Among all the cover-based, linear stage demos and cinematic trailers of Agent 47 fighting scantily clad battle-nuns, it seems fair to stop and wonder if IO Interactive has lost its way with Hitman: Absolution, but there’s also a sense of familiarity in it all. There’s a serious and worthwhile conversation to be had with the imagery and symbolism in that particularly wretched piece of marketing, but when fans decried it as a betrayal of everything Hitman games were, I had to disagree. We’re talking about a series where you can murder people either as an assault-rifling maniac, or dressed as a clandestine chicken roosting with a sniper rifle. Hitman has always had a dose of stupid mixed in with its gratuitous violence, but that has hardly been its allure.
So what makes a Hitman game? What elements does Absolution need to retain, and where is it free to innovate? To me, Hitman is a murderous sandbox where the engagement comes less from the execution (if you’ll pardon my phrasing) but from the contemplation. It’s less about the end result and more about the journey, made all the sweeter if that journey is taken over nine separate attempts as I try to unlock that coveted Silent Assassin rank. I want to be able to replay Hitman’s levels again and again, finding new and inventive ways to finish the task at hand
Luckily IO Interactive appears to know this, and Hitman: Absolution appears to be every bit the contemplative murder-puzzle that fans of the franchise know and love.
The setting is Chinatown and the target is its self-proclaimed king, a suited man who struts around a guarded pagoda, itself in the middle of a crowded marketplace. Occasionally the king of Chinatown will admit a local cocaine dealer to his fortress, and then swing by his European convertible to powder his nose. Incidentally, the drug dealer’s apartment has a fetching view of that same pretty pagoda, and the man would appear to fancy himself as a marksman if that sniper rifle on his table is anything to go by. Sprinkle about detonable bombs, electrical fuse boxes, and some profoundly poisonous fish, and frankly it’s a miracle that the ‘king of Chinatown’ hasn’t killed himself yet.
In a relatively small area, crammed with NPCs who mull around buying from market stalls, this means Agent 47 has options, just as always. He also has some new toys. Back in the days of Hitman: Blood Money, 47 had to make do with a magical map that relayed to him the exact movements of NPC’s and listed relevant points of interest. All of these features are still available to our humorless killer, but now they’re embedded within the world. Replacing the frantic back-and-forth of the map is 47’s Intuition Mode. Hold the button and time slows a little, the color fades, and the screen goes grainy. Points of interest and guards are highlighted, and on lower difficulties their patrol routes glitter on the ground. The impression isn’t one of reduced challenge, as some have feared, but of contextualization. Scoping out security movements has become more natural.
Hitman: Absolution still feels like a stealth game primarily, but of course people will always be tempted to do it the wrong way. IO Interactive is quick to point out the legitimacy of run-and-gunning any level you want, but to do so is to remove all of those painstakingly laid-out tools that litter the environment. Still, I must agree that it’s at least possible to play Hitman this way, and while Absolution pays more attention to gunplay, that doesn’t mean that this approach is any easier.
In past games you were free to commit violent atrocities and would only have to answer to the security payroll of the one theatre 47 was currently shooting up. Perform similarly in Absolution and your actions drag in SWAT forces with more than enough armament to make you think twice about this approach. You may now be able to pop in and out of cover like Marcus Fenix, but Absolution still demands you scope out the situation and carefully formulate a plan if you’d like to get the best scores.
In my time with Hitman: Absoloution, the most important thing to take away was that it’s still Hitman. IO Interactive may have learned and applied a lot of what game design has become in the five years since Hitman: Blood Money, but Absolution still appears to be a stealth game at heart. Why brazenly gun down a man, like I’ve done in so many games to date, when you can drop a chandelier on him? Nobody will even know it was you, and therein comes the joy in stealth: outwitting and evading. Hitman: Absolution looks, in every way, quintessentially Hitman, but now it looks and feels better. Time will tell if Absolution can live up to the best moments in the series’ history, but for now there’s no reason not to think it will.
That is, as long as there’s a chicken costume stowed away in one of the levels. I guess we’ll find out when Hitman: Absolution launches on November 20 for PC, Xbox 360, and PS3.