The bald killer returns with a crisis in the cranium and a limp in the leg.
The same cannot be said of Hitman: Absolution. The thrill of skulking around your target, dressed as one of his henchmen, observing his route while calculating his accidental death is still there, but there is so much useless dilly-dallying between your hits that the entire experience suffers greatly. This is a stealth game, as nefarious as you remember them from the start of the millennium, and a definite step backwards for the series.
It all begins when Agent 47 is summoned by the Agency to kill his former handler Diana Burnwood because she leaked sensitive information and stole corporate assets. The real motive behind her treason becomes apparent at the end of the tutorial mission when she reveals at gunpoint that she's hunted for rescuing one of the Agency's pet projects, a teenage girl named Victoria that is supposed to be the next generation of genetically modified assassins. Empathic for her fate, Agent 47 decides to protect this girl as he sets out to kill the man that forced his gun on his only confidant.
That Agent 47 is on his most personal vendetta ever is an oxymoron. He's bred from a test tube without a personality or a conscience so turning him into a guardian figure defies his apathic stoicism. For someone who shoots an ally - arguably even a friend - point blank without hesitation to take a young woman that he has never met into protection without question is pushing things too far.
This unfortunately also ties into the gameplay. Since Agent 47 is considered a rogue element for harbouring the girl, he gets hunted by both police and Agency goons alike. This translates to a big chunk of the game being a pure stealth marathon wherein you evade patrols and belly-crawl through vents. Needless to say that is not what you come to a Hitman-game for. You want to plot a murder, not play hide-and-seek with a spotty AI.
Thankfully the murders are still there too, coated in that pitch black humour you've come to expect from the series. Each kill mission offers a plethora of direct and indirect methods to take your target out, from sniping opportunities and strangulation to more resourceful iniquities like slipping some fugu in a meal, sabotaging an eye laser, swapping barbecue hot sauce with lighter fluid or summoning a homicidal ice cream truck by shooting birds (yup!) However, to accommodate the story, plenty of the plot-driven assassinations end with a cutscene, a standoff or a meandering interlude that seemingly affects the story but in reality does nothing. The rest of your kill list fills up with people that are never introduced or discussed, and they come across as makeweight to give you something to sink your fire axe into without having to move the already slow story along. There's no one giving you a mark this time so Agent 47 decides most of his targets on his own but you as the player are left out of the thinking process.
Putting Agent 47 on the run strips another key part of the franchise: the safe house. There are no more custom load-outs to select pre-mission, no more weapons to collect or upgrade and no more equipment like sedatives, binoculars or coins to throw for distraction. In fact, you start most of your missions with nothing but your trusty Silverballers and your fibre wire (now with the ability to strangle and drag your target in one swooping move) while special accoutrements like the aforementioned sniper rifle or remote detonation charges need to be sought out within your mission perimeter. Of course, you can still rely on environmental objects such as bongs, toy robots, dummy arms and bill spikes if you like your kills messy.
The locations in which to commit these vile acts contain an appetizing dose of farce as well: a tiki-themed motel and minigolf resort becomes a fierce battleground that you can brave in a bathrobe, a subterranean small-scale nuke town gets decorated with pig guts at the gleeful whim of a mad scientist and a penthouse stocked with samurai apparel, maddening poison and a huge harpoon gun will send your malicious brain into overdrive. The levels are generally pretty big but not as open as you might expect. They're broken up into smaller portions, usually front-ended by a door, a gate or an elevator that acts as a point-of-no-return.
These sections tie into Absolution's novelty: a persistent score attack. Each of these portions gets its own score and rating that tallies up at the end to a grand total for the mission. Being spotted or identified, leaving a body out in the open, involving innocent bystanders and more such unprofessionalism detract from your point pool while completing objectives, hiding bodies, collecting evidence and killing marks add to it. Section-specific challenges such as sauntering to the exit in your original suit, grabbing every environmental object and discovering every special method of murder add points as well as beef up your score multiplier. Online leaderboards show your worldwide ranking along with the person from your friends list with the highest score for that section, spurring you to outdo him or her if you're the competitive kind.
The biggest score boosts are the coveted Silent Assassin ratings, although getting them is no walk in the park since literally no one can know you were there. You cannot subdue or impair guards for their uniforms or to clear routes, and your target can only be taken out by accidental or signature hitman methods.
But the score system quickly becomes a hindrance instead of a goal. Penalising players for every innocent victim limits both your extravagance and freedom, and the nobody-saw-you approach is a punishment on its own because of the new save system: each section only has a handful of checkpoints that you must reach through plenty of trial and error. Previous games haven't been free of this but a save-anywhere mechanism allowed you to put good progress down for the count and experiment further with your approach. Absolution is bitter about this. You can make a clean run past a small army of guards only to make one mistake just before the exit and bam, back to the checkpoint. If you found and activated one anyway.
