Before we get on to talking about Hitman: Absolution I’d like for you to meet Chipmunk Charlie. There he his, up there a bit above these words. Don’t mind the corpses. Chipmunk Charlie looks a bit like the kind of mascot you’d find lingering awkwardly in the corner of a children’s colouring-in sheet (minus the assault rifle, obviously.) The thing about Charlie, though, is he’s actually an unflinching, steely-eyed reprobate capable of atrocities that’d have mankind’s most damnable up on their feet saluting in concert. Suffice to say, Charlie’s not the kind of chipmunk you’d want to meet down a lonely alley on a dark night.
Truth is, there’s a little bit of Chipmunk Charlie in all of us when we take up the mantle of Agent 47. He’s the physical embodiment of that crass hunger to trade stealth and stoicism for Bourne-like bluster. And in Hitman: Absolution, more than any Hitman game that came before, it’s easier to submit to Chipmunk Charlie’s dogged petitioning for a run-out.
Charlie’s case is helped greatly by Absolution’s reimagined gunplay. The act of shooting another man has never been so delightful thanks to IO Interactive’s work on the Kane & Lynch series. This is both a sad and a good thing all at once. The electric thrill of pretending you’re the T-1000 with silenced Silverballers is fantastic – and a newfound and unobtrusive slow-motion effect only works to accentuate that sensation. But played like this it’s forever hounded by the sense that this isn’t the right way.
But let’s take a step back, we’ll return Chipmunk Charlie later.
Prior to the punching nuns fiasco and around the time Hitman vets were brooding over Agent 47’s newfound lust for big guns and bigger explosions, Sniper Challenge arrived singing a love-poem to the Hitman games of old. It was a potted glimpse at Absolution and proof positive that IO still knew what made a Hitman game tick. Sniper Challenge’s rooftop graveyard-to-be was the rudimentary paradigm of any good Hitman level; a 3D puzzle in which precision, patience and wits were the keys to success, not an itchy trigger finger. Snuggled up there on that Chicago rooftop with a silenced sniper rifle for company, it was as if Agent 47 hadn’t spent the last six years hunched over a bar wondering where all the good times went.
It certainly did a better job of soothing weathered fans than Absolution’s introductory level will, which sees Agent 47 negotiate the bluntest of tutorials. ‘Go here. Kill him. Hide body. Bash X’, imparts a mystery voiceover before 47 snuffs out his long-term handler and provider-of-fun Diana. There’s not even a mission briefing to set things in motion.
Diana’s death was well-documented in the lead up to Absolution’s release but it’s had a more profound effect than you might have imagined, most notably in how the levels have been tweaked to reflect a story robbed of Diana’s knack for picking Agent 47 up and plonking him down somewhere else in the world under the banner of another contract.
Missions in Absolution unfold across two kinds of level; ‘classic’ and ‘the other kind.’ Time was you could mill around a Hitman level getting the lay of the land and forestalling a thousand blunders before putting a thoughtful plan into motion. That’s not always the case anymore. There are girls that need rescuing and hammy villains that need killing, and the result is only about half of Absolution’s levels play like you might expect if you’re barreling in with fond memories of Blood Money in mind.
The good news is these classic levels, while more compact than those from Blood Money, still champion the freedom and black humour that marked the Hitman series out in a genre home to po-faced troglodytes like Sam Fisher, whose shadowy levels were little more than knotted gauntlets from A to B. There are 12 ways to kill the King of Chinatown, for example, and trying to fathom the systems in the more sweeping levels is still good fun.
The trouble is, Absolution’s twenty levels have been compartmentalised meaning there’s actually closer to 60 and only about half of these involve assassinating people. The rest are about getting to the next door. These are more linear and boast little of what goes into a good Hitman level. With Diana gone, there’s a persistent friction between a more traditional videogame story and the levels designed to advance it, and those designed to cater to the storied gameplay.
The trade-off, as you’d imagine, is these smaller levels are pulsing with detail. Few developers outside of Rockstar and Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed team can claim to have built worlds as elaborate as Absolution’s.
The influence of Kane & Lynch has bled in, for sure. It’s in the characters whose eccentricity can’t hope to mask their hollowness. It’s in the enthusiastic use of snazzy lighting effects. But it’s made its mark most measurably on Agent 47’s world, which is a sordid place of depravity and perversion painted in delicate strokes; a bustling bar in the deep south, a mechanic admitting his fear of nail clippings in a hotel lobby, a panicky stoner flushing his cannabis plant down the toilet as Chicago’s finest come thundering through the front door. From the rolling wheat fields to the throwaway conversations overheard on a busy train platform, one thing remains unchanged; this is a glorious world.
Agent 47’s new arsenal isn’t bad, either. There are guns, of course, but accompanying those are swords and machetes that can be tossed quietly, bricks and bottles that can be used as distractions and power cords for strangling. 47’s plundered a trick or two from Sam Fisher, too. You can pause time and paint targets, then sit back as the camera hones in on all the death and gore with accustomed cinematic hubris. You can roll in and out of cover, too, which is especially useful on the narrower levels.
Also new is Agent 47’s instinct mode, which replaces the anachronistic top-down map of old. It follows the same principle. Holding down the right bumper causes anything of note to be highlighted yellow. Enemies, weapons and objects that can be manipulated are all displayed, although you can tinker with just how much information instinct imparts in the menu. Even so, it’s no more preposterous or condescending than a map that tells you where everybody and everything is and it’s just as noncompulsory, as well as being a lot less interruptive.
