Absolution kicks off with a quest that you (as Agent 47) are reluctant to perform. The target is his previous “handler” and friend, Dianne Burnwood. Even though Dianne is apparently guilty of treachery against 47’s employer, she also saved his life. Thus, there is a genuine dilemma for you, as you go on the game’s inaugural sortie as the eponymous double digit assassin.
From here things get complicated very quickly and there is plenty of betrayal and double crossing to keep you on your toes. Indeed Hitman: Absolution's story is perhaps one of its weakest elements, as the plot jumps all over the place. At times the plausibility of the narrative is really called into question. Coincidences mount up and the characters in the game become increasingly bizarre and cooky. In the game’s defense, the cavalcade of oddball villains is amusing, even if they feel like they have been plucked from a very bad B-grade crime thriller.
That said, even though the plot is messy each mission is still delightfully entertaining, as you skulk about and try and work out the best method of closing with your intended target and doing your deadly work. Indeed, you will do an awful lot of stealthy sneaking about in Absolution, as solid reconnaissance is absolutely essential . You often have to infiltrate heavily populated hostile environments. This requires patience, as you’ll sneak into places where you will simply be gunned down if recognized.
Thus the “fun” in the game is very much dependent on your ability to be patient and creative. I was playing Far Cry 3 last week, and very much had to refocus my methodology for Absolution, as the game is very slow paced at first when compared to a more traditional “run and gun” shooter.
However, once you get used to the pace of Absolution you’ll be thrilled by the quite clinical, clean hits you can inflict on unsuspecting individuals. You can often strike in an instant and then melt away into the crowd. Better still, the game never leads you by the nose when it comes to achieving your goals. You can often kill a target in a number of interesting and creative ways. Take the game’s most commonly referenced level, the Chinatown stage, for example.
As you begin this level you have a brief that sees you charged with the assassination of a major underworld drug boss. You have to find this guy and then relieve him of his breathing privileges. It sounds straightforward enough, but the beauty of Hitman: Absolution is that the game presents you with numerous ways you can do the deed.
In this case there are around a dozen methods at your disposal. These range from a thuggish and risky close range shot to the temple, followed by the sprint into the crowd, to many far more ingenious and rewarding options.
For example, you can poison your quarry by interfering with food sold at a stall he is approaching, you can blow up his car, push him down a well, kill him with a well aimed shot to the temple from sniper’s nest or, my favorite, cause a pallet laden with heavy machinery to land on him.
There are often so many routes that lead to one outcome you will feel spoiled for choice and revel in the richness of the environments on offer. Absolution really encourages you to be creative and the more stealthy and creative you are, the greater the reward in terms of points and unlockable game rewards.
This is classic Hitman fare for us and it is great to see that the core game mechanic, which has served the series so well, is still a major part of the design. However, there are some changes when comparing Absolution to the previous game in the series, a game was released way back in 2006.
For a start Absolution features a more fully fleshed out stealth system that ups the sophistication with more “states” of alertness. But most of all you have a new ability, called “intuition,” which is a real game changer.
Instead of wandering blindly about, not knowing who is a potentially hostile person, and who your main target is, you can now trigger your intuition and important quest related people and items will radiate a yellow light. This helps to guide you, as you try and remain undetected and also helps you to find items that you can use to kill or distract enemies.
You can even use your intuition in, “Jedi mind trick mode,” and make 47 suddenly appear inconspicuous, even while standing right in front of potentially hostile and inquisitive guards. Be careful though as this is risky with your intuition limited and once your reserves are exhausted then you cannot use it.
A time slowing precise shooting mode, that sees you targeting and taking down a number of enemies extremely quickly, is also a welcome development. This mode, which is reminiscent of Max Payne's “Bullet Time” also chews up your intuition reserves at a rapid rate, but at least the results are spectacular and effective. You can easily target half a dozen guards with head shots and take them all out before they can even lift a finger. This looks extremely cool.
Thankfully, you will be rewarded by a recharge of your intuition bar when you do heroically sneaky stuff, but you are not Superman, so you have to be very cautious at times. Vengeful death is just seconds away. It is this delightful mix of danger and power that helps keep the excitement and tension flowing in Absolution. You are always mere seconds and millimeters away from a spectacular stealthy kill or your own instant death.
The “disguise” mechanic is also a core part of gameplay and there is a reward if you manage to acquire new costumes as you make your way through levels. Interestingly Hitman doesn’t let you carry more than one costume at once, a design decision that can feel frustrating (but is more realistic). That said, you can often backtrack through a level to one of your earlier kills, so you can don a previously unseen disguise that makes it easier for you to make progress as you continue to inch your way towards your “target.”
The disguise system works well. If you steal a cook’s outfit you can then wander about a level with total anonymity. However you also have to behave like a cook in the sense that there are areas that a cook wouldn’t usually consider a part of his normal routine. Stray into these zones and others will be suspicious. Similarly, you can mug or kill an electrical repairman and wander about a partially derelict hotel “fixing” the power. Beware though, the second you start poking around a guest's or gangster’s room your behavior will raise suspicion and your disguise won’t necessarily save you. This is why you must be flexible, observant and above all patient while skulking about the place.
As enjoyable as it is, Absolution isn't perfect. At times I found the open ended scripting was easy to “break” as the game lost track of what I was doing, failing to correctly advance mission status for small jobs now done. There were also odd moments when guards would get stuck in the scenery with a leg protruding through a wall or door. These weren't that common and. as usual, were just pretty funny.
Minor foibles aside though, the visuals and lavish environments were at times breathtaking, with huge and often quite populated areas serving as a backdrop to my nefarious activities. The special effects and, for the most part, animation is also pretty solid. Occasionally some of the characters look wooden and move somewhat stiffly, but for generally the game is a delight to look at.
The game is also largely morally bankrupt. You do get cautioned and penalized score wise for taking out completely innocent civilians in public places, but once you enter a hostile stronghold everyone (maids, staff, innocent guests and contractors) is considered fair game. This isn't really a major issue and Agent 47 is a contract killer after all, but the game might offend those who don't revel in vicarious killing.
Hitman: Absolution is a fascinating game and in many regards it gives the latest Assassin's Creed a run for its money. Check it out if you are the patient type.