Friday, April 16, 2021

Hitman: Absolution (PS3)

As much as I’ve come to like the Hitman games, my journey didn’t start with any of the more celebrated entries like Silent Assassin, Blood Money or Hitman (2016), but rather the black sheep of the franchise, Hitman: Absolution. Not only was this the first Hitman game I played, it also has the honor as the series’ first installment released exclusively for seventh-gen consoles and the first entry published by Square Enix after they acquired Eidos Interactive. Making my way through the older Hitman titles naturally brought me back to where I had started, which evoked a sense of nostalgia during my most recent playthrough, which, through total happenstance, occurred exactly five years to the day from my first playthrough. That said, revisiting it in the context of everything else got me to reevaluate my opinion and how it stands as a game in a vacuum versus how it stands as a Hitman game.

Agent 47 is tasked with killing his handler, Diana Burnwood, who has betrayed the ICA for no discernable reason and sabotaged their funding and database, forcing them to reform. When he confronts Diana, he learns that her betrayal was to help protect a genetically-engineered teenage girl named Victoria and agrees to protect her as Diana seemingly dies from a gunshot wound. 47’s new handler, Benjamin Travis, learns of 47’s actions and brands him a traitor. During 47’s quest to protect Victoria, he learns that another man, Blake Dexter, is after her after somehow learning of her existence.

Hitman: Absolution is not the first game in the series to have an emotional storyline or feature 47 killing for the sake of another. Players could find both of these elements in Silent Assassin, where 47 searched for his only friend, a church priest who tried to show him a peaceful life only for 47 to realize in the end that he’s not meant for that world. By comparison to the rest of the series, however, Absolution presents its story very prominently rather than the traditionally more minimalist approach. As such, the storytelling flaws are more obvious, like how certain characters, including the Saints and Cosmo Faulkner, feel underdeveloped. The writing also contains some rather cringy dialogue, especially from Blake Dexter, and more blatant sexual references. Since there’s a more “adult” atmosphere, there’s also a noticeable increase in the amount of swearing, though thankfully none from 47, who remains a man of few words.

47's goal is to keep Victoria safe.

That said, I paid more attention to the plot this time around and I liked it a little more, especially in the context of 47’s prior adventures. A theme of 47’s desire for independence is featured and manifests itself in a powerful scene where he cuts off his iconic barcode, so he has a bandage on the back of his head for the rest of the story. I also liked the development between 47 and Victoria, since Victoria goes through a similar arc to 47, as everyone except him treats her like an experiment rather than a human being. Though the bond between 47 and Victoria could have used more time, what is there still felt effective as the emotional core of the game.

Absolution features twenty missions set almost exclusively in the United States, but departs from the more open-ended levels of the series in favor of more linear and cinematic level design. Though players can still approach pretty much any level however they wish, this cinematic approach leads to levels akin to Codename 47 and Silent Assassin that don’t feature any targets, including one where the only event that occurs is 47 obtaining his iconic suit from a tailor. Each mission also generally consists of a series of linear mini-levels and while these mini-levels can have some degree of open-endedness, many consist of simply going from Point A to Point B, ideally without getting caught, and quicken the overall pace of the game. Players are also scored in real time based on their actions, with separate scores for each mini-level that get tallied at the end of the mission for the overall mission score and ranking. Additionally, each mission now has a series of Challenges that add plenty of replay value.

Of course, the cinematic nature of game means that quick cutscenes can occur between mini-levels for further plot development when needed, so the newspaper from Blood Money doesn’t appear. This design philosophy also works its way into certain game mechanics like Point Shooting, which allow for a cinematic multi-kill after marking targets. Interestingly, if you mark a target for a headshot but they move behind something during the cinematic, the headshot is still guaranteed. Saves are also removed entirely in favor of checkpoints that work in a rather strange way apart from encouraging moving between them as quickly as possible. For whatever reason, if you reload a checkpoint, it completely resets the world. Some missions can abuse this, like the amazing Death Factory, but others, like the final mini-level of Hunter and Hunted, can get annoying when you realize you have to set up all of your kills again and you’re better off starting over.

Death Factory is one of the most Hitman missions in the game.

Since another design philosophy included accessibility, there are certainly some odd choices with game mechanics, and some not-so-bad ones, that make Absolution more closely resemble other third-person shooters. The circular inventory system, for instance, is replaced with one that uses the D-pad and more severely limits the number of items you carry, though all weapons are concealed regardless of size. 47 must also procure everything on site, since there’s no system that lets you carry anything into a mission apart from the default items, though this does eliminate the need to carry a lockpick to open certain doors. Certain elements like frisks and metal detectors are also cut for efficiency and 47 can crawl through vents, as well as pull enemies through windows or hang from ledges. Then there’s partial regenerating health and the presence of First Aid stations, as well as automatically picking up spare ammo.

