Hitman: Absolution PS3 review – the original assassin is back

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So what do you do? There’s a low level hood needs offing and the choices are: pop a bullet in the back of his head, blow up his car, poison his food, push him down a hole, drop a pallet of bricks on him, snipe from a distance… Or kill his dealer steal the clothes and take his place to meet the mark and silently garrote him when he turns his back?

Update: Become the ultimate silent assassin with our 7 killer Hitman: Absolution tips

Hitman: Absolution PS3 review

Trick question obviously, as the answer is all of them. Maybe the hole one twice. That’s always been the beauty of Hitman, every level is a self-contained sandbox of things to explore and experiment with. There are horrible accidents waiting to happen, perfectly timed shots to take, people to ‘disappear’ and levels to slip through unseen, or go all guns blazing as is your whim. Here it’s finally been perfected in what is probably a peak for the series so far. It takes the ideas that made the original games so great and presents them in a modern context of checkpoints, hints and forgiveness but without sacrificing any of the challenge, excitement or shivery-skinned thrill of pulling off some impossibly and beautifully planned hit.

Just like the old games it can appear to be a stealthy shooter to the uninitiated as you use cover to stay undetected or wear disguises to walk right past guards. Then occasionally shoot everyone because gardeners aren’t allowed in the kitchen, obviously. But at its heart it’s more of a puzzler. There are routes to learn, patrols to time and stuff you’ll only find after a couple of goes through. Levels aren’t here to be finished and forgotten, they’re things to be learned, mastered and unraveled. The more you play the more you find and the better it gets.

Take the tutorial. You can, through stealth, shooting and strangling, get to your target easily, but on the way you’ll notice things like sleeping pills begging to be dropped into waiting coffee. Or a window shutter that can be opened to distract guards. Or a piano lid that could probably really hurt someone if, say, they got too close and you knocked away the support pole. The half hour tutorial alone easily has an afternoon’s worth of content to uncover as you exhaust every option.

In the old games this was simply there to be discovered off your own back. Now there are challenges to complete and rewards to earn for checking things off a list. Each level has about 30-40 different boxes to tick, from signature kills, weapons collected, outfits worn, as well as things like not being spotted, never changing out of your suit and so on. It’s beautifully done because you can take what you want. Ignore it, use it to make sure you don’t miss the best bits, or go full OCD and collect everything. As you complete these challenges you unlock enhancements to improve 47’s skills. Chances are, though, you’ll flick through the options, see something you didn’t know was there and won’t be able to resist going back for more. Sorry, I can do what? With a whale skeleton?

hitman_contracts_1What’s especially rewarding is that there’s no sense that any option, route or choice is ‘the right one’. Whatever you do is your story. Events form around your actions and – dying aside – you never feel punished for the decisions you make. One of my highlights saw me blowing a level inches from the end and taking a hostage, holding the guards off long enough to back into a lift with terrified hotel clerk in a headlock to complete it. It almost felt scripted but it was simply the way it played out that time. Gamers might bang on about Deus Ex being all about player choice and narrative freedom but spend a few days playing Absolution and see if any of your stories sync up with your friends’ experiences.

Take Welcome To Hope (it’s been heavily previewed so there shouldn’t be any spoilers). The task is this: you have three local gang members to remove and a large chunk of 50s themed small-town America to do it in. Two of them are standing right in front of you the moment the level starts. You could just pop them both right there and then – the game often teases you like this – but giving in to temptation would put local police on high alert and mean you miss out on all the fun you could have with your victims.

In my first playthrough I dressed up like a mechanic so no one noticed me as I wired a gate to mains electricity, killing target one as he tried to open it. Number two was lured over to a leaky petrol pump by throwing a gas can at it. As he came to investigate the noise I simply shot the can causing an explosion/fire/tragic accident/no sir officer I wasn’t anywhere near at the time. Unfortunate ‘mishaps’ like that are the most fun because you get to stand around looking innocent while everyone panics. The last one, number three, I just Fiber Wired (47’s trademark undetectable garrote) and hid the body in a cupboard. Natch.

But! Later I also sniped them from windows, dropped cars on them, threw knives into their stupid criminal faces and snuck around completely unseen to strangle and shoot them like a ghost with guns and a grudge; using car alarms and thrown bottles to distract witnesses or lure targets into range. Every time it felt like that was exactly how it was meant to be played.

Hitman absolutionPart of the reason it works is that the game is built on a near rock solid foundation of rules. Where old Hitman games could be twitchy, setting off alarms for no reason and blowing hours of work, Absolution is clear and precise. Your big bald head might be cresting over the top of a desk like a pink frowny moon but dammit you are in cover and no one will see you. At the default difficulty level you’re told if you’re visibly armed. It warns you if you’re trespassing. Points of interest or exploitable items are highlighted and possible uses hinted at. Hissing arrows pull across the screen in the direction of people noticing you and, as you get used to their urgency and speed, you can time dashes across open ground and turn a corner perfectly before triggering an alert.

It means you can run rings around the AI because it’s perfectly pitched as manipulatively stupid and exploitable. Throw something at a wall and guards will patiently watch it as you sneak past. You’re never in any doubt that if it does go horribly wrong it’s because you messed up or overreached your limits.

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