I admit it: I hated Hitman: Absolution at first. After years of being steeped in fast-paced shooter games, I’d forgotten the sort of slowed-down, cerebral experience that is at the franchise’s core. Of course, it wasn’t entirely my fault – it’s been six years, an eon in game time, since the previous release, Hitman: Blood Money. Games like this are rare nowadays.
As such, I found the first few levels of Absolution to be really hard. As the bald-headed, impeccably dressed, contract killer Agent 47, you spend the first part of the game stalking a target in Chicago’s bustling Chinatown, then escaping from police in a run-down hotel after another job goes sideways.
The key to the game is staying incognito, which I had a hell of a time doing. Try as I might, guards kept discovering me and the cops kept on shooting at me. It was a mess of failure and attempting those early levels over and over.
Then I dialled down the difficulty. Although it did my ego serious, perhaps irreparable harm to play on the easy setting, I immediately starting enjoying the game. Enemies were dumber and didn’t notice me as quickly, which meant I could get on with my contracts and see the story unfold. By the end of the game’s 20 levels, I wanted more.
Fortunately, Hitman: Absolution is built exactly for this. With five difficulty levels, the game tempts you to go back and replay levels to see how close you can get to becoming the ultimate assassin. You learn to become stealthier as you go, which means you can advance from the wimpy setting all the way up to “Purist.” Eventually, and with a lot of practice, that is.
The story begins with a tutorial where 47 – very much the strong, silent type with more than a passing resemblance to Vin Diesel – must take out his former handler, Diana Burnwood. Both work (or worked) for The Agency, a shadowy organization that offers assassination and mercenary work to the world’s elite.
As she lays dying, Diana begs 47 to ensure the safety of a girl named Victoria, one of her “assets.” With the promise made, our deadly anti-hero sets off into a tale of intrigue and betrayal.
The story and imagery has its own unique style, perhaps best described as country-western bluegrass meets film noir meets Tarantino-esque ultra-violence and zaniness. Agent 47’s self-narration in between scenes conjures old hard-boiled detective films, while the settings often evoke a sort of retro Americana, complete with diners, roadhouses and cops wearing cowboy hats. A good chunk of the game takes place in rural South Dakota, not exactly a hot-spot for video games.
The game isn’t without its humour, though. After a particularly rough day at the office, 47 decides to trade in his suit for a short, colourful bathrobe to relax at a Hawaiian-themed motel. But before he can enjoy his refreshing cocktail, the establishment is blown up by a group of gun-toting, latex-wearing nuns out for his blood. The agent must then escape the burning motel and follow his assailants through a corn field.
From there, a multitude of choices become available. He can sneak up on the nuns’ contingent of hired goons amid the corn stalks and quietly choke them out, or he can grab one of their machine guns and just blaze away. Alternatively – and this nets the player the highest score – he can don a disguise and try to sneak up on just the nuns, taking them out, yes, quietly.
This sort of sandbox-like gameplay is what makes Hitman: Absolution so appealing. Every level has a multitude of completion options available to be discovered and attempted. While in my first play-through of that early Chinatown level, for example, I ended up shooting everyone in sight, on a subsequent attempt I ended up poisoning my target’s food and watching him quietly keel over from a distance. As much fun as it was to shoot my way through, the silent approach felt infinitely more satisfying.
The key to the whole system is “instinct,” a sort of sixth-sense, karma/radiation power that 47 builds up by taking out enemies and accomplishing objectives. When passively activated, opponents glow yellow through walls and their patrol routes become visible as flaming trails. Contract targets, meanwhile, glow a bright red or blue.
Instinct can be actively used as well, to deflect attention. When disguised as a mechanic, for example, 47 may escape the notice of policemen, but if he gets too close to fellow mechanics, they start to get suspicious. At that point, the player can activate instinct, which manifests itself as 47 pulling his hat down in an effort to look inconspicuous. It’s a bit of a silly mechanism, but it can help the player get out of a jam.
Needless to say, at higher difficulties, instinct doesn’t work as well and it regenerates more slowly. All those guards, police, mechanics and other characters also get considerably more suspicious of strangers.
The main story offers enough replay enticement on its own, but there’s also the separate Contracts mode, where you can go in and create your own missions. In these jobs, you select targets (up to three), then take them out in the manner of your choosing, wearing whatever disguise you prefer. Once you select an escape route, all of your choices are saved and then shared, either with the world or just your friends.
Whoever picks up your created contract must then duplicate the job with the exact same parameters, with an eye to beating your time. The best part about these contracts is that you have to be able to do them yourself before sharing them online, which prevents the set-up of impossible missions.
All told, Hitman: Absolution is an enjoyable rarity among games these days: it rewards patience and, rather than tacking on a standard online multiplayer mode, it instead encourages replay through steadily ramping difficulty levels that are themselves increasingly more satisfying.
Not that I’ll ever achieve Purist level, of course.