Available on Xbox 360 (version tested), PS3, PC
It’s been a long six-plus years since Hitman: Blood Money; years in which the gaming world has changed, franchises have risen and fallen, and things like stealth and emergent gameplay have fallen in and out of fashion – and recently back in again. These have also been years in which the house of Hitman, IO Interactive, has made some of the riskiest action games out there. Kane & Lynch and its sequel might not have met with much critical or commercial success, but you had to admire their bravado. Heavy on style, dark and experimental, these were action-thrillers that looked to crime movies, indie cinema and documentaries for inspiration, rather than the usual tired sub-Tom Clancy nonsense. Of course, this didn’t necessarily mitigate short running times, poor AI, bad graphics or a dodgy cover system, but you couldn’t say that IO wasn’t trying to deliver something new.
Hitman: Absolution sees the developer back on more familiar ground. We’re back in the shoes of bald, barcode-sporting killer, Agent 47, finding innovative new ways to eliminate our targets. There’s a whole lot of sneaking around, putting on disguises, garrotting, setting up accidents and hiding bodies in dumpsters. There’s still a high degree of freedom in how you go about objectives, and you’re still rewarded for taking a methodical, carnage-free approach. At the end of each level you’re rated for your efforts, and the game has its own optional challenge objectives to encourage you to try different and more inventive styles of play. It’s just about possible to play Hitman: Absolution as a third-person shooter, but you won’t get much of a score and it’s really, really hard work.
So far, so Hitman, but Hitman: Absolution still shows telltale signs of coming from the same team that brought us Kane & Lynch. Like Kane & Lynch: Dead Men and Dog Days, it’s a game in thrall to cinematic ambitions – sometimes to its cost – and one obsessed with characters at the extremes. And while this is IO’s tightest and most accomplished game since Blood Money, it’s still compromised by stupid, unnecessary flaws that make an often brilliant game feel a bit less brilliant.
At its best it’s a fantastic return/reboot for the series, full of opportunities to help unpleasant people meet even more unpleasant ends, and rich in a bloodthirsty black comedy. Even something as simple as infiltrating a seedy, mobster-packed hotel can host a multitude of approaches. Do you sneak in from the side, garrotting guards as you go and impersonating an electrician, or do you cause a distraction out front, sneak through while everyone’s not looking, and try to march calmly towards the elevator?
Divide and conquer tactics work well on groups of guards, but it’s impossible – even inadvisable – to kill every one, and where’s the fun in doing things the hard way? Why not poison the food or the coffee, rig up an accident with a faulty electric supply and flooded basement, or set up an explosion with a tragically situated gas canister. There’s always some more inventive way to do things. The more you get into the Hitman vibe of watching, stalking, sneaking and slaying, the more fun the game becomes – like a peculiarly violent strain of hide and seek, where you can never be quite sure who should be hiding, or who will be the worse off when they’re found.
Mechanically, Hitman: Absolution is much sounder than either of the Kane & Lynch games, with smart, context-sensitive controls, effective systems for sneaking, finding cover, swapping weapons and making sneak attacks. A refillable Instinct meter can be used to blend in, spot guards and target positions and predict movements, or even take out several marked enemies in a single burst, but its use is carefully time limited, ensuring you can’t rely on superhuman capabilities.