Hitman: Absolution Review

By Mark Delaney, 6 years ago
Today's video game industry is filled with copycat formulas, sequels that come too soon, and a complacency for games that keep intact the status quo. How many studios would wait over half a decade to release a sequel to a popular franchise? The current market thrives on rehashed titles and copy/paste protagonists. "Gimme a hulking idiot, arm him to the teeth, and drop him in a warzone. Millions will be sold," say most studio executives. The sad part is they would be right. While IO Interactive's approach to wait over half a decade to release its follow up to Hitman: Blood Money was refreshing, it also left a lot of fans worried that the series would assimilate to modern gaming's formulaic rulebook.

Hitman has always been a more cerebral series. The gameplay catered to those with patience and resourcefulness, two qualities that the Call of Duty-era have left on the studio floor. Thankfully, after six years, Agent 47's return to gaming, and true debut to this generation, is almost always just as smart as it was when we last saw him.


Past Hitman titles allowed its convoluted narrative to take a back seat to the open-ended gameplay, and there's nothing wrong with that in theory. You knew what you were getting when you took control of Agent 47: a weird plot about cloning, genetic alterations, supersoldiers... yeah, whatever -- watch how I kill this drug kingpin dressed as a circus clown. Now it's 2012, and video games are flexing their storytelling muscles like never before. If your game doesn't sell copies because of its multiplayer, it'd better have a solid story on which to hang its proverbial hat. Hitman: Absolution delves deeper into the mind of Agent 47 than we've ever gone before.

Tasked with eliminating his long-time Agency handler, Diana Burnwood, 47 has the strangest thing happen to him: he feels something. He betrays his orders, albeit one bullet too late. With Diana's last gasping breath she makes 47 promise he'll take care of a young girl named Victoria who was being held captive in the same house that Diana was in. Not knowing why and having little time to figure things out, 47 reacts impulsively, like a human for once, and does as his friend(?) asked him to do: he takes Victoria. He doesn't know it yet, but he'll soon find out just how valuable she can be, and what people will do to obtain her.

The story starts strong, then loses itself in the second act. Fortunately, the final few chapters put the story back on track and finish with a franchise-altering conclusion. Much of the voice acting was done by famous Hollywood actors, like the brooding Powers Boothe and the young Shannyn Sossamon. After many rumors stating the contrary, David Bateson does in fact reprise his role as our protagonist and, along with the other actors, these characters, in voice, are well-represented. In appearance, however, they are often exaggerated and sometimes beyond silly, like the inexplicably massive Sanchez, the brute sidekick to the game's main villain Blake Dexter. Much of the game felt like a Tarantino film with strange dialogue and colorful, vulgar characters.

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Of course, the ultra-violence lends itself to such a pulp aesthetic as well. Traversing an orphanage full of dead, bloodied nuns or a motel and mini-golf course full of lifeless tourists reminds us that the world in which Agent 47 inhabits is dirty and dark, and we see the world as he does. Through his eyes, most people are probably worth killing, but not Victoria. This is a new side to 47 and it's one that is definitely worth exploring even when the secondary characters distract from a good premise.

While the core gameplay remains intact, some additions have been made to bring the series into the modern era, and these changes vary in how well they work. Most welcome is the new cover system. All previous iterations in the series lacked this crucial stealth element, leaving you to awkwardly stand alongside walls to peek around them yourself. The levels are still greatly open-ended for the most part. Broken up by designed checkpoints, normally 47 is thrown into an environment and must infiltrate certain areas before he can take out his target(s). You can do this by hiding in plain sight, like series vets will be used to. Find or "borrow" from others the appropriate attire and you'll be able to roam freely in restricted areas.

Without the right disguise, you'll still have the option to sneak around cover-to-cover like we've seen in Deus Ex and Splinter Cell. This way isn't as fun, especially if you're used to the way the series normally plays. Unfortunately, sometimes certain areas of a level would be linear to the point where crouching behind cover and timing your movements was the only option. It felt too much like we were Sam Fisher and not Agent 47. However, these moments are overshadowed by plenty more that are vast and open and more than a handful of others that offered the ability to blend into crowds a la Assassin's Creed. In Ubisoft's series, you hide among a small group of scholars or peasants. In Absolution, you'll often roam around among hundreds of others. Once it was a busy Chinatown section of Chicago, another time a train station full of people waiting for delays to be rescheduled. It was in these moments where the new Glacier 2 game engine shined most brightly. No game, not even in the stealth genre, offers a playstyle like Hitman in this regard. Sam Fisher stays in the shadows, Adam Jensen lurks around cover, Agent 47 walks into broad daylight and hides in plain sight and thankfully this part of the game not only remains intact but has been improved.

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You still change from disguise to disguise in a matter of a second, you can still drag corpses around to hiding places, and there's still a few dozen ways to take out each target you're assigned in every level. You can sneak in unseen, make an "accident" happen and escape before anyone ever knew you were there. Alternatively, you can pull out your dual pistols from the first moment and kill everyone on your way. Even still, anything in between is available too. I found it was most fun to mix up my play style, but the game's ever-present scoring system definitely promotes full stealth walkthroughs, with its bonus points awarded for things like silent kills, hiding bodies and beating the level as a Silent Assassin, the most coveted of awards for Hitman fans. Killing your target with staged accidents is and always has been the most satisfying means of disposal. You can rig cranes to flatten them, or spill gasoline in their smoking section, or taint their drugs with poison (perhaps that's a bit redundant). There's no shortage of creative ways to kill someone. You are bound only by your own patience and skill.

