Hands-On: Hitman – Absolution

By Adam Smith on October 5th, 2012 at 1:00 pm.

So many bodies stuffed into closets, so many innocents caught in the crossfire, so much blood on my hands. Out, out damn spot. Oh no, wait I was wearing gloves the whole time. Everything’s fine. Hitman: Absolution is best played without a conscience for its pleasures are of flesh punctured and perforated. I’ve killed in many ways as I played through the game’s opening missions and after the early elation of having the piano wire back in my hands, I’ve had a long think about the best and the worst of the experience.

Slitting, stabbing, shooting, shoving, sniping, silently strangling, softly sneaking, surreptitiously striking skulls – Hitman: Alliteration does all of those things well. It’s hard to express how pleased I was, without sounding like a maniac, when I pushed a man into a steam vent; an assassination about as aggressive as a Worms’ ‘prod’.

Walking away from a dead target, merging with a crowd as panicked voices begin to rise, is one of gaming’s great joys, combining the satisfaction of a puzzle complete, architecture understood and intelligence overcome. I don’t even think the kill is a necessary part of the process, picking a pocket or stealing a painting would involve the preceding steps, but that said, Absolution goes to great lengths to show the beauty of an ugly death, partly by showing just how ugly the lives of these men are, and partly by being an astonishingly attractive game.

My jaw doesn’t actually drop, it’s just not a thing that happens to me, but if I were a little slack in the mandible department I’d have been wide-mouthed for much of the game’s opening. The detail in the characters, textures and locations is intricate. Agent 47 has, I think it’s safe to say, the most detailed cranium in the history of interactive entertainment. When he’s hiding in a dumpster or a wardrobe and the camera pulls in close, right next to the gleaming dome, it’s like seeing the surface of some strange planet. There’s geography there, in the scars, sweat and blemishes. I think I saw rudimentary lifeforms.

It’s an extraordinarily beautiful game and it can, if you so desire, use everything your PC has to offer to make itself more beautiful. Turn everything up to its highest level and it’ll probably start chopping up any inessential components and chucking them in a furnace to burn. More power, Hitman: Alliteration shrieks, feed me more and my city streets shall sing a symphony of simulated splendour. Some of that power is used to make 47’s head into a bloom magnet, reflecting every light back at itself and becoming a sort of disco ball. You can turn that off if you want. Most of what Hitman does with its six billion graphics is admirable. They add detail rather than gloss, help to build a sense of place, and build crowd scenes that are wonderful to behold.

Those crowds, packing more entities onto the screen than an over-exuberant sardine cannery worker, best demonstrate the game’s technical muscle. Entering Chinatown for the first time, pushing through the masses gathered around street food stalls, I thought Hitman might ruin cities in other games. The towns and villages of a Skyrim, with their few houses and fewer people, seem more abstract than ever in comparison. And the crowds here have a purpose, reminding of the great promise that Assassin’s Creed’s early trailer displayed so long ago; they are places in which to hide, from which to strike, and when the shooting starts, they are great rushing, screaming shields of flesh.

Once in the thick of the crowd, realising the number of options for this, the first proper kill, is a wonderful feeling. I slit his throat in an alley, I sniped him through the bustle from a window, disguised as a cop. I dealt him contaminated drugs. There’s so much more I could have done. At that point, I was a happy hitman, my glee accentuated by the difficulty options, which allow all assists, checkpoints, clues and so forth to be switched off. There are five levels, the highest being purist, which leaves you with nothing but your own eyes and wits, and one bar of instinct, the x-ray enemy marker and slowdown trigger that’s far less intrusive than I feared.

But the action – outbreaks of violence that turn the game from stealth puzzle to cover-based shooter – is intrusive and occurs far more frequently than I’d like. If shootouts are the result of a botched infiltration, a disguise blown or a body discovered, I enjoy their drama and occasional elegance a great deal, but too often they seem the only option, or at the very least, the favourable option. My preferred levels in any Hitman games have always been the ones where a target is unaware of the immediacy of danger, even if well guarded, and goes about a routine. 47 begins at point A and must identify the various routes to a moving target, learning where that target is vulnerable and in what manner he may best be killed.

