Note: the game was played in Professional – Hard difficulty, which is the second tier difficulty proportedly intended for those wanting a more authentic Hitman experience. This means that I was going for the cleaner style of game-play, which has less visual aids. Noting this because reviewers experiences will vastly differ based on their respective difficulty settings. 

I have a theory that every time a sequel to a franchise features a name, rather than a number, the developers are going to be delivering something different to prior installments. It’s as though they’re preparing us for changes, or a deviation from the set path or mechanical norms. Hitman: Absolution isn’t Hitman 4, and although Blood Money wasn’t ‘Hitman 3,’ it was the first in the HD console cycle, and trod wearily into unknown territory. Many fans of the Hitman series probably wished IO had labeled Absolution ‘Hitman 4′ from the start, but IO decidedly deviated from its original roots both in name and in tone, right from the get go. Absolution isn’t Blood Money part two, and it’s not Hitman 4, it’s a spin-off that resembles more a Sam Fisher adventure than an Agent 47 contract, and it suffers in many, many ways because of it.

I’m the sort of gamer who rolls with the punches, and as I grow and change and differ in tastes and interests, I expect the games I enjoyed 10 years ago to develop and change with me. It’s unreasonable to expect a developer to recreate the memories you had of a prior title, what with demographics shifting and development changing hands; publisher needs vary, and writers move on to different things. Whilst all of these things excuse a different game, they don’t excuse a bad game, and the reception of which could have been medicated with a little developmental transparency, which is editorial jargon for “less bullshit.”

In a nut-shell, Hitman: Absolution is a better Splinter Cell than Splinter Cell Conviction. What a loaded statement.

It’ll try and convince you a couple of times, and it nearly succeeds.

Hitman: Absolution is a game largely about escape and infiltration. If you’re not escaping, you’re infiltrating. If you’re not infiltrating, you’re avoiding; if you’re not avoiding, you’re brawling. You’re never really thinking, or studying, two aspects of  Hitman that were integral to uniqueness and enjoyment of the gameplay. This wouldn’t be a relevant topic if IO had gone the honest road and flat out created a 3rd person stealth action game, but the elements of classic Hitman incorporated into Absolution serve merely to represent the name on the box, rather than being featured as integral and enjoyable parts of the game-play. They are few and far between, and what there is of them is nothing but a whiff of events in the past.

Although beautiful, the large, open spaces to carry out a hit in the classical sense of Hitman are reminiscent of Blood Money. The element of disguise here is still integral to your success, and memorizing the layout of the map and potential for environmental exploitation is also a very welcome key element. The problem is, these classic Hitman stages only really exist at the beginning of the game, and there are only around three of them. In them, the AI is predictable, and about the only method of killing your enemy is by garroting him down one of the alley’s he’ll go into on his route. Sure, there are some more interesting ways later on, such as rigging a fuel tank to explode, and lighting a fire-works display, but, again, these are all down alley’s, and each of the kills are merely a matter of finding a disguise/crawling into a vent, waiting a while, and hitting E on whatever trigger happens to be right next to them, or just using the garrote. It’s like reference material, and in Absolution the idea of hits feel stolen rather than decisively implemented.

The tutorial was not an accurate representation of the game to come. 

The short but necessary tutorial at the start of the game feels as though it was created to reassure fans that they were getting a proper Hitman product. Introducing you to the core mechanics, with some new additions, Agent 47 must infiltrate a guarded building and take out a hit on an agent the agency pronounce a liable threat. The entire segment holds your hand, and introduces you to the all new stealth elements. “Cool, a cover system – that’ll be useful” I thought to myself, not realizing that I was about to spend practically the entire game using it. In Hitman: Absolution, disguises are of varying use. Once in a disguise, anyone who shares that out-fit (or job) will be able to see through your disguise after a very short period of time. To walk past people because of this, you need to hit the “instinct” key which is a rechargeable power that allows Agent 47 to apply his sneaky prowess and waltz past undetected.

