“BAAARP!” It's official! Agent 47 is back, with the shiniest head in gaming. “BAAARP!” You had better get used to that sound, because you will be hearing it a lot in Hitman: Absolution; a big, base-like distortion, no doubt influenced by the rise of Dubstep and Christopher Nolan film trailers. Everything mildly dramatic that happens in the game is accompanied by a fog-horn like ”BAAAARP!”, the title screen “BAAARP!”, finished a mission? “BAAARP!”. Dramatic!
This is born of the games new focus on gritty, hyper-realism, although there are moments where the game still has its trademark humour. During the tutorial you overhear a sentry, who is on the phone to his doctor discussing the fact that he has been cleared for prostate cancer. He is overjoyed and clearly in good spirits, that is until a certain bald killing-machine grabs him by the scruff of his neck and pulls him through the window, dashing his head on the rocks below. Moments like this are laugh-out-loud funny and the NPC dialogue is some of the best I’ve ever seen.
At the start of the game you are tasked with killing Agent 47's long-term handler, Diana. In her dying breath she asks 47 to protect a young child, who has been experimented on by the clandestine corporation they both worked for; The Agency. The bald one had experienced a similar childhood, being a genetically engineered assassin with daddy-issues is a tough life, and the child’s plight ignites a tiny remnant of humanity tucked away in the recesses of the assassin's soul.
This is the catalyst of the linear narrative, which is rigid in its structure. There is nothing wrong with the story, although nearly all of the cast are hateful scum-buckets, but I couldn't help feel that this more personal journey was actually detrimental to the pacing. Each level is broken up into bite-size sections, rather than the giant puzzles of yesterday, which just doesn't seem to fit right with the game. It often feels like the game suffers from an over-reliance on set-pieces, instead of embracing the freedom that came with previous entries; this is likely to irritate fans of the series.
Instead of just making your way to a target, you have objectives along the way, (like infiltrating a specific building for example) and they are each a standalone piece of the same mission, unaffected by actions in previous sections. You can be having a huge battle one minute, go through a door, and the guards on the other side are oblivious to the commotion. It’s like sub-levels within the main levels and it really affects the pacing, adversely. Having a loading screen or cutscene play, halfway through a mission is jarring to say the least.
Another thing fans won’t like so much, is the game often forces linearity onto the player. Forced helicopter chases, I'm afraid to say, are as bad as they looked in the trailer. Apart from a few exceptions the set-pieces are pretty bad throughout, the helicopter section in particular, where you just push left on the analogue stick whilst crouching, is more Uncharted than Hitman. A later section sees Agent 47 scaling a building, with debris falling all around. Agent 47 had always been a man of many faces and it seems to have induced some sort of identity crisis.
These sections do look fantastic however, and there is a lot to like about the general art direction outside of the cutscenes, which suffer from a dream-like haze. I could stare at water beading down the back of 47's bald head all day however, and the environments are beautifully grimy. The amount of people on screen in some sections is pushing 1000, and you can't help but stop and stare at the madness unfolding before you. There is one mission that takes place during the Chinese new year, where you have: chefs cooking, fireworks exploding, hundreds of people celebrating and much more going on if you veer off the beaten track. Moments like this are a real joy to behold, it’s just a shame there aren’t more of them.
You can beat most of the levels in a matter of minutes if you rush your targets and get in some clean kills, but the joy of Hitman is revisiting the levels and finding all the nefarious ways in which you can extinguish life. If you speed through the game you won't enjoy it nearly as much as you would if you were to take your time, soaking up the ambience and keeping a keen eye out for the multitude of Easter-Eggs. There are nods to other games and countless bits of (genuinely funny) exposition on most levels. You will never see everything on one play-through, and I'm sure IO Interactive have kept some secrets back for the community to discover.
There are some fun little distractions throughout the narrative and not all of the offbeat sections fall flat, but having a QTE punch up in a bar just isn't very “Hitman”. There are also a couple of instances where you will spend the whole level homing in on a target stealthily, only for a cutscene to penetrate the action and force an unwanted conclusion on the hit. The game really shines though, when you are in a more traditional sandbox with a couple of targets to vanquish and you are surrounded by inventive ways of dispatching them.
Even here though, the game sometimes falters; almost as if the developers were scared of the player not being able to find a solution. In one instance, one of my targets kept making his way into an isolated room on the top floor of a building (as you do), so naturally I crept into the room, intending to wait in ambush. Inside the room was a cooker that I could interact with, turning on the gas, but how to detonate it? Well the developers left you a remote-explosive in the room, it's just a bit too obvious. Found a good sniper spot? Likely there is a sniper rifle very nearby.
This again is a problem with the narrative. In previous Hitman games you would choose your arsenal for a mission and go into it with intent. In Hitman: Absolution, the narrative forces you to go into a mission with a specific set of tools; so if a hit requires something specialised, it must be accessible on the level it will be useful on. IO Interactive, have certainly tried something new with Agent 47's story, but unfortunately it is at the detriment of nearly every other aspect of the game. They were clearly trying to make the game more accessible, but I find they took it just a little too far.
I know I have sounded largely negative towards the game so far, but there are some aspects of the game that shine, it just might not be in the places you would expect. Like I mentioned previously, apart from a slight lens-flare fixation, the game is one hell of a looker, the Glacier 2 engine is a huge step up from the creaky previous entries. Another highlight of the game is the gun-play: each gun feels powerful, the feedback from each shot is impressive and the scenery is satisfyingly destructible. The physics are satisfyingly brutal and you can send an enemy from one side of the room to another, with a Shotgun.
Agent 47 has an expendable resource called “Instinct”, which allows you to see enemies through walls, (don't ask how, he's genetically enhanced don't you know) and to see their patrol patterns in order to anticipate their movements. You can also use Instinct to blend in when wearing a disguise, like tilting your hat, or speaking into a radio. The most fun use for Instinct however, is Point-Shooting. This allows you to slow time to a snails-pace and mark as many targets as you can before you deplete your reserves; triggering it takes down a whole room of enemies in one balletic display of marksmanship, it never gets old.
Another change to the series is the blending mechanic. Dressing up in a variety of disguises is a Hitman staple, but now enemies that are wearing the same outfit will spot you if you come too close. There are ways of counteracting that though: you can blend with a crown of NPC's, stop and read a book, or you can use Instinct. This mechanic is a bit restricting however, because you are more likely to be spotted and it is generally easier to just try and sneak past after throwing an item as a distraction; causing the nearby guards to stare at the wall for ten minutes.
Near most enemies, are conveniently placed spots for you to hide their bodies; massive two-man sized chests for example, litter every level. You can also use these to evade pursuit, or to hide from a passing sentry. There is also an online component to the game called Contracts mode, I didn't get chance to see its true potential as it won't really be apparent until the community is let loose. The concept is simple, you can replay any level from the campaign, choosing your starting equipment. You then go into the level and designate up to three targets, the conditions you kill them in then have to be met by whoever plays your Contract. This mode has potential, but we will have to see how it is received and see what cunning situations the community can come up with, to see if it will have lasting interest.
Hitman: Absolution isn't a bad game by any stretch, but fans of the series, like myself, will be let down by some of the structural changes. On the flip side, fans will also be delighted by some of the others. It's a mixed bag really, phenomenal in places and mundane in others. A good, solid game, marred by its narrative. An old friend returned, but not how you remember him; if you look past his mid-life crisis however, you will find he's still the same guy, he's just trying to act differently for a new circle of friends.