Hitman: Absolution is like Groundhog’s Day. For those unfamiliar, Groundhog’s Day is a mid-’90s film in which the indelible Bill Murray lives one day over and over again: Groundhog’s Day. The point was for him to find purpose and humility by living the same trivial, goofy holiday in a town that immortalizes it. Hitman: Absolution is about perfection and murder, study and finesse, with my teeth now ground to dust through tedious, numberless retries. Over and over and over again.
Agent 47 has been out of videogame culture’s eye since 2006’s Hitman: Blood Money, but the continuity has remained intact. The game begins with 47 explaining how his colleague, Diana Burnwood, has defected from the agency. His first mission is to find and assassinate her. Upon locating her, 47 learns why his old handler went rogue: to protect a teenage girl named Victoria with a murky background. Diana’s dying wish, which a normally stoic 47 obliges, is to guard Victoria from the Agency and a series of criminals searching for her. Before long, a gallery of deplorable characters is hunting for the girl and 47 is back to the alleys and air vents.
Six years is a long time for a franchise to go without an installment, but developer IO Interactive makes the gap seamless. Controlling and navigating 47 through the intricate, full-bodied levels feels organic. There’s care and accuracy in the controls that could otherwise be cumbersome. I easily slip past guards unnoticed, hunched and dodgy. The scope, with a great number of moving parts, is narrowed (for the better) thanks to 47’s new Instinct feature. This Batman-like radar sees through walls and floors to highlight all the guards, targets, and interactive portions in a level. The fun comes in deciphering the radar view, adding in the abilities given with each environment, developing a plan of attack and playing assassination dominoes – one piece after the other:
“Peh, why would there be a single fuel station located in a back alle– Oh look, my target is walking over that way. OH LOOK, there are fireworks placed directly next to the fuel station. OH LOOK, GUYS, I CAN SABOTAGE THE FUEL STATION SO THAT IT– coooooooooooool.” And such.
The problem, of course, is being able to execute all of these steps without mishap. This issue here is the difficulty in achieving those kills, which is made more tedious by Absolution’s positive/negative point system. Get through an entire level without a single kill other than the target? Congrats! 100K points. Shoot a guard? For shame. Negative points.
My time with 47 was tripled due to restarts fueled by the ever-judging eye of those damn points. Had I played the game naturally, without edit, I probably would have completed it in a few hours rather than a few days. There are so many details in each level that it bears repeating. That those details are normally located in areas difficult to access only furthers the point. My issue was crafting a series of events in my head, obsessing over their execution, and fumbling the plan far into the level. Lacking an abundance of checkpoints, Absolution made me call each choice into question. Sniper rifle or poison? Infiltrate or hang behind? 47 is a more capable killing machine, but planning was a game all its own.
Disguises have always been a theme in the Hitman series, and with the addition of the Instinct feature, dressing up 47 presents even more strategies. When disguised, I’d walk past most people on a level, unsuspecting. However, Instinct is required to fool NPCs donning the same attire I stole, who are more inquisitive. Using the technique depletes 47’s Instinct meter, which is refilled by doing neato, assassin-y stuff like finding evidence or completing objectives. The Point-Shooting ability also uses Instinct to freeze time and mark targets for execution. At times, the abilities can seem too generous, but it allows 47 to become a more convincing monster. If you can’t make his character empathetic, make it a juggernaut.
Strangely, this isn’t what makes him likable. I’m not even sure if he is likable. Rather, it’s the game’s foul, misshapen antagonists that brighten 47’s already luminous bald head. They don’t make him more interesting, just less boring. Absolution is crowded with ugly creatures, either as an attempt to comment on the action game genre or to make players laugh. I’m not sure. I just know I felt sorry for every villain. They’re all so pathetic and soulless, I couldn’t help but feel they didn’t know any better. Even the silent Latino wrestler giant had my sympathies. He didn’t even speak. His body was just so disproportional I felt like I was putting down a wounded animal. All of the cutscenes in the game left me uneasy, the way reality television leaves me uneasy.
Absolution excels when it keeps things grounded – something it doesn’t always do with its narrative. The Man of Fire story takes 47 down unlikely avenues in his fight against a few South Dakotans, rival assassins, and even the Agency. The enclosed bits make for more meaty stealth crescendo, so when fortresses and mercenaries are brought into the picture, the purpose gets blurry.
Helping liven up missions is Contracts mode, which lets players design objectives and challenges for each level to share. Contracts instills some levity in a game that often takes itself too seriously. The specific kill conditions and detachment from the game’s narrative do well in keeping Absolution fresh, even if the missions are repeats (but that seems to be the theme here).
Still, the tone isn’t overbearing and the slick direction of the game is flexed in the glamorized set pieces. From underground wrestling matches to a Chinatown new year celebration, Absolution’s venues are layered, imaginative and just plain fun. I melt into the crowd for cover, knowing in a moment a guard could notice me. The silverballers seem to weigh me down a bit more as each guards’ visibility cone sharpens. If I’m noticed, do I start over again? Do I try another strategy? Or do I Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid my way out? The choices are there, but chances are I’ll retry the same one over and over again.
Someone remind me, what’s the definition of insanity again?