In the tutorial, as a Gardner, this worked really well – the trouble is, after that, in the sections that aren’t the classic ‘hit’ sections as seen in the prior games (and as I said, there are about three of them) disguises are totally and utterly useless. Enemies will see through them almost instantly, and although you can use the instinct to buy yourself about half a second, it runs out very, very quickly. Because of this, Hitman: Absolution rapidly becomes a game about stealth.

Now, I don’t want you to feel mislead here – so I’m going to flat out say it: Hitman: Absolution is a stealth game. It is not about disguises, and it’s not about taking out hits. What you’ll be doing is escaping from, or hiding from, the enemies – trying to get through room after room, taking out people along the way. That’s what this game is. Let that feels of betrayal flow through you.

I’m dressed as a cop, but still having to avoid being seen. It makes little sense.

Absolution is, at times, a beautiful game. Hell, IO are known for the attention to detail in the environment. Shanghai was breathtaking in Kane and Lynch 2, and this title is no exception. The environments are richly decorated, perhaps more-so than I’ve ever seen before, and can be fairly varied. The gun store and jail/courtroom in particular showcase a meticulous attention to details. There are some seriously talented artists and designers at IO, but Abolution is completely and utterly style over substance.

After a lengthy and confusing trawl through a hotel, Agent 47 is chased by the police. It’s not enough to grab a police costume and carefully but not invisibly make your way out of their line of sight – oh no – the next few segments, which come to about maybe 20% of the game, comprises of Agent 47 dressed as a policeman shuffling to and fro cover, using the exact same detection/cover system as Splinter Cell Conviction. If you made it through the library without being seen, you’ll know that doing things by the book takes many restarts from the sparsely located check-points. It doesn’t matter that you’re in disguise, if they see you for more than two seconds you have to either feign capture, and take a human shield for a long and arduous shoot-out, or lead the detector into a secluded room and take him out. Usually, they’re in pairs.

Just to make this perfectly clear, at around 20% of the game at that point, 18% had been stealth – unable to be seen a single time. Well, unless you want to play the way it feels they intended you to play, but I’ll come to that later…

Difficulty – not as described

IO had announced a ‘purist’ mode for Hitman fanatics – but what they didn’t explain was that this difficulty setting was for fanatics of their game. Purist mode doesn’t magically transform Absolution into Hitman’s gone by, it merely removes a lot of the visual aids and forces you to rely on your map memory and memory of the objectives and locations of them. Wait? What? Memory? But I haven’t played this game before? Tough. That’s what purist mode is. No HUD, no guides, no interface, nothing. This was clearly just a feature thrown in because people were worried about the shift in style and tonality of the game, and instead of facing it head on, IO decided to deflate the claims with the misleadingly but deliberately named ‘purist’ mode. Not cool.

Still, the two tiered difficulty is welcome, able to pick from “Enhanced” which is a meaningless and fluffed up term for “we’re hiding a bunch of aids under the bonnet,” and “professional” which is, I should think, the way they intend the game to be played. Enhanced had two inner difficulty levels, and professional has three – one of them the aforementioned purist mode. I played through the entire game on ‘professional hard’, which was the first difficulty of the professional setting.

The main difference between professional hard and enhanced easy is simply more meat in the room. More chances to be seen, and quicker reaction times from enemies. This is not how difficulty scaling in games is supposed to work. It is not supposed to be a matter of potentially less annoying – potentially more annoying.

I had fun once, it was horrible.

Absolution certainly has a sense of humour, and a lot of charm, but none of that helps the game-play. The thing is, it took me about half the game to realise I was playing it wrong. Having to repeat rooms upwards of 50 times just to get through without hating myself was growing tedious – and it was all because of a reliance on stealth with sluggish controls, in a game that was never marketed as a stealth game. It’s a bit like buying a flight sim and getting a bowling game. That’s not what I signed up for.