Making matters worse is that restarting a checkpoint resets the world and npc routines: a guard that passed you when you saved might take another three minutes to pass you again after you reload, and every guard you did kill comes back from the dead. Only your position, your inventory and the status of your targets are carried over, so you'll need to strategize anew with each successive checkpoint you load.
Agent 47 has undergone a few changes in manoeuvrability: he can no longer climb drain pipes so the sneakier sort will have to crawl through ventilation shafts instead, and scrambling up to a ledge is only doable when the game wills it. Hand-to-hand combat is spruced with hard-hitting, quick-timey button prompts but the biggest addition is the new Instinct ability, a screen overlay that slows down time and highlights patrol routes and items you can interact with. You gain Instinct in pretty much the same ways as you gain points, although your bar will recharge automatically if you select the normal difficulty or lower. Speaking of difficulties, there a five in total, ranging from easy to purist. The former lowers the amount of guards, eases their reaction times and increases the amount of checkpoints. The latter offers neither help nor interface, only a reticle.
Instinct can also be used in gunplay: you mark targets, press a button and watch 47 shoot away in one clean cinematic animation. I myself never used point shooting outside of the tutorial for two reasons; it rapidly drains your Instinct bar and, as mentioned before, shooting up the place is counterproductive to what the game wants you to do. It's also too convoluted to be practical, involving the input of four different buttons or keys.
Disguises have had an overhaul as well. They come in all shapes and sizes, from police uniforms and hazmat suits to mascot costumes and scarecrow rags. Some of them can be found in drawstring bags scattered across the levels, others need to be taken from the people that don them. Putting on a disguise allows you to bypass anyone hassle-free except npc's with the same clothing. They will be able to see through your disguise if you linger too long around them, even when that disguise comes with a face-covering mask and they're glaring at you from the opposite side of a road. You can always trigger your Instinct to blend in and dupe the stooge you're bypassing, and it does offer an additional challenge so that you can't just cruise through the remainder of the mission, but it still feels like a contrived solution to the problem.
You'll find no multiplayer here (thank God for that) but players can participate in tournaments and self-made contracts via the new Contracts mode. The setup is simple: the disguise you're wearing, the character you kill and the way you kill him or her become the parameters of your very own contract, which you can upload for other players to complete. If they kill the target accordingly, they get paid with money that can only be spent on weapons and costumes inside the Contracts mode so that it doesn't interfere with the campaign. Accessing these custom contracts is quick and easy, either via the main menu or through the pause screen in the campaign. A button press later, you're loading the featured contract for that campaign level. However, you can only make or play a contract in a campaign mission that already has targets, so those sneaking sections that so desperately need a hit to liven things up, remain a traipse.
Even without the Contracts mode, there's a lot of value in Absolution. Depending on how demanding you are for yourself, you're looking at about twelve to twenty hours to tackle the story a first time through. For me though, the whole thing was a steady decline. Whereas at first I tried to get as many Silent Assassin ratings as possible, by the end I was no longer concerned with scores and ratings and just wanted the damn thing to be over. Mission objectives like "collect four fuses scattered across this entire building to repower an elevator" or winning a shooting gallery minigame is the kind of drivel you'd expect to see as voluntary sidemissions rather than forced undertakings. Some of these can be circumvented, some of them can't.
Absolution runs on developer IO Interactive's own Glacier 2 engine, and it's a good-looking package for sure. There's a very strong art direction with good lighting despite an overabundance of smears, environments are rife with credible clog and clutter and facial animations complete with tongue flicks and death-hungry eyes bring the grimy world of Absolution to life. It renders the dense crowds of a boxing match, a full train station or Chinese New Year impressively, and thanks to a nifty benchmark mode you can be sure that the game will run on your computer without hitches and still look fantastic.
Audio compliments the graphics sublimely as the diverse sound effects get you absorbed in the atmosphere. IO tries to create immersion with the soundtrack as well, as music is now largely played via in-game radios rather than missions looping their own theme song, but the few original tracks in rotation are repeated often. Voice acting is largely great with some funny banter between henchmen but it's the arms-dealing bad guy Blake Dexter and his loudmouth cohort, the corrupt sheriff Clive Skurky - voiced by Keith Carradine and Jon Gries respectively - that steal the show. David Bateson reprises his role as Agent 47 with a suitably cold and distant demeanour, which makes some parts (like whispering soothing words of hope into Victoria's ear) feel jarring.
Which, incidentally, is the same thing I can say about the game in general: it feels jarring. Like the pieces of the puzzle don't all fit together as well as they should. The points constantly popping up in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" score attack, the ability to hide large weapons as if they were folded paper and some questionable objectives undermine any seriousness that Absolution tries to sell through its story. In an attempt to dramatize Hitman, it lost what made it great: being a hitman. That's the real drama.