What some players might not realize, however, is that Absolution also introduced a number of gameplay improvements and features that the World of Assassination Trilogy would either treat as staples or reintroduce later. These include: Hiding behind cover; Subduing enemies with 47’s bare hands; Melee as a viable combat option; Proper aiming for melee weapons, one-hit kills with thrown bladed items and using melee weapons as a distraction; Streamlining garroting to one button; Blending into crowds or certain spots like donut boxes; Faking surrender; and hiding people or objects in tall vegetation. This game also introduced Contracts Mode, which I wasn’t able to play for this review, and features improved AI with more reactive crowds and guards that don’t immediately alert all other guards if 47 is caught trespassing or performing suspicious activity.

The complexity of the AI actually led to the one mechanic holding the entire game together, Instinct. By holding down a dedicated button, Instinct lets 47 see NPCs through walls, as well as track their pathfinding and view interactive parts of the environments highlighted in yellow, all while time is slowed down. This alone would invite similarities to Detective Mode from the Batman: Arkham series, but Instinct also plays a crucial role in how disguises work. In this game, wearing a disguise doesn’t automatically fool anyone, since 47 still looks suspicious. To get past NPCs wearing the same outfit, 47 must use Instinct from a dedicated gauge to walk past safely, usually by lowering his head or covering up his bandaged barcode. I got used to this mechanic with time, but on any difficulty other than Easy, the lowest setting, 47 is always in danger of his Instinct reaching zero, a possibility that grows when maneuvering areas filled to the brim with NPCs. As such, it forces the player to think a bit more about their route to safety and tracking patterns, but it never doesn’t feel clunky, especially since Point Shooting also burns through Instinct.

Instinct Mode in action (screenshot from the PC version).

That brings me to the five difficulty settings. Easy provides the lowest level of challenge, with fewer enemies and essentially infinite Instinct while sneaking past NPCs. Medium, Hard and Expert pile on the difficulty with an increased number of tougher enemies, restrictions on Instinct and, eventually, a lack of checkpoints. For those who don’t like some of the mechanics from Absolution, however, Purist removes Instinct entirely and removes the HUD and checkpoints, which provides the most Hitman-like experience for those who prefer the older style of play.

As the first fully HD title in the Hitman series, Absolution still looks impressive and improved over Blood Money, with well-detailed characters and environments that all stand out from each other. There are occasionally some cinematic effects, but these don’t really get in the way of the action, outside of overusing the blur a little bit while aiming for Point Shooting. I didn’t really have much to complain about, but the lighting is a bit dark sometimes and there’s noticeable texture loading every once in a while, not to mention the text is just barely legible on a CRT, which I played the game on.

Then there’s the audio. This is the first time Diana Burnwood has a new voice actress, Marsha Thomason, who sounded pretty good, even if I generally prefer Jane Perry from the World of Assassination Trilogy. Most notably, this is the first Hitman game where Jesper Kyd doesn’t return as the composer. Though the three new composers, Peter Peter, Peter Kyed and Thomas Bärtschi, put their own spin on Kyd’s style and fit the Western feeling of the setting, it doesn’t quite sound the same or stand out as much. However, I did like the song “Black Bandana”, sung by Find Folting, which plays over the credits and perfectly captures the tone of the game. I also kind of liked how Instinct mode added in film pops as an audio indicator that it’s in use.

I didn’t really run into any performance issues while playing Absolution, but I did run into a glitch at the end of the Attack of the Saints mission where the ending cutscene had no audio or subtitles, even though I had turned them on. Replaying the cornfield segment at the end fixed this, but not before I ran into the other issue I ran into where the game froze every once in a while, which necessitated a system restart.

Beyond the game itself, the developers actually released an iOS app called Hitman Absolution: Full Disclosure, which gave players a glimpse into every aspect of the game’s development, including mistakes and rough ideas. The app no longer exists, and I couldn’t look at it anyway because I use a Samsung Galaxy, but users have archived all of the images and videos from the app and I found the contents fascinating, since it explains so much about how Absolution turned out the way it did. You can find a screenshot archive here, as well two video compilations here and here.

A small taste of the development insights from Full Disclosure.

Within the context of the greater Hitman series, it’s fair to consider Absolution not the best example of what the series has to offer. Despite that, however, I can’t really hate the game and still consider it a genuinely fun experience, since it still has enough of Hitman’s DNA to scratch that itch and I still admire IOI’s willingness to experiment with the formula and try something new, even if it didn’t completely work out. Hitman fans might not enjoy this one as much, but it’s not the worst first impression of the series, since it can still act as a solid gateway entry. It certainly was for me.

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