The list of weapons at your disposal is very long and I surely didn't even use half of them in my playthrough. There's a multitude of guns your enemies will be armed with, and each level is littered with things like statue busts, baseball bats, vases, radios -- anything really. Additionally, these items can be thrown to use as distractions, or piercing headshots in the case of sharp weapons. I chose to use the classic fiber wire in close quarters and seldom used my guns at all, but if and when your mission does devolve into a shootout, it functions as a good shooter too, which is something that cannot be said for any game in the series' past. It isn't how the game is necessarily "meant" to be played, but that option is available and the gameplay works when you want to do things that way. Hand-to-hand combat, just like gunplay, is now much improved and the inventory and map systems are easily accessed, no longer requiring you to leave the action to intrusive menus. It's all done on the fly. Just like previous games in the series, Absolution is truly a devil's playground of a game.

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As mentioned, sometimes specific areas of some levels would be too linear, like when I crept through a courthouse jail and there was really only one path to take. Even in these moments I could sneak via cover or disguise. When you do don a disguise, another new element is introduced: Instinct. Agent 47 is as intelligent as he is deadly, so IO Interactive decided to introduce a Detective Mode/Eagle Sense-like mechanic that allows 47 to see enemies through walls and predict their movements. This new ability caused a stir with the series' purists, but it remains entirely optional and can even be turned off on any difficulty. On harder difficulties (the game offers five) it's unavailable entirely. Another aspect of this ability lets you blend in when enemies become suspicious of your disguise. If you're dressed as a policeman, everyone but the policemen will think nothing of it, but other policemen will question who you are and why they haven't seen you before. Building up your Instinct meter via smart decisions and collectible-finding and using it at opportune times will keep your identity safe. You can also blend in via environmental resources, like mopping the floor if you're dressed as a janitor or eating donuts if you're a cop.

The addition of all these new skills leads to one poor aspect of the game. The HUD is just too cluttered. In each corner you have your health and mini-map, Instinct meter and inventory, score, and assassination targets. Then, when NPCs change their reactions to you (cautious, hostile, hunting, etc.), such an indication flashes across the middle of the screen. The busy screen removes some immersion that is otherwise the most immersive game in the series.

The story mode offers 20 chapters broken up into three parts. It was refreshing to see that, just like the gameplay demands patience if you want to be excellent, the story as a whole took quite a while to beat. Each level will take about an hour on the first playthrough when you don't know your surroundings, resulting in a game that takes roughly 18-20 hours to beat the first time around. On harder difficulties, it'll take much longer. I played it on Normal and found it to be a worthy challenge. There's also a lot of collectibles to be had, from score-mutiplying Evidence to different costumes and weapons to be collected. Add in the dozens of Challenges in every single level, and completionists will have their hands full for a very long time.

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Few games ship without some form of multiplayer, and though IO elected not to introduce a deathmatch mode like many other games, there is still a competitive and ever-changing landscape for you and your friends to take part in with Contracts mode. Contracts is a "play to create" level creator where the game records what you do and how you did it and then presents it as a level for your friends. Choose your level, manually assign and eliminate your targets and then escape. When you're done, the game will store your level as a challenge to others. Bonuses are awarded for things like using the correct weapon, correct costume (or lack thereof), not being spotted, and escaping quickly.

While the single player mode is definitely worth the price of admission, this new mode will allow the game some longevity in its lifespan and deservedly so. It's a fun spin on the Hitman formula, encompassing everything that makes the franchise unique and putting a number on it for others around the globe to try and overtake. You can choose many environments from the story mode and the targets can be more than who you killed in the single player. I'd hold off on playing this mode until you beat the story, as some narrative elements can be revealed through playing it. When you have concluded 47's newest and most violent tale, this mode is great to compare scores with the top players, other countries, or people on your friends list.

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The achievement list is mostly generous with only a few achievements that could be considered grindy, like completing 100 challenges or beating the game on any Professional difficulty (the latter three). In my single playthrough, I completed about 60 challenges. More skillful assassins will surely do more on their first try and be closer to what might be the game's hardest or at least "grindiest" gamerscore. At the end of the story and some time with Contracts, I had acquired 39 of 46 achievments for 690G. Each completed mission grants you 10G, although a few are missable based on how you beat the mission, and early on you'll get a lot of the achievements in quick succession. Completionists shouldn't fear this game's list, and quick score junkies will enjoy the rapid 250G or so across just the first few missions and Contracts.

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With gameplay that is suited for a more deliberate, strategized approach, Hitman: Absolution will likely feel too slow for gamers who are used to short, explosive story modes. The game challenges you every step of the way to be better. It wasn't until the last few missions that I allowed myself to screw up a little and kill a few non-targets. The scoring system is always there taunting you to do it better, faster, quieter, and a do-over was always just one restarted checkpoint away.

Ultimately this game will be judged against its predecessors. Is Absolution the best Hitman game to date? In many ways, yes, in some ways, no, but it certainly stands out as a unique title that isn't going to be duplicated in any other series.The new focus on story doesn't always hit its mark and some of the level designs were less than ideal, but for the most part, Absolution is a must-play this holiday season simply because it plays like no other game available and it plays very well. If you find time to exit the crowded lobbies of this season's huge multiplayer titles, Hitman: Absolution is a filthy, violent, and worthy trip into the heart of darkness.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He's the Editorial Manager on TA, loves story-first games, and is one of three voices on the TA Playlist podcast. Outside of games he likes biking, sci-fi, the NFL, and spending time with his fiancée and son. He almost never writes in the third person.