In what I’ve played of Absolution there are only three areas that do this well. The opening mission, a tutorial that manages to offer options and macabre delights, is a pleasure to play. Infiltrating a mansion, the player is introduced to disguises, shown that any NPC with the same costume will eventually see through a disguise, at first concerned that he doesn’t know this particular pastry chef, then questioning him, and eventually, if nothing is done to dissuade him, alerting the men with guns.

Dissuasion can be in the form of murder, incapacitation, removing oneself from the scene, or hiding your face. This last can be done either by activating ‘instinct’, which drains during the process, or by finding a spot to hide in plain sight. These are places where a telephone directory can be browsed, for instance. 47 leafing through it, not a threat, just one of the guys. Choose to leave the scene and the suspicious NPC may follow, in which case it’s sometimes best to sprint once out of sight, or slip into a closet and wait until the pursuer gives up the search and goes back to his routine.

All of this can be hugely entertaining. Intentionally luring a guard into a toilet and knocking him out in order to steal his uniform, I was caught by a man in a shirt and tie. He just wanted to empty his bladder and instead he found a man dragging another man, semi-naked, across the tiles, preparing to dump him in a cubicle. I panicked, shot the newcomer with a silenced pistol and prepared to pile them both in the cubicle. The door opened again.

I ended up with five bodies, in a pile. It was this scene.

Emergent comedy is one of the series’ strongest cards and Absolution occasionally offers all the staging, props and actors for farce of the highest order. But it also has large, impressive, awkward, linear setpieces, and those are not a highpoint of the series, and certainly not of this entry.

The hotel mission is a classic slice of man hitting man. A bad bastard is holed up on the eighth floor and his personal bodyguards have taken over the rest of the hotel, blocking other guests from going upstairs and disabling all the lifts. Even that setup blemishes the occasion a little, with the lockdown making the hotel more like a military complex with hotel wallpaper. From ‘get to the eighth floor’, the mission becomes segmented. Complete the ground floor and then you’re on the seventh. So the hotel might as well be three stories high but they are good stories with multiple routes, non-violent possibilities and all sorts of objects to manipulate and environments to navigate.

That’s the game at its best but it’s followed by one of the weaker portions. Once the target is reached, 47 is on the run, the hotel burning, the police surrounding it. From stealth-puzzler to running and gunning. It’s probably still possible to stealth through those sections of the game but it feels counter-intuitive. Everybody is already trying to kill 47, with maximum force (including a helicopter with machinegun), it seems daft to stick to the shadows. The urgency of being in an exploding hotel also tends to emphasise action over caution.

From that point, 47 is a wanted man so no more does he have the luxury of arriving at a scene, scoping it out and wandering among the people. If he steps out of cover he’s likely to be shot. The library level, which has been shown extensively in videos, is part of this sequence and it’s enjoyable enough, but at those points Absolution has become ‘get from point A to point B by stealth or by shooting’, with no target other than an exit.

The plot perhaps carries some of the blame. I always preferred Hitman when he was kind of anonymous and I have no investment in the supporting cast or sci-fi silliness, but there’s a lot of story here, told in dialogue, and cutscenes whose actors feast on the scenery as if it were a chewtoy. The badguys are really bad, the good guys aren’t much better and the women are in showers or in blouses that only seem to have buttons up to the middle of their chest. There haven’t been any nuns yet but female characters are variously strippers, a sultry secretary henchwoman and victims of brutish men. Chicago does not appear to have female police officers.

Playing through this opening portion of the campaign was like the inverse of experiencing the marketing campaign for the game. Instead of doubt transforming into excitement, the thrill of the excellent early hit parade was eroded by the restrictive escapes, hemmed in by the necessities of a plot that I’m apathetic toward at best. The finest moment of the game so far came at the end of the tutorial level. A lengthy cutscene sets Hitman on a course that, alarmingly, does not seem to involve hitting men at all. He is offered information but to earn the information he must…assassinate a target or two for the informer.

