Agent 47 is one dull, emotionless antihero. As an assassin, he carefully eliminates targets with a simple wire pulled around a victim’s neck, or he takes a hands-off approach by poisoning their food. He hides bodies in dumpsters, disguises himself as shop clerks or police officers, and uses every piece of his environment to blend in with the crowds. The bald Agent 47 does this all without fireworks or half-naked girls dancing around his every step. It’s his lack of empathy, his lack of compassion for his targets, and ability to appear quite flat that make Agent 47 a perfect assassin. While he may be the most uninteresting leads in a AAA game, he is also one of the best characters to take players through Hitman Absolution as this blank slate lets you figure out how to eliminate each target, how to escape the police, and how to blend in with the crowds.
There are very few targets on Agent 47’s short list that allow players to take a straight forward go-and-shoot-in-the face approach. As you guide this middle-aged assassin through levels, the choices are in your hands, and it’s up to you to decide how emotionally vested you are in the overall plot. See, this isn’t a game of simple target assassinations. Agent 47 is on a mission. He discovers one target is a close friend, and after pulling the trigger he agrees to protect a little girl. He goes rogue from his agency soon after and the game’s narrative is split between finding the girl from a group that wants to make a profit of her and evading his former employer.
The story is tied together by highly stylized cinematic cutscenes that lead you to believe the game is all about action. Spoiler alert: This is not an action game; this is a stealth game. Agent 47 comes equipped with very few tools to kill his targets. Instead, developer IO Interactive asks players to find objects to use as weapons throughout the 20 levels. Use a screwdriver to stab patrol guard in the neck, dump his body over a ledge, steal his clothes and disguise yourself as a local. See that knife in the kitchen? Use it to slash one bad guy’s neck and quickly throw it at another’s forehead. Agent 47 is not only incredibly stealthy, he’s also a fantastic killer.
The game rarely throws too many of the same style missions at you. One moment you are escaping police at a crowded train station–blending in with the masses of people after shutting down security cameras–and the next moment you are sneaking through a military compound. But not every level calls for some big adventure. You could find yourself starting a bar fight in some hick drinking establishment or practicing your shot with some gun slinging, big-boobs bombshell. While the variety of levels keeps you anxious to see what’s next, it’s not held together all that well. At times it feels like a random series of missions stringed together to make a campaign, instead of a comprehensive story sliced into bit-sized pieces.
The good news about the levels is that they never give you a straight line. It’s not open world, but IO Interactive gives you plenty of ways to approach each level. If you’ve grown tired of games that hold your hand while stringing you along stages designed on rails, you’ll be pleased to know there is never only one way to get through levels. Not only are the levels smartly designed, they are also beautiful playgrounds. You could find yourself slipping in and out of cover to avoid a helicopter’s spotlight, or walking through Chinatown and soaking in the district’s rich culture.
Perhaps you noticed the mention of a cover system above. That’s right, Agent 47 sticks to cover quite well, and can get into intense fire fights with baddies. You absolutely have the option to approach just about any level with your guns blazing. But this isn’t the best way to play Absolution as the game tends to nick points for killing people–especially civilians–and getting noticed by the bad dudes. But the cover system comes in handy even when you play through in stealth. Eavesdrop on conversations to give you hints about your target’s location or weaknesses, pop out of cover to silently subdue an enemy, or use your cover to make it through levels without detection.
The shooting mechanics have been reworked since Blood Money, and it’s really hit or miss. Shooting without cover can feel overly loose while the slow motion Point Shooting feels like a cheat. Sure, you only have to use it in a few situations, but Point Shooting adds to 47’s abilities that feel kind of out of place. Precision Shot is better as you can barely press down a button to get a better, more steady aim at your target. You can switch on Instinct Mode with a simple press of the button, which gives Agent 47 the ability to see enemies through walls and even patrol lines on lower difficulty settings. It has a bit of a Deus Ex feel to it, but again it is not required and those assassin buffs may never use it. The higher the difficulty–there are five settings–the less instinct abilities you have. The difficulty settings require you to approach levels differently as areas could have more enemies or on different patrols.
The A.I. is definitely not a surprise for a stealth game. On harder settings they are more aware of your mistakes, and on lower settings it’s easier to stay hidden. But the A.I. also has a tendency to lose interest in you all too quickly. Do the bad guys not communicate? I remember at one point the level was fit into a few floors, and I took the approach of killing every enemy as I progressed. But when I hid my first victim in the bathroom, the rest of the floor’s enemies went into hunting mode and didn’t bother to look in a bathroom stall to find me. Even after I killed them in a fiery gun battle, the baddies upstairs didn’t blink an eye at all the noise coming from the floor below.
It should be noted that you don’t get to pick you load out at the start of each level and you don’t get your beloved Silverballers right away. The game instead uses weapons scattered throughout the level more as collectibles instead of usable items. This gives the game plenty of replay value, and for the most part you won’t miss the assortment of weapons at your disposal if you play it as a true stealth game. But things are a bit different in the game’s wonderfully built Contracts Mode, which opens the door to user-created kill scenarios. The idea here is to create custom hits through the game’s existing levels. You can pick how to play through each level, what weapons are available, and even what targets you want eliminated. You can ask your friends to challenge your contact to see if they can beat your time. If Contracts Mode isn’t enough to keep Absolution in your PlayStation 3 for a while, the game’s scoring system and enormous amount of collectibles will surely have you coming back for more. Plus, the game’s difficulty settings offers players unique challenges and will give you a true test once you learn the basic mechanics.
The presentation is quite impressive. There were moments in levels that really had me impressed. Levels are typically split into small sections, and in a few occasions switching between these sections has some surprisingly cool moments. For example, popping through a door from a dark building out onto busy streets comes with brilliant (and not overused) lens flares and a wave of noise from the crowds. The score is well placed and never gets in the way, leaving the final moments of levels frantic through intense music.
The game doesn’t have a great save system, and instead uses what feels like random checkpoints available to physically activate. You do get saves through the breaks in levels, but going back isn’t really possible meaning checkpoints are sometimes a gamble. The story is halfway decent, but pretty forgettable. Outside those issues, Hitman Absolution is quite fun and gives you plenty of opportunities to play how you want. Veterans of the series may feel betrayed, but if you think of this as more of a reboot than a sequel, then it’ll feel more like a fresh take on the assassin genre.