Throughout Absolution‘s publicity campaign the IO Interactive team caught their fair share of bad press for demonstrating the action credentials of their titular protagonist. That and the whole ‘‘spandex nuns’’ thing. The visual ident for each trailer ended in a hail of bullets, while video after video showed off newfound gameplay attributes like point shooting (Splinter Cell: Conviction‘s Mark and Execute) and instinct mode (Deus Ex Human Revolution‘s Smart Vision). Understandably, this drew questions as to how much Absolution was a Hitman game and how much it was just a copy of similar titles. Rest assured, Hitman is no clone.
Well he is a clone, but the game, that’s not the clone – in this case.
Absolution is very much a Hitman game, and it’s flawed like a Hitman game. However, rather than rehashing the same old approach with some sparkly new graphics and an even crisper suit, Absolution attempts, to its credit, some new things like a revamped disguise concept and a story playing on the only real emotional connection we know Agent 47 to have.
Killing off his former handler in the tutorial mission soon lands 47 with the responsibility of protecting Victoria, a teenage wunderkind who requires a fancy USB gizmo around her neck at all times otherwise she goes all M.E. Soon Agent 47 has a newfound motivation that isn’t financially related. To begin with, this makes complete sense; 47 goes about his duty consistent with his established character while reminding us that he’s more than a murderous algorithm.
The maturity doesn’t last too long. Soon you’re facing off against a masochistic sheriff, your overacting former employer with robotic hand, a Mexican wrestler with gigantism and, of course, a cohort of spandex-clad nun assassins. To say Absolution struggles with tone would be an understatement but after a few early stages it’s best to assume its tongue is stapled painfully in cheek.
Set across twenty levels Absolution is a fine story in places, but after initial exposition we never get to know Victoria, or 47, or anyone. The beginning and/or end of each mission yields a cutscene showing some context for what’s going on but it takes liberties that serve to extend what is, essentially, pretty straightforward motivation. More than once you’ll complete a level only to have the cutscene show you committing an amateur mistake and having you resume your pursuit with the enemy now even further away. Add to this that missions usually boil down to a variant of “find person A, enquire about person B, kill person A” and it’s not a satisfying experience. If IO wanted to get across how methodical Agent 47 is, they succeeded in mission structure if nothing else.
Ultimately this shouldn’t matter when you’re garrotting bungling enemies and hiding them in any of the glut of dustbins that litter the streets, but the story is just one issue that breaks any sense of immersion to the point of infuriation. I experienced one target attaching himself to the wall above me when I attempted to subdue him, meaning I had to restart the mission entirely; another enemy managed to slip several feet below the map and shoot up at me. Equally distracting is how light bounces off absolutely everything, making even JJ Abrams’ Star Trek look subdued.
Technical issues aside, so much of Absolution seems rushed – odd, considering the wait since Blood Money. Should you want to switch from cover when ducking behind a dustbin you’ll be presented with a specific button command, one which also promises to have you enter the bin. At the same time.
Cut scenes, too, show a lack of refinement. In the process of opening a door, 47 can shed his disguise for a suit that he left on the floor several rooms ago. Or, having just shot a target in the head, I was treated to a cutscene where I confronted the dying man, complete with newly repaired cranium, leaving me unsure what he was actually dying of. If Absolution were such a great game these factors would just pale into the background and not matter. But it’s not and they do.
While it’s not a difficult game – it can easily be downed in under five hours if played as a relatively standard shooter – but it is a hard stealth game. Unlike previous instalments there are no quicksaves here. Hell there are no saves here, just occasional checkpoints that offer locations to respawn from. But reload partway through a mission and so too do the enemies you’ve previously taken out. I found a checkpoint in a room at the top of a staircase which I frantically seized upon but, having reloaded a little later, only to find that a previously disposed of guard at the bottom of the stairs was back I was unable to complete a “Silent Assassin” playthrough without restarting completely. This is simple stuff and it’s just irritating that something so basic doesn’t make the cut.
Other such aspects are equally poor. The accidental deaths, a long-time favourite aspect of the series, are also stripped back to allowing either poisoning, sabotaging petrol pumps, running electricity through a fence or wire or having something drop on targets. That’s pretty much it. When you do find a means that doesn’t fit so easily into this selection it’s then that Absolution comes alive and sucks you in, reminding you of what there is to love about staying glued in cover for minutes at a time observing the paths of guards so as to best time your movement.
See, there is still something overwhelmingly satisfying about taking down an unaware enemy with a power cable, disguising yourself in his clothes, and dumping him in a wardrobe. But you’ll have to repeat this approach over and over and over again, either the result of being found out, or because the missions simply demand it – and that’s progressively less enjoyable. Again, the few times this is mixed up – a hunt in a cornfield springs to mind – you look past the glut of issues and frantically look for the next victim, the next clear path, the next objective.
There has also been an attempt to make enemies more realistic; disguise yourself as a similar profession to an onlooker and they’ll suss you out, venture into a private area and, unlike previous games you won’t be shot but rather will be ordered to leave, allowing more tactical opportunities. Do you lead them to a secluded spot to surprise attack, do you wander away and regroup? But, as with so much of this game, this seemingly intelligent enemy is also incredibly stupid. If hostile they’ll give hunt, but should you head into a wardrobe for cover they won’t dare look inside for any reason whatsoever. Take out several of their teammates and so long as their corpses are bundled away somewhere they won’t raise an alarm, even though their former squad mates explicitly said into their team radios “heard something, going to investigate, will let you know.” Have they never seen a spy horror action movie?
Really, to get the most out of Absolution you’re going to have to suspend disbelief. The enemies are idiotic; townsfolk won’t accept that someone might rather run than walk anywhere and, crucially, the story is ridiculously extended. In fact, the narrative is rendered imbecilic when its revealed Victoria is worth a whole ten million dollars. Really? I just killed an entire town’s population, blew up several buildings and even took out the local dog all for a girl worth ten million dollars?
As a result, some players will inevitably be grateful for the Multiplayer Contracts mode. There is no goofy story, no jarring cutscenes, no ridiculously one dimensional characters, just thousands of individual missions reusing previously visited environments and characters created by the online community. Here you can just do what Hitman‘s all about: hit men (and a couple of women) with bullets, bricks and bongs. It’s a neat mode which will certainly keep fans of the game, and some non-fans, playing long after the narrative is complete though it doesn’t add anything new if you’d had your fill of the gameplay, and it represents how much Absolution failed its potential, given that a bare bones version of the game is… not better, just less bad.
In fact, IO almost seem to acknowledge the importance of Contracts and replay value, reminding you throughout of how you compare to the rest of the world, egging you on to bump up your score. Each mission is ranked from Agent to Silent Assassin, but after thirty hours I’d be at a loss to tell you whether the Specialist ranking is better than Veteran.
Similarly, each mission has several challenges like “only wear your suit” or “use a certain weapon”. Completing these gives you score multipliers which gradually unlock some kind of basic upgrades (run faster, instinct regenerates faster) but they never seem to have an impact on the game and I managed to unlock all but one without going out of my way. It’s just odd that IO didn’t even attempt a basic skill tree, letting players make 47 their own by putting expertise into their preferred areas.
Sure, 47 might be the original assassin, but when he’s up against rivals like Corvo Attano or Ezio Auditore, it’s debatable whether he can trumpet that as a good thing. There are so many things wrong with it that it’s worth reiterating that Absolution does offer some great moments, a generally pleasing aesthetic and some innovation. It’s just a shame that the rest of it is so, so poor.