Throughout its 12-year existence, IO Interactive’s Hitman franchise has aimed to deliver an action-adventure/stealth experience that embodies a potent combination of class and trash—every ultra-violent assassination exuding a certain sophisticated je ne sais quoi that allows the emotionless brutality of Agent 47 to resonate a strangely alluring suaveness. The last time gamers got a chance to play as the ruthless black suit-wearing liquidator was in 2006’s Hitman: Blood Money, an intriguing yet flawed installment that arguably came closest to achieving IO’s ultimate objective. Six years later comes Hitman: Absolution, the most aesthetically gratifying entry in the series to date, and one that makes some significant changes to the established formula, the majority of which favorably tip the scales toward the classy half of the permanent equation that makes the macabre Hitman mythology so captivating. While longtime fans may find several points of contention, these subtle modifications to the core mechanics grant the necessary open-world breathing room required to give players the ultimate chance to feel like a coolly unstoppable killing machine.
Absolution’s story is the usual blend of secretive criminal-underworld business and backstabbing, with a competent cast of voice actors bringing life to a script that teeter-totters between a big-budget, R-rated Hollywood caper and a much darker indie-cinema yarn. The well-directed cutscenes are decent enough eye candy, but the game’s true graphical beauty is in the gameplay itself, specifically when guiding Agent 47 through heavily populated assemblages on bustling city streets and in clamorous nightclubs. The crowd detail is, quite simply, astonishing. Not an ounce of slowdown occurs while so much movement is taking place on screen; every extra is just about as intricately portrayed as the player character. There’s a few minor issues with flickering background lighting, shading, and surface glares, but for the most part IO has produced a very strong visual effort. Absolution’s soundscapes follow suit, with composer Thomas Bärtschi’s charismatic score keeping players on their toes with audible cues that support the game’s twisty flow, which is never overpowered by the throngs of distinguished phonic effects like explosions, asphyxiations, and, of course, headshots.
Rather than each level being an unbroken, laggard endeavor as in Blood Money, the missions here are broken up into smaller, sectioned-off trials. This provides a better sense of pacing. Also, with the enemy-spotting map function replaced by Agent 47’s Instinct ability, in which he can detect foe’s patrolling routes, the degree of realism is notably heightened. Expert Hitman players may bicker at the ease Instinct mode injects into sneaking around and executing kills, but Absolution’s difficulty settings, which range from a cakewalk to backbreaking, quickly minimize that complaint. After playing Absolution for only a short while, it’s obvious that the manner in which Agent 47 absorbs into and interacts with his environment has been considerably altered from that of Blood Money. The process is much more natural, with more of a focus on experimentation with each slaying. While some hits still fall victim to the fixedly orchestrated, Rube Goldberg-style approach, which can grow contrived and tedious over time, IO rightfully lets players blueprint their own offensive massacres on occasion. All in all, patience remains a virtue in Absolution’s elegant slaughterings; the game is a welcome chaser to the run-and-gun restlessness of something like Call of Duty: Black Ops II.
Agent 47 has a number of new tricks up his dapper sleeves in Absolution, some of which functioning precisely as they should and some that frequently falter. The adjustments to the game’s gunplay fall into the former category, with handy special techniques like the über-accurate Precision Shot sniping and the slow-motion Point Shooting giving you the edge against formidable adversaries. Yet the addition of unsuitable CQC and an untrustworthy cover system, which makes it far too easy to be detected in a pinch, result in a sequence of frustrations that could have otherwise been avoided by opting to refine the faulty areas of Blood Money rather than doing away with them entirely. Furthermore, when you’re in the midst of botching a task in Absolution, IO provides too many second chances for you to slip back undercover: Kill everyone in the vicinity or put your tail between your legs and flee, implementing the game’s overly generous Disguise and Blend tactics. Doing this equates to something of a cop-out, as the NPCs’ fluctuating caliber of intelligence is immediately called into question. At one moment your marks are just as cunning as you are, and the next they seem to call out to death at your hands like an old friend. Thankfully this imbalance doesn’t carry on throughout the whole of the game, only the first handful of missions; the last act is unburdened by such Jekyll-and-Hyde hostiles.
While Absolution remains a strictly single-player affair, the presence of an online scoreboard that tallies your killings and compares them to the rest of the world provides a range of connective interactivity and replayability that this series didn’t even know it needed. This change to the Hitman formula is indicative of all the elements that make Absolution worthwhile. Though it still has several wrinkles and creases that demand ironing, it’s a virtual killer’s tuxedo that feels casual, cultivated, and ready to accept its fresh bloodstains.