Superb. Right there, Absolution cut to the chase, knew what I wanted it to be and delivered. Then every cop in Chicago knew my face and the unclad nature of my cranial crown. From then on, there was too much storm and not nearly enough calm.

I’d be surprised if the game doesn’t improve again post-Chicago. A change of location should give 47 his anonymity back, and there is Contracts mode, which allows the Chicago areas to be played as onlooker and infiltrator rather than known fugitive criminal. Contracts mode, which you can read about here, will be the game’s heart, at least for those who see each level has a playground of possible perfidy and purging. Even so, with the linearity of the pursuit areas taken into consideration, it’s not clear how many apt playgrounds there will be.

Over the next few days, I’ll document my favourite Contracts and see what macabre joy I can eke out of even the most seemingly unsuitable locations. And I’ll also be revisiting the hotel and Chinatown’s main square, because they are perfect for a creative kill or two.

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52 Comments »

  1. Aldehyde says:

    Well… Shit.

    Let’s hope the whole game isn’t as disappointing as it sounds here. I had really started to get excited for the game.

  2. Premium User Badge Stellar Duck says:

    I don’t particularly like the sound of this.

    It seems to play quite contrary to how I play Hitman games. :(

  3. Love Albatross says:

    Not what I wanted to hear. Why have they done this? The series’ strengths are well known, surely, they must be aware that people love Hitman for its stealthy sandbox playgrounds. The last thing we need is another third person cover shooter.

    • kament says:

      People do love the series for its sandbox murdergrounds. That’s why they time and time again put up with series’ quirks and antics. I remember how desperately I tried to shoot the bastard in White House through the window, but the damn thing was absolutely impenetrable. Turned out, it was… right, setpiece. You must confront the target openly, you MUST chase him down, and game mechanics are just not cut out for this, and the whole sequence is downright silly and very, very irritating. Aaargh. But still, great game.

      • Garret says:

        Although you CAN place a bomb in the room that the man wanders into and blow it up after confronting him, IIRC.

      • JoeX111 says:

        You were surprised that the White House has bullet-proof windows?

        • kament says:

          In the game? Well, yeah, I was. But point is, there’s no way to deal with the assassin other than confront him directly. Your disguise just doesn’t work on that guy for some reason, you can’t walk in as a janitor and drown the man in a bucket, no sir. He sees right through you. Then the bomb blows, alarms sound, guards come—the situation is completely out of control, very unhitmany, and there’s nothing that you did wrong. It’s a setpiece.

          That’s not to say there’s nothing wrong with it. But Hitman have always been this way. Sometimes it gave you freedom to do things like you see fit, other times it tied your hands behind your back and kicked you to run-n-gun. In this respect they stayed true to their roots and really did make a proper Hitman game. For better and for worse.

  4. Yargh says:

    Most distressing, please play more and come back to reassure us that the rest of the game is more about hitting men in various non-linear ways. I’d hate to have to eliminate this series from my library of games.

    • Adam Smith says:

      There are some very good levels, as I hope came across, but too much that distracts from them. Extensive thoughts on Contracts mode will definitely be here next week.

      • Sparkasaurusmex says:

        Are the “contracts” levels only the Chicago levels? If so it makes me think those are probably the really good ones, and that’s why they’ve ignored the levels from the beginning when making contracts mode. Sort of like the game doesn’t start until you get to Chicago?

  5. woodsey says:

    And I’m tumbling towards disinterest again. I would love to hear the justification for including gunship segments and set-pieces in a bloody Hitman game. Surely if you’re the one in charge of the next game in the series you should know what it is that MAKES the bloody series.

    The worst missions in previous Hitman games are the ones where it plays more like a normal game level (the Japan missions in SA, for instance) as opposed to you performing a hit on a guy holed up in his house. They should be creating actual places and then layering them with security, not just creating levels with missing bits as they seem to have started doing here.

    • Rao Dao Zao says:

      I wonder if “gunship segments” are a slightly more subtle version of the recent fashion for zombies? They certainly seem to be the “go-to” mini-boss for a lot of games…

      • Premium User Badge ffordesoon says:

        Because you can’t kill them with a pistol, and glass shattering under minigun fire is an arresting visual.

