A Chinatown crime boss was killed by an explosive planted in his car. Days later, twenty people were gunned down in cold blood in a gun store outside Hope, South Dakota. The same day, a local gang member died in a freak barbecue accident. These were very different deaths but all had the same culprit: me.
Hitman: Absolution is the first game in the series in six years. That long wait hasn't resulted in any change to the fundamentals of the series. Players take on the role of super-assassin Agent 47 and use a combination of deception, stealth and violence to complete their tasks. Violence is still an ingredient to use sparingly.
IO did make some concessions to action game fans. Agent 47's health regenerates and he can hug cover to avoid gunfire. Furthermore, he can take out multiple enemies at once with a new slo-mo mechanic. Still, even with these changes, Absolution isn't a shooter. You'd be hard pressed to play it like one. The ammo is limited, the enemies are great in number, and the health bar drains quickly.
Absolution isn't very fun as a straight shooter, either. Winning gunfights when you're greatly outnumbered requires you to sit in a corner of the map and wait for enemies to walk into your line of fire. Enemies don't have many surprises up their sleeves, either; they'll dive into cover and then go into whack-a-mole mode, popping up every so often to fire a full clip of ammo at you. The gunfights are a very one-note experience. Every time I decided to embark on a killing spree like this, I felt like I had skipped or cheated my way past the actual mission.
To really appreciate each mission, you need to take it slow. Eavesdrop on a conversation between characters. Search for alternate routes to your objective. Find a disguise to let you walk around unseen. Discover a way to take out your target that won't alert a single soul to your presence. Or just find new weapons to slaughter people with. Absolution, like all the Hitman games before it, presents players with several possible ways to complete their missions. There's not just one stealthy path and one violent path.
The exploration of each mission is made easier thanks to Instinct. Instinct is a new special ability that Agent 47 can use to scan his surroundings. Objectives, characters and patrol routes can all be seen through walls when this ability is activated. Points of interest, such as the sleeping pills you can slip in a guard's coffee, are also highlighted. Instinct can also be used to go into a "point shooting" slow-mo mode where 47 can queue up multiple shots on enemies, almost like the Dead Eye targeting in Red Dead Redemption. Finally, this ability can be used to prevent an NPC from temporarily seeing through your disguise. All of these actions drain the Instinct meter, which will be refilled by completing objectives or performing stealthy actions.
The basic description of Instinct might make it sound like a more controversial addition than it is. For starters, you can turn it off entirely if you want. Furthermore, it's a great way to make the sneaky playstyle more accessible. Seeing points of interest through walls lets you locate the special, subtle ways to complete missions with a minimum of blind fumbling. Instinct doesn't tell you how to kill the gangster in front of his friends without them noticing; it just points you in the right direction. The combat and disguise-enhancing aspects of Instinct, meanwhile, are "oh shit" buttons that let you avoid triggering an alarm and needing to restart the whole level.
Instinct is just one way that the game makes all of the stealth mechanics very clear to the player. The user interface is brimming with information. When a character is examining your disguise, you'll see a semi circle on the screen pointing in their direction. As they become more suspicious, the curve of this semi circle will grow a point that becomes larger and larger until they decide to confront you. If a disguise is blown, you'll be told (and reminded if you put the disguise back on). A mini-map lets you see nearby characters and their level of alert. Again, all of this information can be turned off if you're a more advanced player. Still, even as a Hitman veteran, I appreciated the extra clarity that this game's UI brought.
Absolution is a rarity among stealth games in that it doesn't let you freely save whenever you want. On lower difficulties, there's generally one manually-activated checkpoint in a given level. Even if you happen to find it, it will only apply to your current play session. You'll often find yourself replaying levels from the very beginning. This is less daunting than it sounds, though. The missions for Absolution are split into a series of smaller, self-contained levels. For example, a mission at a hotel will have a separate level for the lobby, the upper levels, and the roofs. Replaying a level from the start is a matter of replaying a few minutes rather than a half-hour.
IO Interactive's division of each mission into smaller segments is a decision they'll catch hell for. It doesn't make much sense to shoot up a bunch of mercenaries in the lobby and then have their friends upstairs completely unaware of it. Nonetheless, the smaller mission size is perfect for the new scoring system that IO implemented. At the top right, players can see a running score for their current level. At the start, they'll even find out what the average player performance for the world or their respective region is. As they complete objectives or perform stealthy deeds, players will see their score increase. If they kill non-target characters or act conspicuously, points will be deducted. By breaking the game's campaign into a larger number of small missions, the development team is making it easier and more desirable for you to replay parts of the game to boost your score.
The drive for a better score and for the cleanest assassination possible is at the heart of the new Contracts mode. Contracts is the closest thing that the series has ever had to multiplayer. Players create their own missions from campaign levels, and then share them with the community. In these custom contracts, you can use any weapons or outfits you've unlocked from completing a myriad of challenges throughout the campaign. You can unlock additional items by purchasing them with money earned from playing Contracts mode. The exact amount of money earned depends on how stealthy and quick you were, as well as how closely you stuck to the custom conditions of the contract.
In a very creative twist, Contracts mode doesn't require players to use a toolset to build missions. Instead, you make missions by playing the game. You select a mission and then dive right in yourself. You mark up to three characters in the level as the kill targets, eliminate them, and then escape. The game generates your contract based on the manner that you completed the mission: what exit did you use, what weapons did you use, were you spotted at all, and so forth. Creating a contract is as much of a test of your skills as it is of other players' skills. It's like a really violent version of HORSE.
Hitman: Absolution aims for the broadest audience possible without dumbing anything down. It provides new features that make the series' unique mixture of bloodshed and subterfuge accessible to newcomers. At the same time, Absolution keeps the traditional Hitman formula. Newbies and veterans alike will enjoy this new adventure with Agent 47. Contracts mode and the long list of unlockables will keep both groups hooked long after they finish the campaign.
Platforms: Xbox 360 (reviewed), PS3, PC
Developer: IO Interactive
Publisher: Square Enix