That is until Agent 47 dons a disguise. The disguise system has been revamped and it’s altered the dynamic between 47 and his enemies considerably. In a police uniform, for example, anyone else wearing a police uniform can make you out as a scam. The closer you are to the suspecting NPC – and the higher the difficulty level – the quicker this happens, although it never takes too long for the Klaxon alarm to sound at which point it’s either time for a shootout or a desperate struggle to punch your challenger without anybody else noticing.
The problem isn’t the logic, more that you need a reserve of instinct to bring off a disguise. Using instinct while disguised lets Agent 47 cover his face and this bewildering power affords you carte blanche to wander near whoever you like.
I can overlook the farcical logic but not the ramifications of it. Without instinct, the only other way of eluding prying eyes is to take cover, at which point you may as well be dressed as Gandalf the Grey. And the quickest way to restore instinct on anything above normal difficulty is to kill or incapacitate enemies. In having anchored the disguise system in the instinct mechanic, Absolution subtly funnels you into playing more aggressively. When fifteen minutes of methodological progress is undone by a prying mechanic, indignation begins to take root. This isn’t you screwing up as much as it’s an overzealous AI system snuffing out all the good times.
Ultimately the revamped disguise system is a result of the narrower levels that don’t have targets. Under the old system, you’d have been able to walk through unnoticed in a matter of seconds. Something had to change, but the pendulum has swung the other way, detached from its housing and is on a collision course with the moon.
Dishonored proved that a certain degree of incompetence is necessary for any AI to effectively get across the sense of empowerment that stealth games thrive on. Absolution’s enemies are a good blend of silly and sensible – enough of the former for you to feel badass and enough of the latter for it to not to feel too easy – until the moment you put on a disguise and suddenly they’re all either high-flying graduates from the Sherlock Holmes School of Sleuth or just plain brainless.
It’s important to note the game never explicitly urges you to approach scenarios with aggression and with the patience of three Gods you could get probably through the game killing very few people besides your targets.
What it does do, though, is subtly push killing to the forefront through a combination of elements. Some of these are good. Some not so much. The spectacular gunplay, for example, makes giving over to a killing spree easier than ever. That’s a matter of willpower though, and you can’t hold IO responsible for making that aspect of its game jolly good fun.
But other features are more toxic; the new disguise system or the smaller levels bereft of targets. You can’t blame the developer for leaving C4 beside a car, but you can blame them for creating enemies that blow the whistle with maddening ease or for creating levels that fold to the needs of a story and not to the magnificent gameplay that gives birth to all those watercooler moments.
It’s the game’s multiplayer mode, Contracts, that does a better job of conjuring those. On the surface, it’s a build your own scenario tool. In creation mode you pick a level from the campaign and play it through normally. The difference being there’s no explicit target. Instead, you mark your own and then kill them however you please. The game records exactly how you do it, from the weapon used to the disguise worn, whether you hid the body or missed a shot and all manner of other outcomes, and it’s then down to other players to fathom how you did it and then do it faster and cleaner for a higher score.
It’s early days and the first batch of levels are predictably a bit rubbish. But even now the potential’s there to be seen. Best of all, through letting you choose your equipment before a mission (something the campaign doesn’t allow for), it reinvigorates that sense of experimentation that’s not always present elsewhere. A raft of leaderboards and the ability to set up competitions between friends cements its status as one of the best examples of asynchronous multiplayer I’ve seen.
The Contracts mode is Hitman through and through and it’s baffling that much of what makes it sing hasn’t been better incorporated into the campaign. The campaign has its deep well of challenges to complete, but they reward in nothingness. In Contracts, money earned is spent on weapons, attachments and outfits for use on new missions. They also take place in a single environment, so there’s no linear bit to bother with before the real fun starts.
The Contracts mode will likely satisfy any die-hards not sold on Absolution’s core campaign. And to newcomers, Absolution might even seem the flag bearer for freedom-of-choice in games. It’s there. It’s just not always there, and not always like it was. And sometimes it’s held hostage by ghastly AI or a level that’s a bit too governessy.
In the end, for me it all comes back to Chipmunk Charlie. He’s always been there in one guise or another, Agent 47’s sinister compeer. This time out he’s a Chipmunk and he’s never felt more at home. He’s the explosive, cuddly upshot of an hour spent grappling with an AI system that too often trades in chagrin and not empowerment, and level design that doesn’t always give itself to the free-form, anecdotal antics of Hitman games gone by. He’s the physical manifestation of the feeling that only comes from gazing out across a silent market-cum-mass grave and realising, this isn’t how it was supposed to be. But it’s how Absolution so often is. It funnels you into making it so.
Fortunately there’s just about enough of the good stuff to make Agent 47’s return a welcome one. When the levels open up and the AI’s less ironclad it feels more like the games of old and executing a stealthy hit in Absolution trumps a thousand killing sprees. But in that screengrab above Chipmunk Charlie has killed everyone in Chinatown in a galactic-sized huff. Why? Because a meddling chef outed 47 after 20-minutes of meticulous murderous artistry.
I like Hitman: Absolution, and I think you’ll probably like it too. But it doesn’t half make it hard sometimes.
This review was originally published on BeefJack.