Fans of the Hitman series have been waiting for a long time for developer IO Interactive to finish dabbling in other genres and return to the franchise that made their name. This week, the long-awaited new entry in the series finally arrived, but this prodigal son's homecoming is more problematic than triumphant.
It's hard to state precisely what the problem is with Hitman: Absolution. Mechanically, it works pretty well overall. There is some solid level design, a rich abundance of weapons both manufactured and improvised, excellent sound and visual design, and a fairly well-told story related by a good voice cast.
I think the main problem with Absolution is that, while they are nicely designed, the levels all feel a bit pokey. Previous games in the series boasted sprawling environments that a player could really get lost in, spending hours just exploring and finding everything there was to find.
With a new graphics engine and greatly upgraded visuals, I am guessing that IO was limited in how big Absolution's levels could be. Having to run on the aging Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 hardware, with their increasingly tight memory allowances, presumably placed tight restrictions on how spacious the game's environments could be.
The levels are still large, but only on a technicality: most are broken up into multiple sections, separated by one-way gates. One whole mission might take a couple of hours to get through, but rather than one big space that can be freely backtracked through, you get as many as four mini-levels, each with its own goals and scoring. Once the final section is complete, a scoring screen will then tally the entire mission, giving an overall score.
This scrunching down of the gaming space feels like a step backward. I can still remember playing the original Hitman: Codename 47, and trudging through what felt like several kilometres of jungle, hunting for downed helicopters and playing hide and seek with guerrilla troops. As beautifully designed the new game's levels generally are, long-time fans are likely to feel claustrophobic.
Also of concern is the relative lack of options in how to carry out your mission, and the obvious flagging of the methods that are available. In previous games, the large, complex levels offered countless ways to assassinate your targets, with many possible paths emerging organically, rather than being explicitly designed.
In contrast, the paths the player can follow through a level in Absolution feel almost like they are on rails, despite their variety. Taking out a target clearly has a tightly-designed "right way to do it", or more usually several right ways. For Hitman fans who enjoyed devising new and outlandish ways to kill their targets in ways the development team never dreamed of, this too is likely to feel restrictive.
At this point, I feel like I may be coming across too harshly. Absolution is definitely a good game, and if you like stealth, exploration, and the thrill of concocting a clever plan of attack and then pulling it off perfectly, you should consider picking it up.
I suspect this is a game that newcomers to the series will like a lot more than the old-school fans, though I am sure that many of those fans will forgive it flaws just because they are so glad to have a new Hitman game after so long.
Several tropes of modern gaming have crept into what was once a very traditional series. Levels now have a series of challenges, and it is impossible to achieve all of them on a single playthrough. For example, every level has a "chameleon" challenge, awarded for finding all of the disguises available, but also a "suit only" challenge, given for completing the level without using any disguises.
A typical level will also feature several challenges for taking out targets in particular ways, typically by killing a specific target with a particular weapon, or by staging "accidents" using objects and features in the environment. As one target may have as many as five of these challenges, it's definitely going to take a bunch of replays to complete them all. The reward for completing them is a small percentage increase in your level score, so as the player goes back to the same mission they will find their scores gradually increasing as they earn new bonuses.
Purists are likely to find these challenges to be distractions, a clear indication that the designers want a level to be completed in particular ways, making the world feel designed rather than natural and ruining their sense of immersion. Others will enjoy the replay value these challenges offer. Honestly, I can see this feature dividing players into the pros and the cons.
There is one other concern I want to address, and that is Absolution's persistent attitude toward women. IO Interactive and publisher Square Enix attracted criticism for an early trailer that depicted Agent 47 doing battle in the ruins of a seedy roadside motel with a gang of - there's no better way to put this - gun-toting latex-clad BDSM nuns.
The trailer alarmed many people for a variety of reasons. Veteran players of the series were startled by the depiction of a straight shoot-out in what is supposed to be a game about stealth and subterfuge. Everyone else was appalled that the studio and publisher thought it was a good idea to make a trailer featuring a man systematically murdering a bunch of sexy women dressed as kinky nuns in fetish gear.
Sadly, the BDSM nuns are indeed in the finished product, and the level in which they feature is, ironically enough, one of the worst-designed sections of the game. After the motel is demolished by a rocket, 47 has to sneak through the wreckage, taking out the rubber nuns and their paramilitary escort one at a time. The whole mission is irritating, and features several of the game's very few bugs.
More worrying, though, is that this is not the only dodgy depiction of women in the game. The first woman you see is your assassination target in the first mission. She appears naked in the shower, and 47 promptly shoots her. Next is a vulnerable teenage girl, whom 47 vows to protect from the people who want to turn her into a lab rat. The other major and minor female characters all look like strippers - dark-lined eyes, pouty lips, big breasts squeezed into tight tops, and tiny skirts or shorts - with one exception.
That exception is a woman working behind the counter at a trucking company. She is the only woman in the game who is not willowy-thin, and in an overheard conversation one of the truckies complains to his friend about her, referring to her as a "fat cow". She only gets a few lines of dialogue, but she demonstrates herself to be rude and abrasive. Hence, the only unattractive woman in the game is also the least likeable. What exactly is the message here?
I wouldn't go so far as to call the team at IO Interactive misogynists, but it's certainly a worrying pattern. Compounding it is the complete absence of women in many levels. One mission takes place in a secret underground research lab, and every single person working there is a man - the researchers, the doctors, and the security staff. Oh, there is also an orphanage full of nuns (proper nuns, I mean, not rubber-clad killer kinksters) but they get massacred by armed gunmen. There is something deeply disturbing about playing a section of a game where every room is littered with dead nuns.
Once again, it probably sounds like I am trashing Absolution, but I don't want to give the impression I hated it. I really enjoyed many sections, some of the more difficult assassinations were extremely fun to find solutions for, and I loved a lot of the dialogue you can eavesdrop on in the level. One of the funniest (and most cruel) is a security guard on the phone with his doctor, being told that the tests have come back and he doesn't have cancer... just before you throw him off a cliff. There are many touches of this kind of black humour.
There is a lot to like here, from the lush environments to the fun ways to take out your targets, but there is also a lot that made me uneasy, frustrated, or just plain angry. Overall, I would call Absolution a deeply flawed gem. Turn it the right way and it sparkles beautifully, but look at it from another angle and the cracks are all too obvious.
I think this is, more than anything, a solid proof of concept. It has its problems, but through it IO has shown that they can still do Hitman games in today's gaming environment. My hope is that they will learn from their mistakes and make an unequivocally stellar title next time around.
- James "DexX" Dominguez
DexX is on Twitter: @jamesjdominguez