Hitman: Absolution PS3 review – the original assassin is back
The new features that were initially so disturbing drop in effortlessly. The cover system feels so natural and obvious that I instantly forgot it wasn’t part of the old games. Similarly the new checkpoints just work. For starters they’re manually activated, so they’re entirely your call, and secondly some levels are large prospects. So you’ll be pleased they’re there when you’ve spent 40 minutes earning the outfit you need to access a certain area and don’t want to risk losing it all. The new Instinct system also feels like an old friend very quickly. As well as a don’t-ask-how-it-works X-ray mode, invaluable for tracking targets and guards, it’s also a power bar for several abilities. Point Shooting lets you enter a Red Dead Redemption-style slo-mo targeting mode, perfect for crisis management if you need to drop several targets at once. It’s also good for looking really, really cool.
Then there’s Blending which lets you perform actions to enhance disguises and allay suspicion. As with the old games only specific disguises are allowed in certain areas – chefs in the kitchen, thugs in the gang hideout and so on – but now people notice their own. Dress as a policeman and other officers will be curious of ‘the new guy’. Blending let’s you fiddle with your hat or play with your radio as a distraction as you walk past. It runs out fast though so generally you’re only using it if you’re desperate.
This is all at the default difficulty, though. If you want to make things harder then Absolution can make the AI faster, strips out hints and checkpoints, and so on. At the sternest ‘Purist’ level there’s no HUD, no X-ray vision, no anything and guards react instantly. I spent an hour trying to get through one 20-yard stretch of corridor and failing miserably. I’m not sure why anyone would want to play it like that but you can if your masochistic heart desires.
Of course, well balanced mechanics and design won’t mean much if the story’s not good, and it is. There’s almost a surreal quality in places, like it’s set in an alternate universe where test tube bred assassin’s rub shoulders with homicidal businessmen and robot-handed bosses of secret organisations all the time. The overarching plot follows 47 as he upholds a deathbed promise to protect a young girl from both the business man and the boss. In sticking with Hitman tradition that’s then an excuse to jump between a variety of interesting and bizarre levels.
However, here it’s done with far more skill than than before, swapping the old text heavy mission briefings and a bit of VO with full cutscenes and proper acting. It’s cinematic stuff. You’ll boo at the bad guys, gasp at the explosions and root for the hero. The psychotic, cold-blooded hero. Admittedly there is one character that serves no apparent purpose and another that doesn’t know when to quit, but the rest is great. IO has, as I feared, made 47 ‘grow’ as a person and ‘bond’ with Victoria but it’s less obtrusive than it could have been. It actually gives him just enough personality to make his motivations believable without changing the autistic murder robot we know and love.
The levels themselves are also great characters. A dark and blackly funny world of Lynchian Americana, underground crime, camp espionage and bad science. Wherever you are, simply soaking up the atmosphere is a great experience. Some places are packed with NPCs, and I mean hundreds, in dense crowds that create a real sense of urban bustle. It’s alive with dialogue. There are phone chats, guards talking, incidental bit of side story and character exposition. IO obviously realised that if you are going to spend five minutes hiding behind a wall it might as well be interesting and have peppered locations with conversations worth hearing because they bring colour and life to world. It’s also well paced, mixing huge levels with more snack-sized dramatic beats to break things up.
This is, after all, a game about strangling people with wire and hiding the bodies in bins. If it wasn’t for the wicked sense of humour it’d get quite unpleasant. It feels mature, not because of the blood and tits, but because it’s intelligently scripted and thought out. The guards openly mock their purpose and existence by commenting on how nothing’s changed since they moved to investigate a noise, and all the people you have to kill are reprehensible human beings. The rest – the innocents, incidentals and collateral damage – are entirely on you. Explosions don’t kill people. Bald impatient assassin’s who don’t mind a mess do.
Even the Saints, the latex death nuns from the much maligned trailer fit into this odd world. They’re ridiculous but no more so than the fetish angels from Blood Money’s A Dance With The Devil, or Contract’s ball-gagged gimps in the Meat King’s Party. At least here they’re threats rather than victims. When the leader rocks up in a rubber wimple, chewing a cigar and mutters “Go with God Motherf**ker” before firing a rocket at Hitman it’s hard not to laugh. Especially when 47 starts that level in a blue thigh-length dressing gown with pineapples on it (long story, you’ll find out). The Saint’s level is actually a stand out moment as you hunt a strike team through a dense cornfield at night like a velociraptor in The Lost World. It’s all guards yanked into the stalks as panicked gunfire lights up the undergrowth.
It’s a big game too. 20 levels that took me 11 hours to complete even though I rushed towards the end to finish it. You can probably add another 4-5 hours for a more natural first run, and then however much you want for replays. And there’s the Contracts ‘multiplayer’. Here you can pick a level, nominate up to three targets and play out the hits to ‘record’ them and upload for others to try. Whatever you do – specific disguises, hiding the bodies, not being seen or using certain weapons – become the criteria other people have to match to beat your score. It essentially provides an unlimited series of challenges to taunt your friends with.
It’s a fantastic package overall. A dark and witty tale of murder and retribution that can be whatever you want. It captures the ebb and flow of tension that stealth games forgot about years ago but presents it in a way that feels contemporary. There are brain teasing moments of, ‘how do I do that? Can I do that?’ when you discover certain weapons or set ups. Plus, for the first time in a Hitman game, it’s a genuinely satisfying shooter. Better level design means you can unleash lead and only mess up the local area rather than putting entire levels at risk. You’ll want to let off a few rounds as well because the guns are excellent – forceful and full of violence. The silenced shotgun is possibly the greatest videogame weapon of all time. It’s like God sneezing and earned the nickname the ‘Staydown’ because that’s what I shouted every time I used it.
The only reason Absolution doesn’t score higher is because it’s familiar gameplay. That’s not a criticism, I loved it from start to finish but it doesn’t break any molds or raise any bars that would warrant a higher score. What it does do though is deliver about as good a story and rewarding experience as you’re likely to get this year.