Review: It’s been six long years since Agent 47 was last let off the leash, and a lot can change in that time. The bald-belligerent returns in HITMAN: ABSOLUTION, but is this Hitman hauled graciously into the modern era or an affront to the lineage of one of gaming’s finest killers?
Before we get on to talking about Hitman: Absolution I’d like for you to meet Chipmunk Charlie. There he his, up there a bit above these words. Don’t mind the corpses. Chipmunk Charlie looks a bit like the kind of mascot you’d find lingering awkwardly in the corner of a children’s colouring-in sheet (minus the assault rifle, obviously.) The thing about Charlie, though, is he’s actually an unflinching, steely-eyed reprobate capable of atrocities that’d have mankind’s most damnable up on their feet saluting in concert. Suffice to say, Charlie’s not the kind of chipmunk you’d want to meet down a lonely alley on a dark night.
Truth is, there’s a little bit of Chipmunk Charlie in all of us when we take up the mantle of Agent 47. He’s the physical embodiment of that crass hunger to trade stealth and stoicism for Bourne-like bluster. And in Hitman: Absolution, more than any Hitman game that came before, it’s easier to submit to Chipmunk Charlie’s dogged petitioning for a run-out.
Charlie’s case is helped greatly by Absolution’s re-imagined gunplay. The act of shooting another man has never been so delightful thanks to IO Interactive’s work on the Kane & Lynch series. This is both a sad and a good thing at once. The electric thrill of pretending you’re the T-1000 with silenced Silverballers is great and all – and a newfound and unobtrusive slow-motion effect only works to accentuate that sensation – but played like this you’re forever hounded by the sense that you’re better than that.
But let’s take a step back, we’ll return Chipmunk Charlie later.
Prior to the punching nuns fiasco and around the time Hitman vets were brooding over Agent 47′s newfound lust for big guns and bigger explosions, Sniper Challenge arrived singing a love-poem to the Hitman games of old. It was a potted glimpse at Absolution and proof positive that IO still knew what made a Hitman game tick. Sniper Challenge’s rooftop graveyard-to-be was the rudimentary paradigm of any good Hitman level: a 3D puzzle in which precision, patience and wits were the keys to success, not an itchy trigger finger. Snuggled up there on that Chicago rooftop with a silenced sniper rifle for company, it was as if Agent 47 hadn’t spent the last six years hunched over a bar wondering where all the good times went.
A gunshot to the head of trepidation
It certainly did a better job of soothing weathered fans than Absolution’s introductory level will, which sees 47 negotiate the bluntest of tutorials. ‘Go here. Kill him. Hide body. Bash X’, imparts a mystery voiceover before 47 snuffs out his long-term handler and provider-of-fun Diana. There’s not even a mission briefing to set things in motion.
Diana’s death was well-documented in the lead up to Absolution’s release but it’s had a more profound effect than you might have imagined, most notably in how the levels have been tweaked to reflect a story robbed of Diana’s knack for picking Agent 47 up and plonking him down somewhere else in the world under the banner of another contract.
Missions in Absolution unfold across two kinds of level: “classic” and “the other kind”. Time was you could mill around a Hitman level getting the lay of the land and forestalling a thousand blunders before putting a thoughtful plan into motion. That’s not always the case anymore. There are girls that need rescuing and hammy villains that need killing, and the result is only about half of Absolution’s levels play out like you might expect if you’re barreling in with fond memories of Blood Money in mind.
The good news is these classic levels, while more compact than those from Blood Money, still champion the freedom and black humour that marked the Hitman series out in a genre home to po-faced men like Sam Fisher, whose shadowy levels were little more than knotted gauntlets from A to B. There are 12 ways to kill the King of Chinatown, for example, and trying to fathom the systems in the more sweeping levels is still good fun.
The trouble is, Absolution’s 20 levels have been compartmentalised meaning there’s actually closer to 60 and only about half of these involve assassinating people. The rest are about getting to the next door – precisely the A to B gauntlets Hitman has never been about. With Diana gone, there’s a persistent friction between a more traditional videogame story and the un-Hitman levels designed to advance it, and those designed to cater to the storied gameplay. The trade-off, as you’d imagine, is these smaller levels are pulsing with detail. Few developers outside of Rockstar and Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed team can claim to have built worlds as elaborate as Absolution’s.
The influence of Kane & Lynch has bled in, for sure. It’s in the characters whose eccentricity can’t hope to mask their hollowness. It’s in the enthusiastic use of snazzy lighting effects. But it’s made its mark most measurably on Agent 47′s world, which is a sordid place of depravity and perversion painted in delicate strokes. A bustling bar in the deep south, a mechanic admitting his fear of nail clippings in a hotel lobby, a panicky stoner flushing his cannabis plant down the toilet as Chicago’s finest come thundering through the front door. From the rolling wheat fields to the throwaway conversations overheard on a busy train platform, one thing remains unchanged: this is a glorious world.