“Live each day to its fullest” was one of the more literal takeaways from Groundhog Day. Phil Connors had to relive the same day over and over until he became a moral human being. This idea frequently translates to game design in the form of repeated trial and error. You try something, you make a mistake, you learn from it, and, eventually, you get it right. As of late trial and error style gameplay has been demonized as ghost of game’s past employed exclusively in deliberate throwbacks. If anything, it’s not in style.
Trial and error, as it happens, is the crux of Hitman: Absolution. The difference, or at least the factor that determines Absolution’s personal worth, is how attractive it makes the process of absorbing every detail contained inside each level. If you’re the type of person who prefers to shoot first and ask questions never, well, Absolution actually supports that option to a limited degree, but doing so would be like watching NASCAR for quality racing and ignoring the allure of personality-induced vehicular chaos. More appropriately, you would be missing the point.
A lot of people have to die. Sometimes Agent 47’s marks die violently. Sometimes they die unexpectedly. Sometimes they die because you happened to be wearing a bright yellow chicken suit and couldn’t summon the discipline to hold off the trigger on your remote explosives. In any case for a game titled Hitman that centers on limitless bloodlust is ironically more about stealth, observation, and being in the right place at the right time. Think of each of Absolution’s twenty levels as an elaborate repeating play in which you are an agent of chaos. Agent 47 is deposited into a small-ish (but surprisingly large feeling) environment and tasked with taking out a target(s) through any means possible. Marks have a defined routine that patient players will notice and memorize, and striking them at the proper time, whether it be an orchestrated trap or a simple garrote strangulation, is always satisfying.
The tools at Agent 47’s disposal are rather simple. My primary activity involved knocking people out and using their clothes as a disguise. Disguises let you blend in among the ignorant, however others dressed like you (like all the other maintenance workers if you assume a maintenance worker, or cops in a place filled with cops) will notice you very quickly. To get around this Agent 47 can employ his new limited instinct ability where he essentially uses his hitman expertise to blend into to his surroundings. All he does is cover his face and look another direction, making it feel less like instinct and more like a Jedi mind trick, but it’s mechanically sound. Agent 47 can also use instinct to engage the current generation’s most omnipresent feature, seeing through walls and observing an aggressor’s patrol path. It’s obviously not original, but it works very well in Absolution’s framework (and it doesn’t burn your instinct meter either).
I loved a majority of Absolution, but there were times when it decided to be a pure stealth game and the relatively punitive nature of getting seen could sour an entire level. Optional checkpoints can ease the tension, but in my experience Absolution could never find a stable zone between punishment and pleasure (though it definitely leans closer to the latter). It’s also worth mentioning that Agent 47 has a suite of small arms fire available to him along with a cool instinct-based time stopping insta-kill thing, however I rarely used any of them as a preferred a less violent flavor of Absolution.
Absolution shies away from the current trend of emergent, any-way-you-want-it methods of mayhem favored by Dishonored. Instead, it prefers a handful of predetermined methods to sever a mark’s mortal coil. This is both good and bad for players. On one hand it’s disheartening to commit a tactical error and have to repeat five minutes worth of difficult positioning or simple waiting just to recreate the exact set of circumstances you had before you screwed them up. Again, we go back to Groundhog Day, you do it again, better than before, and maniacally celebrate the payoff when it all finally falls into place. This kind of design is technically more flawed, but it’s potentially more interesting based on player skill and patience.
Take, for example, the mission “Fight Night.” My mark was a participant in a wrestling match. On my initial approach I managed to sneak behind the bar, ascend the catwalks above, and, after evading well armed security, dropped a light fixture onto the ring, killing both combatants. Hey, accidents happen. I replayed the mission and, after checking out Absolution’s list of optional mission challenges, found one that strongly hinted I could become the other wrestler in the ring. Said wrestler was under such metaphorical lock and key that gaining access seemed impossible. An hour or so later I finally devised an insane method to take him out and steal his clothes, and then I participated in the same wrestling match that was death from above’d in a previous life. Absolution indulges in options like these, and the intended challenge is discovering how to engage them.
In every single mission there was always some crazy way to take out my mark. As the game pressed on I turned away from detached explosions or routine poisoning in favor of the more difficult, elaborate schemes to run on my victims. The previously mentioned challenge list wasn’t the spoiler-fest I feared in our E3 demo, but rather a call to adventure for potential outcomes. As a novice Hitman player and sometimes dunce I wasn’t exactly versed in Absolution’s possibilities, and vague hints were a perfect me. The interesting thing is that the hilarious and gratifying kills I pulled off often weren’t the most sophisticated option, but just the best that I could execute without any sort of FAQ assistance. Absolution boasts a myriad of variables that I completely missed, and players better equipped to explore their labyrinthine requirements could reap even greater benefits.
Maybe it was because Absolution was my first Hitman game, but I was constantly amazed at the variety of situations Agent 47 wound up in. Videogames don’t often go to a courthouse, a rural gun range, a sleepy Mayberry, or a Chinatown festival, and the simple act of roaming around in these places is satisfying. Absolution is at its best when you’re lost in possibilities of what you can do, when there are so many perceived options it’s difficult to settle on one. Unfortunately Absolution also has a noticeable attachment to pure stealth sequences, almost all of which task Agent 47 with evading police routines by carefully moving in and out of cover. These sequences were a brick wall for Absolution’s pacing, and while I can see what IO Interactive was going for in trying to force the player to think strategically about place and movement, it felt a step behind and one dimensional. Absolution isn’t a pure stealth game, and all but requiring it was always a drag.
On the narrative end, Absolution boasts a plot line lodged firmly between scenery chewing camp and full blown nonsense. Agent 47’s motivation is tracking down the daughter of his former handler, and along the way he gets caught between his estranged agency and a good ‘ol boy mega arms dealer. Or something. Absolution defaulted to unskippable cut scenes a little too often for my liking, and I never really found footing with its ugly characters. My only legitimate complaint lies with each of the two antagonist’s female assistants essentially being the same super sexualized non-character, but it’s otherwise inoffensive in providing Agent 47 with a reasonable excuse to go to new places and creatively execute more people.
Absolution is a considerably long game. Credits rolled somewhere around 22 hours of play time for me, and that’s not including the levels that I’m going to go back and replay to see what else is out there. That easily fills the bar for a single player game in 2012, but IO Interactive went above and beyond by including their Contracts multiplayer mode. Contracts doesn’t feature real time multiplayer, but rather introduces a competitive interpretation of Absolution’s campaign levels. Almost everything you do in the campaign, from hiding bodies to getting noticed to finding disguises, is measured and scored in real time. Absolution is quick to rank your score against not only your friends, but also your countries’ average score against the rest of the world.
Again – if that were all Contracts were, it would be impressive, but scoring default levels is just the tip of the iceberg. You can also create your own marks for an NPC inside a level, along with your own set of stipulations and challenges. Uncreative folks like me will likely spend more time enjoying and besting the completion times of any and all available contracts, but there’s always a tangible reward in the form of your points earned. Points translate to money, which (naturally) is stored in your off-shore account and can be spent unlocking various costumes and weapons that didn’t carry over from the campaign. In the end Contracts is a progressive and neat approach to multiplayer, and stands with Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood in terms of how it interprets a competitive landscape.