I eventually realized, however, that I was doing it wrong the entire time. Hitman is a stealth action shooter, and it’s okay to mess up. Ignore “purist mode” and everything you’ve learned from Hitman games, and ignore the fact you’re deducted points for killing people or being spotted – because, you know what? I got a whole lot more points per map for butchering everyone than I did for staying silent and not being seen. 4 guys in a room? No problem. Use instinct, mark the targets, and use the auto kill feature that, again, is right out of Splinter Cell Conviction. Guy saw you murder someone? Who cares, kill him too. There’s bins and wardrobes and health packs spread all over the maps for a reason: Hitman: Absolution is designed for you to kill.

Once I understood that, I had a lot more fun.

Bald. James Bald. Okay, I’m just Fisher for puns now.

Absolution has fantastic shooting mechanics, and great rag-dolls. The guns sound great, and killing with silenced (or otherwise) weapons which are laughably laid around the map feels fantastic. In the library? No worries, there’s a shotgun on a cupboard illuminated by a desk lamp. Trapped in a hall? No worries, dress up like a Samurai and take a Katana to them (I actually did that); out of ammo? Axe, stab, cut, garrote an enemy and take their gun. Guns are supposed to be used in Absolution, and the sooner you come to realize that, the sooner you’ll enjoy it for what it is: a generic, ham-fisted stealth action shooter which is so damned similar to Splinter Cell Conviction that I’d imagine mentioning the game in the IO offices is a fireable offence.

The story is absolutely terrible, and the writing feels like it was written by a European college student trying to appeal to the American demographic, but there’s some charm to what they were trying to do. Although Agent 47 imposes himself on you as if it say “I’m too well known to actually have any character what-so-ever,” he’s still a great lead protagonist in this more action oriented adventure, but the muddy, small, and messy story featuring some incredibly mediocre and cliche antagonists has me scratching my head, asking “if IO were going for a more linear, streamlined and story driven game, why is the story so bad?” What exposition there is, is in the menu system accessible in missions by pressing F1, but for all the “hits” you’re all looking forward to doing, they’re done on the cheap as a favor to some dude with a penchant for poultry who later turns out to be about as trustworthy as any idiot would have said he was.

It’s almost like an allegory for IO.

I’m not saying Absolution is a bad game – it merely set itself up for a style of gameplay it hasn’t advertised itself as being. Because of this, a lot of you are going to flat out hate it – and those of you who enjoy it, and get a little gung-ho, you’re going to realise that you can actually complete nearly every A-B mission simply by sprinting from the start of the map to the end of it, hiding for a little while by the exit. I blew a lot of stuff up in Hitman: Absolution. I had pipe-bombs, proximity mines, shot-guns, machine guns, gas canisters and fuel tanks. There will be a great many of you saying “you noob, you’re not playing it how it’s meant to be played,” but, in all honesty, it isn’t me who put health packs, guns, explosives all over the map – and I didn’t make disguises tantamount to useless. And it isn’t me who filled rooms up with more enemies in lieu of actual difficulty balancing. Sure, I could schlep along, retrying missions 50 times just to not be spotted by AI – but it doesn’t take any brains, it just takes patience: so why should I bother?

Hitman: Absolution isn’t what you thought it was, and that’s not your fault, that’s IO’s fault. They’ve made a game they hoped to push for maximum sales, and although I say this a lot at the moment, it is yet another amalgamation which, at face value, tries to please everyone, but ends up pleasing no one. With “Contracts” multiplayer features adding some replayability – since other players can set target NPC’s on any mission – there’s reason enough to give it a look, but if you don’t want a stealth action 3rd person shooter that completely betrays the original games, then you probably should avoid it. For the few of you able to take it at face value, with the patience to fight with the mechanics for quite some time into the game, you might enjoy it – there’s a lot to look at, it’s a shame you’ll be doing it crouching behind a counter, rolling around like Sam Fisher. It’s crass for the sake of crass, lude for the sake of lude, and doesn’t really have a demographic – but perhaps that makes it unique.