Enemy AI in Hitman: Absolution is smart enough to be interesting, but not so smart that it’s unpredictable. While in disguise, characters in the same uniform might rumble you, but others will only take an interest if you’re somewhere you shouldn’t be, and if you’re discovered enemies will search hard for you, but not with any ludicrous level of perception. There are clever crowd dynamics so that you can lose yourself in the throng, and at times causing chaos and manufacturing distractions can be as effective as a surgical approach – though you might not be scored quite so highly. Even combat is well-handled, with solid cover, aiming and targeting controls – with a precision aim if you gently squeeze the trigger – and a close combat system that, despite a passing resemblance to a quick-time-event, works very well.
IO caught a lot of flak for the visuals in Kane & Lynch, which were patchy in the first game and deliberately ugly in the second (the team was looking for a digital video/YouTube feel). Hitman: Absolution is no Uncharted 3 or Halo 4, but its characters look believable and its environments are richly detailed, to the extent that you can almost smell the decrepit hotels, seedy strip joints and backwater barrooms. The often ingenious use of lighting also shows that IO hasn’t entirely forgotten the out-there style of its last two action games. Though we can understand the disappointment that composer Jesper Kyd has not returned, the new soundtrack is also very good; quiet and atmospheric when it needs to be, but urgent and striking when all hell breaks loose.
Hitman: Absolution’s story isn’t necessarily that new, that exciting or that skilfully told – it’s a variation on the classic ‘agent goes AWOL and turns against the agency’ routine – but you probably haven’t seen it told quite like this, with some truly bizarre adversaries and some of the weirdest scripted encounters we’ve seen since, well, the last Kane & Lynch. It’s sometimes hard to root for Agent 47, but it’s easy to root against the game’s cast of mad Arms dealers, creepy Agency honchos, cackling killers and degenerate gang leaders. Dialogue throughout the game is fantastic and genuinely funny – not the least the incidental dialogue, whether banter between guards stuck on tedious patrols, or the haranguing thrown at the hapless hotel owner by his harridan wife.
We’re not quite so keen on the vein of misogyny running through the game. It would be easier to take the killer nuns in fetish gear if every second female character wasn’t shown naked, wearing something skimpy or fiddling with a highly visible bra. Sadly, here’s another high-profile game that equates adult themes with “check out these boobies.”
It’s not just this that holds Hitman: Absolution back. Firstly, the push for a less mission-structured, more narrative-lead Hitman means that as well as all the exploratory, target-killing stuff we like, we also get several long escape sequences where your only job is to get from one part of the map to the next, getting past whatever cops, thugs or obstacles stand in your way. These are repetitive, dull and not all that much fun. We’d also argue that objectives like ‘find three fuses for the generator’ have no place in a Hitman game.
Levels that would once have been one continuous maps have also been sawn into discrete sections, which means some ridiculous moments where guards or cops following you will stop just because you’ve gone through a door or entered an elevator. Most seriously, a game where all the systems encourage risk and experimentation has a manual checkpoint system that actively discourages it. You can only save progress at specific locations, and then only once.
On some maps, these locations seem deliberately hidden or obscure. And while there are some other checkpoints when you enter a new map or when a specific narrative event occurs, you’ll still often find yourself replaying the same section over and over, hearing the same dialogue over and over, until you get it right. It’s always disappointing when you spend ages setting up an elaborate demise just to have it go pear-shaped at the last minute, but when the checkpoint loses you the last fifteen minutes of play, the temptation is not to bother next time and go for a less risky approach.
This can leave you angry and frustrated, but rarely so angry and frustrated that you don’t want to go back for another go. Whatever Hitman: Absolution gets wrong, it gets so much right, its best levels give you the tools to pretend you’re the perfect assassin even if you seem hell-bent on playing the perfect klutz. With a bit more care the next Hitman could be a classic, but few would begrudge Agent 47 this return to his deadly work.
Hitman: Absolution has its issues with checkpoints, truncated maps and story-led design, but these mar rather than spoil what’s otherwise an impressive return. This can be a frustrating game, but when things go right it’s a very rewarding one, giving you scope to carve your own way through one of the most gripping thrillers of the year.