        It’s basically an even more annoying but moderately more logical version of the boss that you fight three times throughout the game, two of which are interrupted by a cutscene of the boss escaping.

  6. db1331 says:

    I almost caved and bought the last Hitman bundle on Steam. I think I’ll pick it up as soon as it includes this. I haven’t played Hitman since the 2nd game, which was a ton of fun.

    • Multidirectional says:

      Then you haven’t actually experienced the best the series has to offer. 2 Was fun, but IMHO 3 and 4 are a lot better.

      • tobecooper says:

        I don’t know. I have been playing Blood Money for the last couple of days, for the first time, and I’m not that impressed. Most levels are small and simple (I’m playing on expert because I like my 3 saves better than no saves; and silent assassinating the missions). I just don’t get as much satisfaction out of it as I got from 1 and 2. I might have had too high expectations, though.
        Hitman 3 is fun, but it repeats a lot of levels from previous games.
        Of course, your mileage may vary.

        • KenTWOu says:

          …but it repeats a lot of levels from previous games.

          But new versions of those levels are much much much better than old ones!

          • tobecooper says:

            I’d argue Traditions of the Trade is worse, but I may be on a nostalgia trip. Of course, that doesn’t change the fact that the rest of the levels in Contracts are nicely expanded. So yeah, I was being unfair.

  7. Shooop says:

    Escape missions?

    No. Don’t do that. Those aren’t fun.

    We have plenty of other games that already do that I would never call those parts of them fun unless your game’s name is Dishonored.

    Escaping is your inconspicuous whistling after you’ve made a stove explode in someone’s face. It’s a time to look back and admire your work, not make gameplay sections about.

  8. YeOldeSnake says:

    The story driven segments can be played in Contracts mode for the classic murder sandbox Hitman experience. There really is nothing to worry about here as we have seen that you can get creative with such segments in numerous previews. In the end, if you take a look at the contracts mode, it IS a proper hitman game with an added story component.

    Directly quoted from Frisian_Boy on HitmanForums:

    And don’t forget that you can achieve SA on every level of Absolution. You don’t have to run and gun. There might be options to sneak your way out. I like the variety. It would be naive to conclude that just because the first few levels might be different than we are used to, that the whole game is epic fail.

    • Jesse L says:

      Thanks for this.

    • Shooop says:

      The problem is these bits aren’t things you really have a choice in – you either get to point B by killing everyone and finding the exit or somehow sneaking past everyone and finding the exit.

      I’d rather not play those kind of missions at all and continue writing my own personal story of how I dropped a disco ball on top of a man’s head and everyone was too baffled/amused to press charges.

      • kament says:

        You’ve just defined Hitman gameplay in general. It’s always been like that. You either get to the target killing everyone in your way or somehow sneaking past everyone (except when they force you to do things, you know. Like in White House). Is it necessary for target to be a hit and not escape? As I understand it, Adam doesn’t think “the kill is a necessary part of the process”, at first. Well, later on he contradicts himself, but still.

        • Shooop says:

          But from the look of this game, the setup for killing is much more organic. You’re not being pushed towards points B or C, it looks much more like looking for opportunities.

          One of the two things I didn’t like about the previous games was they had a tendency to always make you spend lots of time in restricted areas so your ability to explore all your options was restricted (because the guy you knocked out or killed for his uniform either came to or was found). And an escape mission is even more restricted than that.

          • kament says:

            Then again, it never was easy to stealth your way to the target and arrange them some nasty accident without harming anyone else. So if eliminating threats is still easier and more organic, there’s nothing new here. As for restrictions, well, it’s kinda point of stealth, wouldn’t you agree? There should be those looking for trespassers. Why would you hide otherwise?

    • The Random One says:

      Even so, it would seem the SA level is now “super mega hardcore über difficult mode for the best gamers in world award!” when it used to be “This is the only right way to complete this level, which is designed accordingly, but we’ll gracefully allow you to complete it in a less perfect manner if you so desire.”

