Playing through the opening few missions of Hitman: Absolution one thing is clear, this is a game best played by those ready and eager to celebrate the glory that comes from a precise, perfect kill. Whether that moment of nirvana arrives through poisoning, shooting, crushing, electrocuting, strangling, tripping or any other of the numerous ways to end a life, if you don’t take pleasure in it you’re not going to be very good at it.

If you’re not very good at it you can forget about progressing past the opening chapters.

One of the worries with Absolution was that the additions aimed at today’s mainstream gamer (read: less skilled gamer) would make the game too easy and watered down for the rest of us; less Blood Money, more lunch money.

So, it gives me great joy and relief to report that Absolution is no easy game (unless you’re actually playing on easy) and even if you choose to indulge in the x-ray vision that is ‘Instinct’ there’s still significant challenge to be found. Activate Instinct and enemies and objects of interest glow yellow through walls, ceilings and floors providing, of course, a great deal of extra information for you to put to good use in your quest to assassinate whichever unwitting target you’ve decided deserves it.

It’s a tool in the truest sense of the word, something which can be employed to help you achieve a certain goal. What it isn’t is a cheat, something that bypasses the previously agreed rules and lands you right on the money. Even activating it regularly fails to provide all the answers you need to work out how best to off your target, although it does give some major clues and is incredibly handy when it comes to working out how much time you’ve got before a hostile comes knocking on the room you’re in.

In a bid to keep you from turning on your x-ray eyes ad nauseum, Instinct’s use is limited and linked to a quickly depleting bar in the bottom right hand side of your minimalist HUD. The higher the difficulty you’re playing on, the lower its maximum level. In a stark example of what kind of game this is, your Instinct is replenished by playing intelligently and not getting caught.

Donning the right disguise for the right location, silently killing enemies or not killing them at all, hiding dead bodies properly and avoiding causing harm to innocents, all of these things award you with more Instinct. Taking the run ‘n’ gun approach is not only a quick way to build up your tally of GAME OVER screens, it’s also the wrong way to play – so says the amount of juice you’ve got in your Instinct bar.

Paradoxically, there’s no ‘right’ way to play either. Not in a game in which pretty much anything seems possible. Each level is packed full of so much potential danger – to both you and your enemies – that pretty much anything you can think of can be achieved.

Personally, I try to steer clear of guns of any type (silenced or not); in a game like this I found them somewhat lacking in finesse and style. My preferred approach is to scout the area as fully as possible, work out the patrol routes of guards and (if possible) my ultimate target and then forge a plan to deal with everyone in one fluid move.

To be sure, it’s an approach that often provides a quantity of frustration that far outweighs the satisfaction, but oh boy, the quality of that satisfaction is sublime. One ‘perfect’ kill in Absolution has the power to buoy your mood for the rest of the day. Forget about the map headshots in Call of Duty multiplayer, Absolution’s beautiful deaths are among the best you can experience. It’s all very macabre, gruesome but wonderful stuff.

However, when action does inevitably break out due to some mistimed disguise change or lack of tact in exploring a new area, the game breaks down somewhat. Shooting is by no means the game’s strong point and the mechanics of it are sloppy and tired. This could all be written off as part of the plan to funnel players down the path of stealth and misdirection, the only problem with that being the occasions in which you’re pretty much given no option other than to stand and fight. Or at least fight while running away.

One particularly interesting and challenging mission early in the game is brought down a couple of notches by an ending that forces this kind of action-orientated approach. It’s not welcome and is hopefully only a blip, rather than a common occurrence.

However, no matter what the campaign offers it’s Contracts mode that will likely provide the greatest challenge and ask you to play in the most creative way possible. The idea is to turn every mission’s environment into a sandbox for you to devise the most cunning and difficult assassinations possible.

Any enemy on the map can be marked as the target and rules about how you must achieve the kill worked into your overall success and failure rating. For example, I might come up with a scenario in which you need to kill the target without alerting any guards or using a gun. The problem: the target is in a locked room patrolled by two guards. How do you get in? Do you even need to get in? How do you distract the guards? Can you use the guards to your advantage?

I send the Contract up into the virtual world, you download it and you figure it out.

It’s that figuring out, that’s what has always made Hitman such an enigmatic and addictive game. There are rules and boundaries, but they can be stretched and pushed and adapted to a point that makes them almost obsolete. Sticking with that ideal is the only way Agent 47 is going to continue to win our hearts.

Chet Faliszek from Valve – How to get yourself a job in Video Game Industry (Eurogamer EXPO 2012)

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