A lot can change in six years. Console generations unceremoniously end, new gaming fads create a stranglehold on the industry and then some peaked-hooded upstart comes along and redefines a whole genre. Agent 47’s much-vaunted return has had a few issues to deal with, then, not least the bluster of its own marketing campaign that was high on leather-clad nuns and short on the series’ customary sneakiness.
What shouldn’t come as much of a surprise is that Hitman: Absolution doesn’t really deal in absolutes. It’s the kind of notion that’s not immediately easy to grasp, but one that the game spends an appropriate amount of time conveying. An initial tutorial lays down the foundations adequately, but it’s not until the first Chinatown-set assassination mission, ‘King of Chinatown’, that you truly feel the empowerment and freedom the game has to offer.
The fact is that the chapter can be completed in a matter of a few short minutes – strolling up to the target and placing a couple of bullets in his chest will get the job done and commence a rip-roaring gunfight across the bustling streets. It’s a method of dispatch that possesses much gratification and full-bodied exuberance. Gunplay can be considered as the major revelation for the series’ return, here tightly constructed mechanics efficiently transforming any clumsy stealth attempts into a robust third-person cover shooter, requiring a proportionate amount of skill to survive.
This is not the concession to a wider audience that you may suspect, as stealth remains very much the star of the show. As stated above, a mission can be completed in a few short minutes, and that remains true, even targeting that coveted Silent Assassin ranking. However, such flawless executions are facilitated by spending a significant portion of your game time restarting checkpoints repeatedly until you’ve ascertained the best possible murderous scenario. There is a plethora of options to satisfy a homicidal appetite to boot: do you push him down a manhole? Bamboozle him with a clever disguise and lure him into a confined space? Or just rig some explosives to his car and make him go kaboom? The multitude of optional grisly demises is part of what makes each self-contained chapter of the game’s episodic structure so compelling and replayable.
IO Interactive has successfully recaptured the Hitman essence, and as the game progresses missions become more complex and multi-layered affairs. Multiple dynamic events take place simultaneously and studying the environment becomes key, as does unending patience and Groundhog Day-style restarts that enable slow, progressive improvements on your last attempt. It’s a process made easier with Instinct, Agent 47’s canny sixth sense that highlights targets and items of interest across the environment, while also seeing through walls and displaying walking paths of important individuals. It’s a mechanic than runs the risk of oversimplifying the game, but instead it just focuses its more opaque moments, tightening the structure and providing a helpful nudge in the right direction when the game needs it without compromising what makes it such a challenge to begin with.
Another element that isn’t lost is the tongue-in-cheek tone. While emphasis has been placed on the script and acting quite impressively – the story comes across like a cross between Man On Fire and Robert Rodriguez’s south-of-the-border efforts replete with intriguing lowlifes – there’s plenty of humour to be found. Hiding among the shadows and eavesdropping on NPCs reveal stories of mistreated strippers, lucky charm teddy bears and corrupt officials. Some just paint a more vivid portrait of the world that 47 inhabits, while others are simply there to pause for a rare beat of levity. And then there are the colourful costumes that just underline the absurdity of it all.
You’ve got to admire the way that everything jiggles in Hitman: Absolution. It’s a bizarrely proud technological feat, one made possible with IO Interactive’s proprietary Glacier 2 engine. For a game so stuffed with detail, the world does little to break the immersion, from the way the fat wobbles on a giant wrestler, to the disparate art direction of each new locale and the large-scale environments that raise their own challenges. How do you assassinate three targets undetected when you’re surrounded by hundreds of potential eyewitnesses?
Even if you find yourself completely clueless, a range of challenges listed at the end of each stage displays all of the weapons and costumes, alongside cryptic achievements that hint at the most inventive means of assassination. Completing these improve your score between missions and encourages more than one return visit to each stage to make the most out of what it has to offer.
It could be said that there’s a little too much signposting in some of the stages. A conveniently placed sniper rifle leaning against the window frame of top-floor apartment appears contrived, included for the sake of players looking for a less demanding experience. But most players won’t feel an urge to pick it up, rather continue to skulk around in the shadows, chucking a bottle at a dustbin to cause a quick distraction while you dig deeper into the stage’s subtle design.
IO Interactive has returned to the series with renewed relevance, indulging both sides of the action-adventure genre with significant aplomb and endowing the player with all the tools to make Agent 47 whoever they want him to be. It’s a compelling return to form, featuring some of the series’ most well crafted, inviting and testing stages, and while much has changed in the six-year interim, you’ll be pleased to hear that Agent 47 hasn’t.