Developer: IO Interactive, Nixxes Software || Publisher: Square Enix
Director: Tore Blystad || Platform: Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Legacy is a hard thing to carry, particularly when the centerpiece of your legacy is a firm-footed defiance against what has defined popular mainstream gaming for the past twelve years. Really ever since the console FPS explosion of Halo back in 2001, the focus on mainstream video games has been the fast-twitch action of console first-person shooters. While the king of the hill title has juggled back and forth between Bungie’s baby and others, like Activision-Blizzard’s Call of Duty and Electronic Arts’ Battlefield, the public’s attention and stereotypical vision of the modern video game has remained largely that of the console FPS over the past decade. When people think of video games nowadays, they usually think of FPS titles, or barring that, other fast-paced games based on major sports franchises, like FIFA or Madden. The “thinking man’s game,” a breed of slower, more deliberately paced interactive titles, has been largely overlooked of late. Generally speaking, the most patient mainstream fans get with gaming is the still pretty breathlessly paced Assassin’s Creed titles from Ubisoft.
One franchise that has remained defiant in its stance against the fast-twitch action of more mainstream titles is the Hitman series, developed by Danish team IO Interactive. The franchise has long been sung as an assassin-puzzler, with its games containing absolutely massive playgrounds offering a myriad of ways to dispatch targets, and with customization of playstyles extending even to detailed equipment loadouts.
With the series’ latest iteration, Absolution, released in late November of 2012, much talk has been generated about a paradigm-shift in the game’s general approach to stealth, sneaking, hiding-in-plane-sight, and the series’ overall approach to slow-paced assassination projects. One thing I noted in particular in my research of both professional and player reviews was a general consensus of how the latest Hitman title attempted to simplify, or streamline its now famous assassination experience to create something noticeably different than its forebears. Whether this paradigm-shift was a streamlined simplification for efficiency or a dumbed down sellout attempt to attract a wider audience depended on whose review I read. Either way, I was eager to find out for myself how the latest Hitman experience delivered, particularly because it would be my first entry into the series that had long held my fascination, but had never garnered a purchase from yours truly until now.
What I discovered was that the franchise seems as heavily rooted in slow-paced violence as ever, but its focus does seem to be deviating from what the series has historically done best (based on my research). In Hitman: Absolution, franchise staples like accident kills, garrotes with fiber wire, and donning disguises are still available, but their implementation appears to suffer in the face of hopelessly linear level design and a flawed disguise system.
A major complication with Absolution’s slow-paced action and desire to offer a wide range of options for dispatching targets is that these goals seem incompatible with the game’s level design. The current formula is a major departure from previous titles, what with their massive scale and puzzle-like designs. In Absolution, nearly all the campaign’s levels are tightly linear and controlled. There is little in the way of wiggle-room in terms of wide-open levels to compliment the game’s clear goal of a sandbox style of assassination options. For whatever reason, the game’s few sandbox elements just don’t fit well with the small arenas and tightly controlled progressions from one linear level to the next. A few more open arenas, such as “Shaving Lenny” and “Attack of the Saints” offer up a more relaxed approach to the assassinations and feel a lot more fun. These levels are few and far between, however, and that leaves the player mostly stuck with smaller, rather straightforward level designs (often without any official targets) for much of the game.
The other major problem with Absolution is the frequently discussed disguise system, which is indeed as flawed as the naysayers have been complaining. While it is still loads of fun to silently garrote a mechanic or police officer and don his outfit, thus gaining access to previously out-of-bounds areas, the fun is curtailed by the heavy limitations imposed on that system. You can put on any disguise you wish, but the disguise works only as long as you avoid areas populated by others of the same uniform. In other words, if you dress as a cop, you’d best avoid places with other cops, or, if you act the part of a barber, stay away from other barbers. The reason for this is that other members of the groups you’ve infiltrated will notice pretty quickly if some strange, creepy, bald guy starts walking around in one of their uniforms. In theory, this makes sense, and the game would admittedly be far too easy if you could just don another uniform and stroll freely throughout an entire level, but in practice, IO’s overcompensation for an easy way out makes the disguise system frustrating and tedious. There are hardly any areas free of others who wear the same uniform you will wish steal, and enemies notice disguises quickly even on Normal difficulty. Using a disguise becomes borderline useless in many situations, and the lack of any scaling system where larger groups (such as the Chicago police force) might take much longer to notice a chameleon in real life, is a real hindrance on what might otherwise be enthralling gameplay.