    • The Random One says:

      Even so, it would seem the SA level is now “super mega hardcore über difficult mode for the best gamers in world award!” when it used to be “This is the only right way to complete this level, which is designed accordingly, but we’ll gracefully allow you to complete it in a less perfect manner if you so desire.

  9. John Connor says:

    Glad I didn’t buy into their “it’s a proper Hitman game” shit. I’ll get it when its bargain bin to play the few levels they didnt fuck up.

  10. Davee says:

    :/

    ^ That tells my feelings about this. I’ll still be buying the game, though. Can’t say no to more Hitmanning.

  11. Ashbery76 says:

    People sure do knee jerk fast here.

    • ResonanceCascade says:

      I’d honestly change that to “people exercise healthy skepticism instead of jumping on the hypemobile because we’ve been burned so many times” here.

      • Ultra-Humanite says:

        Well that would be a good characterization if you wanted to be an apologist, but no, it’s knee jerking. To be honest it’s obnoxious, petty and immature.

        • ResonanceCascade says:

          The writeup contains things that should be very concerning to Hitman fans — so Hitman fans are concerned. The implication here — intentional or not — that you can’t say a bad word about a game until you already dropped a chunk of coin on it and wasted 6 hours. Red flags and warning alarms are going off everywhere with this game, and I totally agree with people who want to wait for the bargain bin rather than pile aboard the hype train.

          That you find it “obnoxious, petty and immature” speaks a lot more about your tolerance for mild criticism than it does the nature of what’s actually been said here.

          • kament says:

            The writeup doesn’t contain anything new for Hitman fans, actually. There’ve always been something in Hitman. As in “something unnecessary(,) annoying and why are they doing this to me?!” something. Something that just didn’t belong there. Even Blood Money wasn’t perfect in this respect.

            With this in mind, I’m not sure how to qualify concerns with, say, escape mission from those very people who escaped Asylum, as every Hitman fan surely did. All I know for certain is that’s not a mildly criticism. Case of acute nostalgia, maybe?

          • Tyrone Slothrop. says:

            The first two-thirds of the article are effusive praise followed by disappointment in what seems to be scripted pacing (as you can still stealth through and attain Silent Assassin rankings on all missions) and relative but not absolute linearity. The tone of the reaction is that somehow the game is now mostly Uncharted. If I have to really pre-emptively qualify this observation so you don’t engage in another strawman suggesting this is somehow a censoring of scepticism when it’s a question of proportionality then why even argue in good-faith?

          • ResonanceCascade says:

            I don’t want to get too deep into the rhetoric here, but what I said was deliberately *not* a straw man. That’s why I pointed out that I was responding to something that felt implied. It felt that way to me, anyway.

            Strangely, you just did exactly the same thing — reading an implied ‘tone’ from some vague posts — so I don’t really get why you’re complaining. :)

  12. Eukatheude says:

    If the action sequences are anything like the escape from the asylum in Contracts, i’m ok with them.

  13. kament says:

    I just hope those setpieces are not as annoing as some of the Codename 47 missions, namely jungle ones or, God forbid, as Blood Money’s finale. That would be awful indeed.

    • YeOldeSnake says:

      It seems like they are more on the terms of Asylum Aftermath/Hunter and Hunted. It isn’t a series of forced action sequences by any means.

      • kament says:

        Here’s hoping. Thanks for the words of reassuring, up there.

  14. AndreasBM says:

    Well, being a hitman can’t be all fun and sneak, I’m actually kind of interested in this, especially since they made an actually usable combat system. It’s a bit of variety, and of course there will be sandbox murdering, just check out the trailers for the game. They’re presenting the variety of kill-methods, the disguises, the weapons, and so on. Not their revolutionizing cover-system.

    As always, it’ll be possible to run and gun. But yeah, I can see your points in that it might be a turnoff for some with the story and the no-hit missions. But as an old fan of the series, I can’t wait for those parts ;)

  15. povu says:

    “an assassination about as aggressive as a Worms’ ‘prod’.”
    But certainly as humiliating.

    • Shooop says:

      I’d think it’d be awfully hard to think of dignity when you’re being steamed to death.

