With few exceptions, you don’t often see good stealth games these days. By that, I mean games that focus almost exclusively on the act of being as sneaky as possible; not games with shoehorned stealth levels or a mix of stealth and action as a focus. The Hitman franchise has always remained consistent in its approach to the genre, and after a six-year absence, Agent 47 is back again. Hitman: Absolution is a game that simultaneously attempts to update the gameplay style, while also returning to certain mechanics from older titles in the series.
While certain changes are more welcome than others, this feels like a true return of one of gaming’s premiere stealth franchises.
Agent 47’s story this time around is more personal than ever. After a mission to assassinate his old handler, Diana, takes an unexpected turn, 47 finds himself in the middle of a conspiracy surrounding a mysterious young woman named Victoria. 47 takes on a new mission: to protect Victoria at all costs and kill anyone who gets in his way. This is the closest thing to character development for 47 we’ve seen in the series and it works, adding some depth to an otherwise mysterious figure and giving him more motivation outside of simple assignments. The story heads in mostly predictable directions, but thanks to some memorable villains and David Bateson’s fantastic portrayal as the bald assassin, this is a tale that is more memorable than it initially seems.
With the story a stronger focus this time around, there were some small changes made to the design of the game as a result. For one, customizable load-outs are gone, replaced with predetermined setups at the start of each mission. This seemed problematic at first, but you almost always have the most necessary tools available to you, so the need for customization is subsided.
Secondly, this leads to certain levels that are more linear than others, with simple objectives and small areas to explore. These levels feel out of place in an otherwise-expansive game full of ways to experiment. Thankfully, they never last long and often provide you with small (but excellent) stealth moments, but they feel like mere appetizers compared to the main course.
Hitman has always been about open levels with many different approaches to taking out your targets, and Absolution continues that tradition in an excellent fashion. While some levels are bigger than others, through most of them you’ll find a solid variety of ways to get to your objective or take out your target, many of which inspire the same creativity found in the previous games. Just when you think you may have found the coolest method to deal with a particular foe, you’ll discover another, more exciting way during a replay of the same level.
Not only that, but for the first time, the base mechanics feel incredible. The addition of a cover system adds a ton to the game, making it easier to find ways to sneak around enemies and find new ways to approach encounters. The act of taking down enemies, either lethally or non-lethally, is also made easier.
The fiber wire, one of 47’s signature tools, allows you to easily kill enemies from behind and, in a neat touch, also allows you to drag the body of your fallen foe to a nearby dumpster or closet to hide them. The simplicity of killing a target with the fiber wire and being able to drag them without any additional actions from the player is one of the many small touches that make Absolution the most mechanically sound game in the series to date.
While stealth is a major component of the franchise, hiding in plain sight is also key. Disguises make a return to the way they were in Hitman 2, meaning that enemies of the same type can see through your disguise if they are able to look at you long enough. This means if you are disguised as a police officer and walk into a room full of them, chances of you not getting caught are high. This is a nice change to the base mechanic and ensures you’re more careful about your choice of disguise, although certain levels are designed in ways to make the disguises seem unnecessary. Those levels aren’t frequent, but when they happen, you lose a major component of the Hitman experience as a result.
New to the franchise is instinct, which, when activated, allows you to see all enemies in the nearby area as well as the path they will walk if they are on the move. This is limited, so it needs to be used wisely, but it feels like a worthy addition to the franchise that doesn’t impede on the core experience. It’s especially handy when wearing a disguise, as you can use instinct to essentially blend in when an enemy of the same type sees you. It doesn’t make the game any easier, but it can make the act of scoping out areas less tedious, allowing you to rely on a mix of stealth and instinct to scope out and sneak through tricky sections of particular levels.
The enemy A.I. has never been particularly great in the franchise, but Absolution feels like a huge step up in that regard. The enemies are more reactive to things in the environment, such as distraction items being thrown (also new to the series), bodies that are found, and other things that will give them the idea that something is wrong. It’s not perfect, there are moments when they may not see through a disguise when they are supposed to or, quite the opposite, see through a disguise across a crowded room, but these moments are rare. And the NPCs, both civilians and enemies, have plenty of interesting conversations that could be related to your missions, making it vital to pay attention to all they have to say.
And then there’s the gunplay, a component of the franchise that has never been particularly good. If you ever get in a tricky situation and are discovered, sometimes your best bet is to shoot your way out. I never relied on this in previous games for two reasons: One, I felt it necessary to remain undetected during a mission, and two, the actual shooting mechanics were poor. Absolution not only feels like a pretty solid third person shooter, the addition of point shooting makes taking down large groups of enemies fairly easy. If you have enough instinct, you can essentially slow down time, mark targets, and watch 47 execute them. This isn’t something you can always rely on, but when things got tough, I found that I could actually comfortably shoot down foes and not have to worry about the aiming or the controls getting in my way.
For those looking for more of a challenge, the different difficulty levels available meet the standards of a wide range of Hitman players. While people new to the series may still find a lot of frustrating moments, even on normal, veterans may want to play on hard or higher to get a much more rewarding experience. I tried levels on normal, hard, and purist, and noticed the subtle (and sometimes devious) touches to each level and how they impacted my play style.
This also affects checkpoints, which are actual in-level checkpoints and not simply the ability to save anywhere like in previous games. The checkpoints are interesting, as they kept me on my toes and I was able to make sure I was more careful with each encounter, but when you reload a checkpoint, it reloads all enemies (even the ones you’ve disposed of) and restarts their A.I. patterns. This is not only a strange design choice, but can also completely ruin your strategy for particular levels, so use them with caution.
Like with any Hitman game, there’s a scoring system, but Absolution puts it right out in front for you to see. This system has always been in place, rewarding you for playing stealth and completing objectives as silently as possible. Displaying it for players to see as the mission plays out is an interesting approach, allowing you to compare your scores to friends and also see just how good of a Hitman player you really are as you go through specific levels. Some may not want to see this in-game, but others will love it, giving them even more of an excuse to replay levels. I found it to be an interesting touch that never distracted from the core experience.
This coincides with the new Contracts mode, a user-generated mission creator in which players craft their own targets on specific levels with specific goals. This is a fantastic addition to the series, adding to the Hitman experience with plenty of new, challenging missions that will test your skills and allow you to compete with friends. Ever run into a specific NPC on a mission with a constant ability to get in your way and screw up your progress? Create a contract and find the most exciting way to take him out; once done, submit it and see how many people can match (or even exceed) your score. It’s a fun challenge mode that I found myself returning to more than I expected.
There are very few stealth franchises that handle the core mechanics of the genre better than the Hitman games, and Absolution continues the tradition brilliantly. While it stumbles in spots and some levels feel out of place, this is the best-playing Hitman yet, and contains some of the most enjoyable and well-designed levels in the entire series. Some of the changes will most likely upset hardcore Hitman players, but given the right amount of time with it, you’ll find a lot to love in this stealth experience.
Pros: Genius level design, core mechanics are more fun than ever, Contracts mode is a great addition
Cons: Certain levels and design choices feel out of place, annoying checkpoint system