It’s been six whole years since we last saw a Hitman game, and most of that has been a rough ride for IO Interactive. Apart from a splendid game about some diminutive practitioners of ninjutsu, it released only the lacklustre Kane & Lynch: Dead Men and its even more divisive sequel, and saw many of its long-time followers – fans precisely because of its headline act – shake their heads and wonder where it all went so very wrong.
Fingers were pointed accusingly post-Kane & Lynch, primarily because IO seemed to be involved in some sort of elongated act of self-love where style squashed substance’s head beneath its angry – but impressively modish – foot. Both titles lacked the passion for which, through the Hitman games, IO had earned itself a reputation. Having now played Hitman: Absolution to the point where some of its characters, kills and scenarios have invaded our dreams (some 80 hours), we can safely say that those who kept the faith are about to be rewarded. Hitman: Absolution is one of the best videogames we have ever played.
For those unfamiliar with the Hitman formula, it’s Groundhog Day with guns and fibre wire. You know Groundhog Day? That movie from the Nineties in which Bill Murray plays a weatherman who wakes up every day to the same day. Explain it to anybody and they’ll tell you it’s a sucky premise for a movie, right up to the point they actually see it. Suddenly, a million possibilities dawn. What if you knew what was about to happen? And what if you could use that intel to open up the world around you to all sorts of delightful abuse. What if through trial, error and repetition the world got better and more interesting? What if when that guy pees on the fence, there’s an electrical current running through it? How do we arrange that before he gets there? And will it be the funniest thing we’ve seen today? And what about that woman who walks in front of that whale harpoon? What if…
That’s the glory of Hitman: Absolution. While you could argue that it’s always been that way with the series, never has it felt so inviting to experimentation (and indeed abuse); and never before has it so encouraged the systematic learning of every detail of each of its 50 (fifty!) miniature sandboxes. ‘It’s your toy,’ it says with swelling pride, ‘you own it now, so go **** it up’.
In Hitman: Blood Money, there were plenty of ways to kill each target and plenty of ways to get yourself into whatever position you needed to be in to do it. The same is true here, but IO has been mindful that it can no longer rely entirely on long-time Hitman fans. It also has to educate a new generation – bring it within the folds of its existing fan base.
Perhaps, early on in Hitman: Absolution’s showings, IO didn’t do such a good job of that. It showed Agent 47 shooting his way through the levels and later said that it chose to show the optional action-oriented style of play to get this new audience’s attention. But against the backdrop of that particular E3, it did the exact opposite. That E3 was nothing but action titles doing similar things. We feel now more than ever that Hitman: Absolution would have been better served with a demonstration of a man setting his own head on fire after Agent 47 ‘doctored’ his male pattern baldness treatment. Or with a montage of all the different heavy objects you can engineer to drop on a person’s head. Or the convoluted setup necessary to ensure a man who tortures pigs for a living meets an ironic end.
But any game with such innate complexity is going to be tough to get your head around at first, and bringing you up to speed with its unique qualities is something Hitman: Absolution achieves with finesse. The tutorial levels first tell you what to do, then narrate what you’re choosing to do, before finally, letting you loose in a mansion dressed as one of its security guards. Just at the moment you think you know what you’re doing, Hitman: Absolution sets you free. It’s a perfect and brilliant piece of game design. One that, unlike other tutorials, is worthy of mention.
The second tactic it employs to bring you up to speed is to separate highlights of Agent 47’s shenanigans into distinct challenges, each labelled cryptically so as not to spoil any surprises. For example, if you have to dress in samurai armour and stalk the level putting a katana through your enemies’ throats, the challenge might say something like ‘Bring honour to your family’.
Developers waffle about replayability all the time. It’s a buzzword that too often comes in lieu of a necessary apology for how damn short the game is. Us? We very rarely play anything twice, because supposed replayability is so often just ‘the same again’. We have tremendously good memories, you see. If we want to experience bits of a game twice, we just think about them.
This is the first game this gen whose levels we’ve wanted to play repeatedly and relentlessly until we’ve discovered every one of its secrets. Replayability isn’t just a buzzword, but the real deal, arriving in the form of experimentation: the donning of every disguise, the finding of every hidden weapon and signature kill, the eavesdropping on every piece of throwaway intel, the witnessing of every consequence. You are the catalyst, and when mixed with the AI, you can’t help but make unique things happen every time you play.
Think about that for a second compared to, say, the Call Of Duty series. In those games, stuff happens around you and to you. You’re the recipient, and you react in the only way the game allows: with a spray of lead.
Rare are the moments where the world is merely ticking along until you choose to interfere with it. And when memorable moments do occur, they tend to be the ones that offer you a choice of tactic. In All Ghillied Up, for example (from Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, generally regarded as one of the most memorable levels of the whole series) you get to choose when to fire your sniper rifle while the world below carries on obliviously. We remember such moments because we felt – just a little bit – like we played some part in creating them, because the world itself didn’t necessarily intend them to happen exactly that way. Hitman: Absolution is like that all the time.
You could criticise the story all day long. It isn’t much more evolved than Donkey Kong. Rescue the princess, essentially. Remarkably, though, it’s of very little importance in the grand scheme. And we’re fine with that. The true story in Hitman: Absolution is told through its gameplay. Like BioShock, Half-Life 2 and other revered classics Hitman: Absolution is set to join ranks with those that simply don’t need cut scenes to keep their players gripped.
Special mention must also be awarded to the game’s visuals. At the arse-end of a generation, two things happen. Excitement for minor graphical upgrades dwindles, while what can be achieved on current consoles reaches its zenith. The two cancel one another out under normal circumstances. But IO’s Glacier 2 engine somehow manages to escape from these equal and opposite forces with astonishing lighting, superb rendering of crowds and easily the best physics we’ve seen to date. it’s not what makes the game as good as it is, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.
We were also surprised to find that if, God forbid, you did want to pelt it through the game guns blazing (and miss about 90 per cent of what’s there), it’s also a remarkably solid shooter. Good enough, in fact, to eclipse all but the very best examples of the genre without breaking a sweat.
They say you can’t appeal to everyone. That’s what received wisdom tells us, and it’s rare indeed for anybody to pipe up and dispute it. Which is odd, since examples of such things are everywhere you look. We’ve never heard anybody say they don’t like ice cream, kittens or that drumming sound the rain makes on a tin roof. Hitman: Absolution is all of that, in a blender – ice cream, macerated feline – sprayed at the tin roof through a giant, angry fire hose. It’s also a study in pure, unadulterated excellence.
Edit: We received our review code on 24th October. The author of this review also wrote a guide to every challenge in the game, from scratch.