If you’re a fan of IO Interactive’s Hitman series – or have enjoyed at least one Hitman game in your time – then heed this advice at all costs: play through the latest game on “Purist” difficulty. Absolution is a mightily unusual Hitman game, and although playing on Purist won’t remedy some of the more fundamental changes that IO has made to the series here, it will make the experience far more agreeable for you. Absolution is a Hitman game in the same way that Conviction was a Splinter Cell game; very heavy on the narrative, with considerably less emphasis on providing scenarios that allow for player experimentation. It’s an action-stealth hybrid as opposed to a full-on stealth endeavour, but on the whole it works. More or less.
Like several other big-budget action games released in the past three or four years, Hitman Absolution draws a lot of inspiration from the tacky, c-grade action movies that its creators presumably binged on many moons ago. Sometimes this really works – the interactive bar-room brawl set-piece is like something from one of Steven Seagal’s guilty pleasures – and other times it’s just banal: your memory of the psychotic, stupendously profane hick of a villain is sure to subside before the end credits have finished rolling. For something so retrograde it’s very glossily presented though, and the numerous crowd sequences (some of which feature literally hundreds of roaming NPCs) are jaw-dropping.
The AI is fairly inconsistent throughout the campaign, and on anything other than Purist difficulty it’s very keen to let you off the hook if things suddenly get hot. Sometimes your assailants are immediately thrown off the scent as soon as you pass through a checkpoint; in other instances they’ll take a stand on the other side of the cover that you’re hiding behind, firing their weapons blindly at you until you come out and dispatch them. This is far less irritating if you’re content for Hitman Absolution to be a mere dumb-ass action game, and that’s one score on which it does wholly succeed. With these inconsistencies it occasionally feels like the HD port of a game from the PS2 era; which, ironically enough, probably isn’t a complaint that you could confidently level at some of the previous Hitman games today, visuals notwithstanding.
Absolution’s environments are predominantly linear, but quite a few of them do blossom into the kind of multi-tiered conundrums that the series is so famous for. On the lower difficulty settings, you’re pretty much free to gun down as many enemies as you like with no rebuke whatsoever; but that choice is always yours to take or leave. There’s a great moment just after the game’s halfway point in which you’re asked to partake in a points-based shooting contest. At this juncture, some Hitman fans will be tempted to down tools and bail on the experience altogether, lambasting the fact that their beloved series has suddenly turned into Gears of War. But if you stay observant and inquisitive, you’ll find a very satisfying way to avoid that shoot-out altogether.
And if you look for them, Hitman Absolution is positively brimming with moments like that. It may also be brimming with things like a new slow-motion “point shooting” mechanic (lifted, appropriately enough, from Splinter Cell: Conviction) and some deafeningly loud action hoopla, but there is a Hitman game underneath it all. The remarkably silly plot almost completely stifles Agent 47’s ability to do his job – there aren’t a lot of traditional “hits” here – so admittedly the game may have strayed a little too far from past formula for some people. It’s wilfully stupid and occasionally quite nasty – the tasteless 1986 Sylvester Stallone film Cobra appears to be referenced at one point, which is a good comparison mark – but when you’re not forced to move in a straight line the gameplay is reliably tense and involving.
So despite the occasional reliance on narrow corridors and sleaze, there is much to enjoy here. Contracts mode – originally available via a pass code but now free to all – is probably the best part of the package, allowing you to compete in bespoke challenges of your own design. The community (and IO’s own staff) have clearly taken to this task like the proverbial ducks to water, and the mode invites you to mess around in ways that the campaign frequently doesn’t. You can even – via the pause menu – instantly initiate a contract during the campaign itself; an extremely nifty feature that’s sure to please anyone going through it a second time. Hitman Absolution takes a few uncertain steps in a few very disparate directions; some of them welcome, others considerably less so. It’s anyone’s guess where the series is headed after this, but in the meantime Absolution is – at the very least – plenty interesting enough.