The game’s only response to this over-limitation is the Instinct-system, which is another good idea in theory, but a flawed one in practice. When you take out guards and targets or don disguises, you gain Instinct meters that can be used for slick execution-style, slow-motion kills that can take out groups of enemies at once, or you can use it slip past enemies with the same uniform as you. If you choose the latter, Agent 47 will casually dip his head and move his hand as if to scratch his head, thereby hiding his face from his enemies in a way that does not draw attention. This gameplay element makes sense, except for the part where 47 has to use some sort of “superpower” in order to casually dip his head and obscure his face. As another reviewer once demanded on Amazon.com, I want an explanation as to why 47 needs some sort of limited superhero ability to do this. What about seeing through walls and predicting enemy paths — why can’t that be considered a superpower?
In the end, Absolution manages to get by on its slick combat system, fantastic kill animations, smooth visuals, and rather exemplary voice-acting. I only spent so much time talking about the game’s major problems because I feel that, if these two main flaws in the game’s design were fixed or altered significantly, Absolution could have been an outstanding game. The problem is that these two flaws severely limit the ability of everything else in the game to function like they should. It’s awesome to silently garrote a guard, don his uniform, and then infiltrate a forbidden zone, just like it’s fun to get busted hiding a body, fake-surrender, and then disarm a guy and use him for a human shield while you blast away his pals… but the fun is almost always limited by either (a) a crappy disguise system where everybody can see through your ruse, or (b) a tediously repetitive/linear level design.
A consequence of the flawed disguise system and linear level design is that much of the game is spent sneaking 47 around, something that Absolution just isn’t well built to do. If this were a Splinter Cell game, then I would say, “Hell yeah!” because the sneaking mechanics are so well built in that series (at least prior to Conviction ). With the Hitman games, the emphasis is obviously on the “hiding-in-plain-sight” mechanic, but with the two aforementioned problems, you’re left to clumsily sneak or slither past your problems in Absolution.
Regardless, Hitman: Absolution remains a firm antithesis to the fast-twitch shooter action of a Call of Duty or Halo, if but now a less fully realized and limited one. The great thing that remains about the Hitman series is that it affords you the option of going stealthy (which is obviously the way it was intended to be played), but you can always say, “Fuck it,” and just pull out your Silverballers or a 12 gauge and go to town on everybody when you get fed up with the game’s mechanics. The fact that you can still go in guns-blazing is a testament to Hitman’s remaining versatility, yet the dilemma remains that much better options for fast-paced, run-and-gun action exist out there. I guess the fact that you can choose between stealthy and aggressive approaches, along with the fluid close-quarters combat system, are Absolution’s saving graces.
At its core, Hitman: Absolution retains the DNA of a great stealth experience, but its flawed aspects, clearly done in an attempt to appeal to a wider fan base, hold it back considerably. Absolution should have stuck to what it did best in hiding in plain sight, rather than taking design routs that constantly funnel the player into sneaking past obstacles when sneaking is just not the game’s forte. There are some notable positive additions to the series’ toolbox, like the smooth third-person cover system, the slow-mo Instinct kills, and beefed up graphics, but ultimately, these are nowhere as significant as the alterations to level design, equipment customization, disguises, and emphasis on Splinter Cell-style sneaking. Altogether, Hitman: Absolution is a missed opportunity.
Standout Features: Excellent CQC system; disguises allow hiding-in-plain-sight; Instinct kills; fine graphics, voice acting, music, and sound design equal great presentation
Noticeable Weaknesses: Disguise system is heavily flawed with the use of an Instinct meter; linear level-design and a sloppy checkpoint-system discourage experimentation and limit replayability; overemphasis on sneaking
—> ON THE FENCE
? Hope, South Dakota. You’re a long way from home, friend.
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