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Guest Article: Hitman Absolution, by Michael Stewart

December 3, 2012

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I think it was around the time I found myself crouching in a cornfield, hunting down a collection of highly trained assassin nuns toting automatic weapons. It was then that I realised that what I was playing was struggling to remain a Hitman game. Don’t get me wrong, I am well aware the series has long since established a tone of eccentric and sometimes ridiculous scenarios, both in terms of storyline and gameplay. Hitman Absolution, however, does not so much walk the line between “obscure but engaging” and “let’s have tits for breakfast” as it does stagger between the two like a disenfranchised old drunk wearing a single high-heeled shoe.

This is not a review, merely an opinion piece from a fan of the franchise who has sunk what must be a few hundred hours in the series thus far (most of them into Blood Money).

Like Blood Money, the previous installment in the series, Absolution opens with an intentionally linear tutorial level awash with both visual and dialogue hints (which I will say, are narrated by a woman whose voice is akin to treating my ears to some sort of rainbow-based chocolate massage). However, one particular hint I was given though was not entirely true, and almost game-breakingly so:

“Be mindful that other guards will see through your disguise if you get too close, so keep your distance.”

During this section of the tutorial, a “safe distance” is immediately defined as about 10-15 feet, which
seems pretty reasonable for the disguise mechanic (In Blood Money, a disguise was effectively an invisibility cloak, so this seemed like a nice compromise).

This would be the first and last time disguises would work in this way.

For the rest of the game, disguises work quite differently. If you are within draw distance of another NPC wearing your disguise, you have about 5 seconds to either break line of sight, or fire up instinct mode to buy you some time (instinct is a finite resource which drains quickly and replenished by completing objectives and suchlike). Turning your back to them is also supposed to count as breaking line of sight, but this seldom works due to often spastic AI and associated Glacier Engine fuckery.

Enjoy this Classic Hitman moment, you'll never get this close to an NPC whilst disguised again

Enjoy this classic Hitman moment, you’ll never get this close to an NPC whilst disguised again

Because of this, disguises are almost entirely useless in both the higher difficulty levels, and in wide open areas (which, like disguises, are a staple of the series, which makes having such a restrictive disguise mechanic almost criminal). So we have two classic Hitman elements working against each other as a result, it’s not looking good.

What I found most disappointing about these changes is that we so nearly had a perfectly revamped social-stealth system. I always found the “invisible man” properties of the Blood Money system to be a little unbelievable, especially on the more intimate levels with perhaps only a dozen or so of one NPC type. The Opera House level (Curtains Down for those playing the home game), for example. All the guards working there would likely know each other’s faces, so if you get too close, yes, absolutely, you should be recognised.

The problem with the Absolution method is that it lacks scalability, NPCs are not handled differently in larger numbers – the most jarring example is within a level set during a Chinese New Year street party, the area is heaving with civilian NPCs, and no less than 20 or so street vendors/chefs catering to massive crowds. And yet if I, dressed as a chef (a disguise I obtained in a totally separate area, might I add) happen to cross their line of sight – almost completely obscured by bustling crowds – I risk detection within a matter of seconds. This completely takes me out of the game, all immersion is gone at this point – which is a horrific shame since the environments in this game are incredibly well done, and exactly what I’d want in a modern Hitman game.

Case in point: Chinatown's eagle-eyed food vendors

Case in point: Chinatown’s eagle-eyed food vendors

Despite spending 30+ hours with Absolution at the time of writing this piece, I’m still unable to recall the name of the rating system the game uses, which I will simply call your “Assassin Score”: a number which is displayed at the top left of the screen during gameplay. You can increase your score by completing objectives, obtaining evidence, and covering your tracks. Actions such as unnecessary casualties and being detected will decrease your score also. My problem with this system is that you feel as if you are being punished for performing almost any action aside from completing your primary objective. Even incapacitating an NPC to obtain a suitable disguise will knock a few hundred points off your score (Though this can be nullified if you hide the body, assuming there is a suitable place to do so).

It’s merely psychological, and doesn’t affect gameplay in any real way, but I just found myself to be constantly aware of it and was therefore adjusting my gameplay in of fear of “upsetting the numbers”. Compare this system to Blood Money, which was basically “Hey, if you complete your objective with as little casualties, witnesses, and noise as possible, then you get more money.” You could use this to buy better equipment, which would in turn make adhering to these requirements easier as the game progressed. In Absolution you are merely rewarded with perks at the end of the level (90% of which are improved gunplay mechanics like recoil and reload speed – so useful when trying to reduce casualties!) and no choice in equipment upgrades or even mission loadouts. A severe step backwards if you ask me.

Also noteworthy is the return of David Bateson, who up until a couple of months before release was confirmed to have been “unceremoniously” dropped from the series by IO as an announcement on his website described it. Thankfully, whether it was down to fan feedback or not, Bateson announced his return to the series. The character of Agent 47 is not the most vocal (until this game, at least), but had Bateson not been brought back, I doubt I’d be writing this article at all.

47’s appearance has been changed rather drastically for this installment. Yes, he’s still bald, and yes he still has a barcode in the back of his head (though it is covered by a plaster for the majority of the game, after he slices a chunk out of it with a razor, a move I found to be a little disheartening), but he’s got a constant Judge Dredd look of grit on his face now, which is a little jarring since he was engineered to have a face which is unrecognisable. Had Bateson’s voice not accompanied the character I doubt I’d be able to convince myself of this still being 47.

The interior environments in particular are very well done

The interior environments in particular are very well done

For all my complaints, I did enjoy my time with Absolution, it’s an enjoyable game – especially at the curious launch price of £28 on Steam. I’ve spent around 35 hours purely on the single player campaign, and for the most part I felt I was playing a Hitman game, but like I mentioned in the introduction there are a few sequences which are just too reliant on cover-based stealth to feel like they belonged in a Hitman game, or sequences which you feel you are being encouraged to resort to gunplay in order to progress without the tedious reloading of poorly placed (and often hidden) checkpoints.

As you’ve no doubt noticed, my major gripe with the game was in the disguise mechanic – which I felt kept the game from having any “relaxing” set-up moments, what I mean by that is being able to freely roam an area considering your next action with regards to completing the objective, not having to constantly keep moving to break line of sight from the eagle-eyed AI.

All in all, I still prefer Blood Money. Although its missions were not as visually or mechanically impressive as those in Absolution, In my opinion they were a lot more memorable, and infinitely more replayable.

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