Hitman: Absolution is a game that will polarise Hitman fans. The series has been on hiatus for more than six years, a period of time equivalent to the release window of every other game in the Hitman catalogue. That’s a long time for enthusiasts to internalise what they feel the key aspects of the series are, and a period during which the 2006 entry Hitman: Blood Money has steadily come to be regarded as the way to ‘do’ Hitman.

The Blood Money model consisted of sizeable sandbox areas for baldy protagonist Agent 47 to stalk around in, and plenty of potential ways for him to orchestrate an ‘accident’ to kill his target. Levels like “A New Life” (in which 47 can dress as a party clown to infiltrate the home of a former crime boss under witness protection) and “Till Death Do Us Part” (a redneck wedding hit) have come to symbolise, for many, the Hitman ideal.

Some of these aspects are still present and correct in Absolution. Others have changed a bit. A few are mysteriously deceased.

The larger sandbox areas of the latter game are gone, replaced by missions that are broken down into smaller, self-contained sections. This is perhaps the most jarring change from Blood Money, and the one which will probably cause most dismay. That’s not to say that the levels are completely reduced in scope, but it does mean that backtracking is ruled out. If the “A Dance With The Devil” mission from Blood Money with the Heaven and Hell party sections and the carpark below were to be recreated in Absolution, it would now be a distinct three-stage affair. Infiltrate the party; kill target at the Heaven party and gain access to Hell; assassinate target in the Hell party.

In part this could be down to technical limitations. This is speculation on my part, but I’m unsure whether the Xbox 360 and PS3 would be able to handle areas the size of Blood Money in this engine; especially as some sections contain large, bustling crowds of NPCs.

If that’s not the case, then the change is purely a design decision. Either way it’s a disappointment, but the smaller level sections are at least supported by the new focus on staying out of sight, rather than hiding in plain view.

In Absolution, disguises will deflect suspicion in anyone other than people wearing the same outfit. So if you’re suited up as a police officer, other cops will be able to sniff you out pretty quickly. This means that, no matter what, there will be regular moments when you have to hide, act stealthily and plan your movements around AI patrol patterns.

A few level segments do contain unique disguises that will allow you to walk around unimpeded (if you can locate them), but inevitably you’ll be forced to enter areas that constitute ‘trespassing’ to someone no matter what your attire.

In effect, this forces slower, more cautious movement (at least on higher difficulty levels where the AI actually recalls how to use its eyes) and, to a degree, works with the more compact level segmentation. There’s a great deal of Deus Ex: Human Revolution style sneaking, with many of the same ‘snap to cover’ and ‘roll between hiding places as a guard rounds a corner’ activities. That’s not strictly Hitman-esque, but it does make for some challenging and rewarding stealth play.

The beginning of each level section now serves as a checkpoint (if you quit out and return to the game later, you won’t be shunted back to the beginning of a chapter, but restart at the opening of the segment you’ve reached). On lower difficulties there are optional mid-level checkpoints to use on some of the larger areas, but these are either designed to be rather odd or just flat-out bugged. It seems they save your physical position and any slain targets in the level, but nothing else. This means guards who were dead at the time will magically be alive again, and anything else you did will be reset.

Another problem with segmenting levels in this way is that the scoring/rating system treats each one separately too. Even though they’re part of the same mission, in the very same building, it’s possible to murder everyone on the first section (and get a terrible score), but still walk away with ‘Silent Assassin’ on the next because you executed it sneakily.

It’s worth stating that certain mission sections are comparable in size to all but the most massive Blood Money levels. Even when a hotel mission is divided into two sections, the downstairs area (encompassing the street level from which you’ll have to infiltrate the building) and the upstairs penthouse will each be a decent size. Multiple entry options will tend to be open to you (enter through some sewers, sneak past guards around a back way, or brazenly stroll through the lobby after acquiring a suitable disguise) and buildings are laid out in a sensible way, which avoids pushing the player down a linear route.

Other sections are less successful, and do force you down a fairly clear route. These portions are outnumbered by the more open, interesting areas, but still feel like an imposition. I don’t think anyone has ever picked up a Hitman title hoping for a pseudo-action sequence where you flee from a helicopter, for example.

But what of the actual hits?

These are now integrated into the new level structure. So where in Blood Money you had a target (or targets) for the entire level, in Absolution you may have to make hits on, say, sections two and five of a six stage mission. In terms of having free reign to kill your marks in a number of ways, Absolution comes close to Blood Money at times, but falls short overall. An early level, “The King of Chinatown,” has a wealth of ways to slay your target, but this is an early peak that’s never really matched. Later hits give you three or four options. A couple, unforgiveably, remove the method of death from your control entirely.

