In which Adam, who has played it all, and Alec, who has played around a third of it, gather to discuss IO Interactive’s divisive Hitman: Absolution. Devout Blood Money disciple Adam felt let down by this latest reinvention of Agent 47 – does Alec feel differently? (“No.”) They do find some positive things to say about it though, promise.
Alec: I’ve been playing some Absolution. It’s brilliant! Just kidding. It’s a nasty, grimy, uneven game.
Adam: I almost wish I had someone to debate it with, who did think it was brilliant. But I think I’d just say YOU’RE WRONG and we’d find little common ground. I have been pondering how much of my dislike does come from the ugliness of it – I don’t think it’s well designed on the whole but there are bright spots. I wonder if I’d feel more sympathetic toward those if they weren’t wrapped in grime.
Alec: Though one thing I’d say is that it does tension quite well even while doing its silly cover-hopping and face-hiding thing. Wandering through the level set in a mid-raid weed dealers’ apartment was agreeably stressful in a way. Having to move so slowly and carefully while knowing that the exit is so close to hand but you can’t rush to it.
Adam: Yeah, it does – I was impressed for a while. I think the illusion collapses quite quickly though.
Alec: The bit either side of that, where you’re trying to evade an army of police in a ruined building, was just irritating. Especially the cover-hopping to avoid helicopter searchlights bit.
Adam: It picks up again when the story moves to Hope – there’s a level, Streets of Hope, which is the best in the game. And then it turns into run away from men with guns again for a few hours.
Alec: I like the point-scoring more than I’d expected. Not sure that’ll last, but it encourages accepting consequences rather than hitting restart in a way, when you realise that a fuck-up isn’t quite as disastrous as you’d first thought. Taking the hit to your score for killing a dude or two and plotting how you could gain a few more is more appealing than restarting, given then frustratingly limited checkpoints.
Adam: My favourite moment in the entire game was doing the Terminus Hotel mission for the umpteenth time and trying to get through without using the basement. Ended up with four bodies in the toilets near the entrance because every time I throttled someone, another person would walk in.
Alec: that happens a lot, doesn’t it? I half wonder if it’s programmed to. I get caught moving a body more than anything else, people seem to just appear from nowhere while I’m dragging a man in his underwear into a cupboard.
Adam: Yeah, I reckon if you could watch NPC movements, they change their pathing according to what the player’s doing.
Alec: Tell you what, I wonder if we might feel slightly warmer towards it if the cutscenes weren’t there. Not in terms of the bobbins story, but because that’s where the meant-spiritedness and exploitation is focused. They seem to arrive from a different game – the game itself seems to be brighter and sillier.
Adam: Absolutely – there’s a level fairly late in the game, which you probably haven’t seen yet, and it’s so gleefully macabre and grotesque that I was grinning from ear to ear. It doesn’t seem to be from the same mind that introduces a non-character in a cutscene who is graphically executed without speaking a word.
Alec: I was trying to work out if the horrible cutscenes are pandering to a perceived audience, or if someone really is proud of the brutality, the objectification and the gratuitousness. I fear the latter – someone thinks they’re Tarantino, but lack the self-awareness.
Adam: I think there’s a pride in the daft mythology – the Agency and its magiscience – but I’m not sure about the grindhouse exploitation vibe.
Alec: also, I found that playing on Hard was… hard. Properly hard. Which will please some. And there’s still two difficulty settings above that.
Adam: I found the difficulty settings hugely exciting – they seem to cater for everyone.
Alec: On the first level, the king of Chinatown, I couldn’t actually beat it on hard without inciting a mini-massacre, which was purely due to where it puts extra guards. Tricks and distractions were impossible because too many police were roaming. Not totally sure it was balanced or accommodating to stealth at that setting – but it may very well just be I’m not a good enough stealther.
Adam: Yeah, that’s precisely my experience. The game doesn’t seem to have been designed for the higher difficulties – I felt like Purist had been put in because people would be pleased to hear about it rather than because it’d be enjoyable or challenging to play.
Alec: I felt like a shmuck dropping to Normal but I hate leaving a trail of bodies in my wake.
Adam: There’s a level where 47 has to find some fuses, because he is a handyman as well as a hitman, and I dropped to Normal so the game would point me toward them. Otherwise it was a case of sneaking around, waiting for people to move out of the way, hoping that the next shelf happened to have a fuse on it. There were a lot of shelves.
Alec: Oof. I use the Instinct magic-stealth-meter exclusively for the ridiculous face-covering thing that makes disguises actually work. I also realised I’d been trained by DIshonored – I kept trying to devise a non-lethal or at least more trickery-based way to take down targets.
Adam: Speaking of Dishonored, I’ve played three stealth games recently and they approach the concept completely differently. Mark of the Ninja – which is brilliant – is about light and sound, with an interface and style that’s entirely about communicating that.
Dishonored is almost entirely about motion – it looks at the problem of infiltration, avoidance and escape and realises that it’s best understood through architecture, and navigation through architecture. It’s why I can forgive some of the AI foibles much more readily than I expected I would. The buildings matter more than the guards and their design is consistently intelligent.
And then there’s Hitman, which has so many potentially interesting systems but doesn’t, on the whole, put the player in interesting areas to use them.
Alec: aye, Dishonored isn’t about hiding as such, it’s about not getting into situations where you have to hide, and that comes from ongoing navigation.
Adam: And cover-based stealth, which is more common in Absolution than disguises, is mostly about sitting still. Squatting.
Alec: I guess they thought have disguises just work would be at odds with the small levels. You’d just saunter right through them in minutes. So instead they came up with ways to ensure you have to take your time – the limited face-covering timer, the cover system.
Adam: That’s what the vast majority of my complaints come back to – most of the levels can’t support many possibilities. I mentioned in the WIT that there’s a level toward the end that I completed by walking past about thirty military types, all hunting for me, with my hand over my face. That shouldn’t happen!
Alec: the suspicion meter thing is a disaster – the way it ebbs away if you just turn to face the other direction or move an inch to the left. Or if you go to one of the ‘Hide’ interactions you can be stood right next to a guy who 0.5 seconds ago was about to draw his gun on you for as long as you like.
So in the exit from the hotel I was surrounded by cops while dressed as a cop. They were about to rumble me, then I pressed E To Hide on a box of donuts. Which resulted in me standing there in plain sight, in a frozen position with a donut held to my lips. And the cops say “oh, he’s nobody.” I continued to not eat that donut for a good five minutes.
Adam: “Hey, I don’t think I recognise that guy and this is a highly secure area – better take a closer look – oh, wait, he just ducked behind a desk. Nothing to worry about.” This makes it sound like a superb comedy.
Alec: Yeah, I’m half wondering about taking a second pass at it with that mindset, rather than a Blood Money one. It does have a lot more tension than Blood Money though, which was a sort of puzzle game, but that’s because it’s basically Splinter Cell now.
Adam: See, I never played Conviction but, man, so many people are making that connection. And the tension, in my experience, stopped registering long before the end of the game.
Alec: mind you, if Splinter Cell: Subtitle next year turns out to be the open carnage the trailers suggest, perhaps we’ll wind up feeling very grateful for Absolution.
Adam: No. Never. I feel grateful for Streets of Hope though. And a little bit for Contracts.
Alec: We should contract each other at some point.
Adam: Definitely. I really enjoy that aspect but – banging on the same drum again – wish there were more fun playgrounds for it. I’m going to send you a Contract later.
Alec: we’ve been through this – I’m not going to marry you, Adam.
Adam: You protest too much.