  16. tdefrank2@neo.rr.com says:

    I’ve always sort of enjoyed these games but (like GTA type games/many 3rd person shooters) they felt overly easy. I think indie gaming is hardening me to the point where it’s getting difficult to enjoy some of these more beautifully produced games. :/

    • kament says:

      I’m curious, what are the names of those indie Hitman type games which are hardening you so that Hitman feels too easy. I’d like to be that hardened, too.

      • tdefrank2@neo.rr.com says:

        I don’t mean hitman type just games in general. spacechem, cortex command, spelunky, grimrock, frozen synapse, etc.

  17. Branthog says:

    I was kind of turned off by the latest video I saw of this game. The animations of people were jerky and disconnected, like you’d expect circa-2005 and the character models all looked about that quality (with the typical blocky, unmoving pant-legs and all). These are the sort of things that get noticed, in 2012 and going forward. Big budget games really shouldn’t be looking like poor versions of Disney animatronics.

  18. Premium User Badge ffordesoon says:

    One thing I have never understood about Hitman since the very first game:

    Why doesn’t whoever makes the decisions about the Hitman brand realize that nobody gives a shit about the story beyond the story of each mission?

    Like Monster Hunter and Rock Band, the title is the story. You’re a hitman. You kill people for money. Each mission shows you why you’re meant to kill that person, and then you kill him. Why does there have to be an overarching narrative at all? Any scripted story bits will just frustrate player creativity, as it did for Adam here. Just give me a Bad Man to kill and leave me to it.

    To be clear, I’m not saying narrative is bad for all games. But Hitman? Absolutely.

    If this was called Hitman: Absolutely, I would have already pre-ordered it.

    • MistyMike says:

      For the same reason the story is there in any game: to provide context to the main charachter’s exploits. To give some reasons for the progression that is taking place. A bunch of unconected missions would be likely to get boring. The Thief series proves how important is it to have a world that fascinates the player as a context for good gameplay.

      • Premium User Badge ffordesoon says:

        How much more context must there be? You have a job, and you have a reason to do the job. The main character is a pure supercool cipher, but they keep trying to turn him into an “interesting character” through some overarching narrative about his past or something. Nobody cares but the fanfic writers.

        I’m all for a game about a hitman that has a good story, but the design of the Hitman games in particular is not built around or cut out for any sort of narrative experience, and the story’s always been pretty crap anyway.

        The difference between Thief and Hitman, among other things, is that Garrett is a character. 47 is so one-dimensional, he doesn’t even have a name. And that’s fine. All we as players care about is that he can do our bidding adequately. Not telling us anything about him allows us to project whatever backstory we want onto him. He doesn’t need a story. Only his various and sundry targets do. If 47 had the defined backstory of a Garrett or an Adam Jensen, then the narrative would be a good idea. But when the key quality of a game protagonist is that he lacks qualities, we don’t need to know anything more about him.

  19. Kieran_ES says:

    We’ll see what happens when it drops I guess. I’m concerned but still optimistic and eager to play another Hitman.

    I am a little confused by the people proposing Contracts mode as a replacement for a possibly less than Hitman-esque story mode. Although it sounds like a lot of fun, the lack of defined target sort of takes a lot of the purpose out of a Hitman level. The incidental murders, the little targets you make up for yourself inside of a traditional mission and all of the dark comedy that can come out of it is framed by the main target. It’s often what makes all that stuff work. In Contracts, that’s gone.

    This is fine in of itself! But as a replacement for bad story missions it isn’t. I also realise that isn’t what it’s meant to be, I’m just addressing that a lot of critics are pointing to it as such.

    Again; Contracts sounds cool. I’m excited about it. I also haven’t played it so perhaps making your own target works better than I’m imagining it does.

  20. BreadBitten says:

    Hrrm, so the game has an ebb and flow of events to it outside the cutscenes? I can live with that. In fact I’ve always felt that the Hitman series was kind of ‘static’ in its portrayal of ‘narrative escalation’ (if that makes any sense) so hearing the fact that 47 may have to confront a few situations that he is in less control of doesn’t really bother me much…as long as it remains mutually exclusive to the assassinations that is.