By Bryce Wilson
The Hitman series put players in the roll of a merciless "hired killer", the type of guy you hope doesn't exist in real life, but feel badass playing in a videogame. Agent 47 and his barcode branded 8-ball head return after the critical acclaim they accrued after the release of Hitman: Blood Money, and this time Io Interactive has tried to shake the formula up.
Agent 47 is a genuine bad ass. He's a bad ass blank slate designed for one purpose entirely: to kill people. Every level players came to love in Hitman, they did so because of its sandbox world. Remember the White House from Blood Money? Infiltrate it as the Secret Service, a U.S. Marine, even a journalist. The fun came from discovering the perfect way to approach each "hit".
That is all gone now.
The poor design choices begin with the forced story, but definitely don't exist within that exclusive realm. The newly introduced cover system is an absolute pain in the ass. Agent 47 is either coated in super glue at some points or a opposing magnet at others, forcing himself away from cover. That'd be fine if the higher difficulties like Purist didn't require stealth all the time, but they do. Some of the UI and controls are counterproductive, too. When Agent 47 drops one of the many corpses he will magically create the game will think he's just trying to pick it up. Why? Because all of the buttons are the same. Dispose of bodies, pick up weapons, change disguises, that's all mapped to the same button.
On the topic of disguises, what the actual hell happened in the Io design meetings? "Hey guys, so disguises are not really useful when you're a trained assassin, lets make it that they always disappear!" I imagine that was the opener for one of the first few. Why have something as crucial as disguises if they don't last? 47 will never start a level in the gear he would finish in, something you'd figure he would do seeing as he no longer has any agency support. He doesn't even keep his weapons.
Hitman: Absolution is another in a long line of "product of the environment" releases in the last breaths of this generation's consoles. Agent 47 is now careening down a path of self destruction and pointless exposition with people you really don't give a damn about. Where Blood Money was all about intelligence and exploration, Absolution is about dumbed down features and linear progression. Where Blood Money was about discovering a story, Absolution is about it being forced down your throat. Story is such a large part of Absolution that you watch Agent 47 carry out most of the kills for you.
When you're actually playing the game and not being forced through another set of cutscenes and video, Absolution plays like a disorientated puppy. It knows what it wants to do, it wants to walk, but it seemingly has no idea on how to get there. The core gameplay is still the same, kill your target, but the whole method of getting there has been completely changed. Instead of promoting ingenuity and brains, the action orientated gameplay now just promotes killing everyone you see. Why wait for the perfect shot when you can just put a bomb under a car and blow it up that way?
There's little motivation to spend and real effort researching your target and their movements to then make the perfect hit, when there's absolutely no consequences for dying or failing. It's almost as if the game encourages you to plow through everything with a machine gun, because hey, why not? I couldn't count the amount of times (I actually can, it's almost every level) I thought I'd get to assassinate someone, and instead played a minigame of "Walk from A to B". Hitman is meant to be about creatively murdering people, and yes it sounds macabre, but this isn't Splinter Cell. I want to kill people (not random people, but my target), and that's why I play Hitman.
While I hated every moment that made me use it, the gunplay in Absolution isn't entirely bad. The weapons have a potency to them, they do drop people like a sack of shit, and when you get into a fight you feel like the whole level is coming down on you. To work in accoutrement with the new arcade direction, Io introduced "Instinct", a new system akin to Eagle Vision from Assassin's Creed. At the press of a button every enemy in your immediate area lights up like Christmas and you can monitor their movements. Heck, you can even see through walls with it.
It's not really something you need though considering how stupid the AI is. While people are dying like flies and you're a mysterious stranger in an environment you're surely not meant to be in, the AI doesn't think to consider you suspicious at all. I just murdered two targets and ran away, hiding in an alley. Police were swarming and I was considered hostile. A police officer walks around the corner and my 'spotted' meter begins to fill. My game is up... oh, wait, he's walking off. I'm the only one not cowering after a maniac just slaughtered two people and now he's walking off.
If you're looking for a real Hitman experience, thankfully Io incorporated a "Contracts" mode into the mix. You the player get to create custom assassination missions and challenges for your friends to attempt to complete. No guns, stealth kills, even environment contextual kills, you can stipulate how the mission is completed and how long they have to do it. It's telling that the best part about the game is a mode that should never have even existed.
It's not that Hitman Absolution is a bad game on its own merits, because I don't feel like it is, I just feel like it's a horrible Hitman game. The story is stupid, unbelievable in the context of the Hitman universe, and the countless design flaws mar what could otherwise be a fun experience. Contracts mode saves what could've otherwise been a giant flop, and I really hope Io Interactive returns to its Blood Money roots, otherwise Agent 47 has assassinated himself.