. If you take on a disguise, either by stripping an enemy or by finding one in the level, you can also burn Instinct to allow you to blend in with enemies of the same type, as while other types of people won’t notice, people of the same type will catch on that they don’t know you. By burning instinct, you’ll attempt to blend in, which makes them stop paying attention to you for as long as you’re using Instinct. Should you run out, however, you’ll be back to using your wits to survive, though depending on the difficulty, you can replenish it by accomplishing objectives, subduing or killing enemies in unique ways, finding evidence hidden in the level, and through other means, so using it wisely is the best course of action. Should you find yourself in a position where Intuition has failed you, 47 also has available Point Shooting, allowing you to target multiple enemies and dispatch them instantly at the cost of some Intuition, if you want to drop several enemies in a hurry and have the energy to burn. You can also just shoot it out normally or perform melee attacks, which work as Active Time Events, if things go very far south, of course.

The main story mode, dubbed Absolution, has you proceed through each chapter normally, completing objectives and assassinating enemies as you plow through the plot of the game. Through this mode you can unlock improvements for 47 that allow him to run faster, take more damage, shoot more accurately, and so on, if you score well in a level. You can also complete Challenges on any difficulty higher than Easy, which increase your score modifier, both positively and negatively, allowing you to generate even higher scores. You can also collect weapons and disguises through this mode that you’ll retain for the Contracts mode. Contracts mode dumps you into a section of the game world with a specific objective to complete, usually one outside of the main campaign (depending on the creativity of the creator), and you can customize 47 as you see fit beforehand. Completing contracts pays you out money, dependent on how closely to the original specifications of the contract you came (IE killing the target pays some money, doing so in a specific outfit with a specific weapon pays more), which you can in turn use to buy new weapons and disguises if you can’t find them. You can also upgrade the Agency specific weapons that can be found and purchased, adding new enhancements to them such as silencers, fast reloads, balancing agents and more to improve their usefulness in different circumstances. You can even make your own Contracts by entering a stage, targeting whoever you want to make other people hunt, and taking them out in whatever fashion you’d like. Want to make them dress up in a stupid costume or use a hard-to-find weapon for maximum payout? Go nuts. You can post any Contracts you create online, send them to friends or challenge others to competitions to see who can pull off the contract the best, if you’re the competitive sort and want to challenge others, or you just want to make your friends wear stupid costumes and pull off crazy assassinations.

You can get through the main game in around eight to ten hours, depending on difficulty level chosen and how much time you spend figuring out how you want to accomplish your tasks, but there’s a lot to bring you back if you’re so inclined. The Contracts mode, though not as fleshed out as it could be, offers some amusing options for creating and completing contract kills and could offer a strong challenge for gamers looking for more. There are also five difficulty levels to choose from when playing the campaign, each of which reduces the effects of Intuition while improving enemy reactions and placement, including one that literally turns off Intuition and the interface if you want to go at the game from a more diehard perspective. Each stage also features various Challenges to complete in specific ways that improve your score modifier, allowing you to pull off some seriously high scores if you complete them all, so if you want to get your name on the Leaderboards that’s the way to go about it. The game is also stocked with a solid amount of Achievements that are largely reasonable to earn, and DLC is available for the game and will likely be coming at some point down the line as well. Hitman: Absolution has a compelling hook to it if you’re into more stealth oriented games, and there’s plenty to bring the interested player back for more if they’re so inclined.

That said, while the game is very much an interesting experience, it’s hard to recommend based on how it’s structured. While you certainly can run in, guns blazing, and take out everyone you see, this is often a monumentally bad idea, and the game is structured more around one well placed and executed kill than around hundreds of them. That’s not at all a bad idea, but whether or not the game is going to appeal to you is based almost entirely around your answer to the question, “Would you be okay playing an action game where you will kill one person in an hour while hiding from hundreds of others?” Again, the point isn’t that this is a bad thing, so much as it is that it bears consideration as to whether or not this sort of thing is for you as a player, because that’s the majority of the game, so it’s something to really think about before jumping into the game. Insofar as actual flaws are concerned, the game has some mild AI hiccups where targets will occasionally stop moving and simply wait somewhere, forcing you to abandon your planning to either deal with them where they are (often in hostile areas that require you to be spotted) or restart from your last checkpoint (or altogether on harder difficulties). The AI will also occasionally behave inconsistently, either identifying you when such should not be possible or failing to identify you when such is obvious, firing at you when they have no possible line of sight, and so on, though this is also rarely a big issue unless you’re getting into frequent firefights.

Hitman: Absolution is a very strong attempt to reinvent the franchise after an extended hiatus, and while it still very much comports itself as a stealth-heavy, action-light experience, and there are a few hiccups in the AI, if you’re interested in the sort of experience the game offers, it’s an excellent one from start to finish. The plot, while slightly derivative, is excellently executed, and the game is artistically and technically interesting from both the visual and the aural perspective. The mechanics, though slightly complex, can be adjusted to with mild effort, and once that’s done, the game becomes as much about the thrill of hunting prey and avoiding detection as anything else, and between the multiple difficulty levels, competitive options with online friends, and numerous difficulty settings, the game has plenty of staying power. If you’re more inclined toward action-heavy experiences and less interested in stealth systems it’s harder to recommend the game, given that going in guns armed isn’t the best possible option, and the AI has some mild hiccups that pop up now and again regardless of how you play. If you’re interested in an action game that’s designed to test your ingenuity and creativity over your trigger finger, however, Hitman: Absolution is a strong return to form for the franchise, and one that’s well worth picking up.

The Scores:
Story: GREAT
Graphics: CLASSIC
Control/Gameplay: GREAT
Replayability: GREAT
Balance: CLASSIC
Originality: GOOD
Addictiveness: CLASSIC
Miscellaneous: GREAT


Short Attention Span Summary:
As the first entry in the franchise in over half a decade, Hitman: Absolution is indeed a return to form and a great game in general, and while it’s one that may not be for everyone, and not without its issues, it’s well worth experiencing if you’re into what it does. The storyline, though slightly derivative and awkward for returning fans, does an excellent job of advancing the experience and giving the player a reason to care about the events, and the game is mostly exceptionally artistic in its visual and aural design. The mechanics can be a little daunting at first, but once you have spent some time with them the gameplay becomes second nature, allowing you to focus on the most interesting ways to complete your contracts using all of the tools and elements at your disposal. The game also offers a good amount of replay value, through improving scores, challenging yourself with higher difficulties, taking on Contracts made by others, or just trying to complete all of the Challenges and Achievements the game has to offer. The game is more about spending an hour setting up one well-executed kill than obliterating everything you see, so it may be harder for some gamers to get into what the game does, and there are some issues with the AI that can pop up now and again to hurt the experience a bit. The final product, however, is a strong return for Agent 47 and one that fans of more thoughtful action games, and the series, should find a lot of enjoyment in.



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