Absolution is a game that’s somewhat in thrall to ideas pioneered by successful games in the last few years. “Instinct,” which can allow Agent 47 to see through walls and get a preview of patrol routes, as well as providing a kind of temporary barrier to the AI’s ability to penetrate your disguises, owes a pretty obvious debt to Arkham Asylum/City’s “Detective Vision”. Likewise, “Point Shooting” (slowing time to a crawl for 47 to pick out multiple targets) is basically “Dead Eye” from Red Dead Redemption.

Happily, there are menu options to tone down or remove “Instinct” (you still use it to ‘boost’ your disguise no matter what) and the higher difficulty levels do this automatically. “Point Shooting” is there to stay, but, aside from an egregious plot moment or two, it’s entirely possible to avoid using this if you wish. You should; because shooting people in this game is usually synonymous with an admission of failure.

Speaking of failure, the game’s approach to narrative is abysmal. This is a serious problem, because IO’s obsession with presenting Absolution as some kind of ‘cinematic’ experience is not just a failure, but one which is so abject that it at times affects the mechanics of the game itself.

No matter how stealthy you are, there are two instances where a cutscene will force Agent 47 to be caught like a useless halfwit. Seeing his character undermined like this is annoying, but what’s far worse is the slap in the face to all the players who just flawlessly finished the preceeding mission. Congratulations, you were never seen; now enjoy the Hitman equivalent of 47 slipping on an errant rollerskate and launching himself into the arms of a foe like a looney tunes character.

Taking control away from the player at key moments in a game of this type is a cardinal design sin. The same issue rears its unwelcome head again with two assassinations where you’re forced to use “Point Shooting” for … seemingly no reason at all, other than the developers fancied railroading you into trying out their ever-so-amazing feature. This is unnecessary, insulting and perfectly in keeping with a desperate need for certain confrontations to adhere to some bullshit filmic quality.

Absolution’s tale introduces too many ill-defined characters and leaves poor David Bateson doing his ample best to keep a stoic face while surrounded by comic book villains and rodeo clowns. Hitman has never struck me as a series rooted in reality, but seeing a sweaty, disheveled chap who’d look more at home as the harassed, low-level detective in a Die Hard film than acting as head of a super-secret Assassination Agency department (who now seem happy to utilise a private army to achieve their ’secret’ goals) is stretching disbelief too far. It’s also the kind of 18/’Mature’-rated game that’ll delight 14 year olds, full of juvenile cut-scene dialogue and women who barely qualify as two dimensional, save for an inevitable heaving chest.

The in-game AI dialogue is excluded from these criticisms because it’s (mostly) a cut above the stuff that happens in the cut-scenes and, if the credits are to be believed, was written by a completely different person.

Thank god for ‘Contracts’ mode, which allows players to cherry-pick their favourite of the stronger levels (and again, there are a good five or six of these), ignore the absurd story completely, and set up their own ‘hits’ for friends to tackle.

Contracts is fantastic. It formalises the process of bragging to your friends about how you totally completed this level by never being seen, only using a single bullet, and hiding every body without even considering a disguise, by allowing you to challenge them with that exact scenario. You create a Contract by simply playing through a level, marking up to three targets (of your choosing) and killing them in a manner you desire. The game will keep tabs on ‘bonus conditions’ (like not using disguises, hiding all bodies and so on) and also notes how long you took to complete the hit(s) and flee the area.

Then, people can play your Contract and attempt to match or beat the highest scores (rendered in cash). That cash can be spent on unlocking weapons and disguises that you missed when playing through single player, or upgrading said weapons (to add silencers and the like), opening up more options for Contract-creation.

This mode should give the title some decent longevity, and there are just enough missions that feel like ‘classics in waiting’ to provide the variety of location it needs to thrive.

While we’re ending with positives, the job done by Nixxes (who also handled Deus Ex: Human Revolution) on the PC version is hard to fault. The mouse and keyboard controls are sensible (though using Space instead of Esc for skipping cut-scenes is a bit odd), all monitor aspect ratios appear to be supported, and there are a wealth of graphical options to mess around with (depth of field, anti-aliasing levels, ‘global illumination’, tessellation and several others). Field of View is the only one I’d quite fancy having that isn’t there, and maybe more control over which tooltips I can switch off.

Performance-wise, this i3-2100/8GB RAM/1GB 6850 set-up was able to manage a pretty comfortable 50-60 FPS with everything set to ‘high’ (one below ‘ultra’) and the AA toned down a little at 1280×1024. Aside from one hard crash during the tutorial mission, there were no technical problems of note.

So while Hitman: Absolution’s single player levels serve as a decent (and brutally difficult, if played on ‘Purist’) stealth game, as well as an occasional Blood Money tribute act, it’s Contracts mode that should really carry this title with Hitman fans. There are enough smartly designed mission areas to keep budding assassins happily competing with one another, away from botched cinematic aspirations and control-wrenching narrative cut-scenes. What you’re getting with Absolution is a relatively tight stealth experience, flashes of Hitman genius, and a multiplayer challenge-creation mode that’s a cut, gouge and slice above.

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