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It’s been over six years since the last Hitman game graced shelves, and in many ways the hiatus has been a blessing in disguise.
See, the formula hasn’t really changed. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but if Hitman: Absolution was released, say, a year or two after Bloodmoney, then the franchise may have given the impression of being a tired retread destined for the bargain bin. Fortunately that large gap between Blood Money and Absolution has allowed for the latter to feel like a unique entry into the series: a worthwhile play for both fans of the Hitman series and the stealth-action genre as a whole.
Yes, let’s get this out of the way right now: Absolution, by and large, is what we expect a Hitman game to be. Players still attempt to sneak, stalk, disguise, and subdue their way to targets that can still be eliminated in a myriad of ways. Conversely, players can also eschew all attempts at subtlety, loudly announcing their presence with a hail of bullets and a trail of bodies. In keeping with past Hitman games, Absolution suggests stealth and discretion but doesn’t confine players to one specific approach.
While core gameplay mechanics haven’t really changed, IO Interactive has made some welcome tweaks and alterations. One design tweak that will become apparent is the breaking-up and dividing of levels into sub levels. Not every area has a target to eliminate and instead might require you to achieve some goal, whether it is deactivating a security system, stealing a key card, sneaking around a group of enemies, or simply getting to where your target is. In these sub levels, the choices you can and will impact your overall strategy for an area. It is a welcome addition that breaks the game into less intimidating/more digestible chunks while still encouraging players to be adaptable and resourceful.
Gameplay is also more streamlined with the addition of Instinct, a very welcome mechanic. Instinct allows you to see the position of guards and other NPCs, their patrol paths, any points of interest in the area, and if you happen to be disguised, Instinct can be spent to help you blend in and avoid suspicion. It might seem like assassin training-wheels, yet Instinct doesn’t cheapen the game or make it easier; instead it allows you to better plan your route, strategize, and become familiar with your surroundings—or in other words: Instinct allows you to become a better assassin.
With those small tweaks, Absolution is a little more forgiving and accessible than past Hitman games, but by no means is it dumbed down. In many ways, Hitman: Absolution is still a game of patience. One thing you will probably hear is that Absolution requires a lot of trial and error, and that is much the case. You will try something to see if it works, and if it doesn’t well you restart and try something different until you achieve a result to your liking. For series veterans this will certainly be familiar, but for series newcomers I have no doubt that the trial and error aspect can and will be a source of frustration.
While Absolution can accommodate various play styles (truly its brilliance), the game is at its most rewarding and exciting for those with stealth in mind. And you guessed it: stealth requires patience (an intense amount in fact). It is challenging to sit and watch for the perfect opportunity to eliminate a target, but if you’re willing to wait, then Absolution rewards you with a gruesomely satisfying kill. That being said, at no point should players feel confined to the stealthy approach. There is nothing stopping you from running through a level with guns blazing. But while this approach can get you through the game faster, it can be a little more difficult as it alerts every nearby enemy. The trick is to be a silent assassin and to kill without leaving a trace.
How you do that is really up to you. Like any Hitman game, Absolution tracks your preferred method of assassination, and the game leaves open several avenues for players to eliminate a target. Do you poison them, do you make it look like an accident, do you take them out from afar, or do you get up close and personal with your fiber wire? Extra points are rewarded for only assassinating a target, and points are deducted for civilian or non-target casualties. This adds an extra wrinkle to how you approach executing a target. For some, that score won’t matter, but for others, that score will be enough to make them at least attempt a stealthy approach.
For those of you interested in the game’s story, this next section is for you. Normally I am the type of person who focuses on a games narrative to such a degree that it becomes my main focus. That was certainly true for the last game I reviewed, Spec Ops: The Line, a game that, for me, was able to overcome its various gameplay issues due to an incredibly strong narrative. With Absolution, however, it is the numerous gameplay strengths that make the game excel over its narrative.
There is a narrative to Absolution’s single player campaign, but it is definitely not game’s the main focus. Absolution’s story isn’t lacking, but it seems to be more of a jumping off point to introduce Agent 47’s next target. That’s fine, because Hitman has always been about gameplay, the assassinating of targets, rather than about narrative.
If I had one complaint regarding the single player campaign, it is with how the games two major villains are ultimately handled. It isn’t that they aren’t good bad guys, quite the opposite as an excellent job is done of painting a picture of how despicable all the games various targets are—you often get a sense that they deserve their virtual fates. No, it’s how the game lets you deal with two big ones in particular, which is more constrained, lacks pay off and is ultimately unsatisfying when compared to dealing with the game’s many other targets.
If you are up for the challenge of being a silent assassin, the game’s single player campaign can range from 15 to 20 hours. The variance will depend on how you play. A haphazard approach can probably get you through the game sooner, but a strategic, methodical approach, which will require good old fashioned trial and error, patience and stick-to-itiveness, will probably land you somewhere in the area I mentioned.
The campaign also isn’t a one-and-done kind of deal, as there is some replay value. More time can be put in trying to complete various challenges, improving your score, or experimenting with assassinating targets in different, more creative ways. If you are interested in the latter, I strongly recommend dabbling in Contracts, the series’ first foray into multiplayer.
For as much freedom Absolution offers players in its single player campaign to be creative with kills, Contracts really opens up the creative floodgates. The premise is simple: Contracts challenges players to create their own contracts, that others can play, to see who is the best assassin (determined by whoever gets the highest score on a given contract). That’s right you, the player, are the one creating a contract. The only catch is you have to play to create.
It is a simple concept that creates numerous complex layers. One that is simple enough that anyone can go out and create a contract to share, but one that provides enough freedom that series’ veterans can test themselves to experiment and create truly difficult, unique contracts to, in turn, challenge other veteran players.
It starts with picking a location from one of the games many single player settings (this list also includes several sub locations), and what you do from there is really up to you. Who dies, how, whether Agent 47 is in disguise, which exit to take—those are up to choices left up the player. How a creator plays through a contract attaches specific conditions that when fulfilled, maximize a player’s score.
Contracts is where Absolution really shows its worth. We all know that the truly single player experience is a dying breed, yet Absolution finds a way to marry single player and multiplayer into a unified experience that feels organic rather than forced—a game mode that harnesses and transform our creativity into new content for everyone to enjoy.
Is Absolution a game for everyone: certainly not. It really is a matter of taste. I may just be stating the obvious (because you can say that about any game), but those who will truly enjoy and get the most out of the game will be the ones who take the time to learn its ins and outs, its cadre of nuances that makes Hitman: Absolution the best Hitman yet.