Video games have taught us many things, with “avoid eye contact with a bald man” placing just in front of “always say nice things to people or you’ll get a bad ending” on the Lessons-I-learned-from-my-Console list. Hitman: Absolution is the fifth instalment in IO Interactive’s action-stealth series that follows Agent 47, a man with a penchant for red ties and dropping disco balls on naughty people’s heads. However, after following the Agency’s orders and assassinating his old handler, Diana, 47 has a sudden crisis of conscience. In a scene so full of shower steam, slow mo and emotional staring-into-the-distance that it pans out like an eighties music video, he vows to uphold Diana’s dying wish: protect a young girl, Victoria, from the influence of the Agency who will stop at nothing to get her back.
Once you get past waiting for those Kung-Fu super nuns from the trailer to appear (they really don’t get much screen time), Absolution becomes a darkly engrossing action-thriller as you sneak, strangle and shoot your way through open-ended environments. Some of the best moments of the game occur in levels populated with dense crowds, a particular highlight being a packed Chinatown lit up by hundreds of exploding fireworks. The designers have perfectly mastered the intricacies of rendering a densely populated urban town, at times packing around 1200 NPCs onto the screen of a game that’s running at 30fps on our current-gen consoles. It’s very impressive.
Much of Absolution is open-ended, tense and challenging. When it’s good I have to force myself not to gnaw the edges of my controller in glee, but when it’s bad it makes me want to punch myself in the uterus. 47 can do better. I want to sit him down in front of a whiteboard and projector and demonstrate to him that fondling your forehead and hunching your shoulders is not a socially acceptable way to ”blend in”. I want to send IO Interactive off with notes and ask them to for God’s sake give someone with a vagina more to do than get her tits out then die horribly.
Take Victoria, a young Hit-Girl in the making. Ok, Diana’s last whispered wish is “Don’t let her turn out like you, 47”, and whilst I’m not saying the young Victoria should have her head shaved and sneak around glaring at potential victims with steely blue murder eyes, I am saying she would be a far more interesting character if she pulled a few punches. As it is, she mostly stares poignantly into the distance, bats her eyelashes and occasionally faints when she loses her necklace. Sort of like the old woman from Titanic. But more hot. In a schoolgirl skirt.
Still, two-dimensional characters are an offshoot of the instagram filtered, cartoonish world they inhabit which batters players over the head with giant signs proclaiming “SUSPEND ALL DISBELIEF”. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. When James Bond leaps from a bridge, lands on a train hurtling past at 100mph and nonchalantly straightens up to brush a speck of dust from his unruffled suit no one bats an eyelid. When a 6’4 bald man shuffles past a group of police officers in a Cop uniform and they frown at the barcode on his neck muttering “Who IS that guy?”, an army of eagle-eyed vigilantes get up on their soap boxes of “realism”. A normal cop obviously wouldn’t know the face of every one of his co-workers in a downtown Chicago. Well, I have news for you. Hitman is a video game. Video games are fictional.
So after that clanger, it makes features like the new “unrealistic” instinct ability a bit more palatable. Pressing down on the right shoulder button sends the world into a muffled slow-mo, lighting up areas of interest and key targets in sparkly gold. Similar to Arkham City’s Detective mode, it’s a nifty tool allowing players to map out strategies quickly in environments peppered with multiple possibilities. For Hitman purists it may seem a little like cheating, but those who find it truly offensive can always avoid using it or play the game on a harder difficulty that dispenses with the ability all together.
Absolution gives players a great deal of creative freedom, both in game and in the joyous creation of a Contracts Mode. The Hitman series has always been marked by players boasting about who had the quickest, cleanest or bloodiest kill and here the developers have gifted players with an outlet to establish who releases all their stabbity-stab-kill-kill urges best. Using existing levels, you can design your own assassination challenges, choosing the target, method of kill and constraints yourself before challenging the rest of the big wide world to see if they can match your success. If you get bored of the campaign, this is the perfect anecdote.
With our shelves now stacked full of stealthy assassination games like Dishonoured and the Assassin’s Creed franchise, it is becoming increasingly vital for developers to create something that challenges, entertains and surprises players in equal measure. As part of a successful series, Hitman: Absolution felt the pressure more than most and despite a few lapses in script and plot, it more than delivers in its ability to force players to think on their feet (or sofas) and form a strategy whilst considering multiple angles. At its best, Absolution is a truly brilliant game whose ability to dream up imaginative ways off snuffing bad guys is nothing short of, well… well-executed.