Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Sequel development is tricky. Change too much when it comes to an established franchise and you risk alienating the fans you had in the first place, change too little and gamers declare your efforts templated or even worse, lazy. It’s been six years since Hitman: Blood Money took the stealth world by storm with open sandbox missions which demanded players gaze lovingly over every nook and cranny to take out targets in as subtle a way as possible. Let’s just say that together again for impact, it’s been six important transformative years since IO last put out a Hitman game.
In that time we’ve had the emergence of the series everyone loves to hate, Kane & Lynch, and the role of campaigns has evolved from offering engrossing, lengthy experiences to something you’ll most likely blow through in a weekend. We’re being a bit reductive of course, but Absolution is absolutely the culmination of those recent developer trends with Agent 47 shirking aside his blank canvas origins to be a rounded character with a set of his own motivations and some of the most disgusting antagonists you’ll ever find in a videogame.
The plot kicks off positively enough with Agent 47 tracking down his former handler Diana Burnwood who in turn entrusts a young clone-assassin-to-be under to the prolific suited assassin. Transformed from aggressor to protector, the girl functions as a gateway into 47’s past as the assassin not only has to track down the unlikable corporate bastards looking for her, but he also seeks to gain a greater understanding of why his bleak baldy brain is programmed the way it is.
Adding context and personal relevance to this franchise’s star has never been a priority before, but here IO do some really great work with well put together cut-scenes and set pieces which accurately recreate Hollywood grit, think Woody Harrelson’s Rampart only with more nuns and overweight cowboys than before.That trademark silliness of killing targets with chandeliers and dressing up as clowns is still in Hitman Absolution, but it doesn’t sit quite as well as it did before, thanks to the brutality of the game’s tone and the way cinematics often intrude in game flow.
Take an early mission where you make your way through a decrepit hotel boasting lots of armed goons and hosting a criminal kingpin up top. Now how you enter that building, how stealthy you play, and how many dead bodies you store in pianos is completely up to you, but ultimately it doesn’t matter because as soon as you reach the top the same cut-scene will always play out. The hit will go bad and you’ll be forced into a swift linear retreat from the building. Blood Money never did that, the sanctity of player expression was too important in its open-ended missions, but Absolution takes those opportunities away in the name of a linear story and that’s a real shame.
The series’ core gameplay has also been altered with a new disguise mechanic and instinct meter playing an important part in stealth gameplay. Only available on lighter difficulty levels, instinct acts a lot like a replenishing adrenaline system allowing players to tag and track enemy patrols, even when they move behind walls. This inclusion makes Hitman much more inviting to newcomers as they experiment with the game’s five different difficulty levels, with the hardest level nullifying all help entirely.
The disguise mechanic has also changed with players now having to act the part, as well as look the part when passing enemies belonging to the same clan or work force – once again incorporating the slowly recharging instinct meter. All of these new mechanics are incorporated into the existing Hitman formula, with a new score dynamic which tracks player performance, shedding points for going loud and rewarding tallies for utilising stealth. Whether you care about this scoring element is really up to you, but it is an additional thing to consider in level performance and does actively encourage multiple playthroughs.
Unfortunately these interesting additions are undone by the new save system which takes away the ability to quick save, replacing it with limited location-based checkpoints spread unevenly in levels. Why IO decided to go for this system is a complete mystery, as it almost penalises players for experimentation and it goes against what the Hitman series has always been all about.
That major misstep aside, IO has added something genuinely cool in Contacts mode which allows players to access every environment and model in the game to create their own missions, designating any target they like. This mode which actively encourages players to play, create and share content is a massive success and adds the kind of longevity Absolution would otherwise be missing.
In the sequel stakes, Absolution certainly changes more than it probably should but then IO shouldn’t be condemned for trying to improve their beloved series. Sure they’ve made some big errors when it comes to evolving Hitman, with levels seeming smaller and more simplistic, but against any other standard this is still a thoroughly entertaining stealth release.
Hitman evolved but not in the areas you’d perhaps expect or want.
Tags: Hitman Absolution
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