Remember when Hollywood tried to make a Hitman movie? Remember how bad it sucked? Apparently so does Square Enix; as they're seemingly trying to make up for it by delivering Hitman: Absolution, the latest game in the long running stealth series that's easily the most cinematic and polished game in franchise history -- but at what cost? With linear levels, an overload of quicktime events and pacing blunders; Absolution often feels like a game attempting to be Agent 47.That's not to say that there's not enjoyment to be had here -- it just often feels cheap.
Series protagonist Agent 47 returns, but this isn't the same bald and cold agent that you've come to know, this time he has a personal agenda. The story picks up with 47 being sent to kill Diana, his former handler at The Agency who has gone rogue. Once he succeeds he becomes responsible for small girl, who appears to have some terrible people after her. The campaign takes 47 across the United States to protect her and find out just why she's so important to so many people.
For what it's worth, the campaign does a great job evoking emotion and making you feel like you want to see the villains shuffled loose this mortal coil. Agent 47 is no longer a cold and heartless killer -- he's a man on a mission, a man with a vendetta, and you often feel like it, making it extremely satisfying and rewarding when finally do take them out. Absolution preaches stealth and strategy -- but it often feels like it really wants you to just let loose on its world.
That might be the biggest problem with Absolution -- the fact that it tries so hard to be something it's not. Previous Hitman games set you loose in a completely open world, gave you your target, a bit of intel and let you do things your way; Absolution does this in a very limited way. Each level is now segmented and you're given different goals for each portion. So in one early level you're told to gain access to the upper levels of a hotel, then in the next you're told to locate a certain room, then kill your target, then escape. You're completely free to do all of these in any way you want, but a lot of long time series fans are going to be upset that you're no longer able to just do what you want.
Taking the game on such a linear path sort of negates the entire Hitman experience though doesn't it? The key to previous games was the fact that you always felt like you were one step away from complete and utter chaos -- and yes, Absolution has that but it feels like controlled chaos, and rather than having to fix the entire mission, you only have to fix the immediate area around you. It's still a complete blast to sneak around and try to avoid chaos, but again -- it feels so incredibly limited.
Absolution also feels like the most accessible and easiest game the series has seen in term of difficulty. The game's two easiest difficulty settings give you access to 47's instinct abilities, which outline useful objects, people and targets so you can easily identify them. It's unlikely that long time players will play using these abilities, but the game seems to create situations specifically for them, so its hard to avoid at times. Most annoying of these situations is how whenever you take someone's clothes for a disguise, you're instantly viewed as suspicious to anyone in the same costume. Really? You mean that every cop in Chicago knows and can instantly recognize every other cop in the city?
The campaign also suffers from some severe pacing problems, and sadly they always seem to happen when the game is starting to pick up momentum. The game's second chapter for instance has you traveling from Chicago to South Dakota and in the middle of it you HAVE TO take part in a shooting contest. The game already featured a tutorial on shooting and the new point shooting system (spoiler: it's bullet time), why interrupt what the game does so well to make me prove once again that I can shoot? Didn't I just do that a few missions back?
Regardless of all this, Absolution still remains a fun and engaging experience. You'll still get a ton of satisfaction out of hunting and killing your targets, and enjoying the fully developed and believable world around you. Some of the kill scenes are now no less than glorified quicktime events, but they're still well-done and enough to satisfy most gamers.
Contracts mode, the game's only online mode is an interesting direction to take players. While it doesn't offer any actual new content, it does offer a completely brand new way to play. Someone plays through one of the game's stages with no preset targets, but they mark their own targets and take them out in whatever way they want (what costume, what weapon, special criteria) and then put out a contract for players to recreate them. Contracts mode feels like the Hitman game that Absolution is really trying to be, and truly makes the world come alive.
It's not without its limitations though. You're not able to make anyone your target, only specific people from specific levels --- so after a while, contracts start to feel rather redundant. For what it's worth, you do get a pretty wide selection, and some of the game's community members have created some pretty remarkable challenges, but it's still a mode that's going to lose steam rather quickly.
Presentation wise, Absolution is a mixed bag at best. Thanks to great animations and voice acting, the world seems extremely lifelike and it's fun to just sit and listen to the NPCs talk. That combined with the game's detailed visuals and extremely populated areas are some of the best we've seen in quite some time, but that same amount of detail has not been delivered throughout the entire game. Faces of people in crowds are nothing short of grotesque and the game has a habit of not rendering all objects in a cutscene -- like the one where 47 was pointing a gun at a target, but the gun itself didn't render, so 47 looked like a kid playing cops and robbers -- I was just waiting for him to make the "pew pew" sound.
It's perhaps a bit unfair to say that Absolution doesn't feel like a proper Hitman game, it just feels like a new vision for the series -- one that doesn't always pan out. It's a game with its moments, and when they hit they're fantastic, but the limited linear campaign feels like a poor excuse for the gameplay that Hitman fans have known and loved for so long.