I first laid my murderous hands on Hitman in 2000. I was 13 years old. Thatâ€™s about the perfect age to begin a career as a sadistic, stealthy, silent killer. Like every thirteen year old, my heart was full of Metallica lyrics and murderous intent. For the next decade Iâ€™ve been honing my skills and perfecting my craft.
Over those 12 long years, Iâ€™ve grown up, and so has the Hitman series. This yearâ€™s release of Hitman: Absolution marks a culmination of sorts â€” and for a long time fan of the series, it also marks a strange shift in direction.
Hitman has been, and always will be, a stealth oriented action adventure. From its humble beginnings, IO Interactive have tried to create a game that lets you stand in the shoes of your own murderous machine. For some of us, this meant completing each level by charging straight to our target guns akimbo. But for others, myself included, it meant a style of gameplay that was methodical, planned, well thought out, and deeply satisfying.
At some point in their lives, everyone has fantasised about what it would be like to kill someone. Weâ€™d never go through with it... clearly. But the Hitman series has given us a brief and fleeting taste of what it might be like to creep unseen through a triad leaderâ€™s hideout, silently garrote them without blinking an eye, and then disappear into the shadows â€” never to be seen again.
At least thatâ€™s what the Hitman series used to provide. Clinical, slow gameplay punctuated by single shots to the back of the head. Simple, clean, fun.
IO Interactiveâ€™s latest installment in the series takes a slightly different angle on this trusted formula. All the bones, and most of the flesh, is still there, but Absolution does present a very different experience to what I was expecting.
It's immediately obvious that, this time around, Agent 47 is letting his emotions get the better of him. His first mission is to assassinate Diana Burnwood, his old handler who has now gone rogue. At the last moment, he falters and in her dying breath Diana pleads with Agent 47 to protect Victoria, a young girl who is set to follow in Agent 47â€™s blood stained shoes.
Itâ€™s an interesting narrative set up. The last few iterations in the Hitman series have hinted at the man behind the mask. But Absolution gives Agent 47 the chance to save Victoria, and in the process, perhaps absolve himself. What this results in is a game that is centered around the classic tropes of chase, pursuit, revenge, and (funnily enough) absolution.
Itâ€™s also a storyline thatâ€™s presented in a rather unfamiliar way. Series fans arenâ€™t used to Agent 47 having feelings, and we certainly arenâ€™t used to him giving in to them. Heâ€™s not there to protect damsels in distress or stymie shadowy organisations â€” heâ€™s there to ruthlessly and efficiently follow orders. That shift is a little jarring, because its a little too sudden. When viewing Absolution as a stand alone title, IO Interactive needed to do a little bit more to make the story â€śfitâ€ť.
And the backdrop for the Absolution story also feels a little alien. Agent 47 and â€śthe agencyâ€ť are feared internationally, and previous titles have roamed the globe. However, Absolution is firmly rooted in the United States, and it's displayed with an odd mix of kitsch cowboy flair and hillbilly sadism. The style of the game, and the way the storyline is progressed, reminded me of a half-baked Tarantino film â€” a stylised splatter fest lacking suspense or killer dialogue.
This approach by IO Interactive isnâ€™t necessarily a bad one. Itâ€™s just one that doesn't seem to gel very well with the Hitman universe that came before it. We expect developers to push franchises into new territory to keep them fresh, but we also donâ€™t want them to overplay their hand.
Thankfully Hitmanâ€™s core gameplay has been left mostly untouched. Agent 47 is still a stealthy badass, and if you want to score highly you need to think, plan, and execute. The stealth action gameplay has been retained and refined. Some parts work well extremely well. Agent 47â€™s signature assassinations are satisfying and well thought out. His â€śhitman visionâ€ť that highlights special objects and guard pathways is also useful. As are the wide array of â€śaccidentalâ€ť kills, and innovative ways you can come up with to kill your targets â€” my personal favourite being the one where you replace a barbequeâ€™s hot sauce with lighter fluid.
The addition of user challenges is novel and welcome. It means that the side missions available in your singleplayer experience are always changing. There is lots and lots of replayability here, giving value. The soundtrack is passable, but itâ€™s a shame that IO Interactive were not able to secure the talents of Jesper Kydd whose scores are synonymous with the Hitman franchise.
But there are also some things that donâ€™t quite work as well. For those gamers who like to go in guns blazing, the shooting mechanic is clunky and unresponsive. The voice acting is grating (even though 47â€™s jarring monotone is kind of the point) and the script is rote. There is also not much variety in the style and types of weapons available â€” especially if you are wanting to gain high scores, which almost force you to rely solely on the garrotte.
But what really lets the gameplay down is the lack of pace and the introduction of cinematic fluff. This is only made worse by the use of gameplay elements that are anathema to the Hitman experience. For example, early in the game Agent 47 must run through a burning building, after being ignominiously captured by a bodyguard. Later in the game, Agent 47 must retrieve his signature silverballers by beating a cowgirl in a shooting contest. And thats all before he has to defend himself against PVC clad assassin-nuns in a mission so boorish even teenage boys would blush with embarrassment. This trivialisation of the Hitman myth runs counter to the ethos of the series, and undermines the legacy of the Hitman experience â€” which until now IO Interactive have so ably maintained.
In a bizarre way Hitman: Absolution reminds me of a bad Bond film. You know there will be guns, violence, expensive suits, and the degradation of women. But youâ€™re still going to go see it, and youâ€™re still going to convince yourself that you had a good time. But deep down you know youâ€™re only there out of a deep sense of brand loyalty and a desire that hopefully next time things will be better. Like Bond, Agent 47 is a troubled, aging, and well dressed anti-hero. In the right hands, in the right context, and with the right script, that can be a potent, moving and enjoyable experience.
But Hitman: Absolution falls short of the mark because itâ€™s trying too hard to be something it isn't. Hopefully next time IO Interactive lets Agent 47 get back to what he does best. And that's not saving damsels in distress, running from the cops, or fighting â€śsexy nunsâ€ť. Instead, itâ€™s killing people â€” cleanly, quietly, and without any unnecessary fuss.